24 Jul Richard Chiem
CHLOE HAS LOCATED, from a very young age by way of crying all night into her dusty pillow, the pearl of her consciousness, and from what she imagines as a kid at the back of her mind, it almost looks like a real pearl. Like a human compass or a gigantic mess, she imagines her soul to be a collective of spinning arrows all in her anxious blood cells, always being drawn to true north, always being pulled and shifted and affected by the earth she’s walking across, by some weird pulse in the air. She has the sixth sense of being quiet. At only eight years old, sharp as can be, it is decided she will not be loved, no one will ever love her, no one will ever want her, she would be good for nothing, no father or mother would love her, she would have no friends, no real life, and her consciousness would be this pearl, this little pearl that used to be this old button that she happens to find on a loose red thread on her sidewalk on her way home from school to her foster house. She holds the pearl button tight in her fist, crying on her bed with a black eye, and dreams magic.
Whatever happens to her and her body, the pearl will always be here: her consciousness waves and waves endlessly and forever. Whatever sadness touches her, no matter how deep it travels through the temperatures of her body, if this pearl exists, she will survive anything. She will survive anything. What a child imagines and emboldens to survive day to day is real life magic, the superimposed impossible world they traverse one mind step at a time. Chloe prefers visions, invisible beings, and all the things she couldn’t see, anything but what she was seeing in the present tense.
She lives in the microsecond, not just the moment.
Chloe comes home to her foster mom Liz being in a terrible mood. It’s terrible how often she feels terrible, how she explodes, how she brings it home and takes it out on Chloe.
Chloe dries her face with her pillow, red dead blood cells dried on her upper lip.
She opens her bedroom door and walks back to the living room, no longer hyperventilating, facing her sullen mother, who is surrounded by empty gin bottles and paper Chinese food cartons, and she’s still holding the thick XXL leather belt in her lazy left hand. How easily everyday, common objects can become weapons is just one lesson of her growing up here.
I didn’t do anything, Chloe says, holding tightly to her dear pearl secretly in her fisted hand. It feels really big in her small hand, making her invincible. I didn’t do anything, and I didn’t feel a thing, she says, looking at the belt, shaking in the middle of the living room, her face occasionally blinded with the shadows of fast bright cars passing by in the neighborhood. Chloe shivers and shakes likes it’s winter inside the house. Some invulnerability remains, and like a tree from a seed, she grows up around it.
CHLOE SHIVERS AND SHAKES like it’s winter inside the building, and it’s starting to rain. It’s a modern dead building. She’s standing in the middle of her drab office space, white cubicles sad unmotivated people in bright fluorescent lighting and fake plants all around her. All she knows is hustle. There is no tension in her body, not a single worry, but there is a little woe. She always has just a little woe, a steady torture, a chip on her shoulder. Chloe no longer has her childhood pearl, but she has her recurring memory from time after time, the feel of her foster mother’s sharp belt, the heat she felt from her chest from her first ever rebellion. She cannot believe what a child can go through, the madness a mind can mind, and how she keeps going. At twenty-eight, twenty years after her foster mother gives Chloe her famous scar, the one on her neck, she still gets the shakes and her limbs get cold when she’s stepping up and being a little more braver than usual. She still gets the shakes. But this time, the stakes are very low: she’s finally quitting her job and she needs to tell her boss to go fuck himself.
Never, ever. She has done a lot of things in her time and her life, but she has never told a man to go fuck himself. It’s something to live for, though: burning a bridge. Saying goodbye, fuck off. See you later.
I hate my shakes, she thinks. I’m not scared though, I’m just cold. I don’t need to be here, and here is no good for me, she thinks.
Things tap against the large corporate windows: leaves and tiny bark debris. The wind blows where it wants to. Her colleagues: calm faces in nervy rhythm, sitting at their desks in an ocean of desks, locked to their computer screens on a Wednesday morning. Post-it notes and bulletin boards. Enormous stacks of paper. The entire universe goes through a pinhole and it’s very painful when you’re trying to get your shit together, when you’re trying to change and break the cycle. Destiny guides the rain water down the pipes of the tall brick office building and it is destiny.
At the door, she decides to put on a choker. It’s her favorite black choker.
Chloe is usually the type to knock but this time she doesn’t knock. She opens the door right away. She barges right into her manager’s office, and the rain slowly stops.
Her manager, Kevin, is slouched in his chair, playing on his phone, and Alexie is there too, hunched over him from behind him, watching or spectating or something. It’s clear with the sounds in the air that they’re playing a video game: beeps, chirps, and moos. Although on the clock, they’re not working right now. Kevin’s computer monitor remains asleep, the blue light from his phone illuminates their faces and reflects their dumb expressions back onto the monitor: complete undivided attention.
Yeah, this is dope, says Alexie. Yeah, I need to get this.
I told you, says Kevin. I told you.
Alexie takes the phone out of Kevin’s hand, his smile getting wider the closer the glow gets to his face. The pupils dilate and the air divides. Kevin wipes his faces with his hands and finally looks up to see Chloe as she shuts the door behind her.
Battles, Kevin says. Alexie looks up, the beeps continue to fire from the phone. Chloe, Alexie says, with a shortness of breath. He almost leans in closer. The men both look at her as though they have never seen anything so fucked up before, like she’s bleeding purple somewhere on her body she can’t see.
What do you need, Battles? Kevin asks.
It doesn’t go well. It just automatically doesn’t go well at first. Sweet, brief adrenaline bites her chest and she takes a moment and she takes a breath full of shrapnel with Alexie and Kevin right there watching her. The beeps boop and beep in the background, and a look of steady fear comes in a wave across Kevin’s eyes then whole face.
You’re freaking me out. What do you need, Battles? Kevin asks.
I stopped weighing myself, Chloe finally says. The air divides; she makes eye contact.
I stopped weighing myself, she says.
Okay, Kevin says. Okay, that’s great.
Alexie says, Sexy Chloe. You never needed to weigh yourself, Chloe. You’re so hot, you don’t need to weigh yourself. I’ve been trying to tell you all this time.
Fuck you, Alexie, she says. What the fuck?
She starts the mental calendar, the math of how many days she can go without buying new groceries. She does her bank account math, and in all reality, it’s really more of a countdown to zero more than anything else right now. She can sell her car, she can live fugal and last a few months. She can go on unemployment, she can sell her endless plasma. She will go hard and relentless, twenty-four seven, whatever’s necessary to land on her feet.
Fuck you, Alexie, she says. I need to talk to Kevin but you can stay.
Feeling the power of her choker, her in-the-moment pearl, Chloe says, I stopped weighing myself against assholes like you. I work hard, I come to work early, I skip lunches, I leave late, I work hard. I get along with everyone in the office and I look out for everyone in the office and I finish bullshit projects on tight deadlines like you don’t even know. I know corporations don’t hug back. And what is denied to me will not break me, Chloe says. But you fuckers are ridiculous.
Kevin leans back in his office chair and there’s no color on his face. Somehow Alexie has still not paused the game.
I don’t take vacation, she says, I rarely take sick days. I’ve been here three years and I needed a raise, Kevin. I asked you for a raise because I needed a raise. I don’t even need the money. It’s simple and easy: recognition of time well served.
Chloe, Kevin says. We’ve discussed-
Fuck you, Kevin, she says. Alexie here, hired after me, has gotten two pay raises since coming on board. I know because he preaches about it. And I still don’t know what the fuck he does here, other than hit on me.
Alexie, flipping the phone upside down then rightside up again, finally finds the power button and turns off the phone. Kevin seems to be searching for something to say, touching some papers on his desk meaninglessly while looking back out into the main office space through his blinds, and the rest of the staff are starting to peek their heads back. The eyes grow curious, people are talking.
Chloe takes a visible breath and it’s as though she’s floating in air, and she knows she’s won. She’s no longer shaking and her blood is warm.
Opening her eyes, she looks dead straight at Kevin, ignoring Alexie. The entire office reflects behind her, the light passes through glass.
You have no idea what I’ve been through and what I can achieve and I’m not going to tell you about it right now, Chloe says. I have been through hell and back my whole life, I’ve been half-dead my whole life, and I don’t need to be here. This place is toxic. Fuck your two weeks notice, Chloe says.
Chloe leaves the room, not hearing her footsteps and packs up her desk. It almost feels like one single motion, only a few breaths of air, and the light is terribly bright. Faces and voices come up to her, and she nods and smiles, and she holds and hugs people, almost one by one in a row. The news has spread faster and faster. Kevin and Alexie never leave Kevin’s office, but she can still see them through the blinds, and they seem to be screaming at each other.
When Chloe finally comes to, feeling more life in the grip of her hands, she’s driving her car, gripping her steering wheel, and she’s finally left her office, or what is now formerly her office, and she’s miles away. She’s not speeding on the road but everything still seems too fast, too frenzied, so she pulls into a gas station and double parks outside the Food Mart. In less than sixty-seconds, she goes inside points at and pays for a hot dog. Slamming her car door and locking herself in, she looks at herself on the back mirror flap thing as she devours the hot dog in large, desperate bites, crying irrevocably, and shaking in her seat as she chews. The noises she makes are wonderful, no matter how guttural, even she notices the longing. And although her nose runs, she leans back comfortably in her chair and simply chews and chews her food, still weeping. Breathe in, breathe out, the nose runs and runs. Breathe in, breathe in.
I fucking quit my job, Chloe says, to no one in particular in her empty car. I quit my job.
Richard Chiem is the author of You Private Person, a collection of short stories published by Scrambler Books in 2012 and re-released by Sorry House Classics in 2017, and the novel King of Joy. He has taught at Hugo House, specializing in general prose, genre, and speculative fiction, and has been a panelist for the Fall Convergence Conference at UW Bothell in 2016; his work has appeared in City Arts Magazine, Fanzine, and Everyday Genius, among other places. An excerpt from his novel, King of Joy, was adapted into a short play by the Satori Group in Seattle.