Short Fiction: The Bonus

HallwayAfter the Thai food I ordered from Seamless showed up, my boss Liz realized we needed more napkins, so she had me go out to the Starbucks on the corner and steal some from the milk and sugar counter. It irritated her to send me out of the office for any length of time, but I savored every breath of cold city air afforded me by even such a brief trip.

I sucked down a cigarette in a handful of long drags before going into Starbucks. The streets were already dark; other people were on their way home in buses and taxis, and I glared at them jealously. I hadn’t slept more than three hours the night before, two the night before that, and I would be lucky if I made it home at all before the sun rose the next day. But what can anyone do? That’s life working for Biglaw. I try not to complain, because as worn down as I felt, Liz had to feel worse; she was just shy of nine months pregnant, fit to burst any second, and she never said anything about being too tired to work. Her work ethic was inspiring, as was her position as junior partner in Coleridge & Roache. As one of only five women in the firm, I tried my best to follow her example.

The law offices were on the 21st floor of a green-glassed monolith on 51st and Lex. I dropped the napkins off in the conference room, grabbed some food on one of the small paper plates, and then it was straight back to my office to scan through more emails. I’d been spending days poring through twelve thousand emails, looking for any references to the First Singularist Church of Dutton, PA. Why it mattered so much wasn’t entirely clear; I was just looking for the references. The First Singularist Church had done something torrid, apparently; the company we were representing had some ill-defined connection to the church. Whatever. Didn’t matter. Mine was not to reason why. Mine was to find references to the church.

Born and bred a city girl, I find the quiet disturbing, so I usually listen to my iPod while I work. That night, I hit the shuffle button and worked my way through my Glee cover songs. People who don’t work in law always make jokes about my life in courtrooms, but I’m pretty far removed from that whole scene. I saw more of the inside of a courtroom when I had jury duty the summer before I went into law school than I do now. And another thing: the walls of my office are not lined with law books. I work in a small room surrounded by large stacks of paper and old coffee cups. I don’t think it’s intimidating so much as it is soul-crushing.

So glamorous, I know. I pride myself–seriously, I do!–on my ability to stay awake and focused during my working hours. I’m incredibly good at paying attention to boring things.

But even my legendary focus has its limits. Two hours of scanning emails later, I allowed myself a quick break to see if there was anything new on Above the Law to make fun of. I was just about to say something derisive about the site editor’s grammar when Liz came in and made me jump in my seat. But I’m good with keyboard shortcuts, and I had ATL closed well before my boss even opened her mouth.

“What’s up?” I asked.

Liz had her hand on her stomach. “Jessica, I think–”

And then I noticed how damp her black pants were.

I said, “Fuck!”

She stumbled, and I ran to catch her. “I don’t feel so great,” she said. “I think he’s coming out.”

My boss was going into labor. Right there. In my boring office. I took her to the couch in the middle of the room. “I’m going for help,” I said. “We’ll get you to the hospital.”

“Fuck the hospital,” Liz said. “We’ve got work to do tonight … gaaaaah!”

She clenched her teeth and started breathing in and out. She started working on unbuckling her pants.

“Jesus, Liz, wait!” I said. “You shouldn’t rush these kinds of–”

“Oh, what the fuck do you know, you bitch?! Help me get these pants off!”

I was about to protest, but she already had her pants and underwear down to mid-thigh. It was more of Elizabeth von Trier than I’d ever intended on seeing. I pulled on the legs of her pants to remove them the rest of the way, and that was when Jared Green, our 1L intern, entered.

“What the … ?”

“Get the hell out of here!” Liz screamed. “Private meeting!”

He backed out, slamming the door in an almost instinctual horror. I thought I heard a little shriek, but it’s tough to know what was Liz and what was not Liz. She was gritting her teeth and making so many different and terrible sounds, it seemed like there had to be at least three of her in there. She sounded like a woman possessed by demons.

“Push!” I said, my hand on her knee, my eyes on her crotch, my mind reeling and grasping at cliches and scenes from a dozen movies. I’d never witnessed a live birth before. I was fascinated.

That, and my boss had never seemed more powerful to me than she did right then, forcing her son into the world.

“Push!” I screamed again, begging her to complete what she’d started and knowing, somewhere, that, strictly speaking, one couldn’t force a birth and that these things usually took time.

My boss wailed, and it redoubled and echoed through her throat like thunder through a canyon. A few drops of rain tapped against the window, and Liz groaned. As the rain escalated and erupted into a downpour, I saw the baby emerge and slip free from Liz. I caught it as it came out, helping it, and then I saw Liz fumble for a pair of scissors on the desk beside her head, and she reached between her legs and cut the umbilical cord herself. Another minute, and she had the afterbirth in her hands and threw it into a wastebasket.

I held the slimy baby and stared in wonder at the screaming form. “I can’t believe it!” I said. “That was so fast!”

“I don’t have time for any of this shit. And look at me now. I’m a mess. Fucking hell. Give me that.”

“What?”

“The fucking baby,” she said.

“Hey,” I said. “That’s no way to talk about your child.”

Liz closed her eyes and sighed heavily. “Jessica, give me my son.”

I smiled and handed the boy over. “Say hello to your mommy,” I said to him. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“He doesn’t get a name,” she said softly. She looked upon him for one moment with sweetness, and it was a sweetness I rarely saw in her at all. “You see it, little guy? You see the world?” she cooed at him. “Enjoy it.”

“Maybe you should take a night off,” I said. “You sound …” I really didn’t know how to finish.

“That’s not going to happen. There are contracts, and then there are contracts,” she said. She prodded her son’s fingers with her index finger. The baby responded weakly and with trepidation. “There are things I need to do. Isn’t that right, my little wiggly worm?”

My boss was scaring me. She shouldn’t have been able to think straight after giving birth, let alone stand where she was, pantsless and sweaty, in the middle of the office.

She held the baby out to me. “Want to hold him again?” she said. There was a sly lilt to her voice. It would not be the last time I was offered poison that night.

“Sure,” I said, because who wouldn’t want to try and please the new mother and hold the new baby. I oohed and awwed and cooed at the little man while Liz eyed me rather lecherously.

“That’s good,” she said, grinning. “He likes you. I can tell.”

I tried my best to smile.

Then, abruptly dropping her sneer, Liz said, “Take him to adoption on 23.”

“Adoption?” I said. “What adoption?”

“Please, Jessica,” she said. “I’ve been through too much already tonight to argue. Please just do as I say and take him to adoption on 23.”

“But only the senior partners are on 23.”

“Please, Jessica! No more questions. There’s a door at the end of the hall. Take the little shit to the door at the end of the hall on 23 and hand him to the first person you see on the other side of that door. Is that too difficult a task to ask of you? If it is, please say so. I’ll adjust my expectations of you.”

“There’s an adoption agency up there? I never knew.” Thinking back on it, the moment I decided to tell myself I believed in that adoption agency (which the better portion of me knew was a lie) was the moment I lost the battle to the firm.

“Of course there’s an adoption agency here,” she said. “Where do you think I grew up?”

We shared a good laugh at that.

“You sure about this, Liz?” I asked.

“Yes. I signed all the papers months ago. Everything has been pre-planned, pre-approved. Like a mortgage, ha,” she said, and laughed. “They’re expecting it. Maybe not tonight–that little guy is a week early–but in a general sense.”

“I see. In a general sense,” I said, staring at the blue marble eyes of the baby. “You want to say goodbye?”

“No,” she said, looking down at the floor. Later, I’d wonder if this expression of sadness was genuine, or merely another manipulation. “It’s better for me if you take him away.”

I nodded. Then, because I couldn’t help it, I grabbed the chubster’s little arm and waved it at his mother. “Bye-bye, Mommy,” I said in my lamest baby-voice. And then I crossed to the door, opened it, and went to the elevator just outside.

*     *     *

The baby was quiet until the doors opened on 23, and then he started wailing. Twin reception desks flanked the area where the elevator opened at the mouth of the long corridor, and when the baby cried, the half dozen smartly-dressed assistants and lawyers stopped talking and turned to stare. Even the air seemed to stop moving, until the only things that seemed to continue in time were the newborn and the rain still hammering the green windows.

Nothing about it seemed right, but I believed that if others could confirm the existence of the adoption agency–and, really, why would my boss send me upstairs if it didn’t exist?–then it wasn’t up to me to change anyone’s decision. A telephone rang on the desk to my right, and one of the two women there answered it, nodded a few times, said, “Ok. Yes. Right away,” and set the phone back down and stood up.

“Jessica?” she said. “Right this way, please. I’ll show you to Adoptions.”

She led me between the desks down the hall while the others stood still and silent, watching us go. At the end of the hallway was a plain door with nothing on it. I arrived and stood behind the receptionist as she made a fist. She seemed about to knock, but she hesitated a second too long–long enough to betray the fear she was hiding just beneath her professional nonchalance.

Then she cleared her throat and rapped once on the door. She smoothed her skirt.

“It’s better if you close your eyes,” she said quietly, “but I’m not going to tell you what to do. You have about three seconds to make your choice.”

“What?”

“Too late,” she said, and the door was opened.

I didn’t close my eyes. I looked. Greedily. My curiosity could not be denied. It was no different from the illogical reaction of a child touching a stove her parent warned her was hot.

The room was dark. There were no windows or lights on, and the only light came from the hallway. On the other side of the door stood two men, both wearing expensive suits. One of them–the one closest to the door and least consumed by darkness–was young. The other was old, white, and bald. The light hit most on the old man’s left hand, dangling like a claw in front of a flabby waist. The eyes were shiny pinpricks farther back in the dark.

The young man had movie-star good looks and an affable smile. “Ah, the adoption. Fantastic. You must be Jessica. So nice to finally make your acquaintance. I am Luther Coleridge, and this old creep behind me is Klaus Roache.”

The senior partners, I thought. This isn’t an adoption agency!

“You can hand over the package now,” the receptionist said to me.

“This is a baby, not a package,” I said.

“I’ll take it from here,” Coleridge said, and he grabbed the baby from my arms. I remember his fingers were cold between my arm and the warm bundle I carried. He took an almost theatrical step backward and passed the baby back to Roache, who wrapped his claws around the soft parcel with chilling alacrity.

“Goodnight, ladies,” Coleridge said, and he faded back into the black shadows of the unlit room, closing the door.

But before the door closed all the way, I saw something which I wish I could erase from my mind: in that thin instance which lasted only so long as it took for the door to swing shut, I saw Roache, his face pale and his lips fat and red, bend his mouth to the child’s stomach, open his maw wide, revealing sharp yellowed fangs, and take a gluttonous bite.

I think I screamed. But by then there was a hood over my head and I was being dragged away from the door.

“Should’ve closed your eyes,” said a male voice, directly into the cloth beside my ear, and then I smelled strong fumes and my mind went dark for a moment.

*     *     *

“Wake up, Jessica. Open your eyes.”

“They’re open,” I said.

The man laughed. “Pretty sure they’re not.”

I realized he was telling the truth. I opened my eyes. I was in a corner office, sitting in front of a large black desk behind which sat a rather ordinary-looking, clean-cut middle-aged white male. “I’m John Cole, Vice President of the firm. It’s a pleasure to meet you. We have a lot to talk about.”

“The baby,” I said. “I saw …”

“So you remember.”

I started crying.

“Aw, come on, it’s in a better place,” Cole said. “And so are you. You’re in a unique position, having seen what you’ve seen. Of course, you’re not alone. This happens from time to time. But not everyone keeps their eyes open.”

“I have to call the police. Someone has to … to …”

“Now, Jessica, what is that going to help? The matter is over, is it not? There’s no life to be saved here. Not now. So maybe you want justice? Okay, but remember that the mother asked you to do this, so she is not grieving. Your so-called ‘justice’ wouldn’t serve her. The … well, you know. Let’s just say the thing itself is beyond the point of caring about anything. So if you believe in God, you must believe the thing is in a better place, and if it’s not, then you have to admit ‘justice’ matters not at all to the thing itself. But maybe you want justice for yourself. A little selfish, perhaps, to want to destroy the entire firm and send everyone here to the breadlines for the sake of a personal issue, which, let’s face it, you would have an absolutely impossible time proving in a court of law since absolutely no one on 23 is going to corroborate your version of events, but let’s ignore all of that for the time being. Let’s assume we’re serving your selfish needs for a moment. Now, there are all manner of ways in which to serve yourself, don’t you think? Vengeance against the firm is only one of them. Using the firm might be another. Let me put this in specific terms for you.”

He opened a drawer on the underside of the desk and pulled out an envelope. He slid it across the desk with two fingers. In the center of the envelope, my name had been printed in thick, dark capital letters.

“As an example,” John Cole said, “of which the firm could provide many.

I wasn’t crying anymore. I reached out and took the envelope. I looked inside at the number on the check.

“Work hard, keep your head down,” he said, “and there’s always a reward.”

“Bonuses out early this year?” I asked. “This is a ridiculous amount of money.”

“You’re worth it,” he said. “I’ve heard about your skills at staying focused. Liz speaks highly of you.”

“She does?”

He nodded. “Tireless, she said. Dedicated.”

‘Why?” I asked suddenly. “Why would she do this?”

John Cole frowned. “You lose a lot in this world going on maternity leave.”

“Couldn’t she have just had an abortion?”

“There’s more money in bringing it to term. The senior partners really appreciate the newborns.”

I felt dizzy. “But won’t someone–family, a doctor, anyone? Won’t someone know when she’s suddenly not pregnant with no kid to show for it?”

“Let me ask you something, Jessica: In the last few months, have you ever not seen Liz in the office? Has she ever not been here? Do you have any idea exactly what she’s been billing?”

“I’m sure–”

Think about it. Name me one time you’ve been here and she hasn’t. Hell, name me the last time she even went out for lunch.

Suddenly, I realized it was true. All the dinners had been ordered, and if anything went wrong, she’d sent me.

“Oh my god,” I said. “She’s been living here?”

“It was all rather organic. Nights got longer and longer. Things happened. She made a choice. She’s dedicated. Simple as that. And I’ll tell you–that kind of dedication? It means a lot to us.”

“I suppose you had to sacrifice something, too, eh?”

“Me?” Cole said. He looked up a the ceiling as if trying to remember something. “No, I don’t think so. Nothing I can recall, anyway. Nothing like that, certainly. But I think that I would, you know, if I had to. Not that I could, you know, do what Liz did.” He snickered. “No vagina here.”

I really, truly hated him, but still I looked at the envelope in my lap. I thought of all the calls from the student loan office I’d been dodging. I thought of the apartment I dreamt of in a building with an actual doorman and quality pest control. I thought of how much I hated to cook my own food and clean my own apartment. Yes, I thought of my needs, but my needs were only the key my greed used to get in the door.

“So what’s it going to be, then?” John Cole asked.

I thought about the amount again, and already the horror had started to seem like a dream–like something I could, if I tried, erase from my mind. Chalk it all up to sleep-deprived delirium.

Then I cackled. There was no other word for it. Babies were cute, but no baby was that cute. Nor was any human life worth that much money, especially not these days.

I folded the envelope in half and slipped it in my pocket. “I should get going,” I said. “I have work to do.”

John Cole smiled. “So you do,” he said. “And so you will.”

*     *     *

When I returned to the office, Liz was dressed in a fresh set of clothes, her face clean, her hair washed and dry–all of it like nothing had happened. The only thing seeming to signify any of the change was an open bottle of Macallan on the desk and two glasses. She indicated the one on my side of her desk.

“For you,” she said.

I crossed to the desk and took a seat in the leather-backed chair in front of her. I looked at the year on the bottle. “1949?” I said. “Jesus, Liz.”

She swept her glass to her mouth and took a loving sip. “My present to myself,” she said. She pointed at the glass in front of me. “Don’t be shy. It’s not exactly Kool-Aid, but it’s the same thing in spirit.”

I picked it up and tasted it. I’d never been into whiskey, but that night things were different. “It’s really good,” I said.

“Damn right,” Liz replied. “You know, Jessica, it wasn’t consensual.”

“What wasn’t?”

“I want you to understand.”

“Oh,” I said. I set my tumbler down. “You mean you were …. Who was it?”

“Only thing that matters now,” she said and tipped her glass, “is the whiskey in my hand.”

“Does your husband … I mean, did you tell him?”

She considered her wedding ring. “This hasn’t been much more than a Cracker Jack prize for a while now. No, this happened well after David left me. I kept this trinket on to ward of the lechers. Haha. World of good it did me! More?”

“I think I’m good,” I told her. “You probably appreciate it more than I would, and I should get back to work.”

“Company girl,” Liz said and winked.

I left her to her bottle. I went back to my desk. The rain had stopped. Through the glass, I saw the other buildings, and I thought how much they looked like a row of glittering, jagged teeth, sinking into the meat of the night.

I sat down and resumed pouring through emails, looking for references to a criminal’s church, and listening to songs from Glee.

 

4 comments
  1. WOW, Kris, now I know just how much you hate lawyers. Baby-eating monsters. That’s classic.

  2. Kris said:

    Haha … and yet somehow in my twisted mind, I wrote this in honor of the lawyers I know. 😉

  3. Visitor said:

    Is this about W&S?

  4. Kris said:

    @Visitor … Not to my knowledge.

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