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Tag: Contemporary Fantasy

Day Shift – Chapter 13

Ashley’s Visit

 

               Mattias spent a few minutes cleaning up his apartment. With a resounding three rooms – well, four if you considered the Kitchen and Living room separate, which he didn’t – it took almost no time. Then he put on some water. One thing he had picked up from Olivia was enjoyment of pressed coffee. It saved him a little space on his countertops and made single cups a little easier than a pot. More importantly, it made him look fancier than he was. After a few minutes, he was ready for her to arrive. He couldn’t imagine why she had wanted to come here, much less as to why she wanted to talk to him.

               It worried him. His business brain assumed that she was going to quit on him. That whatever chance he had at coming out of this Holiday season was about to go up in smoke. He supposed that was okay. Maybe his worry had been right. He checked the clock on his stove, trying to keep himself from worrying too much when she didn’t arrive as swiftly as he assumed she would. It was one of those days with no traffic, so there should have been no delays. It should have only taken a few minutes. Eventually, she did get there. He heard the buzz and walked over to hit a button on a console next to his door.

               “Hello?”

               “Hi boss,” Ashley’s voice came through quietly.

               “I’ll buzz you in,” He said in his best sitcom comedian voice. She didn’t respond, though he didn’t know if that meant it was a bad impression or before her time.

               He just waited by the door for a few minutes. He was just awkwardly leaned against the frame, waiting and listening for her to arrive. It was silly. He felt like he had to be at the door when she arrived. It was taking longer than he expected to. She had entered his building, it should have only taken a minute or two. It took about five. He finally heard footsteps outside, and then a soft knock on the door. When he heard that, he twisted around and opened the door.

               Seeing her, he realized why it had taken her longer than he expected.

               She was not looking well. She was not sickly, but she was visibly bruised. A black eye and a large bruise on the same jaw. She gave a weak smile as he looked over her obvious wounds.

               “Christ, what happened to you?” He stammered as he realized he was staring.

               “Hello to you too,” She said quietly.

               They both stood awkwardly at the doorway for a minute. Neither said anything. That snark normally would have been something they bonded over, but right now it was clear that it was forced. She was not in a good place mentally, and the quiet shadow of a voice she was using was more than enough to bring that to his attention. It made his stomach sink.

               “Yeah, sorry. Just surprised,” He opened the door wider and waved her into the apartment. “Welcome to Casa de Holland,”

               “I can see why Olivia left you,” She said a bit cruelly as she stepped in. He recognized she was just trying to defuse, but still.

               “Ouch,” He said as he closed the door. “And this is all post-Olivia.”

               There was a sudden flurry of little plastic taps on the fake carpet as Lunchbox came bounding around the kitchen counter. It had heard a familiar voice and like any pet, it was excited. It rushed over to Ashley, who bent over to give it a quick pat on the top. “Yeah, sorry. Just lashing out,”

               “I get it. And it was kind of low-hanging fruit for you,” He said walking past her towards the kitchen, “How do you like your coffee?”

               “Oh, I don’t… actually need coffee. It was just a thought.”

               “Fair enough,” He stopped and spun around to look at her again. She was picking up Lunchbox by that point. He took a breath, “So, what happened?”

               She didn’t say anything for a second, hesitating. That was all he needed to hear – or not hear in this case.

               “That bad, huh?”

               She nodded a few times and concentrated on playing with the little animated satchel. It wasn’t something she seemed to want to talk about, at least not yet. Which cued him into what it actually was even more. It wasn’t something he particularly wanted to delve into or push her on, at least if he was right. It was just something you couldn’t do. So, he wouldn’t try. What she needed was something else.

               “Well, I don’t have much other than coffee to offer you. Coffee, water, blood, some leftover bones, and my Chinese food spread for the holiday,” He spoke, each item having a light point towards it before one final broad wave over the entirety of what was left on the table.

               She gave him an awkward glance, “Chinese food?”

               “It would have been racist to order Vietnamese,” He joked. It was one of the first things that brought a little smile to her lips. At least the first time it was a genuine one. That was what he hoped to see something to bring a little smile. He gave a shrug and motioned over, “Relatively freshly nuked, so you are welcome to any you might want. I got more than I can physically eat anyway.”

               She paused for a few minutes before she finally relented and moved around to his couch. “I might have an eggroll or two,” She said with a smirk. “Can I?” She spoke as she pointed with her elbow over to the couch.

               “Sure, make yourself at home,” He was quick to reply before moving into the kitchen. “Want a drink?”

               “Just water will be fine, I think,” She spoke as she sat down and let Lunchbox rest on her lap. It circled about like a cat for a moment and then folded itself down onto her as if sleeping. She patted it lightly.

               He moved about in the kitchen and prepared a glass of water for her. He paused and grabbed himself one of his red bottles from the fridge shortly after, then joined her on the couch. He set the water down on the table in front of her. She had already procured herself an eggroll and was nibbling on it – trying to decipher if it was any good or not.

               “Where’d you order Chinese food from?” She asked, casting a glance over to him.

               “Dragon Palace,”

               “Really? There’s somewhere with that cliché of a name?”

               “You should see the inside. All red lanterns and gold dragons, with stereotypical crane prints on the walls. Has a buffet too,” He said leaning forward to grab a plate of moo-shu pork. He gave a grin over to her. “And one of those weird koi ponds just inside the foyer.”

               She chuckled, “Not very authentic then, eh?”

               “I mean, If I wanted authentic I wouldn’t order from a place called Dragon Palace. Especially one that’s in a small little strip mall with a thrift shop and a check-cashing place,” He gave a smirk as he took a bite, “But you’ve gotta love the crappy stereotypical Chinese food, right?”

               She gave a nod and smirked back, “Yeah. My grandmother would hate this – but,” She took a larger bite, “I have to admit I do like MSG crusted cabbage,”

               “Exactly.”

               “So, a gamer?” She said with a nod towards the console under the television, which was currently paused and showing a home screen.

               “Used to be, but not a lot of time for it now,” He admitted. It was nice for her to try to make small talk, and she would continue through the visit. The two had small conversations for a little bit, and she slowly but surely warmed up over time. The discussions were mostly harmless but they did not delve into anything resembling a deep conversation. For the most part, they talked about pop culture and nerdy things.

               He quickly realized that she just wanted to keep her mind off of the situation that had befallen her, whatever that was. He had gleaned a bit of information. She was hurt, there were bruises he couldn’t see, it was keeping her from her family, and she was staying at a hotel during the aftermath. All of that pointed to the same thing. He didn’t need to push on that. She just needed someone she could trust, and for the moment that was him. The closest her conversation came to being anything similar to deep was when she asked if he thought Olivia might give her some pointers on animating things.

               Of course, he thought she would. As much as she probably would have hated to be signed up, he was sure that his ex-wife would adore bringing another witch into the animator’s lifestyle. After all, she seemed to want to animate everything, and the teaching other witches to do that would spread that ability wider into the world. Not to mention she loved the different perspectives and imagination brought by others to her workshop. It would be worth asking at the very least.

               Then came a question he didn’t expect.

               “Do you know what you want to do with life? Or… whatever?” Ashley asked, seemingly unsure about even asking the questions. “I mean, you never seemed like you wanted to be a customer service manager long term.”

               “No, I definitely don’t want to do that,” He shook his head a bit, “I was originally planning on just coasting on Night Shift until something better came along, or I figured that out.”

               “There must be something you want to do though. Like a dream or something.”

               “Not really. I lost a lot of them when I came down with the bloodlust,” He admitted, “I mean, I suddenly couldn’t have a family and a few years later me and Olivia didn’t work anymore. She kept moving and I was frozen in time, you know.” He took a long deep breath and glanced over to her. He saw for a few seconds that sad look on her face returning. She needed him to be honest and open with her, and to help her remember that there were people out there willing to not abuse her trust. He couldn’t believe he was going to admit to this, but she needed him honest. “Olivia always reminds me there is one thing I could do. One dream I had before, but it’s kind of a long shot. And I don’t know…”

               “But…” She encouraged him to continue.

               He let out a long breath, “After I was turned… I just wanted to live a normal life, you know how it is,”

               “Yeah. Not quite non-human, but witches do get a bad rep.”

               “Exactly. We are treated differently, have to live differently. Society just isn’t built for us. And I don’t want to change it, or anything. Just… a place where you could get help and learn to understand how things work, and how to deal with others when they don’t. It would’ve helped me. Or Olivia,”

               “Or me,” Ashley said with a soft breath, “Or Lindsay.”

               “Yeah. So, I just want to figure out how to make that sort of place a reality. Somewhere non-humans can go when they need help, or want to learn how to live with this bullshit,” He shook his head. “But, it’s a bit idea – way beyond me.”

               She shook her head back, “No. Not beyond you. I mean, you are giving up a day to help me out, and you don’t really need to.”

               “That’s different.”

               “Not really. Just expand on that. You like helping people,” She nodded, “Why not go for it? What’s the worst that could happen?” She smirked, “You are already dead.”

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Day Shift – Chapter 12

Down One

 

               Mattias’ weekend ended well before he was ready for it to do so. Or at least it felt like that. He had gamed all weekend and that made it go by too quickly. That was to be expected. And he had basically finished a new game he had been excited about, so what wasn’t to love, right? Come Monday morning, though, he found himself feeling a familiar sense of dread, a woeful lack of desire to role out of bed and move into his usual destination.

               But this morning, it was worse. His phone blinked. A message. That sense of dread deepened. He couldn’t explain why, but he knew that Olivia was likely still asleep, and Rory was definitely still asleep. So, either it was a message from late the night before or recent. He assumed it arrived recently. He sighed and took a breath, reaching over to grab his phone and pulling it over to the bed. He stared at it for a moment, before his groggy mind ordered his fingers to work. They did not cooperate, and he stumbled with the process of getting his phone unlocked and functional. When he finally did, he saw the message flash up in a preview. It was from Ashley.

               Hey boss, sorry to do this…

               Great. He swiped his finger over the message and gave a quick read to the entire piece that had been sent to him.

               …but I’m sick and won’t be in for a few days. It should be better by Black Friday though. I’ll have a doctor’s note.

               He groaned. He hated that she was sick, but he hated being down a person too. It wasn’t her fault, but it still set the day on a bad foot early in the morning. A grand way to start the last day before the hardest season of the year for them. He groaned and decided it best just to wallow in his dread for a few more minutes before getting back up with her. He eventually sent a text, something simple that didn’t give too much information one way or the next.

               No worries. Feel better. That was all he could think to say. She was sick, there was nothing he could really do for her except by handling whatever it is that she would have normally done. It made his day less of a good one, sure, but her’s was likely just awful. He hated that the thought of his own inconvenience came to him first. She wasn’t one to call in randomly, so it may have been something very bad. At least he knew it was genuine. After he thought about it, he didn’t remember any of his team calling in since the move to the day shift.

               He finally pushed himself up and got on about his day. Again, he went through the same motions. Get himself up, grab clothes, take a quick shower, get dressed, get lunchbox, and then drive to work. Deal with nausea. Regret ever having agreed to this and having to deal with the blasted sun the entire drive there. Today, was no different there. Actually, the sun might have brighter than normal, the sky clear and blue this morning, and people other than him seemed cheerful. Maybe it was just warmer and more pleasant than normal, or he had missed the memo about today being a good day. He didn’t know. It didn’t matter.

               When he got to work, he headed inside with a quick jog across the parking lot. He joined the flood of people that were moving towards their respective jobs. He crowded into the elevator with a group and listened to the conversations. Or, rather, he listened to the tone of the conversations. Here, like on the road, there was a bit of warmth and general good demeanor about the people he was around. They all seemed to be happier than the usual Monday morning, at least in his experience. Though, he remembered Monday mornings less and less though as his time as a vampire had gone on. He wondered if he was just forgetting the weeks before the Holidays being a bit more welcome than the usual weeks. Maybe he was. Maybe it was just a pretty day.

               Either way, he reached his office with no real trouble. Ava was there when he arrived, already talking on the phone with a client to plan some meetings later in the day with someone there. She gave a wide smile and a wide wave over to him, but she couldn’t. That was a great relief to him. Based on her excited wave, he felt that her reading of the meeting they had over the weekend may have been a good one. He didn’t consider it that way, and he thought he had been clear. Though, he was glad she had come in today and wasn’t drained.

               He took a quick look at Ed’s office and saw her there on the phone. Unlike normal, she was standing facing away from everyone, looking out over the city. She wasn’t moving too much, just nodding and he could catch her speaking from time to time. She seemed in a deep conversation, but not one that he would have been able to guess without hearing something from her. It was clear that she wouldn’t have that though. She was making sure people would see or hear her.

               He reached his cubicle area, where his team was already set up and ready to go. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary here though. His team seemed in good spirits too, though. Lindsay was working quietly, typing away on some incident report. Helena hummed along to some song in her headset. Maddox was catching up on some sport he followed. Pleasant.

               All this pleasant Monday feeling made him wildly uncomfortable. Something felt a little off. It was just his paranoia, of course, but it was one of those little nagging things he did. He always twisted things, a weird perspective that all this nice and pleasant feeling must have been balancing out the bad that was preparing to be unleashed on them. Despite his natural inclination to this ideology, the day went on without incident. The guests were nice, the tasks easy.

               The next day was much the same. The day was easy. The sun was bright, and people were in good spirits. Yet, something continually ate at him, that something wasn’t right. Ashley was still out, and it seemed that she would be for a few days. But she had been quiet and hadn’t spoken much to any of them it seemed. He had talked to Maddox and Lindsay, and she hadn’t said anything. She let Helena know that she would be back, but it would be a full few days before she could be. She didn’t even hint at the cause. Just that she was sick.

               Finally, the worry got to him enough that he opted to send her a text. Just a quick check-in. He planned to disguise it too, just to make sure she wouldn’t be able to accuse him of wanting to check up on her specifically. It was some stupid holdover from his youth. He didn’t want to be seen as caring. He wanted to be aloof and off on his own. A mysterious and cool person, rather than a soft caring individual. Which even as he chose to act that way, he realized just how stupid of a thought process it actually was. That wasn’t going to break the habit though. He had ingrained this silly behavior into his nature.

               Ashley, I just wanted to see if you were feeling better and if you needed me to get anyone to cover for you on BF. Thanks.

               That was all he sent. He sent it while sipping down another one of his red bottles during lunch break, recharging his blood stores and getting some much-needed energy back for the rest of the day. He expected her to text back rather quickly. After thirty minutes, he explained away the delay to her likely being sick and asleep. After all, the rest was important. But after a few hours of not receiving a response, he began to worry.

               For him, worry had always been an insidious thing. He had a somewhat unnatural ability to see things coming – be it from patterns or changes to those patterns, or some supernatural force – but that only made things worse. He could take the smallest things, and until they were resolved, their weight would seem to grow and grow. And in this case, he worried about one of his team. He worried that something awful had happened. His mind immediately jumped to the idea that she was deathly ill and couldn’t speak due to whatever illness it was.

               He considered sending another text, but he knew that would be a little too much. He didn’t know what to do but wait. But the waiting let him think. And the thinking made things worse. And then, with no warning, about five hours later he got a text back.

               I’m fine. I’ll be in on Black Friday, but I need to take off til then.

               He paused and stared at those words for a minute. Now he knew something was off. Three full days off required a doctor’s note, so she had to have gone there. So, she must have had something pretty rough.

               Sorry to hear that you’ll be out all week. Anything I can do to help?

               Again, the text took longer than he would have expected. It took about fifteen minutes before it arrived back in his inbox.

               No

               That was it. Not a no thanks, or anything similar. Just, no.

               Now, he was not close to his team. Not like some team leaders. He knew that, and never really wanted their day to day relationship to be any different. But he did care, and they were well aware of that. The short phrase shook him. Something was wrong, and it was much worse than he would have thought. He needed to give her an out. Something she could use.

               Okay. If you need it, just try to let me know by tomorrow if I need to make Maddox take Friday.

               Again, there was a long wait, somewhat arduous by comparison. Then again, she typed out a short and simple response.

               Ok.

               Ok. That was it. That didn’t even sound like her, much less look like something she would type. He didn’t text her often, but he saw a lot of her texts. She was always texting at her desk, which was fine given it didn’t interfere with her job. The team members they worked with knew her primarily through text. It was her preferred medium to communicate in and she knew all the little tricks. So, he doubted anything short of catastrophic would stop that. One-word answers just weren’t her style, not in this format at least.

               He couldn’t dwell on it, though. There was nothing he could do for her outside of hope for the best. So that was what he did. As the week went on, she didn’t show up. She stayed away, and he dealt with the fallout. He listened to Maddox’s moaning and told Lindsay to be on standby in case she couldn’t make it into work on Black Friday. Then, on that Wednesday, he went home.

               For him, Thanksgiving was a little holiday now. He had very specific traditions. Given he couldn’t really eat the meals anymore – at least not comfortably – so he didn’t. He didn’t have much family left, and though both Olivia and Rory invited him to join them and their families, he turned them down as he always did. Instead, he would stay home and do a lot of nothing. He had his game from the week before, and he had enough little red bottles to survive until next week, even if he didn’t get any food. Still, since it was a holiday he ordered an overabundance of Chinese food.

               It just seemed right to sit and enjoy an indulgence on one of the premier holidays of the year. Even he had to admit that it was a bit depressing to spend the day alone eating microwaved Chinese food ordered the day before. He should have accepted one of the offers. Maybe next year, though. Maybe next year he would spend the time with loved ones. His phone vibrated, the light from a text popping up.

               Hey boss. Sorry to bother you on the holiday, but… He swiped just under Ashley’s name to reveal the full message. …I just needed to talk to you before tomorrow.

               He took a breath and considered going ahead and texting Lindsay. Sure. What do you need? He responded, opting to at least see what it was she needed.

               I’m in a bad place and couldn’t visit family. I don’t know why I’m even asking, but are you in town?

               Yeah. Pretty much always could.

               Could we meet for coffee?

               Where? He raised a brow and shook his head. Nowhere was open.

               I don’t know.

               He sighed and glanced to his kitchen, and then back to the coffee table with a bunch of take-out sitting on it. He couldn’t believe what he was going to do. I have coffee here. He typed out. I could bring it to you. He hesitated over the send button for a minute, before finally letting his finger fall on the screen to send the text. Then he waited. There were only a couple seconds before the first response came through.

               I know this is odd to ask and you can say no, but could we just meet there? I don’t know really have a place to meet up at the moment.

               He started to type and another message but didn’t have a chance before another text came through from her.

               You can say no. Just inviting my manager to my hotel room seems like it would look bad. Like really bad.

               He adjusted his text a bit and started to send it back.

               I mean, maybe this is a bad idea. You can forget I asked.

               He gave a shake of his head and waited for a second to see if she would text again. She didn’t. It gave him time to type out something new.

               Ashley. Calm down. If you need to talk, we can. I’ll send you my address.

               Ok.

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 11

Not That Kind of Vampire

 

               With Black Friday only a couple scant weeks away, Mattias decided it was best trying to enjoy one of the last few weekends he had available until the New Year. It was one of those weekends that he planned for meticulously. He did his research, got the food and snacks he’d need for the trip, and prepared with the best of them. He had no intention of letting anything distract from his goal of enjoying a weekend and doing something that he loved before that chance slipped through his fingers for the next few weeks and months.

               There in his living room, with the windows blackened and every possible distraction removed, he sat and took a tentative breath. He was ready to do this. To escape. Just for a weekend. Just for a couple days, to be somewhere but here. He smirked to himself, and with one clawed finger he pierced the crisp plastic wrap of a brand-new console game. For a long time, he had wanted nothing more than to be in another world, and forty hours of gaming in a weird and imaginative existence sounded perfect to him. The scent of fresh new plastic filled the room, and with a satisfying snap, he opened the case.

               He was old and missed the days when there was a manual to peruse over. That was okay though. With the modern world, he could get everything he needed from some fan wiki that had popped up on the internet in the days after the release of the game. That, of course, was something he hadn’t done yet. He had avoided spoilers completely. This would be his escape, brought by diligent and blissful ignorance. He stood up and took the disc out of the case with a satisfying click, and slipped it into the console. He took a breath and took his time getting back to the couch.

               Then he flopped down on the couch, lazily reaching out to grab the controller. The room’s light shifted heavily, the pale blue light of the TV lightened up with the game’s splash screen flickering into existence as he hit a button on the controller pad. There was a pause as the game loaded, and the trailer began to play. He had seen it before, a few times, on this very television. So there was nothing to do. With a satisfying tap of the controller again, he skipped it. Then, excitedly watched for the menu screen.

               It popped up – but his heart sank.

               There wasn’t a menu, only a progress bar. Below which there was a small flickering word.

               Installing.

               01%.

               “Damn it…” He muttered under his breath as he sat the controller down. No big deal. He would just wait to see about how long it would take. It took a few seconds, but the percentage crawled up. No problem. He reached over and grabbed his phone off the table and wasted time on the internet for a while. It would just take a few minutes after all.

               And yet, every time he would check the progress it would feel that much further. Ten minutes, fifteen minutes, thirty minutes passed, and each check his frustration grew and grew over the situation. He was just annoyed. Finally, nearly an hour after he started, he saw the screen flash and change. It reloaded the trailer cinematic and he sat up excitedly.

               “Finally,” He said to himself, a bit of a wriggle in his seat in almost childlike expectation.

               Once again, the menu screen loaded. Then a popup showed through.

               Update required.

               “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” He groaned. He smashed a button to take him to the downloads screen, the images shifting and changing before they went to yet another menu and opened the download progress. His eyes drifted across the screen looking for how big of a download it was going to be. With a little luck, it was just a small update. Just a few more minutes. Of course, when his eyes fell on the size of the download for the update, they widened. There was a for a moment a clear sense of loss that filled them, a defeated toss of the controller onto the couch, and a somewhat tentative move to stand up. He wavered for a moment before he stepped around to a side table and snatched up his keys and wallet. And then he walked to the door.

               “I’ll be back lunchbox,” He called back into the house, before moving out and into the world.

               He didn’t know where he was going, or what he was doing now. He needed to burn a couple of hours to do what he wanted to do, so why not go out to town to distract himself. That made sense to him. He was annoyed. So why not go out and find something to sate him. He was going to go buy something.

               He did not, by any means, have the money to tie his annoyance to purchases. It was a habit he wasn’t breaking anytime soon, and he knew where he was going. Downtown there was a small shop that sold witchy items and stuff for non-humans. So, he’d go there for a while, and see if he could find anything fun. Maybe he could find something to distract him, or an interesting book, or just a bauble for his lunchbox.

               It took about twenty minutes to drive to the shop he was looking for and a few more to find a parking lot. On the weekends, downtown was always busy. On a surprisingly warm night like tonight, plenty of folks were out and about. College kids were pub-crawling and celebrating the coming end of a semester before the had to buckle down and study. Those of the town older than that were just trying to blow off steam, and maybe find something to drown memories of work in, like he was doing. Of course, he wanted a more solitary feeling than most people. He wanted to be left alone.

               He had never been lucky enough to get what he wanted.

               “Mr. Holland!” He heard a yell from across the street as he walked. It would have been fine to keep walking and ignore her, right?

               No, that would just make her yell again. Just a wave and an acknowledgment, and she’d go back to whatever it was she was doing. So that was his strategy. He turned and found himself scanning the crowd. Finally, he spotted the waving arm of one of his coworkers.

               Ava.

               Though she looked completely different than he was used too. He waved back.

               Then, barely looking, she grabbed her friend’s arm and bolted across the street towards him. The tiny little figure bounding across like a baby deer – without even looking where she was going or for cars or other dangers. It was stupid, but it was also busy so it wasn’t like there was much traffic in this particular area.

               “Hey, Mr. Holland! Neat to see you out and about,” She said as she came to a halt next to him.

               “Hi, Miss Mays,” He followed her formalities, not sure why she was approaching him. They barely talked at work.

               “How cool is this?” She asked, “Are you going to the Club?” There was an emphasis on the word Club. He caught it, and it made his brain suddenly click.

               He looked at her and her friend and discomfort started rising in his mind. His plan had backfired completely, and he suddenly realized what Club she was talking about. You see, she was in her gothic best. A thin black tank top with a capelet, a skirt that was only a few inches away from being a glorified belt, and knee-high black strappy boots gave her a very obvious look. A spiked choker, dark make-up, and a few superfluous chains dangling from useless clasps on her attire finished the ensemble.

               “Oh, no. I’m not that kind of vampire,”

               “There are different vampires?” Her friend slurred. She was similarly dressed if somehow a little bit more densely layered with accessories.

               “Yes, but I don’t think that’s actually what you’re asking,” Mattias said with a growing discomfort around us.

               “Why don’t you come with us? It could be fun.”

               “I appreciate the invite, by no,” He said raising his hands and shaking his head. He tried to make it as obvious as possible that he was not in any way interested. “You two have fun.”

               “Aw, come on. It’s feeding night,”

               “I’ll go with hell no then,” Mattias smirked a bit.

               “Aw, that’s no fun,” Her friend wobbled and stumbled a bit. “I bet you’re fun to feed.”

               “Nope,” The vampire shook his head. “No.” His finger pointed at the friend, and then to Ava. “No.”

               “Okay, well if you change your mind…”

               “You’re drunk, don’t finish that sentence,” He gave a bit of a stern voice.

               “He’s no fun. You said he was fun.”

               “He’s fun,” Ava stumbled a bit, “He’s just not that kind of vampire. Let’s go find sexy vampires.” They had both started moving away from him.

               “Ouch,” He added at the statement.

               “See you at work on Monday, Mr. Holland,” Ava gave a wave and they were off.

               “Be careful, Ava.”

               He felt eyes on him as they walked away. It was uncomfortable. It wasn’t something he particularly enjoyed. He was being judged from somewhere, by someone familiar. It was night. His senses were enhanced. He could smell the humans, hear them breathing as they walked along the road, and feel the warmth of their hearts. They were, after all, prey – and he was designed to be a hunter. So, when one hunted him, he could feel it. The difference in their heartbeat and breaths, the smell the adrenaline gave their sweat.

               Hunters, of course, were rare now. Legal hunters were often employed by police departments to track down any vampires that lost control. He was not one of those, though. And the illegal ones were little more than ignorant bigots. He wasn’t afraid of them. They were generally stupid and in over their heads. So, who was hunting him now?

               “Mr. Holland,”

               “Miss Chambers,” He spoke as he realized it was Ed. How exactly could this night get any worse?

               “Not that kind of vampire?”

               “Saw that exchange, did you?” He spoke, finally turning around to see her a few feet behind him. She had a shopping bag in her hands from the same place he was headed. And she wasn’t sharply dressed. Her out of work attire was just as planned, mind you – but she had clearly put work into the fashion of it all. A layered ensemble of fall colors, with a light jacket and scarf, smart combinations of color, and just enough asymmetry to draw the eye to her face.

               “Yes. Ms. Mays didn’t seem like that type at work,”

               “A lot of us are different at work,” He said with a nod to her, “Some of us less so, looks like.”

               “What does that mean?”

               He paused. What did that mean? “I don’t know. Trying to sound deeper than I am.”

               She smiled. It surprised him. The smile was soft and genuine. It wasn’t sharp at all. “Well, I just wanted to say hello, and that you did really well. You think they’ll be okay?”

               “Yeah, they’ll be fine. A bunch of humans pretending to be vampires is all that club is. I mean, there might be a real one there, but it’s pretty rare,” He smirked and bared his teeth, “These aren’t really made for crowds, you know.” He shrugged. “Weird that she’s a bit of a thrall,”

               “Thrall?”

               “Its uh… Well,” He paused and felt a hand lift to the back of his head, where he brushed it through his hair. “It was a term used by vampires back when for thralls, people they kept as servants and meals. Now it’s for,” He blinked and paused, “Vampire groupies.” He felt his smirk fade to an awkward smile, and he laughed a bit, “Sorry, weird to say to my boss.”

               “Not on the clock. So, don’t worry about it.”

               “Good.” He pointed to the bag, “Demi’s?”

               She jostled the bag a bit, “Yeah. The incubus thing… got me thinking.” She admitted, “I mean, I hadn’t been since college, but I knew they’d have a couple books on non-humans. And some sage. So, I got a few books on ‘cubi, vampires, Fomorians, witches, slimes…”

               “Slimes?”

               “Yeah. One works in IT.”

               “Oh, I did not know that,” Mattias said with a small grin. “Studying up.”

               “I just thought, if I’m going to be a good manager, I need to know what you all are going through. And the internet is awful. Especially for Fomorians.”

               “Right? How racist are the faerie?”

               “It surprised me! They attack every site they can. And I thought they were just playful tricksters,”

               “The good ones, sure. But they have a lot of Unseelie folks nowadays. The Internet brought them out of hiding. Like human-trolls. And, probably regular trolls.”

               She smiled. “Yeah. Anyway. I thought it would help. I don’t want to take up your time, I just wanted to say hello.” She gave a little wave, “So, hello.”

               “Hello. Good to see you,” He said with an awkward little wave back. “And thanks for looking into that stuff. It’s nice to know you’re looking out for us outside of work.”

               “You guys deserve it.”

               He smiled, “And Miss Chambers, you can call me Mattias, if you’d like. Especially outside of work.”

               “Mattias. Sure,” She said with a nod, “And I guess you can call me Ed. Outside of work,” She pointed a finger at him from the hand that was holding the bag. “Miss Chambers at work.”

               “Got it.”

               “Good,” She said with a curt nod before she turned away, “Be good. Have a nice weekend. And I’ll see you on Tuesday.”

               “Tuesday?”

               “I won’t be in Monday.”

               “Oh. Tuesday, then.” He said. She gave another wave and then disappeared into the crowd. That was odd. Very odd. But he couldn’t complain. It was a good distraction, and he had to admit, he liked her much better outside of work. At least during that short interaction.

               He didn’t dwell on it too much more. He headed to the store, Demi’s, and browsed around for a while. In the end, he didn’t end up buying anything worthwhile. He just wasted time there and thought. He did chat with the staff a bit. They were old hippies, both human, but they had been part of the non-human culture for a long time. They were friendly, loving folk, who just wanted to see everyone get along. So, they tried to help facilitate that as best they could. It was nice. They had known him for years, and they were always nice to talk to, even if the conversation was very surface level. They didn’t fill him in on any juicy gossip or help him solve a problem in his head. They just reminded him of something very important. There were good people out there still – and if you paid attention you knew where to look.

               A nice night overall. And when he got home, his update was done. And for the rest of the weekend, he’d only move from his couch when he had to. The rest of the time he spent in another world, happy to be away from his own, but at least looking a bit more forward to the following Monday than he had when he left that evening.

              

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Day Shift – Chapter 10

In the Shadow of the Valley of Christmas

 

               “Alright, it’s time to see who this year’s Black Friday sacrifices are going to be,” Mattias spoke as he rolled back in his chair. “You all know the drill. Volunteer for Christmas or draw from the pile. People that work on Christmas don’t work Black Friday, and vice versa.” He smirked, “And, day after Christmas starts Hell Week, so, we’re all on full shifts every day until New Years Day,”

               “Yay,” The sarcasm in Maddox’s voice as he twirled in his seat was thick enough to smack someone with. It wasn’t a sentiment that was missed by anyone.

               “Wait, I don’t get it. Is Christmas…” Helena raised her hand as she spoke as if she had needed permission.

               “Not working Christmas is the reward for working Black Friday,” Mattias explained.

               “Oh,” Helena paused for a moment. She was new and naïve, so she raised her hand a little higher, “I’ll volunteer for Black Friday.”

               Maddox laughed, and Lindsay just shook her head. It was Ashley who spoke up.

               “Oh, honey, you’re new, so we’ll pretend you didn’t do that.”

               “How bad could it be?” She asked, lowering her hand softly.

               “Sales start at ten on Thanksgiving this year. Corporate is giving us two hours of on-call time, then one of us has to be here midnight to ten, then someone ten to six. They won’t cough up the cash for all of us to work holiday overtime and night hours, so,” Mattias said quickly.

               “So we get screwed. Hard.” Maddox wasn’t particularly helpful.

               “He’s not wrong though. Black Friday, for us, will be bouts of quiet. Phones won’t be on, so you’ll just be taking calls from locations. So… until something goes catastrophically at a location it’ll be slow and boring.” Mattias finished with a quick, “Any examples?”

               “I had a manager call me a couple years ago. He was vomiting on the phone, because a guest got trampled, and he thought calling us first was a good plan. Instead of his Regional or Legal,” Maddox shrugged, “Like, literally, on the phone. He described it in detail too, and I had to use another account to call his ASM to come in because he was useless. An ambulance took him to a hospital too for the shock.”

               “Yeah, that’s nothing,” Ashley chimed in.

               “Not a competition,” Mattias tried to cool them down, but there was no stopping them after he asked for examples. He realized his mistake too early.

               “I had a team member call me crying because the manager never showed up to unlock her store and the guests had her surrounded in her car and she freaked out. Police showed up. It was weird.” Ashley said quickly, with a nod, “You could hear idiots outside her car yelling at her and threatening her. I told her just to drive off, but she wouldn’t.”

               “Again. Not the best advice to a panicked person,” Mattias said, waving over to Helena.

               “Aw… I don’t get mine?” Lindsay protested.

               Mattias sighed and dropped his head, moving his hand over towards Lindsay instead.

               “I got a call. The manager just said, ‘The Store’s on Fire’, And hung up. I had to scramble. Turns out he set the fire.” Lindsay added with a smile. “Okay. That’s my weird story. I’m done. Thanks.”

               The vampire shook his head and turned back to Helena, “Long story short, you are on your own and weird shit happens. You must deal with it. No managers above us are in the office. So, we’re on our own. Same with Christmas, but it’s a slow day all in all. You know, people have families and such.” He smirked a bit, “Still want to volunteer.”

               “I mean…”

               “No, she doesn’t. And she gets to draw last,” Ashley kicking the edge of Helena’s chair to twist her away from the conversation a bit. “Let’s do this thing so I can go home.”

               “Yeah. I don’t want to be here. I can drown myself in videogames at home to keep from thinking about the shitty holidays,” Maddox spoke up, stopping his twisting and leaning forward and holding out a hand. “Me first.”

               Mattias tapped the side of his leg. His lunchbox scrambled from under his desk and tripped over the leg of his chair, tumbling back to its little knob feet and twisting up to look at him. If you could describe it as looking. He leaned down and gave the soft box a little pat. He slipped his hand to the zipper and pulled it open. The box’s top lulled back and it bounced around. “Everyone gets to get a strip of paper,” He said to the box before waving it off towards Maddox. “Don’t look until everyone, including me, has one.”

               “Oh good,” He replied as the lunchbox wobbled across the cubicle to him, “I get to put my hand in the weird living lunchbox.” He didn’t hesitate though, reaching in and pulling out a small slip of paper. He held it in his fist.

               The lunchbox then waddled over to Ashley. She was less hesitant, even giving the odd little arcane creature a pat on the head. As a Wu, it was clearly not her first animated creature.  She even gave it a little smile, “Your Matron just likes animating everything doesn’t she…” She spoke in the same cutesy voice one might to a puppy or a kitten. “Bet you used to have a family of weird little wobbly things that weren’t supposed to move, didn’t you,” She pulled out a strip of paper between two fingers and gave a nod to the box to send it on.

               Lindsay was a little less receptive to the thing, reaching in quickly and pulling out a strip before pulling away from it. She gave a stern point over to Helena and the box tapped over to the final member of the team.

               Helena just stared at it, and then carefully reached her hand out towards it. Her fingers brushed across the bag and she pulled away with a small gasp as it moved. It was alien to her, but she tried again and quickly pulled out a piece of paper from the lunchbox. It stood there for a second before moving back to Mattias and setting itself down under his chair.

               He reached in and pulled the final piece of paper out and sighed. “Okay,” He spoke quietly. “Everyone can look,”

               The team collectively flipped their papers around to read them. Each person took a moment to see, and the calm looks on some people’s faces were all he needed to see to know what they had gotten. His eyes glanced down at his own – and it simply said Black Friday. He could have guessed that was the way his luck would fall on a month as grim as this one had been so far. But then, his eyes raised to see that everyone was glancing at Helena. She seemed nervous. She hadn’t looked at hers yet but had seen everyone else – except maybe Mattias – looking relieved.

               Ashley reached over and snapped the paper out of her hand and quickly handed it back, “It says Christmas.” She spoke, handing it back over. “You got lucky newbie.” For a split second, Mattias thought he saw smoke on Ashley’s hand, but when he saw the ink run along her palm he knew what he had seen. “Guess it’s me and the boss.”

               “Hah. Two years in a row sucks to be you,” Maddox said jumping up from his chair and grabbing his jacket. “See you all tomorrow,” He grinned and began to walk off. It was only a second before Lindsay and Helena were also packing up and heading out.

               “So, how bad are the five days after Christmas?” He heard Helena ask Lindsay as the two walked out together.

               “Just insanely busy. Like… a hundred guests per day for each of us probably. It’s exhausting, but the pay is great.”

               “Really? And then that’s basically the worst time of year for us? Like, volume-wise?”

               “Yeah. Blockbuster season sucks too, but it’s a different kind of suck.”

               His attention turned back to Ashley after the other two had left, their voice growing distant and hard to hear. He watched her for a second as she sat at her desk. She wasn’t in a rush, despite how much she had acted like she was a moment or two before.

               “You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Mattias spoke quickly. “I was going to be here. She would’ve been okay,”

               “Do what?”

               “The ink-shift charm. It’s how Olivia sends every letter,”

               “Ah, shit. You noticed, huh?” Ashley sighed, “Probably a waste of magic… but I didn’t want her to be stuck here doing it. Besides…” She trailed off and didn’t say anything for a long time. It must have been twenty seconds before she took a breath. “I don’t think my Holiday season is going to be very… well… good. So, I might as well be here, right?”

               He paused. He didn’t really remember Ashley being open about her outside life much. “That’s my usual excuse, so I know it’s not a good sign. Everything alright?”

               “Yeah,” She said as she grabbed her bag and tossed it on her shoulder, “I just.” She shook her head, “At least you guys don’t suck.” That was all she said. She didn’t give him a chance to give any additional questions or comments, “I’ll see you tomorrow, boss.” She said, only pausing to point at him, “Don’t tell Helena I did anything, got it.”

               “Got it.”

               She turned and rushed out of the cubicle and away from there.

               He sighed and stood up, glancing out of the cubicle and down after her. After she was far enough away, she slowed down. She was in no rush to leave, but she didn’t want him to notice that. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t push beyond that. He just gave her space. She deserved that much. After a few minutes she was gone, and he was there alone. Or, at least outside of his team. He gathered up his things and picked up his lunchbox. He zipped it up with a quiet, “Sorry buddy. Got distracted,” And tucked the creature in his arms.

               As he was finishing up, Hal peeked his head into the cubicles. “Hey, Mattias. Who got the bad news on your team?”

               “Me, and…” He paused for a moment, “Me and Ashley, sort of.”

               “Sort of?”

               “Helena, the uh,” He adjusted as the lunchbox squirmed in his arms, “The new hire originally drew the short straw. But, Ashley stole it. Even used magic to hide that fact.”

               “Really? I don’t remember her using magic much when I was a manager.”

               “That’s what I thought. She kind of admitted she’d rather be here than with her family, or whatever.”

               “Ah.” Hal said with a long slow nod, “I suppose that happens. People have rough relationships outside of work. At least they know we’re all in it together here, right? That’s what I always wanted you all to think, anyway.”

               “Right. I suppose it makes sense,” Mattias felt his pocket vibrate.

               Sorry man, work is hell. Can’t make it tonight. I’ll catch you next time. A text message lit up his screen with the name Rory under it. He sighed a bit.

               “Everything okay,”

               “Yeah, Rory just canceled on me again,” Mattias spoke for a moment and glanced up at Hal, who was quiet and just nodded. He had given a half-hearted noise that sounded like a bit of condolence. He was worried about his team and his own sanity, so he did something out of character, and something he knew he should have done years ago. He still didn’t really want to, but maybe it would be good for him, “Want to grab a drink, Hal? There’s a place that will make rare burgers and has a pretty good selection of…”

               “Sure, let me grab my jacket,” Hal responded quickly.

               “Good deal,” Mattias said as he hit reply. No worries. I’ll grab a drink with Hal. Got on the Black Friday shift.

               Good luck, man. I know that shift sucks. We’ll grab drink another night.

               Right. Take care.

               “Ready,” Hal said in a bright yellow coat with a fluffy white collar. It matched nothing he wore, or that Mattias had ever seen him wear.

               “Alright. Burgers fine?”

               “Can you eat burgers?” Hal asked quickly.

               “I can eat anything if I’ve had blood lately. Rare meat is the best though. I’m sure I’ve explained this to you before,”

               “I don’t think so,”

               “Really? Huh,” Mattias grinned. “I guess three years is longer than I should have kept you in the dark, right?”

               “I knew you’d open up when you were ready.”

               “Weird way to put it,”

               “I know. I thought that as soon as I said it.”

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 09

Brand New Mess

               Helena Piper started the next day. She was assigned to shadow the rest of the team while Mattias’ explanation on why he torpedoed the ‘superior’ candidate was brought up before Ed and a couple people from Human Resources. Apparently Benjamin accused them of discrimination because his status as an Incubus was not a reason to choose another person. It took a couple of hours, but Matt finally explained that had nothing to do with it, it was his choice to attempt to use those powers to gain an unnatural benefit. He also argued that it was inappropriate for the workplace, even if it had not been used for personal gain, as it violated the company’s sexual conduct guidelines. Incubi were charming, but they charmed in a very specific way.

               Human Resources basically raked him over the coals for the first half-hour of the meeting, but Ed was quiet. She realized after he explained the feeling of the handshake, the cold drawing her forward to an odd warmth and then her mind quickly being made up about how he was a better choice; it all just fit too well. HR was not as familiar with what had happened, but once Mattias explained that both he and his Fomorian team member were able to detect his leaning into his charms rather easier. Really, more Lindsay than himself. It was just that sexual charms, like all those used by the Cubi, just were not effective on Vampires. He didn’t have blood for that kind of thing anymore, so it wasn’t something he could remotely care about. So, it just didn’t work. His familiarization with charms from being married to a witch gave him the rest of the clues needed to put it together fast.

               When Ed first spoke up, it was to keep Lindsay from having to talk to HR. She explained that she saw what Mattias was saying, and she thought he was right. Then, the conversation was over. He was no longer being interrogated but instead was near buried under a layer of paperwork. He had to fill out incident reports, get everything in order, and then double-check everything. Then they scanned and copied and signed more things. Then HR gave him a speech about how he needed to not act so quickly and check with his manager before moving on things like this. Of course, he didn’t listen. He didn’t care. He didn’t want a person like that on his team, and frankly, if they did, he was happy to leave over it.

               They agreed that Helena was a good choice though. As an option, she was a reliable worker, and she knew the company and its values well. That would save them a lot of time. Her previous managers spoke well of her ability to adapt and her passion for taking on something new. It was annoying to deal with. But HR had more important things to do and soon enough they headed off and he was allowed to head back to his team and help out like he had planned on.

               But something stopped him as he reached the door. Ed had still been quiet throughout the meeting, and after. She hadn’t said much. It wasn’t like her. That usual confidence seemed to have disappeared. He took a breath, and that turned into a sigh. He didn’t know why, but he felt he had to ask.

               “Everything okay, boss?” His hand rested on the door, waiting for an answer. He didn’t know if she would give one, or if she would just give him a quick and quiet response to get him out of her hair. He had to ask though.

               “I’m okay, Mr. Holland,” She gave a quiet response, which was all he had expected. But she continued, “I don’t like being tricked, though,”

               He paused. His hand was on the handle of the door and he would have been able to just leave with a quick statement. He took a breath and shook his head. “Yeah, it sucks. But don’t let it weigh on you. He cheated, and you can’t be expected to plan for that, you know.”

               She didn’t say anything for a second, “I’m not used to dealing with non-humans.”

               “We’re not terribly common. And not to put too fine a point on it, but humans have made it a point to ignore us their entire history,” He shrugged, “Write off the stories from the dark and hope that things keep moving forward. Not that I blame anyone. I used to be human. I didn’t think much about non-humans either until, well,” He tapped two fingertips against his neck and glanced back over to her. “Seriously, if he had realized I was a vampire, he probably would have gotten away with it. One of the few times I’ve had a silver lining with that particular symptom, to be honest.”

               She didn’t say anything again for a moment. He couldn’t look back at her. He didn’t want to see her vulnerability for some reason. He had no desire to have any sort of control over her and crossing this bridge might give him just a bit. He didn’t like to change. Having her at arm’s length was a good way to keep change away from his near future as well. He couldn’t leave her spiraling into the thoughts that a brush with non-humans like this could cause. It looked like he would have to break that change.

               “It’s not my first time,” She admitted. It was a string of words that felt a little heftier than he wanted. It made him turn around towards her.

               He saw a woman sitting at her desk. Her usual sharpness was gone. The way she slouched and leaned against her desk was much less powerful than her usual demeanor. “What does that matter?”

               “I should have known better…” Her eyes kept glued to the floor below, or perhaps the top of her desk. He wasn’t that sure from this angle if he was honest.

               “I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t work that way, you know?”

               She glanced up at him but didn’t say anything.

               “I’ve been doing this for a while. I’ve lived in this world for years. It doesn’t get any easier. There are still missteps all the time,” Mattias said with a hand motion in the direction of his team. “I had no idea how to handle a Fomorian until I met Lindsay.” He shrugged, “I’m used to Witches, but Mountain Witches from European ancestry are vastly different than those from Asian ones, like Wu.” He shrugged a bit, “And I could really go on.”

               “I know,” She said quietly. “I guess I’m just rusty. It’s been a while since I was able to deal with non-humans day-to-day.” She took a deep breath. “Sorry, I’m just feeling stupid. I appreciate you taking a minute to talk to me though.”

               “Well, don’t feel stupid. You did fine, given the situation,” He shrugged a bit. “You’re doing fine with all of it,” He sighed, “And thanks for sticking your neck out to get us a person. I wish it hadn’t turned out as weird as it did.” Why he continued, he would never know. But he added, “And if you need anyone to talk about non-human stuff, I’m available. I have a whole lot of time and not a lot of goings-on to fill it.”

               “Thank you, Mr. Holland.”

               “Hm.” Mattias smirked, “I thought that exchange might get a Mattias, instead of a Holland,” He gave an exaggerated sigh with a slumping shrug before finally pulling open the door. “Until next time, boss.”

               “Try not to make it an HR reason for the next meeting,” She called after him as the door shut itself.

There was a little brush of air as he was back out in the cubicle farm. From her nice airconditioned and private office, there was a different taste of air. It was less stale. It didn’t make the top of his mouth itch as badly as this foul air did. It just reminded him that it was implicit that he would get an office as management. What a shame.

But in a weird way, he was oddly happy with the day. It was a near-miss with HR, and nothing bad happened. And he felt like he had gotten to see a side of Ed he didn’t know existed, with a bit of vulnerability. She was a good boss. He didn’t trust her still, but she did feel more human. There was a bit of irony to that statement for him, he knew. He had been human once and at heart he still was. Just a human with a condition that made him dead and only animated by drinking blood and other such weirdness.

He adjusted his jacket. There was a moment where he dusted his shoulders off. His hair didn’t grow anymore, so it was specifically frustrating that he had a sort of dandruff. It was odd that certain little things bothered him like that. Of course, he had dead skin flakes. The fact that all his skin was technically susceptible and the only way to stave that was with fresh blood should have made it bother him less. It just showed up so obviously. He hated it.

The distraction of that train of thought came crashing to a halt as he realized that Hal was standing nervously at Mattias’ team’s cubicle area. That was not a good sign, and as he approached he heard quiet. There was nothing but one team member talking. One whose voice he didn’t know well yet, but at that moment recognized immediately.

“I understand… I would be upset too,” He heard her say, her voice shaking as he walked closer. “No… no sir.” She was responding to someone on the other side of a call. “I’m not trying to… no, sir.” She was struggling to keep afloat it sounded like.

Mattias put a hand on Hal’s shoulder, and whispered, “What’s going on?”

Hal gave a quick shrug, “Maddox came and got me. The first call the girl was soloing, some guy seems to have thought she gave him two different answers, and just went off on her.”

Mattias rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Right, guess its time to work, eh?” He said slipping past and twisting over to his desk. He took a breath and turned the screen back on.

“I’m sorry, let me… let me see if I can,” Helena tried to get a word in edgewise.

Meanwhile, the manager pulled up his console, slipped on his headset and breathed softly. He clicked a couple buttons and prepared to dive in. She was using another employee’s account, so it took a minute to find the live call. But once he had, he waved over Maddox, who was closest. “One of you take her on a break after this, right?”

Maddox just gave a thumbs up and slipped over to stand between Ashley and Lindsay, who were sitting around Helena as she talked.

Mattias clicked the button. And then there was sound in his headset.

“Look, I don’t know what kind of game you think you’re playing, but I best damn hear a manager in the next five seconds. I have your name written down and will sue you personally to hell and back for personal defamation and false advertising.” He heard a voice barking into the phone. He had planned on defusing the situation – but he had a simple rule he always followed.

“Hello, this is Mattias Holland, Manager of the Guest Enrichment Center. Helena had chimed in to get me to join the call a few moments ago. I’d be happy to help,” He said, sickly sweet and unphased by the anger in the voice on the other end. “I’m afraid I may be unable to do so now, however.”

“What? Who the hell is this? Say your name and position again?”

“My name is Mattias Holland. I am the Manager of the Guest Enrichment Center for Yorokobi Entertainment. You were speaking with our newest member in…”

“Oh, good, finally. I want to,”

“I’m sorry ma’am, I can’t help you. I’ve cut off Miss Piper’s line as well. Given you have chosen to threaten a team member with a lawsuit, I am legally and ethically obligated to inform you of the following.”

“What? What do you mean you cannot,”

“Ma’am, please listen closely. Your call has been recorded and your complaint logged. We will be looking into the situation. However, given your threat, my team can no longer help you. Your call will be sent to our legal department, and they will be in touch with you or your representation as soon as possible. Can I have the name of your legal counsel?”

“What? I don’t… I mean,”

“Am I to understand you do not have legal counsel? If so, is the phone number you called from your personal number?” He asked coldly, nodding his head back towards the hall to try to get Maddox or someone to help Helena out and get her walking it off.

“I. Yes, but I want to talk.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. If you would like I can transfer you directly to our legal department, but no further conversations can be held with our employees directly. Would you like me to transfer you?”

“No. I just want,”

“I’m sorry, I can’t,”

“I was kidding. It wasn’t a real…” Mattias didn’t say anything, he just let the person ramble for a second before the realized their misstep, “I didn’t want anything from a stupid foreign company anyway,” There was a loud snap, the sound of a phone being slammed, and it was over. He glanced after his newest member, who was being walked out towards the break room. A great first day on the job for her. He wondered if it would make her rescind her acceptance.

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Day Shift – Chapter 08

Beggars and Choosers

               A few days had passed since Mattias went into his boss’ office to demand they get additional people. He had dwelled on it since. He worried and fretted and wasted his next few days thinking he had been outplayed or outsmarted, and that he had burned a bridge before he ever got the chance to really get his footing. Or, well, whatever mixed metaphor he would think up at the time. He wasn’t clear why it worried him so much. Worst case scenario, he got fired – but that would put his team in a worse position and he just couldn’t bring himself to do that to them.

               That had always been in his nature, though. To worry. To dwell on every mistake he had ever made, no matter how little or large, no matter how impactful or neutral. It was his instinct. Worry. He had come by it honestly, from a long line of worriers, who felt that worry showed you cared – but that you couldn’t show anyone that you were worried, or you would be seen as someone who just wanted to have the appearance of caring. All of which was confusing, when he thought on it too long. It didn’t matter where it came from though, it was just there. Like his vampirism. It was part of him, and it might as well have always been. There was no changing it now.

               And even if it did, how would he know how to handle himself?

               So, there was a bit of normalcy to his worrying. That made it feel like home. Like laying on an uncomfortable couch in your own living room. It was your couch, and the place it was you felt comfortable. Even if you weren’t.

               Maybe his brain was beginning to decay a bit.

               He took a breath and leaned back in his chair. The waves of guests calling the past few days had been simple enough to handle. He had taken to the phones like you would a bicycle. That is to say that it was natural, and he only stumbled about as much as everyone else. That was the trick in this job, he had realized long ago.

               Treat every guest as a microcosm. You can’t remember them all, so you might as well forget the experience at the end of the day. Then there was nothing to dwell on. The more guests, the easier it was to forget that one mistake made earlier in the day. Sure, they might remember it. But the chances of them remembering and speaking to you again were slim. Even all that would keep him up and worrying sometimes.

               It was worse when it affected other people though. His eyes scanned across his team and he listened as they spoke to guests and one another. They were the reason he was worried. People too high saw them as numbers, and people down here couldn’t do much to help. Each had a life, with struggles of their own. They had their own struggles and stories, but like any good workplace, those seemed a bit more surmountable with friends and family around.

               They had never clicked like those sitcom workplaces though. There was no friendship outside of the workplace. Once they were clocked out, their lives were completely separate. It was a bit enough city that they only saw each other rarely outside of work. So maybe it was odd that he considered them friends and worth protecting to the best of his ability. Maybe he shouldn’t have stuck his neck out for them. Managers usually didn’t.

               He had always hated managers like that though.

               Somewhere along the way, his thoughts had taken over and that long inner monologue was broken when he glanced up and noticed all three of his team looking at him. No. That wasn’t right. He sat up as he realized their eyes were past him. He spun his chair around to see Ed there, and he reached up to pull off his headset.

               As his headset was pulled off, the sounds of the office came rushing back to him. Gone was the nice soft jazz music that kept him calm and contented during calls, and replaces was the low hum of office equipment, idle banter and the rain like clicking of hundreds of keyboards all being used at the same time. He took a second to realize what was happening, to get his bearings and clear his throat.

               “Sorry, zoned out. How long have you been there?”

               “About a minute.”

               “Cool,” Mattias said softly, quietly, his head shaking with a soft thankfulness that he hadn’t been doing anything he shouldn’t have been doing at the time. Like checking his cell phone, or buying things online, or whatever it was that would set Ed off. “Can I help you?”

               “Yes. I have two candidates. I need you and your team to group interview them, and then give me your choice of the two,”

               “Wait. Candidates?” Mattias sat up quickly. “For the other two positions? We need two – that’s,”

               “No. Corporate will only sign off on one.”

               “What? We need two,” Mattias protested.

               “We can’t possibly stick this out with just four of us,” Maddox piped in, warranting a quick glare from Ed. The woman’s eyes didn’t change or shift, there was no dark energy swirling forth from her, or the pressure of dark magics pressing around them now – but there might as well have been. The glare shut up Maddox instantly, and despite himself, he stammered out a short, “Sorry, Ms. Chambers,”

               She turned back to Mattias. “I already interviewed them. I narrowed it down. See which one fits your team. And you pick them. Let me know.”

               “Good, we’ll pick,”

               “No,” She spoke coldly, “Are you even listening today, Mr. Holland? Get your head back here. You,” She pointed one long, thin finger to the center of his chest, “You will make the choice. Your team can advise. I want to make sure we do this correctly. The first time.” She widened her eyes, “There won’t be a second.” She clarified.

               “Right. I will pick.”

               “Have the decision in writing on my desk before you leave today.” She spoke and started to turn around.

               “Wait, today?” Mattias spoke up and sat up swiftly. He was going to stand, and even started pushing himself up. A second of those glares cut him off though. He swallowed and felt her gaze fall on him. He had faced a few non-humans before, even one Medusa, but his desire to look away from her here was stronger than even that had been.

               “Mr. Holland,” Her voice was quieter, a hint of a hiss or a growl under the words. “I am sticking my neck out for you and your team. The interviews are tonight. You have thirty minutes after shift’s end to prepare, and two thirty-minute interviews after that. Then, you will have that decision for me.” She spoke quickly. “My meeting with corporate is at eight in the morning, their time, so I need it on my desk. Understood,”

               Mattias nodded.

               “Good. I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow. Check your email.”

               She walked away after those words, never looking back. A small zone seemed free around her, free of noise and other employees – only the click of her heels as she moved on back towards her office.

               “Did she seem more upset than usual?” Lindsay pointed out the obvious.

               “Always seemed like that to me,” Maddox responded with an exaggerated shiver.

               “Yeah, but you’re an ass,” Ashley had already pulled her cellphone back out by that point and twisted back to her computer to return to work.

               “Wait, do we have to stay late for group interviews?” Maddox asked after a second, though it was rhetorical. “Damn it, that’s a stupid way to start off the weekend.”

               “What were you going to do instead? Go home and lay around,”

               “I’ll have you know, I had a big date planned,” He shook his head. “Have, a big date planned. I just have to go in work clothes now. But, at least I look pretty good in them.”

               “Keep telling yourself that,”

               “At least I have a date – what are you doing this weekend, hm?”

               “Same thing I always do. Stay at home with my boyfriend. Maybe go out if something strikes our fancy,”

               “Uhuh. Boyfriend,” Maddox with a tone that could only be described as audible air quotes. “How come we’ve never seen him?”

               “Because he doesn’t like the idea of coming here, jackass.”

               Mattias let them talk as he pulled up his email. He had to refresh a few times. But it finally popped up and he tuned out the others for another few minutes. It was a quick read. Ed had sent over her notes from her interviews with them. They were short, brutal, and effective. Frankly, he was glad he had a chance to read through them. It looked like there were two good candidates. One internal, one external. Both qualified. Both with decent interviews. Both ready to start right away. Benjamin Van Der Veen and Helena Piper. Benjamin seemed to win out in the notes, though. He was marked as well-tempered, his qualifications had a slight edge, and he was an outside hire – which the company liked for veteran teams. It almost felt as if Helena was just on the list due to her role as an internal candidate. Her department wasn’t even guest-facing. She had been working in an assistant role to someone in HR.

               The shift went quickly and had been near its end when this was dropped on them. So, before long they had gathered together and come up with a game plan. Basically, the three would watch Mattias interview the candidates, and give their thoughts after the fact. It was not what he had wanted. His pitch was everyone asked some questions, but somehow they shot that down without a fight. So, they prepared and waited. First up was,

               “Benjamin Van Der Veen,” The candidate introduced himself. He was only somewhat properly dressed. He had an old, but crisp, pair of jeans and a button-up shirt. He wore a hat, and a dark belt with a larger than average buckle – and of course, boots. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He had a distinct drawl, spoken through a beaming smile that was much wider than it should have been. He wasn’t a large person, nor did he stand out in any way, but rather looked average. Almost disarmingly so.

               “Mattias Holland,” Mattias stood from his seat and offered over a hand. The candidate gripped it and gave a firm handshake – but one that was cool and somewhat refreshing in a way. It was curious, really.

               “And you would be?” Benjamin asked before breaking the handshake and moving back to the others.

               “Maddox,” Maddox’s voice was a bit more polite than usual, and the two shook hands.

               “Ashley,” She chimed in, with a quick brush of her hair back behind her ear during her turn to shake his hands. Of course, the flush of her cheeks was what gave it away.

               “Okay, I think we’ve seen enough. Thanks for coming, don’t call us, we’ll call you,” Mattias said tossing the folder down with a sigh.

               “What?” Benjamin turned around quickly. “I didn’t even get the chance to introduce myself to all of you,”

               “Because you used charms on the humans,” Lindsay said softly with a little shake of her head.

               “We can’t have a team member that is willing to use charms on other team members. One guest gets wind of that and they’ll assume the entire department is doing that.” Mattias spoke quickly. “Sorry.”

               “Give me another chance? It was instinct man, and…” Benjamin suddenly stopped, “And it didn’t work on you at all…”

               “One, my ex-wife is a witch, so… basic charm magic is kind of like,” Mattias pointed at the animated lunchbox scurrying about under his desk, seemingly excited that there was a new person in the area. “Second nature, at this point.” He held up a hand, “Two, I died thirty years ago, so an incubus isn’t going to do shit for me. Sorry.”

               Benjamin tossed his head down a bit and sighed. “Man, fuck it. I didn’t want a damn CSR job anyway,” Even his accent had disappeared as he stormed off. His charade broken, there was no reason to waste his time there any longer. So, he didn’t.

               “Yeah, thanks for coming. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” Mattias sighed.

               It warranted a raised middle finger from the other man as he walked off.

               “My vote is still for him,” Ashley said quietly.

               “You don’t get a vote,” Mattias spoke, standing up. “Come on, we’ll get some coffee in you two and snap you out of it.”

               Lindsay had also stood and put an arm around Ashley to guide her as Maddox was helped up by Mattias. They headed to the break room and started some coffee. It was a placebo trick, but one that was so familiar as a cure by most people that they just assumed it would work. He shook his head softly. They didn’t talk, though.

               Maddox and Ashley talked, though. They talked a lot. They talked about the good qualities of the last candidate and how he was going to make a great addition to the team. They talked about it for half an hour, through the cups of coffee and various requests for them to stop or shut up from Lindsay and Mattias. Incubi messed up one’s perception, though, so it was unlikely they were hearing anything past whatever his original plan for the meeting had been. That worry was back, though. That worry that this next candidate would be bad, and they would be stuck with either a fourth person pulling them down or just no one.

               “I’m sorry, is… is this where the interview is being held?” A somewhat nervous voice came from the entrance to the break room. “I’m… a bit early, but I work downstairs… so I just… stayed late. I hope that’s okay.”

               “No, no interviews here. We already found the best…” Ashley beamed, standing up with her coffee and a wide smile.

               “Oh.” The girl looked dejected, her eyes sinking to the floor and a soft nod all she responded with.

               “Ignore her,” Mattias said standing up. “There was an incubus and they’re…”

               “Horny.” Lindsay finished his thought.

               “Oh.”

               “You must be Helena. I’m Mattias, this is Lindsay, and the two dopes are Maddox and Ashley,”

               “Nice to meet you. I’m Helena.” She said, realizing that wasn’t the best response, and shaking her head. Her hands fiddled in her pockets, nerves building upon her. She was a heavy-set girl, but she already worked here, so she knew a lot.

               “Have a seat. We’ll make this informal.”

               She took a breath and nodded, finding herself a seat in front of Mattias and Lindsay, despite protests from the other two. She sat there, and while nervous, she answered the questions and talked to the two for the interview. There was nothing special about her. She was a college dropout, but someone who had worked with the company for a couple of years. She didn’t have much in the way of dreams or ambitions, but she was curious about people and wanted to try a more guest-centric position. But the thing that sold Mattias was that she was nervous. She was out of her element – and she had two people antagonizing her if only a little bit – but she sat down anyway. And did her best.

               He could work with that.

 

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Day Shift – Chapter 07

A Fifth of November

 

               As expected, the next few days of work were no better than that first. They were exhausting. Each built on the last, and the cumulative stress was already beginning to show on his team. They could handle it though. It was that second week that really started to show the cracks. It was here they began to be tested. The ramp-up had begun for the month. Once Thanksgiving hit, all hell would break loose. That wasn’t the kicker, though. That wasn’t the part that drove them up a wall and started really getting the stress flowing.

               It was Ed’s news.

               Of course, Mattias kicked himself for not realizing it would happen. He knew when she said they would get two more team members that no such thing would ever happen. Her news was simple.

               “Mr. Holland,” She said walking into their cubicles as most of the team worked on the phone with guests. It was almost as if she had planned it that way, so they wouldn’t have any chance to respond to, “Our outside candidate opted to go another direction, so you’ll only be getting a single new team member. I’ll give you an update on them next week.”

               Which of course, was code for something went wrong there too, and I don’t know what that means yet.

               For course, that next week no updates came. It was the week after when she peaked in for a split second to add, “I don’t have an update yet. Sorry, guys. Keep it up,” She had said before disappearing back towards her office.

               There was a long moment of silence with the group, broken only when a phone call came through and a loud sigh fell out of Ashley’s throat. Her usual tone was suddenly gone after that, a click and a sickly polite, and excited tone taking the place of the unhappy sigh from the seconds earlier. “Yorokobi Guest Enrichment Center. This is Ashley. How can I help you this afternoon?” The rest of the team looked over towards her for a second, before she began to nod. “Oh, I see. Yes, let me see what we can do about that for you. Can I have the name the purchases were made under?”

               “Are they really saying we aren’t getting any help?” Maddox asked in a practiced hushed tone that they had developed over their time. It was just quiet enough to not be picked up by another person’s headset but clear enough to understand over the short distances between the desks in their area. He groaned, leaning back in his chair and kicking the seat back slightly, waiting for a response.

               “They most definitely are not saying that,” Mattias responded with a dismissive wave-off towards the executive offices, “They just are hoping we don’t notice that’s what they actually mean.”

               “Of course. And you don’t think they’ll actually bring anyone over either, do you?” Maddox asked quietly.

               Mattias tapped on the keyboard in front of him. On the address bar in his browser, above the work documents he had been looking at, he typed the same letter over and over. Just the letter F, a new one appearing with every rapid tap of his forefinger as he thought about what the best course of action was. He should just go complain, though that would require effort. It wasn’t something he particularly wanted to do. He didn’t want the conflict, he didn’t want the work, he didn’t want the job. Tapping away, it was hammering at his mind, echoing that he should do something.

               “Yorokobi, Guest Enrichment, this is Lindsay. How can I help you?” He heard the Fomorian say. Her voice was clear and precise, nothing like her normal shy self. She was confident and polite. While he could see the fake smile on her lips, he’d never had a guest or employee think it was anything but sincerity. He took a breath and glanced over to Maddox as she continued, “Oh, we’re always glad to hear that! Thank you. I’d love to hear more about your experience at the location,”

               Maddox was dour, his eyes cast at the screen just watching his console for a moment. There was a distant ringing. His eyes fell on the corner of the screen, where the alert was flashing. An incoming call. He groaned and closed his eyes, and then took a deep breath. “Yorokobi, Maddox speaking. How can I assist you today?” Again, his tone was completely different. The ass that was their coworker off the line was gone. His voice was warm and open, he sounded genuinely excited to talk to the guests. “Oh, really! What exactly happened?” He asked, “Oh, no! I understand that. I’m sorry about that. No, we take that very seriously.”

               As warm as he was being, it seemed something had happened. Mattias glanced at him, but only got a shake of Maddox’s head in response. “No,” The man said quickly, “That cancellation policy is something I can waive for you. One of our team here is Fomorian, and she’s always out on Moving Day. I hate that it fell like that for you.”

               Mattias bit his lip and let his eyes close. If there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was that the best people for this job got eaten alive. They gave a damn about the people they were helping, and sometimes that stress built up and broke them. That just happened. With too much on their plates or no support from the higher-ups, there was no way they would survive. He scooted back a bit and gave a glance across the little pathway between cubicles.

               He clicked his mouth and waited a second before Halil leaned back from the section just across from him. His old manager mouthed the words, What’s up?

               “Watch my team for five?” Mattias spoke in barely a whisper, but slowly and clearly, with his handheld up with all five fingers spread.

               Hal gave a quick couple of nods, a warm smile, and gave the thumbs up. He rolled back in his chair so he could keep an eye on both sections, and that was all that Matt needed.

               The vampire stood and dusted off his suit a bit. He took one step forward but had to stop. Behind him, he heard little patters of tiny plastic feet. He turned back and his lunchbox had started to follow him out, as any pet would when their master got up to go on to something else. He shook his head and pointed down, then over to Lindsay. “No, stay here, listen to Lindsay.”

               It seemed a little dejected. Its form shrank and bent, and it backed off for a moment and watched as the man moved off towards the offices.

               He steeled himself on the way. He fought back a mix of nausea from stress and sunlight and came to the door of Ed’s office. She was on the phone. He took a minute and just watched her talking to someone. She sat with her hand holding the phone and one elbow on the desk. She would run a hand slowly through her hair from time to time and pull at it as she did. Her face distorted, twisted as it was clear she spoke louder, and then the hair pulls would bring her back to more of a level tone.

               “Oh, sorry. Didn’t know you had a meeting too,” A familiar voice said, emphasizing the word you in his sentence.

               “Kelly, we keep meeting like this,”

               The older man just made a note and didn’t say anything. He stepped away, not standing close to the vampire, and keeping a steady eye on him constantly. He really hated that defensive stance. He knew that worried look. It was discomfort, worry about being prey. Luckily for the old man, Mattias didn’t care much for hunting. He never did. He was as human at heart as anyone here. Still.

               He noticed Ed finish her call and glance up to the men waiting outside her window. One second of frustration taken out of the wrong person… He thought, with a flash of his fangs before he reached the door. He turned swiftly to grab the door, a bit of an inhuman flash of speed. He saw Kelly’s eyes widen slightly at the image. The man hesitated, and by the time he realized what was happening, Mattias was in the door and shutting it behind him.

               Ed spoke up, “What is it, Mr. Holland? I have a meeting.”

               “I realize that,” He replied quickly.

               “Make it fast.”

               “Why the hell aren’t we getting two more team members? The team was designed for five. We don’t have the staff to survive Christmas.”

               Ed stood up and put her hands on her hips. “I told you. We are working on it.”

               “Corporate speak for don’t hold your breath, right?”  

               She didn’t say anything for a moment. “I don’t have time for this, Holland.”

               “No Mister?”

               “Not when you’re coming in here all aggressive.”

               “Look, we need two guys. My team will burn out if you don’t get us more members – and you’ll have zero for the holidays.”

               She paused, “I know that.”

               “Then why aren’t you getting us more people? What’s the reason?”

               “I’m trying. Corporate doesn’t think they’re needed. Numbers don’t show it.”

               Mattias smirked. “Ah, because I’ve got three good team members, they think we’re doing fine.” He shrugged and rolled his eyes. “So, when things go bad and numbers fall, then they’ll start looking?”

               She paused and shook her head. “I get that you’re frustrated. I am doing my best – but you aren’t the only team leader that is dealing with the Holidays coming fast.”

               “Yes, but my team cleans up the messes that other team members make,” Mattias realized that was unfair after saying it, and shook his head. “I mean, we’re damage control. We have a stressful gig. Just…”

               “Mr. Holland, I promise, I am trying my best to get you two team members. If I could, I’d hire two today. But Corporate won’t give the sign-off, and I can’t pay them without accounting, and they won’t move without HR, who won’t take an action without first asking Operations Higher-ups, who can’t do anything without Corporate directors breathing down their necks.”

               He took a moment to think and shook his head. He wondered if she was just trying to get rid of him, or if she really was trying. She didn’t sound any fonder of the process than he was. “Any way to tip the scales?”

               She shook her head but then paused. “Would you get back on the front? Rather than management?”

               “What? No office, no raise, and now you want me back on the front? In the trenches and trying to do all the back end at the same time?”

               “It’d show that your team is desperate and in need of help…”

               Shit. She was right. It might have been worth a try, but he absolutely hated the idea. He groaned and glanced back out of the office, with his eyes trained on the direction of his team. “Fine, whatever gets them the help they need,”

               “Good. Start taking calls as soon as possible,” She said, “Once your account is showing more activity, I can use that as an argument.” She waved her hand softly and then pointed to the door. “Now, out. Send in Kelly.”

               “Fine,” Mattias replied, “Thanks for trying,” He added at the end.

               “We’re in this together,” She said sternly, “That includes Kelly. Don’t flash your teeth at him again. It just complicates it for the rest of us.”

               “Right,” Mattias didn’t wait for anything else, just pushing his way out of the door and back into the cubicle farm. He barely acknowledged Kelly, “All yours,” was all he said as he walked out and back towards his team.

               That didn’t go like he had planned, or imagined, or hoped. Actually, he wasn’t sure at all how that went. He assumed she would be the bad guy. Or at least a bad guy. For whatever reason, he felt she might have been being honest. Then again, she was originally from Corporate. That’s why she was here. She was their plant. Wait, did she just play him? Damn it. How did he miss that? He let his emotion take over, that was how. Now he was stuck in the trenches.

               He felt his hand clench and he shook his head. He paused near the break room and glanced over to the other employees in there. Right now, there were just a few people on break. None noticed him. None could have cared about what was going on. So it was as good of a place as any to brood, while they checked their phones for whatever it was they could find to waste a few more minutes before going back to work.

               He eventually sighed and stepped back out and rounded the corner to his cubicle area, hearing his team talk. His lunchbox excitedly ran around in circles under Lindsay’s chair. His team all spoke on the phone. Each had moved on to a new guest or problem from the sound of it, but each was smiling and working through the problems set upon them. They were a good team. He could help.

               “How’d it go?” He heard Hal’s voice.

               “Awful,” Mattias said quietly, “But, I might be able to help get my team what they need. So, I guess decent. Maybe. We’ll see.”

               “Good to hear. Also, that’s a cute lunchbox. Tell Olivia I want something someday.”

               Mattias smiled a bit and glanced back over to Hal as he moved back towards his own desk. Not a bad idea, he thought to himself. Not a bad idea at all.

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Day Shift – Chapter 06

A Sign of Things to Come

               The first day in their new workplace had come and gone. It was an exhausting nine hours of hell, one that they were not prepared for or manned to maintain. They were down two souls, and it hadn’t been a few minutes before they were connected to the system and their jobs began. They had barely sat before the first ringing began. Calls streamed in from customers and they were back in the thick of it.

               It wasn’t an unpleasant experience – speaking to customers. It was the volume that made the situation as troublesome as it was. Each call barely gave you a moment to breathe in between, and after a couple of hours, details began to blur together. Each was more exhausting than the last, the calls never changing in tone or requirements, but seeming to cumulatively build upon one another until they became overwhelming. It was at that point that the stress of one poor call could do some real damage. Luckily, in this industry, most people were kind and happy. Occasionally, you had an angry person. They would come later though, as the season became ever more ‘joyous’ a time. People were stressed then. It was understandable, but something they all collectively dreaded.

               For now, it was far off though. For now, there was the comfort of a cool desk and the silence of a lack of chimes from people seeking some assistance on whatever they needed. For now, it was just a moment of rest before returning home.

               Mattias peeled himself off of his desk a few minutes after the end of their standard shift. He looked around to his team. Maddox was already up and heading out of the cubicle with an annoyed snarl slapped across his face. Ashley was checking something on her phone, but her computer had been shut down. Lindsay was just finishing up some things – and for now, the other two seats were empty. He realized he should say something. With all his training and experience, years of life and learning, all he could think of was basically worthless.

               “Good work today, everyone. I know it was hard,”

               “Yeah, yeah,” Maddox said as he left the cubicle, his hand raised in the air, “I’ll probably be back tomorrow. Haven’t decided,” His voice trailed off as he moved away from them. He was clearly trying to leave as quick as possible, brushing past people without a care and just making his way anywhere but there.

               “Any other snarky remarks?” Mattias muttered under his breath, turning to the other two.

               “Wasn’t listening,” Ashley said without looking up from her phone, though she did stand and start moving away. Her attention was glued to her other life, and there was nothing he could do to drag her back to this one. Not that he wanted to. He envied her ability to just lose this world for her preferred one.

               “Thanks, Mattias,” Lindsay spoke up after it was just the two of them. She fiddled with her fingers, twisting them in and out of one another as she stared down at the floor for a moment. “Hope we get used to it fast, and that our help gets here soon.”

               “Yeah,” He responded quietly, “Me too.” She turned back towards her computers as he spoke, which intrigued him a bit. “Sticking around a while?”

               “Just want to finish up some little reports on some of the calls, and little fixes I did,” She admitted very quietly.

               “You sure? It was a hard day. It could wait until tomorrow, you know if you want to just take off and get some rest,” He gave a shrug as he finally started to stand. With one long stretch and a bit of a yawn, he heard her respond – though to him she was a little distorted, a little blurred from the stretching.

               “No, I’m okay. It’ll be easier to leave later anyway,”

               “Okay,” He yawned out as he finished his stretch, “Suit yourself. Just don’t stay too long, and enjoy your evening when you take it.”

               “Okay. You too, Mattias,” The Fomorian girl said with a soft and quiet tone, burying herself in the screens again to catch up on a few things.

               Mattias always felt a little bad not being the last of his team to leave – but for now he couldn’t stand the thought of being here any longer. So, he gave a little wave and began to head out. Most workers were doing the same, so there was a little bit of a delay, a little queue to move from one point to the next through the valleys between cubicles. It took a few minutes to squeeze by and get headed out. A few coworkers gathered and talked, joking about the end of the day. It was something he didn’t personally enjoy doing, but not something he really thought too much on.

               He glanced over to Ed’s office as he passed it. She was less sharp at the time, her jacket off and her work strewn about her desk. She didn’t look like she would be leaving anytime soon. He gave a wave, but she didn’t notice. That was fine. Probably good. He shouldn’t have been an ass.

               Then it was just a long ride down on the elevator, one crowded with other people who just wanted to get home too. He wasn’t much of one for the crowd. The absent-minded bumping of one person into the next, the weird idle conversation or nervous coughs. And the smell. He didn’t remember the smell of sweat being so prevalent when he was among the living. Now it was overwhelming with no real way to describe it except maybe as that gym clothes smell. He hated it, but it didn’t last long. Soon enough they were to the first floor, and everyone flooded out. Now that the parking lot was in sight, they all had one goal in mind. Get to the cars, and get home.

               So, they rushed out. Of course, Mattias followed along without thinking, until he hit the parking lot. He felt a sudden heat overrun him, his face turning bright red, and the taste of blood filling his mouth. It made him rush back to the shade before a wave of nausea flowed over him like a dam bursting. His hand gripped his stomach and he soon enough found himself crouching in the shade just outside the doorway. He couldn’t think of anything but trying to keep himself from vomiting. So, he tried to hold himself together, literally and figuratively. The hand on his stomach helped. Breathing slowly helped. But nothing eased it completely.

               For nearly ten minutes he sat there just trying to feel well enough to stand back up. Just trying not to make a scene. He was failing at one of those, for sure, but he thought he wasn’t really making a scene. When he was finally able to stand back up, he did so slowly and a bit shakily. The taste of acid in his mouth was a stark reminder that he had moved to fast into an area he knew he shouldn’t have. He had to wait. At least a few more minutes.

               So, he took up watching people leave. They rushed to their cars, pulling out swiftly, and often carelessly. A few stray honks and rapid-fire shouts came from close calls, but nothing interesting really happened. Everyone just rushed to their car, so they could speed out of the parking lot and sit in traffic for another thirty minutes or more. At least the inside of their car was theirs, though. Somewhere they could claim. Here, they were the item owned. And that made a big difference. At least, it did to him.

               Eventually, he made enough progress to take a long step back into the light. It was similar to his last but just calculated enough that he could feel nausea and control it. At least long enough to reach his car. Once inside, the bit of shade made him feel a bit better, but he was going to need more to survive the drive home. He started the car up and then rifled through his backseat. It was a mess of things, which honestly were mostly small empty red bottles which he had drunk on the way too or from work, the occasional bag from a fast food joint or grocery store, or some other trash. In the back seat proper, he kept a stack of covers and clothes, something to fight against the cold, and just out of habit they never left his car.

               At the bottom of this pile was a hooded jacket. He grabbed the cloth and gave it a yank, expecting it to come free of the pile with no issues. It did, but with the disheartening sound of a rip. There had been a moment of resistance, and the sleeve of the jacket had been caught in the space between the seat proper and its back – which folded down for trunk access. Presumably, he had lowered the seats sometime in the last year and the sleeve got stuck.

               He sighed. Though he hadn’t worn the jacket in a year, it still felt bad to tear the sleeve nearly off. He took a breath and gave another hefty tug, finishing the job and eviscerating what parts of the sleeve remained stuck. He flipped back around to the driver’s seat and flopped down. Despite a chill in the air, he turned his airconditioning on full and began to pull off his business jacket, and replace it with the hooded jacket.

               With one frayed sleeve, it covered most of him and was a bit of a loose fit. He zipped it up and pulled up the hood, tightening the strings of the hood until it pulled in around his face tightly. Luckily, his breath was always cold now, so he didn’t have that annoying feeling of warm breath bouncing back against him you sometimes got with hoods over your mouth.

               He needed to be as covered as possible, driving at sunset. He readied himself, wriggling to a comfortable spot in his seat and turning on the radio to drown out the loud blowing of the air. He took a deep breath through his nose and gripped the wheel.

               The smell of the jacket was unique. The smell of car and abandonment intertwined with that scent things get when they’ve baked in the sun for months. He didn’t approve. It was just a little inconvenience, a little annoyance. It would only take a few minutes to get home. Then it was over. With the thought, he gave a curt nod and started to pull out of the lot.

               And into the standstill traffic of the main roads – with only the sound of muffled Public Radio and air conditioning as his companions for the time.

               Just a small wait.

               Nothing he couldn’t handle.

               Of course, that was a lie. By twenty minutes in he was flipping through radio channels trying to find something to keep him from going insane as he slowly but surely made his way towards home. Forty minutes in, he switched to just sitting in silence. By the end of the first hour, he had settled back into the news again – repeating the news reports as those repeated every fifteen minutes or so. It took him nearly an hour and fifteen minutes to get back home. This drive, a mere few days ago, had been a fifteen to twenty-minute drive. How did people do this every day? How did people enjoy this every day?

               He groaned and found his usual parking spot taken. Instead, he parked a little distant from his apartment entrance and had to walk. Not a problem. It had gotten dark as he drove home, so a walk in the shadows would do him well. He caught a glimpse of a couple of neighbors on his way, all as tired looking as he likely looked. All exhausted from the day. He wondered how his team was holding up. He didn’t want to think of himself as better able to handle things than them, but he was a bit protective and hoped that they were doing better than he was tonight. They probably were.

               He found himself broken from his thoughts when he reached the top of the stairwell and came around the corner to his apartment. The hall was dimly lit, but his neighbors just down the way had their door cracked and both peeked out with their eyes glued on his door, and then on him as he approached it. It made him pause for a moment until he heard one of them.

               “It moved again,” He heard, catching one waving him over towards them.

               The vampire followed their eyes back to the door. There was a bag sitting at his door, which he hadn’t left there. It was a small bag, and after a second he realized it was just a lunch bag. It was shaped like the old aluminum lunchboxes you’d see in videos of old construction teams, with a small rounded top that could be opened with a zipper, and a good sturdy handle at its peak. Which was odd. As he paused, the bag twitched and jumped up. It twisted around and its top bent back as if looking up at him, though it didn’t have any eyes.

               The neighbors let out a bit of noise, startled whimpers as they retreated a bit. One gave a quiet, “Watch out,”

               “It’s fine, just an animated… lunch box,” Mattias said squatting down in front of it.

               “A what?” One of them asked.

               He reached out and offered a hand. The lunch box waddled forward, atop a trio of little spindly legs made of something else. It looked like they were most likely little plastic knobs. They almost looked like the sticks you might find on a controller for a game console, but a bit bigger. They might have been. Cobbling together an animated lunchbox and old pieces of a broken controller sounded up her ally. “What are you doing here, lunchbox?”

               It waddled forward a bit further and then bobbled as it came to a rest. The zipper on it flittered for a moment and then pulled across its top slowly but surely until the top of the lunchbox rose like a mouth. The flap inside pushed up a letter, and then it leaned back to show a little bag under the flap.

               “Why is it moving on its own?” One of the neighbors said in a tone that was somehow both a whisper and a screech.

               “It’s an animated lunchbox. I don’t know how to make that any simpler for you,” Mattias spoke as he pulled out the message. “Are you animated?” He asked the folded up piece of paper under his breath.

               There wasn’t a response.

               Though his neighbors continued to freak out quietly as they watched, one finally asking out loud, “What is an animated lunchbox?”

               “Its a lunchbox capable of movement. Animated,” The vampire turned towards them. “It’s magic.”

               They just stared dumbly at him. “It might bite you,”

               “With what? It’s not a mimic, it’s a lunchbox.” He sighed before turning back to it with a quizzical glance, “Right? You are just a lunchbox.”

               The thing nodded, causing its top flopping back and forth and waiting to be zipped back.

               “See,” He pointed at it. “Not a mimic.”

               “What is a mimic?”

               Mattias stood up and looked at the note, but then turned to answer. “Magical creature. Turns into normal things, like a fridge or toilet, and waits for prey to come to it. Then eats them. They’re all over the place.” He said with a smirk, before pointing at the lunchbox, “But this is a lunchbox. It’s perfectly safe.”

               “How do you know?”

               “My ex-wife made it,” He waved the note, before flipping it open to read. “Watch out for mimics. The landlady said she saw one slither off not too long ago,”

               That was a lie, but it got them to look away and into their own apartment long enough for him to slip into his with a little wave for the lunchbox to follow. It waddled behind him quickly, its legs not quite long enough to pull it completely off the ground each time. Instead, with little flops and scrapes it moved across the floor behind him – it’s top bouncing up and down and occasionally smacking the floor behind it as it moved.

               Mattias let it get in before closing the door and finally reading the note.

               In case your teeth itch. And a little friend to help make sure you drink enough at work. There was scribbling text on the note. As soon as he read it, though, the text dripped down along the page, forming new letters on the line below. Don’t forget what I said. And then again, this time forming a small heart and the word Olivia, before the ink simply faded away.

               “Huh.” The vampire intoned lightly, before turning back to the little thing. He leaned over and pulled out the bag. Inside was a wrapped piece of something. Bigger than he would have thought she would have taken the time on. And he tore the tinfoil to see what it was. Soon enough he was holding a bone in rib roast, precooked for him. A nice thought. He could eat meat pretty well still, and the bones in roast would be about perfect to nibble on with his canines. His tongue slipped across the sharp point of his fangs and he took a breath. “Nice to know she still cares,” He told the lunch box.

               He reached down and grabbed its handle, pulling its top back up to where it would sit if zipped. Then he zipped it up. It bounced and flopped about happily, and a bit more easily now that it didn’t have a few pounds of meat inside it.

               “So, she wants you to stick with me?” The man shrugged before walking towards the kitchen. “It is going to be boring. Bad TV and some food were all my plans for the night. Hope to fall asleep…” He spoke, glancing back. As soon as he had said the word TV though, the little lunchbox went bounding off towards his living room and in the dim-lit room off in the distance, he could see it struggling to climb up onto the couch. And just like that he had a pet.

              

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Day Shift – Chapter 05

Helsing’s Legacy 

             “Mr. Holland. I understand that on the night shift there was a certain lack of decorum required,” Ed’s voice cut as he entered her office. The door had barely opened before she laid into him. Her dress was only half as sharp as her tone, and that was saying something. He had expected some pushback, of course, but he thought that she would at least have the decency to give him another few minutes. Or maybe let the door shut behind him before she did so. But no, that wasn’t going to be their relationship, it seemed. “Here, we’ll require you be a bit more put together. I expect you to conform to the company dress code in the future – just consider this a warning.”

               “Noted,” He said glancing down at his attire. He raised his arms slightly to get a good look at himself. Aside from wrinkles, he thought he was within code. “What am I missing, exactly?”

               “Management is required to wear business attire. For men, a pair of black or brown slacks, a tucked-in white or gray collared, button-up shirt, matching coat, shoes, and belt,” She listed – each item of clothing counted down as her fingers pointedly rising as each was enumerated.

               “Oh, right, I’m management,” Mattias gave a quick nod, raising a hand and a finger of his own, “And if I don’t have those things?”

               “Get them,” She said. There was no feeling in the words. It was so matter-of-factly put out that it could have been the words printed to page. She did soften after a moment, though, with a soft sigh. “I’ll have HR email you the expensing paperwork.”

               “Neat,” He said with a bit of a smile, as he let his handset on his drink and twist open the small red bottle. “Was this meeting specifically about dressing me down, or did you…” He took a sip. “…have something else.”

               She didn’t seem to enjoy his nonchalant discrediting of her reprimanding. Her face was a bit distorted, somewhere between annoyance and exhaustion if he was reading her correctly. Of course, she wasn’t as readable as most people he had met, but he couldn’t put a finger on why. Her natural demeanor never seemed to change that much, and even when she was frustrated, like now, she would quickly return to her normal cold sort of self.

               “Something else,” She added, as her voice faded back to the regular cold that he had known from her in the past. “I have a couple of new members for your team coming. One is a new hire. He’ll be along in a few days. Another will be a transfer from our data center support team. Both are moving to town for the jobs.”

               Mattias let out a little, single chuckle.

               “What?” She knew it was a bit rude.

               “Nothing, just a surprise.” He responded with a shrug. Really, he was just hoping they realized what they were getting into – and didn’t personally know how they would possibly decide moving here for this kind of job was worth the cost of moving and resettling your life. He didn’t know their lives, though, so maybe they had a good reason. He shouldn’t judge. He would. He just knew that he shouldn’t do that.

               “Good. Next week will likely be when they start,” Ed added, finally sitting down in the large executive chair behind the actual red oak desk – likely the only real wood on the entire floor. “Now, due to a recent change, you won’t be getting an office.”

               “Wait, what? What change?” He protested, having expected a private office to do his work as a manager. It was likely the only thing he was really looking forward to with the change, and even then he realized it was more of a silver lining.

               “Managers and team leaders will now be working with their team on the floor. We’re converting the offices,” She replied.

               “Except this one,” He spoke with a small shake of his head.

               “Right. Directors will still have private offices,”

               Mattias didn’t say anything. He couldn’t think of anything.

               “It wasn’t my decision,” Ed added quickly, “Will that be a problem?”

               There were a thousand things that went through his head that moment. A thousand smart remarks and childish quips, along with a handful of reasonable complaints. Of course, when push came to shove none of those came out of his mouth. Only a single word slipped out, “No.” He heard himself say. It was almost as if the word had a mind of its own as if it wanted to escape and didn’t mind that there were plenty more arguments that could have been made. He never would have admitted that there were other reasons that he just said no, not even to himself – but he wouldn’t have long to dwell on it anyway.

               “Good. Your team is assigned to a cubicle square, but luckily you are right next to the windows,” She added, “And the break room. So, you’ll have ample chances to meet the rest of the team here on the day shift.”

               He just blinked.

               “You don’t look happy with that,”

               “You do realize I’m a vampire, right?”

               “Yes.”

               He swallowed and adjusted, “Okay. So,” He motioned towards the office, “See how it’s shady in here?”

               “Yes,” She nodded, and on the third or fourth nod realized what he was getting at. Her head lulled back and she let out a long, “Oh. I understand. Sunlight is uncomfortable for you,”

               “Well, that’s one part,”

               “Can you last a week?”

               “What?” He responded as he watched her pull a pad of paper from one of the drawers.

               She set it down on the desk and grabbed a pen, clicking it a couple of times, “Can you last a week?”

               “I mean, yes. But it’s…”

               “Good. We’ll get shades installed…”

               “…exactly comfortable.”

               “Will that work? Shades?”

               “It’ll help,” He couldn’t help but say the words with a bit of quiet amazement at the way she worked. It was as if he was only tangentially here. That the words he had started to say cued her into something, but now she knew precisely what she was going to do and how she was going to handle it – without any further notes from him.

               “Good,” She had written down something in sharp letters, circled in a way that almost made a triangle more than it made a circle. He could read it fine but tried to look away when her eyes twisted back to him. “Anything else?”

               “I just want to raise one more little thing to your attention,” He spoke softly, raising his hand and giving a little pinching motion at the term little.

               “Yes?”

               “I’m not sure how well this set up will work for a team off nightshift. It’ll take them a while to…”

               “Already ahead of you,” She said with a nod. “I understand they’ll take some getting used to this kind of work environment and we want to make it as easy as possible. So, your team will have an easy week, and on Friday we’ll have a large meet and greet with catered food.”

               “I think that’s,” Mattias waved his hands down quickly, “the worst idea,”

               “Really?” She spoke as the door opened behind him, she leaned to one side, “This is my next meeting. Mr. Kelly. Mr. Kelly, Mr. Holland – he’s just transferred from Night Shift, and he and his team will be,”

               “Oh, the new Damage Control team,” The old man said reaching out a hand. “I’ve heard good things.

               “A pleasure,” Mattias reached his hand out towards Kelly.

               “Right, Mr. Holland and I were just talking about his vampirism,” Ed spoke. She never noticed the next part, or if she did she made no signal that she had. Kelly stopped his hand and pulled it away at the word vampirism.

               “Oh. Well, good to have you aboard. I can come back,” Kelly spoke. It left Mattias with his hand in the air.

               “No, Mr. Holland and I can continue another time.” She said, waving towards the door. “If you would, Mr. Holland. There is a placard for your team on your cubicles, just hang a left and just past the break room.”

               “Right. Another time,” Mattias said, shoving his hand into his pocket. “Kelly.” He nodded to the man and stepped out into the hall again. He didn’t wait or hesitate. He just left.

               So far at this job he had been incredibly lucky.

               He knew that. He always knew that. He was treated very well for the most part. His team was understanding of his condition as a non-human, and what that entailed. He didn’t have to deal with the old-world mistrust and fear for the most part. His team knew that he wasn’t going to attack them or spread his curse, or any of that nonsense. He was just trying to do his best with the cards that were offered him. But there was still a hatred between humans and many non-humans. The people like him, the so-called ‘dark’ non-humans may have had it the worst.

               Vampires, in eras before the industrial revolution, had preyed on humans. So it was understandable that it took them time to get over that. But that was two eras ago. The Industrial Age, the Atomic Age, and now into the Information Age – and still that old fear held on. Fear that kept people from giving him a chance or shaking his hand.

               The good note was that the sunlight wasn’t making him nauseated any longer. It was the stress of the realization that he was going to be at least partially ostracized by the people that worked here that was causing it now. Stress was a much different sort of unwell feeling, one that at least he could turn to anger if it got too bad. His particular non-human traits were not even as noticeable as many others, and he began to worry about what might happen to any other non-humans that worked here. Lindsay was obviously not human. He shook his head and tried to chase off the thoughts after realizing he had been standing in front of the office for a few seconds. He started his walk down the aisles of cubicles and towards his new home away from home. His new prison in the sun.

               The walk down to this new office area, this new place they would be, was longer. For the first time in a long time, he felt the stares of the people around him. Eyes boring into his being and examining him, trying to size him up and figure him out without so much as a word. He had grown accustomed to his comfortable life, with his comfortable team, and now, suddenly he was back here. He was back in a pit of emotions he felt he had grown past. Or, maybe survived in the past would have been a better term.

               As he found his way to the cubicles, he nearly bumped into someone coming out of the break room. They didn’t say anything, except a simple, “Watch it,” As they passed by. He tried not to think anything of it.

               That was a hard thing to do in his situation. He was hyper-aware of his situation, thanks to his condition. He concentrated on his objective. Get to his desk. Find a way to make it through the day. That was the simplest thing he could do. He was probably making more of this than there was to it. He was overthinking. No one noticed. He just looked like a pale fellow, someone who needed to go outside for a while if possible. Of course, that was true, but also something he just could not do currently – or really, ever again.

               When he came around the corner of his team’s cubicle block there was a moment when his breath just left him. It was stark. The cubicle was an open plan, with six sterile and empty desks – with fresh new computers that smelled as if the entire area had only recently been unwrapped from whatever plastic it had originally been wrapped in and heated by the warmth of the rising sun. Of course, this was also mixed the thousand various smells wafting over from the nearby break room which was near headache-inducing, but coffee was winning out. So, to him, the smell was coffee and plastic.

               His team was not here yet, except for Lindsay who stood awkwardly at one side of their new open floor office. They were still likely rolling in and finding a spot, misjudging the time they needed to a lot, or simply not being able to wake up as needed. Lindsay shuffled to one side as he entered, a bit further – nearly brushing up against a desk before a worried look crossed her face and she moved to the middle place between two of the desks. She gave him a little half-wave, her arm twisting at her elbow to raise a hand for a split second before it snapped right back down to her side.

               He gave her a nod. She was his unabashed favorite. Sure, they were both non-human and they had that in common, but that wasn’t what made him like her. His joke was that she was quiet and didn’t bother him. That wasn’t it either. She was honest in the exact opposite sense he was. She wore her nerves on her sleeve and you could tell when she was nervous. He just bottled it up, hiding from all the Helsings in the world that hated him for being him. He was detached. It would have been better to be like her. To be honest.

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Day Shift – Chapter 04

That First New Morning

 

               Again, the agonizing screech of an alarm was the only thing that was able to rouse him from his sleep. His drive to move was less than it would have normally been, and his body’s natural aversion to daylight hours made it seem heavier than usual. He was determined to have a better morning though. Numerous alarms and a swing at a good night’s sleep ensured he would be up on time. Though, in all honesty, he didn’t sleep well. He tossed and turned and got bored and sat on social media sites for hours and hours and watched pointless videos instead of shutting off and sleeping. He just couldn’t find himself tired or relaxed. Between nerves and his own natural schedule, there was no way that he would find a good comfortable rest.

               He did, eventually, doze off. But that sleep was not a particularly restful sleep. Nights like this, he would slip off for moments, but the inevitable nightmares induced by the stress he felt kept waking him up. Those dreams where the day had begun and operated normally until some twist of terror would pull you out of your sleep, and adrenaline would keep you up for a few minutes. He was always used to such things, so he tended to fall back asleep. Though, that may have just exacerbated the problem, making him have most of the night in short bouts of poorly interrupted naps.

               That morning, despite his lack of energy, he was up and ready much more smoothly than he had been a few days prior. He had time to enjoy a simple, lukewarm shower and a small breakfast before his final alarm let him know he should be leaving. He got dressed, and though he had time, he looked no more put together than he ever did in the past.

               As he was leaving, his phone chimed. It gave him a simple text message alert. The name simply said, Olivia.

               Good luck. The text said, though the gif of a particularly popular cartoon character in a particularly sarcastic scene. It made him roll his eyes. It was meant in a playful tease, of course, but it still made him feel a little bit like an idiot. But, she did at least say something to him one way or the next. Which was nicer than any of his other so-called friends. He didn’t have time to dwell on it, and with his usual accouterments, he headed out to his car.

               It was still dark out, which was nice for him. His car started up normally, and he tried the radio for a few minutes as he started to pull out – but it was miserable. For all of his life, he had absolutely hated early morning radio. He had no desire to listen to morning radio hosts. They just annoyed him. Noises and constant yammering with guests that he could have cared less, and clearly didn’t want to be there. And there was so much time between the music that it seemed almost pointless. The music was why he listened to the radio on the drive. And for this drive, reliable music would have made it so much more tolerable.

               It was just a few days ago that he made this drive in a mere few minutes – but early morning driving, along with so many other people, was hellishly dull. There were too many stoplights in this town, and people piled out to head towards their job, or drop their kids off at school, or whatever. He didn’t know. He didn’t really care. There was only one reality here. The movement was slow enough that it seemed like he would just crawl along between lights, barely making any headway. He was surprised people lived like this. What did they do in the car every morning? Listen to some random people make bad pop culture jokes interspersed with random noises? Or was there something he was missing? It had to be that, right? Something people knew that he didn’t. No one looked to be as deep in thought or miserable as him as he looked around and caught glimpses of other drivers.

               The person in front of him, in particular, seemed unaffected. She was dancing in her car, enjoying a coffee, and seemed genuinely happy. She’d even wave to people from time to time. He hated her a little bit, as he sat in his quiet existential box waiting to reach a job he didn’t particularly want to go to. But, she turned off and into a shopping center, and he was back to watching people in short bursts. No one else was as interesting to him. Except one person with a bunch of bumper stickers he didn’t understand. It just seemed like random numbers to him. But whatever they meant, the person seemed proud of them.

               Eventually, nearly thirty minutes after he left, he finally found his way to work. His car pulled into the parking lot he was used to early that morning. His clock said 6:44 AM. The sun was beginning to peak over the horizon through the skyline of small skyscrapers in their midsized city. That light hitting his skin sent a bit of shaking through his form, a wave of building nausea almost instantly coming over him. It was a familiar feeling he had been able to tamp down on for so long, but now he was going to face it again. Olivia was right. This might have been a very bad choice. Maybe starving was a better plan.

               He was a creature of habit, and the first thing that irked him was the fact that the parking lot was already full. He wouldn’t be able to park where he wanted to. Or even in the same section. He had to wrap around and find a parking space, and it took him a circle or two to find a spot. Even that was not a decent one, it was far and with no possible shade between it and the entrance. He took a minute to steel himself and prepare to get into work for the day. One long breath helped center him and he stepped out into the morning light.

               It was a mistake.

               As soon as that solar light fell on his skin more fully, he felt another wave of nausea and fatigue. It made the walk to the front door feel as though it took forever. With the sun out, it was such a different world. He remembered it differently than it was now – even without the painful parts of the existence. His skin was burning within seconds, heated up and his skin turning bright pink and red. He made his way to the lobby a few seconds later.

               He waited for a few moments just inside the door, enjoying the shade of the building and feeling himself get a bit closer to normal once he had a second. He never thought the smell of stale recycled air and fluorescent carpet – and whatever that third smell was that he couldn’t quite place. Just that general stench of a building full of humans. He sighed and straightened himself up a bit only to catch the eyes of Marcell staring at him.

               “You aren’t lookin’ so hot,” The old night guardsman said quietly, twisting back down to look at his tablet for whatever internet surfing he was doing to pass the time.

               “Not great. But I’m okay,” Mattias said softly, taking a moment to clear his throat. He took a step forward and found himself a bit dizzier than he would have thought, but that faded quickly. The further away from the sun, he was, the better he was able to do. “I guess good morning.”

               “Mhm,” Marcell responded with a quiet nod.

               Mattias didn’t try to engage beyond that. He just decided to move on. He heard the door open behind him and saw another person enter. Some older man in a business suit with a dark briefcase. As the vampire called the elevator, the man walked up next to him and looked at him.

               Really looked. He stared at him with a strange intensity that Mattias didn’t particularly like. And he never said anything. He just stared, until the elevator dinged. The man pushed past him, his shoulder checking the vampire as if this was some sort of race to the tiny cubicle that would lift them both to their destinations. He didn’t understand the strategy if he was honest. Or why the man was in such a rush.

               Holland followed him into the elevator and stared at the lit-up number. Looked like he was headed to the third floor. It was only proper to start off polite, he thought.

               “Could you hit floor four for me?” Mattias gave a small point to the number as the door started to shut. The man turned and stared back at the vampire. Mattias’ eyes widened expectantly, but nothing happened. The man just stared. It frustrated the vampire a bit, “Alright, fair enough. Not until you’ve had your coffee, I guess.” He thought out loud, stepping forward and leaning past the man to hit the number of his floor. All the while, the man just stared at him.

               It was a long twenty seconds before they reached the third floor. And that stare never left him. Mattias could not understand it and couldn’t read him. He wasn’t sure if he had done something to piss him off, or if he was trying to establish some sort of dominance. Whatever it was, it wasn’t working. When the doors open, the man muttered under his breath something and shook his head, stepping off and away. A great way to start the morning.

               The elevator doors closed and the lift began to rise again. A few more seconds and he was on the fourth floor. He moved towards the entrance to his office and found himself frozen at the door. He hadn’t realized how many windows there were in the cubicle farm, and that morning sunlight pouring in was intimidating, to say the least.

               He took a deep breath and pushed open the door. The fact that the glass doors had blocked the sound of the room astonished him. Even with not nearly half the staff having arrived, there was a buzz of activity that seemed so loud. It must have been louder today than usual, as they had often crossed paths with others as they left the night shift, but it was never like this. It was a buzz of laughing and early morning talking, the sound of percolating coffee, and early morning hums of computers coming online, and the clacking of passwords being entered. The smell of coffee was actually overwhelming, but that part was a little bit comforting and made him feel a lot more.

               He glanced down to his small red bottle and gave a smirk. He was sure that smell would not have been as popular with the people getting ready for work. He was pulled from that thought when he heard the hiss of the door behind him pushing open, and a bubbly voice bounding out.

               “Oh, sorry! We don’t technically open until seven,” He heard the voice speak quickly. It was so high and mousey that he didn’t know how to respond, and it was followed by hurried clicks of high heels on the fake wooden floors. A common sound here, he admitted, but she seemed to be moving quickly. He turned his gaze towards the sound, as she continued, “Give me one second to put down my things and I can get you checked in.”

               “No, you don’t,” Mattias tried to speak up, but his quiet lack of a morning voice didn’t help in this situation, she continued as she moved past him.

               “It’ll just take me a minute. Mondays, am I right?” She asked quickly. Now, Mattias was not a big man, but this woman made him look like a giant. She couldn’t have been five feet tall. That small package was paired with nearly three feet of long golden hair with strips of artificial platinum throughout, a smile as bright as any he had seen. Much more than any he had ever given. She hefted a load of bags that would have made a packhorse buckle. She had her purse on one shoulder, which was one of those massive tote bag style ordeals that seemed to bulge at the center from the number of things within it. Her lunchbox was another surprisingly large bag. And across her shoulders she had a rather well-packed backpack, which by the branding near its straps was likely holding her laptop. All of this she was carrying in addition to the number of layers of clothes she wore. She was meticulously dressed for her days work, with a morning coat over her business jacket, a small sweater vest, and a button-up blouse under that. She wore a knit scarf and long gloves. All of which she had to pull off once she got to her desk. “And who are you here to see?”

               “No,” Mattias said with a shake of his head and a small wave of his arms. “I work here.”

               “Oh, a new hire. Here for Orientation, then?”

               “What? No. I already work here,”

               “Yes, employment comes before,”

               “No I mean I’ve worked here for years.”

               “I would have remembered you, then,” She spoke quickly, a wide smile on her face, and sudden piercing gaze turned in his direction. “I’m good with faces, and yours is unique.”

               “I’ll take that as a compliment,”

               “Good, because it was one,” She spoke, but he honestly wasn’t sure if she was being facetious. She had to be, he thought. There was no other explanation for how polite she was being to him at their first meeting.

“Right.” It had already taken her longer to get her accouterments off and hung up than it did for him to put on his entire outfit this morning. “I’m Mattias. Was on night shift and,”

“Oh, you’re the Manager that got switched to Day Shift. Congratulations!” She clapped a bit as she spoke, rifling through her drawers.

“Uh, thanks.”

“Nightshift must have been terribly lonely. I’m glad you’re here now. We’ll have to celebrate you and your team coming up to greet the sun, finally, after all those years,” She was chipper. Of course, she didn’t realize the sun was making him nauseated, and the very fact that she was chipper made him think that she likely didn’t actually know what she was saying – at least in regard to him – but he had no time to correct her before that small hand slammed a chocolate and caramel bar on the counter side of her receptionist station. “Here, I know it’s not much but I didn’t know you guys were going to join us after the shutdown. I’m glad no one got fired though!”

“I can’t,” He said with a little wave of his hand. For the first time, he saw that smile of hers fade, just a bit.

“Oh. You’re not much of one for sweets then,”

“You could say that, yes,” He responded. That seemed to take more steam out of her. He realized the answer she had probably been looking for was a timing thing, not that he couldn’t. Her eyes widened larger as she seemed to come to a realization that it wasn’t a choice, “I mean, I’d love to take it – but I literally can’t.”

“Oh god,” She said quickly, pulling the candy away. “I’m so sorry,” The way she said so took up the most of that short sentence somehow, “Dietary restriction. I should have asked that first,”

“You could say that. Yeah,”

“Are you…” Her voice lowered as if she was trying to be polite, “Diabetic?”

“I don’t think you have to whisper that,”

“I mean,” She kept whispering, “I don’t want other people to know if you don’t want to tell them,” She said quickly, “I’ll keep it quiet.”

“No. I, what? No. That’s not it, exactly.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I guess I could be diabetic, technically. I mean, my pancreas doesn’t work, and my blood sugar depends on who I drank last.” He tapped his chin a bit, in thought. This was something he did. Meander on topics in weird directions, and some people, like the receptionist, didn’t understand he was just thinking.

“Wait… drank?” She glanced across him for a moment and the blood drained from her face and she slipped back, “An alcoholic?”

Mattias was confused and just shook his head. “No, I’m a vampire.”

“Oh,” Her tone changed immediately back the more chipper one, “Good, I was worried.”

He couldn’t help but smile as she put the candy away and smiled back over to him. “Why did you think an alcoholic?”

“Bourbon cream filled bar,”

“I thought it was caramel,”

“They look similar,” She shrugged. “Wait, vampires can’t have sugar?”

“We don’t metabolize things like humans. I can eat, but it takes longer and is really bad for me if I don’t have proper blood flow.” He shook the red bottle in his hand, a little sloshing noise from the container made its way over to her, and for a second she seemed confused.

“Is that… blood?”

“Human, yes. Not sure what type, just grabbed one from the fridge,” He said with a shrug.

“Neat. Just out of curiosity…” She said quietly, “What would happen if I had a drink?”

“Uhm…” He glanced down at the bottle and then back to her, “First, weird question,” He said quietly, and then with a tilt of his head gave a smirk, “Second, nothing.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense. I just thought, maybe there was something special about it,” She said with just the softest hint of disappointment in her tone.

“I mean, its good blood. Like. Great quality, I guess.” He paused, and then there was the dreaded awkward silence between the two, where neither said a word for a moment. He gave a point towards the cubicle farm beyond. “I should find my new… office. But it was nice to meet you,”

“Oh, yeah! Sorry, it was weird,”

“Eh, I like weird,” He replied, “Oh, and your name was?”

“Ava-May Mays, but people just call me Ava. Or Miss Mays,”

“Which do you prefer?”

“Ava.”

“Ava it is. And you can call me Mattias.”

“Mattias,” She smiled, “Good to meet you. Welcome to the Day Shift,”

“Thank you, I’m…”

“Mr. Holland,” Ed’s voice shattered the conversation with a purposeful intent of a bark. Somehow she had snuck up on them, standing in the entryway to the cubicles beyond. The woman was as sharply dressed as always, cutting a stark figure of a silhouette against the rising sun beyond the windows. “My office.”

“Right, on my way.” He had stopped the sentence then at first, but she was shrouded by the position of the sun, and didn’t move – but he felt like he could see her eyes narrow expectantly on him anyway, “Ms. Chambers.”

A sudden realization hit him. He didn’t remember if Miss was right for Ed. Was she a Miss, or a Misses? He couldn’t remember if she was married, and he couldn’t see her well enough to make out a ring if she was. It made him suddenly very self-conscious. He was worried that she wasn’t going to respond well if he was wrong. Her response didn’t instill him with confidence either.

She gave a small huff, a hum of sound that was neither happy or unhappy. It was cold and frankly uncaring and he wasn’t sure if he had misspoken. But she did move off towards her office, so he was going to count it in his wins for the day.

He took a breath and stepped through the opening and into the offices proper. The torrent of sunlight stopped him in his path and made him keel over just a bit, for a moment. Nausea and fatigue moved on him like a storm. His muscles tightened up and his body tensed without him in control. He felt like he was the embodiment of discomfort for a few moments, but as he took stock he was able to regain some semblance of control and begin his walk towards Ed’s office. She hadn’t paused when he did, so he took a while to catch up to her, and then he was there at her door.

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