The Phantom Coalition’s annual company picnic was a typically stark affair: there was no mayonnaise in the potato salad and no sauce on the barbecue chicken. Frannie from Extreme Liquidations brought what she liked to call her “world famous hard-boiled eggs,” but really, they were just hard-boiled eggs.
At least the Head Company had sprung for trees this year, and laid Astroturf across the warehouse’s concrete floor. Last year they had only brought in a couple potted ferns and spray painted the cement green. The willow trees even swayed a little, hardly showing their wiring at all—just a bump underneath the Astroturf were the cord ran from the tree to the nearest outlet.
Mike from Research and Application was standing beneath one of the willows making vaguely lascivious remarks to Sue from Concealed Compartments. Sue seemed disinterested, pretended to occupy herself with peeling the shell from an egg, and then wandered off with the fragments in the palm of her hand, looking for a place to discard them.
Mike sat down in the plastic grass and wondered if she would return. He did not wonder very hard or very long. He knew she would not. He squinted up at the ceiling of the warehouse exactly as if he were following a flock of birds in the sky crossing the sun. Then he began rubbing his shoulder.
Mike liked to rub his shoulder when he was nervous, bored, depressed, or doubtful. Also when he was hungry. He liked to rub it as if there was a pain in his muscles—some chronic pain that was the first symptom of a long, debilitating and eventually fatal disease. He imagined the medical report or obituary—the talk of an unassuming pain that would one day prove fatal.
Some nights, the only way he could get to sleep was to imagine himself dying—though that was usually a violent death: being shot by a disgruntled member of the Weaponry Accessory Department. Sometimes, he would be shot protecting Sue by the water cooler and other times he would be shot randomly, bleeding and dying unnoticed on the floor of his cubicle. For the last three nights, he had preferred to imagine himself being stabbed by an unknown assailant in the parking lot. And he had slept great, waking only once or twice to touch his belly, where the imaginary knife still quivered. He almost thought, in his half-sleeping state, that he could feel the blood seeping from him. It was warm, not sticky like he would imagine real blood to be. It was a blood more like flannel.
Mike gave up waiting for Sue to return and left the willow tree. In the far corner of the warehouse some men were trying to set up a game of horseshoes. They were having some trouble getting the poles to stay up. Eventually they found a couple of cinderblocks and the poles were held in place with those. But when the first horseshoe was thrown it clanged so loudly that everyone in the warehouse jumped and momentarily stopped talking or chewing.
The men gave up on their game of horseshoes. Mike stopped at a picnic table and ate three carrot sticks. There was no dip. This was why he hated company functions. This was why he hated the company. This was why he could only get to sleep at night by imaging himself dying.
There was a loud noise and for a moment, Mike thought it was another attempt at horseshoes until he saw the smoke and flames at the far end of the warehouse. One of the trees had exploded and Floor Fire Wardens were already arriving on the scene, balancing napkins of food in the palms of their hands as they ran. Somebody screamed and somebody else laughed.
Later, as they carried away several stretchers of bodies and parts, Mike imagined if it had been the willow tree he had been under that had exploded. He imagined being impaled on steel branches. He imagined dying like that, a spear of faux-tree sticking out of him, his blood pooling on the Astroturf. It would be a death like a hero in a movie.
He became so engulfed in the image of this glorious death that it took him several moments to realize that Sue was standing next to him. Her face was smudged with dirt, smoke, dust, save for the two neat lines cleared off by her tears. She was still holding the bits of eggshells in her hands.
“Hey… can I take those from you?” Mike asked, by way of condolence.
She looked at him for a moment then dropped the shell pieces into his palm. She muttered something that might have been thanks. The bits of shell felt warm and damp in Mike’s hand—as if something had only recently hatched.