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Going Corporate

No customers today, Mike Schmidt thought as he stared out the front window of the dealership. A spring storm unloaded heavy sheets of rain onto the lot, its rows of pristine vehicles getting a very un-needed wash. No one ever shopped in such foul weather, and the forecast called for this all damn day.

Schleberman appeared and tapped Mike’s desk with one of his weirdly long fingers. “Mike,” he said with a grin, cheeks wrinkling a bit too much when he did, as if his face were badly fitted and one size too large for the skull underneath. “Good news from Corporate. They looked into your report and it seems your figures were right.”

Schleb leaned in close, ostensibly to whisper so that the others in the room could not hear, though he spoke loud enough that Mike was sure they heard. In fact, even though they appeared to be busy at their desks, he was sure they were listening. “They want to give you a promotion,” Schleb cooed into Mike’s ear. It was almost sexual the way he did it. “Throw a party for you.”

Mike was astonished. All he’d done was notice a few mistaken charges that should have been covered under warranty. “Really?” he asked.

“Really,” Schleb said, straightening up and watching him with steady and curious eyes, the pupils nearly invisible within orbs of cloudy grey. Schleb’s eyes did that now and then. Mike assumed it had something to do with the fluorescent lighting in the office.

Mike motioned him closer again. Schleb leaned forward and presented his ear. Mike whispered, “But what about the others? Are they going to be in trouble? I mean, everyone makes mistakes.”

Schleb pulled away and put a hand on Mike’s shoulder. “They’ll be dealt with accordingly. Don’t you worry about that. You just keep your eye on the prize. No one ever gets anywhere worrying about other people and their mistakes, trust me.”

Schleb returned to his office. Mike went back to looking at the rain. He tried to start a conversation with Marina, another salesperson he was friendly with, and she gave him the polite brush-off. Everyone, even the mechanics, had been chilly with him today. He shared the large front room with several other salespeople, and they engaged with one another and totally ignored him.

It’s not my fault, he wanted to tell them. I just didn’t want to get in trouble for someone else’s mistakes. We all had the same information to look over, the company wanted each of us to look at all the sales and transactions and report on it, so how come I’m the only one who noticed the errors? If this ever got to be a big lawsuit I didn’t want to get a bad name for stuff I did not do.

Frustrated by it all, Mike spread a vehicle spec sheet out on his desk. He had a potential client who didn’t like the price of a new truck, and Mike was trying to see what options he could eliminate in order to reach an agreement without killing his commission. He found it hard to concentrate on the task over the feeling of being watched. Each time the sensation got too uncanny he raised his eyes from the spec sheet to find one or another of his coworkers studying him with suspicion.

I got the rat complex, he thought. Like in the movies when the mob guy wears a wire for the Feds and he thinks everyone’s onto him.

But Schleb might have a point. You gotta keep your eye on the prize and not worry about other people. It’s the climber’s credo.

***

Vanessa was excited for him. At dinner that night she could barely contain her pride at his advancement. She herself was an RN at the local hospital so money was not too much of an issue, but she did breach the subject of more pay with him. Every little bit helps.

“I don’t know,” Mike said. “We didn’t talk money. Schleb just mentioned a promotion.”

“Well you have to make more,” Vanessa reasoned.

“Guess it’ll be in the email from Corporate,” Mike said.

“It better be,” Vanessa said. She turned to their son, Michael Jr., five years old and oblivious to the conversation because he was making a pyramid of meat chunks on his plate of chow-mein. “Michael, aren’t you proud of daddy?”

Michael Jr. looked up from his creation and made a gargling sound, mouth lathered with sauce and spit bubbles.

***

The email from Corporate came that evening. Mike had been checking every five minutes, as frantic as an expectant father. It said:

Dear Mister Schmidt,

Congratulations on your promotion! As you know, we take our dealings with the public very seriously, and it is our aim to deliver quality products at fair prices. Nowhere in our company mission is profit emphasized over customer satisfaction. Therefore when you brought to our attention the possibility of warranty mischarge, we looked into the matter thoroughly and found that there were indeed several instances of this at your dealership. They matched public complaints which have been filed, and rest assured we have taken steps to make the situation right with all involved.

It is quality employees such as yourself which make our company great and keep our reputation shining. So it is with great pride that we offer to you the position of Regional Manager of New York Sales. The position does entail some travel but not a change of residence, as most of your duties can be performed from home via computer. Of course when travel is required, it is at company expense and you will be given travel pay and a stipend for expenses. In addition, your pay will increase to the next bracket in scale (see company employee manual).

We are also hosting a party in your honor at Berkeshire Manor, Montclair on March 26th of this year. Please respond as soon as possible with guest list (up to 3 people) so proper arrangements can be made in regards to seating and catering arrangements.

Looking forward to your reply,

Michael Collingsworth

CEO Ectotherm Motor Works

***

So there it was, in black and white. A promotion. Mike was so excited he woke Vanessa, who was catching some sleep before her graveyard shift at the hospital. She came to with grumbling complaints, but after a moment her head cleared; as a nurse she was used to short hours of sleep and sudden wakeups. Bleary eyed she followed Mike to the laptop sitting on the coffee table in the living room. Michael Jr. was curled up on the couch, trying vainly to keep his eyes open and continue watching the television. When he saw his mother he perked up momentarily and asked to be picked up; Vanessa held him while she looked over the email.

“I’m so proud of you, honey,” she said with obvious sincerity. She gave Junior a bounce in her arms. “Let’s put this little fella to bed and then you come keep me company.”

It was an offer Mike could not refuse.

***

The time between the email and the date of his promotional party passed in weird fashion. None of his coworkers came right out and said anything, but it was obvious from the way they treated him that things had changed. They were not unkind or overtly mean in the slightest. More that they had become slippery. It was the only word Mike could use to describe it. No one took break or spoke with him unless absolutely necessary. He had no idea whether anyone had been disciplined because of his report, and if so, what this entailed. He was a pariah among them.

Schleb was the exception. His constant saccharine praise was enough to bring about a diabetic coma. He did it always within earshot of the others, loud enough to be heard while pretending to be on the down low.

One day Mike requested a meeting with him in his office. Schleb obliged.

“How’s the star employee doing?” Schleb said at a boisterous volume. His office had motel thin walls through which all sounds passed.

“Sir,” Mike said. “This is what I wanted to talk to you about.”

Schleb’s weird grey eyes were curious.

“All the compliments,” Mike clarified.

“That’s what you do when someone’s doing a great job,” Schleb said.

“But everyone hears when you talk this way. I think it’s getting them mad.”

“And?” Schleb asked pointedly.

“It’s making it hard to work here. It seems like everyone’s avoiding me now.”

Schleb was instantly attentive. “Has anyone treated you badly? Tell me.”

“No,” Mike said. “That’s just it. They don’t treat me at all. Does that make sense?”

Schleb sighed. “Michael, what you’re experiencing is the classic dilemma of greatness. When you’re good at something, those less capable are going to get jealous. Think of it like crabs in a bucket. Have you ever gone crabbing, Michael?”

He had.

“Ever look at a bucket of crabs?” Schleb asked. “One tries to escape and what do the others do? They grab onto it, pull it back down.” He looked intently at Mike. “You get it? People don’t want to see you do better than them.”

“I just feel like they’re mad at me.”

“They were appropriately reprimanded for their mistakes is all,” Schleb said. “Nothing drastic. No pay cuts or demotions. Just a well-earned earful from Corporate. It’s their own faults and they know it. They don’t know what to do with their anger at themselves so they’re looking for someone to blame. Human nature. They’ll get over it.”

Schleb leaned back in his chair and clasped his arms behind his head. “Anyway, what difference does it make? In a few weeks you’ll be out of this office, right? Just remember that all great people were treated badly at some point.”

“I don’t understand what that means, sir,” Mike said.

“Never mind,” Schleb replied. “Your star is shining bright. And bright stars attract attention. You need to just keep up the good work and not be distracted. The company needs you.”

“I’ll do my best,” Mike said.

“I know you will,” Schleb said.

***

On the night of the event, Michael Junior was handed off to a more than willing set of grandparents. A limousine arrived at Mike and Vanessa’s home for the hour’s ride to Montclair, an upscale town along the shore of Long Island Sound. The party was at Berkeshire Manor, a gated eighteenth century mansion with one hundred rooms which Corporate had rented for the night. Spotlights of various colors shone onto the mansion and into the sky, a nocturnal rainbow visible from miles away. The limo pulled up to the vast entranceway, where a valet in a suit and white gloves helped the two of them out of the limo. Mike made an effort to tip the limo driver with a fifty dollar bill. “Your money is no good here, sir,” the driver replied tersely, shaking his head and driving away to find a parking spot.

Mike offered the rejected cash to the valet, a young man in his early twenties who shrugged and held his hands away to his sides, as if the bill were toxic. “What he said,” the valet told him, pointing in the way of the departed limo. “You are the star of the show, sir.”

And it appeared to be true, as both sides of the grand entranceway to the mansion had placards for this event reading Promotional Party for Michael Schmidt. Congratulations to our newest regional sales manager!

“Wow,” Vanessa said in awe. “They’re really going all out with this.”

The entranceway opened onto a receiving room where thirty or so people stood talking and sipping wine, beer, and martinis. A quartet of stringed musicians played classical music on a small stage. The valet announced Mike and Vanessa’s arrival, and the band stopped playing. Conversation among the guests already there ceased, and all of them turned to stare at the newcomers, heads swiveling mechanically, bodies frozen in their last positions and held that way as if in a photograph. The room was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop.

Mike and Vanessa held out their hands and waved. “This is kinda weird,” Vanessa whispered through her smile.

Schleberman, the only familiar face there, broke the spell. He called Mike over, and then just like that, as if someone had paused a cassette tape and then pressed play again, the band picked up where they left off and the guests resumed conversing. Schleberman was there with his wife, a surprisingly attractive woman with the same strange eyes. Turns out it wasn’t because of the lights in the office after all.

The couples had just time enough to be introduced to each other before Mike and Vanessa were mobbed by others from Corporate. Among them was none other than Michael Collingsworth, President and CEO of Ectotherm Motors, a dashing older man with a young cutie holding onto the crook of one elbow as if her life depended on it. Collingsworth got a kick out of their shared first name, and then he and his companion took Mike and Vanessa away from the Schlebermans and brought them around the room like a prized show item.

They made the rounds, chatting about regular things with men and women who under ordinary circumstances required appointments months in advance to be seen. Executive types were listening to Mike; about the daily stress of being a car salesman, being a father, going fishing. And they included him in their worlds. Some things were beyond his knowledge, such as the difference between Cuban and Dominican Cohiba cigars, or the proper temperature at which to drink French wines, but he bluffed it at those times and managed to sail through. There was an element of falseness to the game, after all, a sense that this was all staged and just a pleasant but very shallow veneer.

At one point, while Vanessa was still at his side, he leaned close to her and whispered, “I think I’m good at this networking thing.”

***

There was more than just feigned personality here; the other guests themselves seemed to be nothing but props. As Mike chatted with the gathering, aided by a giant cocktail handed to him at some point (and how the room moved, he had no head for alcohol) he started to notice it everywhere. The strange swimming greyness beneath the surface of everyone’s eyes, as if the Schleberman genetics were threaded in all their DNA, just one extended family. The way the faces of some of the guests seemed off center, sagging in some spots, tight in others, like badly fitting and quickly donned masks. The long fingers, extra jointed and tapping pointed nails upon the edges of held wine flutes, banging out secret alphabets in Morse-code. One woman’s painted nails were badly done, the single coat of red nail polish not enough to cover the black material of the true claw beneath.

As Collingsworth discussed his golfing game with a golf ignorant Mike, there was a detectible seam running down the center of his forehead. Thin, nearly disguised by a hasty coat of flesh colored makeup, visible only when he really laughed at one of his own jokes and the loose skin wrinkled and caught the light in just the right way. The hair was glossy and fake, attached to his scalp in clumps at the roots, but spreading out at the ends and forming a passable style if you did not look too hard. His companion, a third his age and obviously an escort, hung on his arm like an obedient drone wrapped in saccharine, an expert in the art of deception.

All exchanged looks with one another whenever Mike was not paying attention. He realized that those members of the gathering not talking directly with him were simply standing there holding their drinks and pretending to talk, mouthing silent words and smiling at each other until he turned his attention to them, at which time they sprung into action like extras on a movie set after the director calls ACTION!

He wanted to bring all this to Vanessa’s attention. Mike leaned to his side and found her gone. He scanned the room and did not see her.

“Don’t you agree, Michael?” Collingsworth asked him, tapping his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t hear you.”

The small cluster around him chuckled.

“My wife,” Mike said.

“She’s in the bathroom,” someone told him.

The room spun violently and he dropped to his knees.

“He’s about ready,” a voice said in a hiss.

Then other voices in an unknown language. Lower. Garbled. Inhuman.

***

Was it a scream that woke him? It seemed so, a high pitched wail that trailed off abruptly as his eyes opened. Vanessa? His own? He could not tell. He was made of iron, his limbs riveted in place, an invisible heavy weight upon his midsection. He was splayed out upon a table, wrists and ankles secured by clasps, the surface beneath him covered in white plastic sheeting. This must have been to protect it from the red liquid smeared all around him in violent smudges in the manner of a finger painting made by a child gone off Ritalin. It was browning in spots as it dried.

So was he. The parts of his body he could see looked as if they were made of clay, exposed sub-epidermal nerve endings firing subdued messages into empty air. The room smelled like a freshly minted penny. The world was a liquid and waving place of strange gravities and tidal currents. He looked around and tried to make sense of his surroundings.

“Welcome to the VIP room, Michael,” Collingsworth said in a mocking garble. He might have been speaking through a mouthful of water. He was among the circle of faces standing around the table and looking down at Mike as if he were a butterfly pinned to cork. The bright kettle lights of an operating theatre were on the ceiling, centered over the ring of observers.

Vanessa had returned, face slightly askew, lips pulled down too far in one corner to expose the roots of needle teeth. Mike called her and she smiled at him, and the seam running down the center of her face pulled open to reveal gleaming scales and a nose that was simply two open holes. “I’m here, babe,” a voice answered, not perfected yet and attempting to find Vanessa’s proper modulation.

The others got a kick out of this scene and made a guttural series of barks that was laughter in some parts of hell.

Collingsworth’s escort, so lean and sinuous, got real close to Mike and caressed his raw scalp. Her gangly, sharp tipped fingers traced ribbons of pain across the spongy tissue there. When she spoke her face bunched up unnaturally in spots. “She’s coming along. It takes a little time to get the hang of things. Practice makes perfect!”

Others squeezed into the group circling the table, all with bizarre misshapen smiles on their faces. Props in a cheap play racing to its conclusion.

Collingsworth said, “Michael, I want you to know this is nothing personal, it’s just what we do. We get quite attached to some of you…sometimes. But now and then some of you start getting illusions of independence, have original thoughts…and we do have to eat, you know.”

Schleberman raised a clothes hanger over which dangled some peach colored material. A suit of some sort, presumably. He gently patted out a few wrinkles in the material with one hand. It was indeed a suit; a skin suit made to look like Michael. Or maybe it was his skin. Schleberman put his hand into the head, holding the split together from inside and making the mouth move. “Hi Mikey!” he said. “How are ya?”

Mike turned away but everywhere were alien eyes staring at him from behind bad masks.

“Can’t I keep him for a pet?” someone asked.

A chorus of guttural laughs. “Come on, look at him,” Schleberman said, handing the suit over to someone else.

“All I did was try to help customers!” Mike said, pain slowly ramping up as the numbing drug wore off. Yeah, that was his skin. “You wanted me to check the reports over!”

Schleb leaned close. “You’re just not a good follower. That gene has to be weeded out. Can’t have thinking livestock. They always cause trouble and disrupt the herd.”

The group stripped free of clothing and flesh, peeling away layers of deception until their true selves glistened in the light, ancient and scaly, staring down upon Mike with grey eyes devoid of human compassion. They leaned forward and that first nibble was gentle, almost a kiss.

Mike was conscious long enough to see, off in the corner, a scaled creature being helped into his empty skin.

The End

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