Caroline Taylor, 9/26/2016
Current occupation: writer and editor
Former occupation: publications director, speechwriter, and magazine editor
Contact Information: Caroline Taylor's short stories have appeared in Work Literary Magazine (one, two, three, four occasio
It had been a long year. Winter seemed to drag on interminably, starting with two heavy snowfalls, one in December and the other in February, and then the major ice storm in March that cut off power to millions for several days. The crocuses and daffodils had already sent out shoots, but then thunder snow arrived in late April, creating yet another massive traffic jam as people flooded grocery stores and gas stations, stocking up for supplies in anticipation of yet another power outage.
It had been an especially long year for Daisy, whose husband was deployed on a secret mission, somewhere in the Middle East. “It’s better you don’t know where,” he’d said after she’d begged him to tell her, promising she would not breathe a word. “It would only make you worry more,” he’d added. “Besides, it’s classified.”
They’d only been married two weeks when he got the call. They’d been planning to find a place of their own, but it seemed so much more sensible for Daisy to remain at home until Wade’s return. If he survived.
Dad, who fancied himself a mathematician, had explained the odds of Daisy’s husband getting killed, but she hadn’t been able to hear him over the loud thudding of her heart. All her mother would say, over and over again, was “He’ll be okay. He’ll be fine.”
Right. Wade wasn’t their son. She bet his parents didn’t feel so, so . . . sanguine. They’d e-mail from California every now and then, asking Daisy how she was holding up. Nice folks. But there was an anxious quality to the subtext of their messages that had Daisy gnawing at her cuticles more than usual.
“You’ve got to stop that or you’ll bleed,” her mother would say whenever she caught Daisy in the act.
But Daisy couldn’t help it. If somebody had to bleed, it should be her. She was the one who’d supported Wade’s decision to become a Ranger. His parents, who’d been expecting him to bring his new wife back to Fresno and help them run the restaurant, were devastated. Her dad’s only comment was, “With a college degree, you’d think the kid could do better than that.”
But it wasn’t about the money. Wade had this old-fashioned sense of duty—that when your country needed you, you stepped up. Anyway, since you had to get some kind of job, shouldn’t you make it mean something?
Speaking of jobs, Daisy’s seemed to be on pretty shaky territory at the moment. The new boss, Jerry, had his eye on her—and not in a good way. He’d wander up to the counter where she sat on her high stool, counting out change to customers paying their utility bills. He’d then proceed to inch himself closer and closer, his arm pressed against hers, his breath hot on her neck. There was a law against treating female employees that way, but who was going to enforce it?
She’d tried the baggy sweater ploy, but Jerry said it didn’t look professional and that her job was to do whatever she could to brighten the customers’ day. That was only partly true. Customers who might be the sort to respond to the clingy outfits that Jerry had in mind tended to pay their bills online. Most of the customers who paid in person were stressed out, worn-down middle-aged women with two or five kids under foot. For them, there was no line to get on.
Daisy stopped washing her hair and skipped the deodorant, hoping Jerry would find her odor offensive. But, instead of breathing down Daisy’s neck, he’d walk up to the counter, lift his leg to the highest rung of an empty stool, and stand there, facing her so she could get a good long look at his equipment, while he talked about various things like the glitches in their new software program or the likelihood that summer would ever arrive or whether she knew about that no-tell motel out near the highway. “Nobody would ever know,” he’d say, wiggling his eyebrows. “Think about it.”
What she thought about twenty-four/seven was whether she ought to ask her parents for advice. Only she knew what the answer would be: “Quit the job. Get another.” Like it would be that easy to find something that paid as well when you only had a high school diploma.
There’d been no question of telling Wade. It would only make him worry because no way could he come running home, storm into the front office, and slam his fist into Jerry’s ugly mug.
Aurora, the other billing clerk, thought Jerry was her ticket to ride—only the increasingly heavy doses of perfume, the black-rimmed eyes, and the ever shorter and tighter clothing (always black) didn’t seem to be achieving the desired results.
Jerry had eyes only for Daisy. And that made Aurora jealous.
As summer dragged on, Jerry became bolder. “I bet you’re really missing it,” he’d say with a wink. “I could make you feel a whole lot better.”
At the look of disgust on her face, he’d shrug. “Just sayin’.”
In desperation, Daisy went for Aurora’s Goth look, complete with raccoon eyes and white face powder, but skipping the multiple ear piercings in favor of tiny clip-ons that would achieve the look painlessly. The black rinse she’d tried gave her light brown hair a bluish cast, but no way was she going to go the dye route—unless, of course, her plan worked. As for clothing, instead of the tight-fitting stuff Aurora favored, Daisy chose metal-studded work boots topped by an ankle-length black and green batik skirt.
“You do know about the company’s dress code, don’t you?” Jerry inquired when Daisy showed up in her new outfit.
“We have one?”
He gave her a sheet of paper, his hand lingering long enough that she had to snatch hers away. “You can finish out the work day in that— that Halloween costume, but I never want to see it again.”
Chastened, Daisy returned to her stool at the counter and skimmed over the paper. “Eagle County Public Utilities Official Dress Code,” it read across the top. No open-toed shoes. No skimpy tank tops unless covered by a jacket or sweater. Skirts, dresses, or pant suits. No shorts, skorts, sundresses, jeans, or crop pants. She looked up, thinking so far, so good. What was his problem, anyway? Especially considering how Aurora usually dressed—although, she, too, didn’t seem to be violating the office dress code. It didn’t say anything about tight clothes or excessive makeup or jewelry or . . . oh. No visible piercings, other than earlobes, and no tattoos. In school, Daisy hadn’t run with the body piercing, tattoo-obsessed crowd.
“Do you have any tattoos?” Daisy asked Aurora during a brief lull one day.
“Uh-huh. Here and here.” Aurora pointed at her upper left arm and her lower back. “Why? I know a good artist over by Chinatown, if you’re thinking of—”
“No. But thanks. It’s just that I was reading the office dress code, and it says—”
“Dress code? You’re kidding.” Aurora leaned over and snatched the page from Daisy. “Shit. Good thing I didn’t get the backs of my hands done.” She looked up. “I was going to have him do a skull and my initials on both.”
Daisy wondered if she dared point out to Jerry that her outfit, quasi Goth though it might be, was well within the official dress code guidelines. But he might threaten to fire her, and that would make things so much harder. She wouldn’t be able to pay Mom her share of the household expenses. Wade wouldn’t be able to help, either. He’d just worry about things at home when he should be totally focused on staying alive.
But it did help to know the rules. She went back to wearing baggy, oversized clothes that concealed everything but her arms and face. Jerry didn’t like it much, but as long as she complied with the code, what could he do?
The heat of summer finally waned, and the first brisk winds of autumn arrived in late November, scattering leaves all over the place. Daisy found herself praying that Jerry would somehow manage to slip up—like sending her suggestive e-mails or groping her—awful as it might be—in full view of Aurora, not that Aurora would be a reliable witness. But Jerry was too smart for that, and he wouldn’t give up. His latest ploy was hosting what he called a “morale building” happy hour every Friday at O’Kelviny’s Pub.
Daisy had tried to duck out, saying her mother was expecting her at home.
“This is really work-related,” he’d countered. “It’s a team-building exercise. District HQ recommended off site.”
Daisy doubted their recommendation covered happy hours in a bar. “My father is a teetotaler,” she’d pointed out. “He would be very much against me—”
“I’ll call him,” Jerry interrupted. “I’m sure he’ll understand what we’re doing. And, anyway, you don’t have to imbibe, do you.”
Daisy caved, knowing that Jerry would make sure she sat next to him in the booth where he could put his hand on her knee and drape his arm across the back of the booth only to let it fall “naturally” onto her shoulders.
When Aurora noticed this, she blamed Daisy. But Daisy explained how she couldn’t stand the creep, begging her coworker to do whatever she could to sit next to Jerry. It was a win-win that failed miserably, once Jerry realized what was happening. So he got the bright idea of trying a couple of “role plays” in which various staff members would separate into teams to work through an exercise. There were only twelve of them, and since Jerry chose the teams, Daisy inevitably wound up sitting next to him while his hand crept ever more audaciously up her thigh, closer and closer . . . When she’d turn away and cross her legs, his wandering hand would grope her ass.
Okay. Desperate times . . .
She got the idea from something she’d read in Parade magazine about sex education in the schools. What she needed was easy to locate online.
Three weeks later, at the office Christmas party, Daisy showed up, for the first time in ages wearing a form-fitting dress that proudly displayed her bump.
“Ohmigod,” Aurora gushed. “How long have you . . . ? When did this happen?”
Counting backwards quickly, Daisy said, “June. Wade got a short leave.”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
Daisy smiled and apologized. “I wanted to be absolutely sure. There’s a family history of . . . well, anyway, the prognosis is good.”
Aurora wasn’t stupid. And, judging from the look on Jerry’s face, Daisy figured it wouldn’t be long before her colleague realized that her luck could only improve. “I’m sooo happy for you,” she said, downing her beer. “But, really, Daisy. Not even a bit of morning sickness? Some girls have all the luck.”
Judging from his lower lip, stuck out just like a five-year-old’s, Jerry didn’t seem to share that opinion.
“When did this happen?” he demanded when he finally managed to maneuver Daisy into a corner.
“Back in June. You remember how cold and rainy it was. Perfect weather for—”
“I thought you said your husband was in the Middle East somewhere,” he cut in.
Daisy knew better than to lie to the boss. “He is.”
“Then how the hell— I mean, don’t tell me you and some other guy . . .” Nearly choking with rage, Jerry could hardly force the words out.
“I don’t see that it’s any of your business,” Daisy replied and pushed past him before he got the bright idea of putting his hands on her tummy, which was as hard and unyielding as a silicone beach ball.
Mission accomplished, Daisy left the party early and headed home. Dad and Mom would be at the annual Christmas concert downtown. She couldn’t wait to unfasten the bump and, after stashing it in her closet, enjoy the chance to kick back and relish her new-found power. It had been a very long year, but in another three months, Wade would be coming home. The minute he returned, she would quit, finally ridding herself of Jerry.
Lights were blazing throughout the house, when Daisy opened the door.
And there stood Wade in combat boots and all his BDU finery, his welcoming smile quickly replaced by a look of horror.