Gateways: “Focus on the Job” by Allison Manley, read by Kate Akerboom

TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by Allison Manley. Allison is currently an MFA in writing candidate at Queens University Charlotte. She received her Bachelor’s in English with writing concentration & honors in 2012. She published one short story in the Chicago Reader and has performed at readings in Chicago with Unreal (monthly open mic night) and the Deep Dish Speculative Literature Foundation reading series. This is “Focus on the Job”

Content Note: This story features sexual harassment and bugs. If that content makes you feel unsafe, you may want to skip this story.

The interview was great, so I was surprised at how different my first day was. Everyone was so friendly when I applied, but when I actually started, all I got was a company-branded mousepad and a series of sad smiles from my new coworkers. After a day of dull trainings and strained introductions, 5pm came. Everyone left so quickly that you could have seen the little cartoon sprint lines trailing after them. Maybe this was what working life was like, I thought. It was my first job out of school—all my other jobs had been part-time through the school’s work study program. I stayed behind, tacking some photos into my secluded cubicle, trying to take in my new space and make it my own so that the next morning, I’d be able to focus on the job.

“Are you the new hire?” I heard someone ask. I looked up and saw Mr. Peterson,

standing over the edge of my cubicle. I recognized his tan face and coiffed hair that he seemed to have in all of his company profiles.

“Yes,” I said, holding out my hand. “Hi Mr. Peterson. It’s nice to meet you.”

“So today was day one, huh?” he said, grabbing my hand and shaking it a little too hard. “How do you like it so far?”

“I like it!” I said, trying to seem eager. “I’m excited to be part of the team.”

He started looking at the photos I had tacked up and he walked over to stand right next to me at my desk. He grabbed the stack of photos I hadn’t put up yet. “Nice pictures,” he said, fingering through them so quickly they were getting bent at the edges. My head started to hurt. “Is your boyfriend in any of these?”

I didn’t have a boyfriend, but I didn’t think that was a good thing to point out. “I’m sure he’s in one of those,” I mumbled, pretending to straighten the photos that were already up. The pain in my head grew stronger.

“That’s too bad,” Mr. Peterson said. He grew closer to me, and, standing directly behind me, he put his hands on my shoulders, pinning me back to my chair. “Well, if there’s ever a night you’re not working so late, you should come over to my place and discuss the position further.” He pressed his fingers into my shoulders. “We’re really excited you’re here.”

“I—I—thank you,” I said, in shock.

“Happy to help,” he said. “I always love mentoring young professionals as they start their careers.” After what felt like hours, he released his grip and walked to the front of my cubicle. Then, he turned around and winked at me. “Looking forward to working with you,” he said, and walked away.

When I got home, I tried watching TV, but I couldn’t stop crying. I went to my bedroom and stuffed my face into my pillow. At first I cried because of how terrible the day had ended—would it be like this every time I saw him? Could I quit my first job after the first day? I had heard of worse things happening to women at work—much, much worse things—so should I be grateful that it wasn’t like those times? Why didn’t I, I don’t know, do something?

My crying turned into… something else. My head throbbed, more than it had earlier, and I turned on my back so I could put my hand on my forehead. It felt fine, so I put my hand on my temples and rubbed, the way you do when you’re frustrated with something. As my hand brushed up against my ear, I felt… wetness. I inspected my hand. My fingers were coated with a thick yellow goo. I put my hand closer to my ears this time, right near the earlobe, and I felt more of the stuff leaving my ear, seeping into my pillowcase.

I didn’t even have a chance to grab my phone when the pain got worse, worse than I ever thought I could feel, and I felt something within my head tear. I froze on the bed, desperately asking myself what was happening but not getting any answers, and then I felt something else. Movement. It wasn’t just throbbing anymore—it was pulsing. Something was coming out of my ear, slowly and painfully. Razor-sharp spikes ripped through my ear canal as the pulsing continued. I think I was screaming—I couldn’t hear because both ears were blocked now, and I couldn’t feel anything other than the agonizing pain. My hand moved to pull the things out of me, and when I pressed down to grab them, it felt like I had wrapped my hand around a ball of needles. Not only did my hand hurt, but the pain in my head got worse when I tried to get rid of the thing. For a brief moment, I couldn’t feel it anymore—the pain, the pulsing sensation, the tearing was all done—but then, a few seconds later, it started again. I passed out from the pain, but with my last moments of consciousness, I could feel the things still making their way out onto my pillow, crawling out of my brain.

I woke up hours later and looked at my clock—it was around the time I got up for

work—and then at my pillow. I snapped my fingers to check if I could still hear, and despite the trauma from yesterday, they still seemed to hear OK. There were trails leading from where my years were to a spot on my desk. There they were—the things from last night. There were maybe a dozen or so of them, thick little wormy snakes, each the size of a pencil, all covered in the yellowish ooze and the sharp, tiny spikes that split my ears apart. My heart was racing, but I had to take a closer look at them—and when I did, I saw they had tiny feet, almost like centipede legs, covering the length of their bodies. And when I looked at their faces—it looked like they

were looking at me. Looking at me with their disgusting, yellow eyes.

I ran to the door, and they shifted their heads in my direction. I was covered in sweat and blood and the stuff that was in my ears the night before, but it didn’t hurt anymore. I moved to different parts of the room and still they looked in my direction. I got closer to them again.

“What are you?” I asked, not to them but to myself. These worms came from me—from my head—and were now looking up at me, almost like they recognized me.

They started inching their way towards me, like caterpillars might move on a plant stem, and I recoiled. They stopped, as if they sensed my fear. I tried something. “Come to me,” I said, and they inched their way again, leaving a trail of yellow sludge behind them. I waited until they got a few inches closer. “Stop,” I said, and they did, all at once, never looking away from me. “Go to the door,” I said, and they turned. They were doing it, I realized—they were doing what I asked them to do.

I held out my hand to one of them, and it walked on me. Its little legs were sticky, and it I thought about last night, and how Mr. Peterson had offered to invite me to drinks with him; and I thought about the pain I felt, how my muscles froze and I couldn’t move, and how later, these things tore through me. I looked each worm in the eye, one by one, and asked, “You came out of my ears,” I said, as they continued to stare at me. “But can you go into someone’s Ear?”

The worms all stood on their back legs, looking like they were sergeants-at-arms, ready for their battle orders.

“Do you think you can you do it without him noticing, like while he’s asleep?”

The creatures stood still, which I took as a yes.

“And then… can you make it as painful for him as it was for me?”

They pulled their lips back and reared their teeth.

“Good,” I said. I grabbed my purse and put it on the desk. They started crawling,

marching into my bag. I imagined Mr. Peterson waking up one day, or stopping an important meeting, screaming, worms emerging from his skull, tearing up his flesh, goo and blood gushing from his ears, making him freeze in terror like I did the night before. “Let’s get to work,” I said, and we left for the office.

Kate Akerboom is a multi-creative individual living in Chicago. When she’s not talking about animals at Shedd Aquarium or playing with her beagle, Willie, you can find her performing at the Bristol Renaissance Faire or hear her talking about crime history on her podcast Scofflaws: a History of Law and Disorder. Originally from Green Bay, Wisconsin, Kate is a proud graduate of University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, possessing degrees in Theatre Performance and History with an emphasis in museum studies. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Public History through Southern New Hampshire University.

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