I was late for my sensitivity training class, two weeks after I joined a new company.
I went to Human Resources to complain about the guy in the next cubicle who, even though he had been at the company for a while, still had not grasped the idea of personal hygiene, and was really quite rank with a strong and unpalatable odor. It got so bad one day, I had to sneak into the AC closet and turn off the air conditioning because the vent blew the stench from his cube to mine. The guy always seemed to put in a twelve to fourteen hour day, so there were no complaints about his work.
When I went to HR and complained, I was told that I was insensitive to Tod’s special needs and that he had a medical accommodation for his issues. So I was sent to a special sensitivity training course in order to improve my awareness of his situation. The only good part of that was that I would get to see that gorgeous redhead who works the front desk, Penny.
“Hey, Penny, which way to the sensitivity training?” I was trying to sound cool and only semi-interested. The truth was, I had been dreaming about this girl since I got here. I had only seen her once or twice, but her flame-red hair, ample bosom, and well-dressed derrière were hard to miss. Only a dead man wouldn’t find her interesting.
“Hey, Dave. It’s down the hall, turn left, second door on the right. I like your tie; something new?” she inquired.
She noticed! “Yes, it is; my nephew gave it to me as a graduation gift a few months ago, but I wanted to save it for a rainy day. I am going to this class after only a month of working here, so I guess this will do.”
“You look great, don’t worry about it. There has been a lot of training going on here with the recent acquisition. I am sure it’s not a problem. They say this position has gone empty a couple of times a month, as they hire new girls for positions upstairs. I am hoping to graduate to one of those jobs, too.”
As I listened, I was simply lost in her shiny green eyes, and I could barely tear myself away from her lips.
“Dave? Dave, you’re gonna be late.”
“Right, right, thanks. I’ll talk to you later,” I stammered and ran off.
When I got to the classroom, I walked in and noticed the room was lit with a bright green glow from the ceiling instead of the florescent lighting used in most of the company.
“Glad you could make it, Dave. You’re the last one, today.” The speaker was a tall, squarely built black man with a set of thick but well groomed dreadlocks. His face was sharp and angular, and he had a penetrating stare that fixed on me for a long second. Then he lidded his eyes like a serpent might, and he came to meet me at the door and shook my hand. He smelled of cinnamon and other spices, like a pumpkin pie. The smell made me want to sneeze, and before I knew what happened, I turned away, covered my nose and sneezed, really hard. He had not let go of my hand yet, and when I sneezed, his grip on me tightened, and he breathed out a subtle, whispering sigh. He then let my hand go and turned back toward the room.
The light in the room, which at first seemed a little too green and a little too bright, seemed less of a problem after I opened my eyes, and I sat down to read through the boring pamphlets about social tolerance and cultural acceptance. The speaker, Dr. Mbenga, seemed to be a decent fellow, but his accent was so thick sometimes I could barely understand him. This first day, the training was done in the evening, and after two hours, we were allowed to go home. He mentioned we would have some exercises the next two days, and the last day was an all day session.
When I left, Penny was already gone, but the smell of her perfume lingered and stood out over the BO of whichever of my unwashed colleagues had left after she did.
When I got home, my cat and dog were thrilled to see me, and after taking Max my German shepherd for a walk, Mini my Maine Coon curled up in my lap for another great evening of TV dinners and Law and Order. I was kind of peckish, though, and had another TV dinner and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s afterward. Before I went to sleep, I saw a stock report on the news about a relatively new company providing green lighting to businesses. This new lighting could store energy from the sun and transmit it inside of buildings, for no costs. Rancol Incorporated had just split its stock, making its shareholders even richer. The only drawback was the slightly greenish tint that workers said they hardly noticed after a time. The age of florescent light appeared to be at an end. I thought I should get some stock in this company. I would call my broker in the morning.
My sleep was rough and uneven. I had the strangest dreams, as well. Something to do with eating some food that I was not particularly fond of, but my father kept telling me to eat it. He was the law when I was a kid, so eat it I did. I woke in a cold sweat, but a hot shower fixed that. I took Max for his morning walk, but he seemed skittish and unhappy, and when I came back and filled Mini’s dish, he did not come running. I figured he was under the bed or hiding in a closet, as is his habit some mornings. Max looked at me strangely, but I did not have time to deal with his issues.
I got to tell you, when I took a load off this morning, the bathroom reeked to high heaven. I was sure I saw two sparrows outside my bathroom window fall over dead from the smell. I felt so much lighter, though, I just made sure to leave that bathroom fan on all day. I thought something died in there.
The next day of sensitivity training had half as many people as the day before. We started with ten and were down to five. When I asked what happened to the others, Dr. Mbenga gave me some smooth and plausible sounding answer, and though I thought I wanted to argue, once he had said it, the urge to argue passed. Today, I had less difficulty understanding him; he seemed to be making a greater effort to enunciate. Perhaps someone had talked to HR and told him to speak slower and more clearly. I was bored out of my mind by lunch, and though we were told these exercises were important, I could barely see why. He drew these formulas on the board, something about statistical variability and cultural dispersion on the planet. Lunch could not come soon enough.
“Hi, Penny,” I said, so happy to be anywhere but in that room.
“Hi, Dave,” was her morose reply.
“What’s the matter?” My curiosity overcame my good sense.
“I am getting a transfer tomorrow. I will be going upstairs.”
“Uh, I thought you would be happy. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yes, but I…” she stuttered. “I was hoping I would get to see you before I went upstairs. They said I would be leaving here first thing in the morning, so I have to pack up this afternoon.”
“Do you want to have lunch?”
“Yes,” was her timid reply. But I was on top of the world.
“Let me do one more thing. See that exec over there, the one with the red tie clip? I was typing something for him, and I want to make sure he gets it.”
As the executive was moving down the hallway, most of the workers shied away from him, making every effort not to look at him, and shuffled off as quickly as possible. Penny handed him the sheaf of papers, and he gave her a completely lecherous stare. Sensitivity training? Here is a guy who has not had it yet. As he grew closer, I felt a bit sick, but Penny ran ahead of him and grabbed my arm on the way out.
Needless to say, lunch was great. I did not have much of an appetite, but she smelled so good, I really did not care about the food. As a matter of fact, the place kind of made me nauseous, so I could not wait to leave. I put it off to a bug or something I might be catching.
Getting back to the office, she ran back to her desk, but she gave me a hug and a peck on the cheek. Needless to say, I got wood. I had grown accustomed to the green light, and was adjusting my briefcase in front of me so I could sit down. There was more boring lecturing around social sensitivity to the disabled, but I was listening more intently to Dr. Mbenga’s voice. There was a transcendental quality to it, as if he was speaking directly to my soul. While what he was talking about had no substance, or perhaps I just didn’t give a damn, the sound of it moved me, choked me up, and every word was sheer rapture. The afternoon sped by.
Penny was gone again when I was leaving, but it was less traumatizing than yesterday. I had been able to spend a whole hour with her at lunch. Magnificent. I had to get something to eat on the way home, and I stopped into this dive, a place I normally can’t even stand the smell of, but I was just so damn hungry. I don’t remember anything about the food other than the quantity of it. It seemed as if I could not get enough. There was something on the news about some outbreak, probably a flu or something. I couldn’t concentrate on it, so I quickly finished and rushed home.
When I got there, Max was positively ballistic. It took me twenty minutes to calm him down enough to get him on his leash. The whole time he pulled at the leash as if he were trying to get away. Right before we were going to go back inside, he stopped pulling for a second, and I took my eye off of him. In that moment, he bit my hand and ran away, faster than I had ever seen him run. I considered giving chase, and then I realized he was a dog, and I was never going to catch him. I went in and bandaged my hand. Strangely enough, though the initial bite was painful, the alcohol didn’t bother me at all. WebMD said I should see a doctor in case of rabies, but I figured since Max was my dog, it could wait until tomorrow after work. I ate the rest of the TV dinners in my fridge, and then I went to bed exhausted.
The next morning I felt positively awful. I was sluggish and sick and thought I might be hung over, until I remembered I had not had a drop to drink. Then I thought, “It’s that flu.” Suddenly I was overcome with the urge to vomit, and before I could take a step, I did. Everywhere. It seemed it would never stop, but finally it did. I went to the phone to call in and tell them I wasn’t coming to work, but they put me on hold.
Dr. Mbenga’s voice cut through the fog and fuzz in my head, and I heard him clear as day after a six month Alaskan night. “Clean up dat mess, take a shower, put on some clean clothes, and bring your gym bag. Get to work.”
And just like that, I was able to clean up the vomit, shine the floors, iron a shirt and slacks, pack a gym bag, and head off to work in record time. But halfway to work, the energy faded, and I felt myself slowing down. Puking up one’s guts is hard work, so maybe that was why I was suddenly wasted. But I figured I was feeling better because I was suddenly hungry. Normally, riding the subway was a total appetite killer, the crowds, the noise, the stench, but today all I could smell was pork chops. My stop came, and I got off the train and went upstairs into our office building. I kept smelling pork chops all the way into the building.
When I got upstairs to the meeting hall, the good doctor was escorting me to a smaller conference room on the same floor. Penny was nowhere to be found. I missed her already. He took me into the conference room and sat me down. “Wait here, someone will be here shortly.” His voice, like unto a heavenly choir, reverberated within me, and I could nothing but obey. I sat.
Hours passed, each one more excruciating than the last. I looked up and noticed the Rancol light was on, and it had been very bright for hours, but as the light went down, the hunger decreased. No, the hunger pain decreased; the hunger remained. After seven hours, I paced and circled the room. The door was locked and no one answered when I shouted. I eventually screamed myself nearly hoarse. I sat down in a corner and waited. Then I heard the click of a key and a searing bright light came into the room, and a terrible wave of nausea followed. In the silhouette of light was a female shape, but it was a man I heard.
“Wait here, Penny,” the voice was the executive she was talking to yesterday, and the light, that terrible light. I had to shield my eyes came from his tie clip. I wanted desperately to claw my way through the wall to escape.
“It stinks in here,” was her reply.
She was pushed into the room, and the door closed behind her. With the lights out and the terrible glare from his tie-clip gone, I could almost think again. But I was hungry, maddeningly hungry, crazed with hunger. Pork, pork, pork, it’s all I could think about. Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop. Penny heard me groan, and came toward me. Suddenly, I knew what would make the hunger stop.
“Dave, is that you?”
“Yes, Penny. And you smell so, so… good.”
Published in the science fiction collection, Hayward’s Reach by Thaddeus Howze © 2010, All Rights Reserved
Thaddeus Howze is a popular and recently awarded Top Writer, 2016 recipient on the Q&A site Quora.com. He is also a moderator and contributor to theScience Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange with over fourteen hundred articles in a four year period.
His speculative fiction has appeared online at Medium, Scifiideas.com, and theAu Courant Press Journal. He has appeared in twelve different anthologies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. A list of his published work appears on his website, Hub City Blues.