Built into the side of a hill the rear of the building occupied by Advanced Computer Services was an open dock with a short roof that extended to the edge. It was a raised concrete platform with a steel dock plate built in at a forty-five degree angle to conserve space, allowing a delivery truck to back in at a slant. The ground was higher in relation to the dock with a steep incline leading to a paved road that created a trough behind the building. The dock had become a smoking area for the employees of ACS and was currently occupied by two smokers who stood in the classic smokers stance, head down, shoulders bunched while one hand occupied a pocket, and the other tended to their cigarette.
Norman dropped his cigarette butt into the sand filled five gallon bucket next to him and glanced at his watch. There was still time to catch another. He pulled the pack from his pocket and slipped the filtered end between his lips. As he bent his head to catch the flame of the lighter, sheltered in his cupped hands, he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye.
“Hey, who was that?” Norman said as he lifted his head, his lighter forgotten for the moment, as he searched the falling snow on his right.
“What was what?” Andrea said as she dropped her own butt into the bucket and pulled her key card from her pocket.
“Didn’t you see him?”
“That guy, in the storm.” Norman said. He was sure it had been a person standing at the edge of the overgrown field behind the building.
“I didn’t see anybody.” Andrea said as she turned to the door.
“Aren’t you gonna have another? We’ve still got a few minutes left.”
“Too damn cold.” Andrea answered as she swiped her badge and pulled the door open. “Are you coming?”
“Not yet, I gotta finish this.” Norman held up his unlit cigarette.
“Well you better light it first.” Andrea said with a smile before she stepped into the building.
Norman glanced at his cigarette and reached into his pocket to retrieve his lighter. As he lowered his head to light it an old memory surfaced.
Butterball. It was the name the kids in the neighborhood where he grew up used to call him. With the memory came the all too familiar feelings of self loathing and worthlessness he’d suffered through his entire childhood as he waged a losing battle against obesity. Beneath that lay a smoldering rage and he imagined what it might have been like to grab his tormentors by the throat and squeeze until their faces turned purple, and their tongues hung uselessly from their gaping mouths.
“Is that what you want to do Norman?” A voice whispered from the curtain of falling snow beyond the edge of the roof.
His rage was washed away by a bone numbing chill.
“Who’s there?” He asked, his voice barely above a whisper. A small primitive part of him did not want to draw any more attention to himself. He swiveled his head back and forth, searching for the owner of the voice. His gaze tracking across the solid curtain of falling snow that shrouded the world with a silence that inspired more fear than the deepest night.
The falling snow parted like stage curtains pulled aside to reveal the waiting set to the audience. Less than twenty yards away a man stood watching Norman from beneath the shadowy brim of a wide hat that shaded his eyes. He didn’t need to see the stranger’s eyes to know he was staring at him.
His cigarette slipped from fingers that had gone suddenly numb. It didn’t matter if they wrote him up for not putting his butts in the proper place. Suddenly nothing mattered but getting back inside where he was safely hidden from the stranger’s prying eyes.
He sidled to the left as his hand fumbled with his key card. The stranger approached him through the swirling curtains of snow and it was then that Norman realized the wind had no effect on the stranger. The filthy red scarf wrapped around his neck lay perfectly still against his chest. The collar of his heavy brown jacket stood unmoving. Even his wide brimmed hat remained in place untouched by the searching fingers of the wind that seemed to avoid him, as if to touch would be a mortal sin.
Norman’s heart slammed against his rib cage as he turned to the door and frantically swiped his card through the reader. He yanked on the door to no avail, realizing when he looked down that he had swiped the card upside down.
Behind him he felt the strangers approach and he glanced over his shoulder to see the man climbing the stairs to the dock.
“Please,” he moaned as panic washed through him.
He swiped his card again and the key lock beeped. Norman yanked the door open, hyperventilating as panic washed over him. He’d been caught in the open by the stranger who was even now drawing closer than Norman cared for him to be.
Then he noticed the smell. An odd mixture of spicy sweetness with an almost undetectable undercurrent of decay. It was a dangerous scent, awakening primitive fears that had been subjugated by the conveniences of modern society and technology.
He saw the short hallway before him. Bathrooms to the right break room to the left. Beyond the hall lay the industrial grade gray carpet of the main floor where a maze of cubicles housed small desks each with its own computer and telephone. He was so close yet so far away. Before he could step over the threshold, into the safety beyond, the stranger spoke to him.
“May I come in?” He asked.
Unable to speak, his throat tight with fear, Norman was only able to shake his head vigorously. He stumbled into the hallway, pulling the door closed behind him, and stopped with his shoulder against the wall.
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