Stain: A Short Story
The heat in the office was stifling, the young women working in Project C glancing over at each other periodically to exchange raised eyebrows accompanied by hand-wafting gestures towards their face. Being in Project A, Lance Helbark’s desk was as far from the air conditioning as possible, and as such he was much worse off than the girls in C. But being in Project A had its advantages; breaks were allowed more frequently, and the toilet was just minutes away. Regardless, the entire floor of the office was sweltering. Fans had been banned since Marc Blake’s tie had been caught in one, almost decapitating him. Since fan grills and plastic blades had been banned, open fans had to be banned too, to minimalise casualties.
Lance toyed with his hand fan, technically illegal but often allowed by the supervisors to stop any possible riots from happening again. Occasional nicks from the plastic blades had to be passed off as paper cuts, and security had to be occasionally bribed to delete parts of the security footage, but the team leaders of Projects A, C, K, and R, i.e., floor forty, had thoroughly assessed the situation and had decided that this route was the best to take. The air wafted onto Lance’s face. His distant expression had been instigated by a long phone call from a client that had resulted in a two-hour long search through all of the Project’s emails, a hunt for a twelve-digit number that only Lance was authorised to speak on that designated floor. After it had been found and repeated back to the customer, Lance decided that allowing himself a fifteen-second session on the hand fan was well-earned.
He thought on it some more. In fact, he decided, he deserved a toilet break. He took the longer route, past the never-ending boardrooms of executives with their charts-within-charts and coffee-coloured ties. He caught the eye of a man sitting at a table that was looking bored, and smiled a sad smile. The man nodded Lance’s way.
In the bathroom, Lance urinated and then looked into the mirror. The stain was still on his face. He washed his hands using sanitised hand cleanser and then applied a dab of it to the stain. Try as he might, it would not budge. He would need to fix this when he got home.
On the walk back, he bumped into Conroy Finch, a man who worked on the same floor as him, and who he had known since secondary school.
‘How’s the project going?’ stuttered Conroy. His eye twitched. He took a counter out of his pocket and clicked it – he had to mark his stutters and twitches so as not to exceed his allotted hourly amount. Lance eyed the counter, and said,
‘Swimmingly, all things considered. Are the accounts up to date?’
‘They are all in progress, and going quite well. By the way, you have a stain,’ said Conroy, stifling a facial twitch and scratching the back of his cone-shaped head. He had been getting better at suppressing spasms since his two-week suspension. Lance nodded in acknowledgement and then the two men shook hands and walked in separate directions.
As he returned to his desk, he felt the heat swell. If it got any hotter, he would have to chance loosening his tie. If there had been any windows, he might have opened one. He looked over at the Project C department through a Miniscule telescope, watching one young woman in particular. She had dyed brown hair and large sea-like eyes. He did not know her name, but he had developed a fondness for her ever since they had shared an awkward chat in the lift two months prior. He had wanted to speak to her today, but a woman would have no time for a man with a stain on his face. He would have to fix it as soon as he got home.
Two hours later, and Lance had dealt with three further customers and had spoken his set daily numbers over fourteen times. Every time he dispensed them from his mouth his delivery improved, and before long he was muttering them to himself in a singsong voice. Not even his supervisor, Mr Baal, could deliver the words with such panache. He had not seen the tall and stout Baal for a few days, but this was nothing out of the ordinary; Baal was probably still traversing his way down from the top floor. Lance often dreamt of being allowed the opportunity to make the journey to the top floor, but he knew that unless his standing in Project A advanced, this would’t come to pass. He must master the numbers if that were to happen.
He clocked out at six in the evening, taking the only lift down to the ground floor and striding out of the building with his brown coat slung over his shoulder. The day outside was sweltering, and the sunlight damaged his corneas.
He sat on the bus, humming along to the enforced listening songs on the speaker system. One lady at the back sang along with gusto, her voice dovelike and soothing. Lance sat back and closed his eyes, imagining what heavenly creature she must be. The bus stopped, and so did her singing. He turned around, only to see the young brown-haired woman from Project C skipping down the bus and stepping through the open doors with a smile on her face. He had no idea that it had been her, and what a surprise! Tomorrow had to be the day that he spoke to her, but first he had to remove the stain.
He hummed along to the songs on the bus until it got to his stop and he removed himself from the transport and hurried his way up the thirteen flights to his air-hut.
Inside, he breezed through the rooms, allowing his bag and coat to fall with abandon. His cat saw him enter, and although Lance tried coaxing some small talk out of it, it was clearly not in a chatty mood. The cat curled around on its pillow and fell asleep.
He walked into the bathroom and inspected the stain. It was thin, but long enough to lead almost fully across his left cheek. He scrubbed it with his facebrush, but it did nothing to remove it. He considered bleach, but even that would cost about as much as a full replacement. He decided that if he really were to speak to the girl in Project C tomorrow then he’d need to fix the problem properly.
He went to the small cabinet hidden beside the bath and took out a small box. He placed it on the side of the sink and opened it. He took out the handle, and then removed the scalpel blade from its packet. He clicked the blade onto the handle and tested the sharpness on his finger. The blood trickled down his hand and dripped into the sink. He smiled and nodded to himself.
He put the blade to his temple and began slicing. Certain parts of his face gave some resistance, but by the time he had reached his chin the blade was moving smoothly. He carved around to the other temple, and then put his fingers just under the skin of his chin and slowly pulled up until he reached his forehead, after which he tore the remaining flesh away and threw his face in the bin. He looked into the mirror and poked at his cheek muscles. They were still in prime working condition.
He wrapped his face in an old towel and lay down on the sofa for fifteen minutes. After the pain had subsided, he removed the towel and incinerated it. Then he pulled out a case from the freezer and left it to sit on the counter for a couple of minutes. Then he opened it and removed the fresh face from inside.
He took the fresh face to the bathroom and soaked it thoroughly in warm water until it felt ready to apply. Once it was ready, he pressed the face against his own raw face until it felt firm enough to heat. He drowned his face in hot air from the vent until, finally, his new face was ready for general use. He could not afford to have this happen again: another new face would drive him to bankruptcy. But today it had been necessary. He broke in the new face by watching television until he fell asleep.
The next day, he woke up and ran to work. He tapped away at his keyboard until his allotted lunch hour, which he was able to swing at the same time as the pretty girl from Project C. They both sat in the white room, alone but for each other.
‘Hello,’ said Lance. The young woman turned around and eyed him. He smiled. ‘I’m Lance, not sure if you know me, I guess I was going to ask if you wanted to maybe get some cake some time. Today? After work?’
She stood up and left the room. He sat back, his brand new eyebrows lowered and his eyes distant.
He walked back to his desk and sat down and hit keys until he no longer felt anything.
Conroy walked up to him, a few meters further than his allotted distance zone. He laughed.
‘Helbark, you stupid bastard,’ stuttered Conroy, adding a count to his tic-clicker. ‘I can’t believe you asked her out. Everybody’s laughing at you. You must be the dumbest guy on the floor to ask out a girl like her with a stain like that on your face.’