What qualifies as a monster? Is it a furry, slimy, or scale-plated fictional creature covered in flecks and fragments of the skin and bone of recently devoured victims? Is it a demon, straight from the depths of Hell, entering-then-possessing the bodies of helpless souls? Bending said souls to its will—puppeteering the spitting of green bile and levitation, ultimately contorting the victim into positions impossible for the human form? Or can it be a man, a mild-mannered man popular among his peers—a man you respected as your new boss? A monster posing as a human. A skin-covered creature with a man’s DNA.
I never put much stock in horror stories, calling them the stuff that nightmares are made of. Not real life. But that was back then, when I was slightly less experienced, just beginning to test the waters and explore careers, searching for one I would enjoy or at least tolerate. I was trying to find a niche job at which I might excel, since college seemed out of reach for me—the poor son of a hard-working single mom and a classic underachiever. I yearned to travel, a mere six months, back through time. To restart life at the point where I still possessed an innocence born of those having been pampered by a helicopter mom. My mom was that mom, and I was her everything. My biggest challenge was deciding which grubby jeans to wear to school. Every single morning, I awoke to the smell of bacon frying and hustled to join Mom in our tiny kitchen with barely enough time to scarf down the bacon with a heap of pancakes and the final gulp of orange juice, before the horn began blaring. A jalopy-full of guys, my friends, punching each other on the short ride to the high school. Finally graduating with a middle-of-the-class ranking—making Mom sort of proud. But that was when I was excited for the next phase of my life to begin, life after high school graduation; and before I signed up for a seemingly innocuous internship at The Job Fair.
It was my first day as a brand-new intern; so as dictated by company policy, my first stop was the HR department for a brief orientation. As I entered a closet-like office space, void of anything reflecting personality (except that one circa 1970 Hang in There cat poster thumb-tacked just above the desk), a sandy haired 40-something-year-old man rose slightly, as a courtesy, from his armless rolling task chair to introduce himself.
“I am Toby,” he stated with a worn smile. “Go ahead and take a seat.” He gestured to a drab chair, located to one side of his wall-facing desk...fated to forever stare at the cat poster...then sank back down into his squeaky chair. Glancing down at a folder, he continued, “I see here that we met you at The Job Fair and you are a recent high school graduate. This your first intern position?” I nodded. “As the new office floater, you will be at the beck and call of our sales team. They may ask you to do various tasks to ensure their sales go smoothly. The guy you are replacing only stuck it out for three months before he quit. The guy before him only stuck it out three months before he quit. Same with the guy before him. Do you see a pattern here?”
I gulped, looking him square in the eyes, and squeaked, “Yes sir.”
“This has been on-going, through a cycle of six new interns who were also recent high school graduates. We scheduled an emergency conference call between corporate and the HR department at some of our other branches and collectively concluded that there was one common factor. Each intern had been doing an errand for a senior sales associate by the name of Stan the day before they quit.
"This is truly a mystery to our company and especially our human resources division as Stan is a personable guy and has been the number one salesman for the past 18 months. Before that, he was kind of a cynical loner and barely met his numbers each month. There was even some talk of firing him. He was the least productive and the least liked person in the office, well Hell, the whole company, if I am being truthful. The previous six interns didn't even bother to give a two-week notice...this is company policy, by the way. They just quit coming to work.”
I bucked up, intending to tell him that I had thick skin. I was a wanna-be mathlete and played in the marching band after all; and I’d had my fair share of bullying and pranks. Nothing got to me...even that one time I got pantsed just as I was walking into the gym at the Friday morning pep rally. I was carrying my tuba and beginning to play my short rift in “Smoke on the Water,'' when...WHOOSH...pants down around my ankles. I never even missed a beat as I lifted one leg after the other, still in perfect marching synchronization, leaving a sweaty little pile of trousers behind. Sure, the whole student body broke out in rip roaring laughter and called me tighty-whiteys until I graduated, but did I quit school? No! I didn't even quit band when, from the bleachers, it rained tighty-whiteys on me at our final home game performance.
These thoughts all ran through my mind in an instant, kind of like when your life flashes before your eyes right before you get hit by a train; but I simply stated, “I have thick skin. I'm your man.”
So, I set out with a purpose, my goal to outlast the obviously subpar weaker other guys and find out the mystery behind Stan and his complete turnaround just 18 months...six interns...earlier. My plan was to get close to Stan. See what made him tick. Kill him with kindness and brown nose him if I had to. Stan would be my new best friend. Then maybe I would find out why three months, to the day, seemed to be the interns’ breaking points.
Things were going pretty well, overall. Nothing too major in the way of being the designated go-fer. Running out to get fancy coffees and deli sandwiches here and there. Getting a feel for the job, and even though I didn't agree with the humor, I threw out a few “That’s what she said's,” at choice times to the chagrin of the bumbling office manager.
Paying extra special attention to get Stan's lunch orders just right, was my main focus. He and I even exchanged a few words in the breakroom one morning. He seemed pleasant enough on the outside but there was something weird about him. I often caught him just staring into space with a Mona Lisa smile on his lips; then noticing me hovering, he would pick up his phone and start dialing numbers. There was something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Like one of those transformative portraits that looks perfectly lovely from one angle; but as you move, the painting changes until you may eventually find yourself staring at a monster.
HR Toby checked up on me from time to time, as I was coming up on the three-month mark, but everything seemed cool. I felt like I was one of the guys now. Running errands, keeping the team happy, while the sales numbers continued to rise with Stan leading the way. On the morning of the three-month mark, Stan called me into his cubicle and congratulated me on the three-month anniversary. He motioned me over, just a little closer to his desk, and began to softly whisper so that I had to lean in to hear the stream of words flowing from his mouth. As I comprehended the meaning behind his words, my eyes widened in horror; and I left that day and never went back.
I drove. No. Sped home after that conversation and immediately planted myself at the compact table in the bacon-scented kitchen and opened my laptop. As Stan had instructed, I read then deleted the email he had sent.
The next morning, I started making the phone calls. I called nonstop from 8 am until 5 pm Monday through Friday. My mind wandered briefly to the previous six interns: the “other guys” that I had just a few months earlier, smugly called subpar and weak and I whispered a quick Hail Mary, praying for mercy on our souls.
My phone rang for days but I couldn't answer. I was too busy making my own calls at a table in a hollow kitchen that no longer smelled of bacon. When I finally listened to my voicemail, I had over 20 calls from HR Toby. He wanted to know what happened to my thick skin. What did Stan say to make me walk away without even collecting my small intern reimbursement?
I briefly considered letting HR Toby in on the terrible secret that was Stan, but quickly changed my mind. I picked up my cell and continued making cold calls. Cold calls on behalf of a man named Stan...sometimes Stanley. Making the sales that I knew Stan could not make himself.
The lives of seven mothers, all kept deep in a cavernous basement below Stan's suburban home, depended on it. I looked at my calendar and knew that soon, there would be an eighth caller helping us keep Stanley's sales at number one.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by a Reddit Writing Prompt
Coming soon to Horror Tree's Dark Nowhere Series for publication. Details to follow.