FICTION
The Worst
Serena Johe

Photo by Jeremy Ricketts on Unsplash

My son is dead and it’s your fault, Mr. Clark. Yours and your father’s.

That’s what Rosa wants to say as she stands in front of Richard Clark’s desk, bringing Richard Clark his coffee, looking at Richard Clark’s handsome face and the measured striations of gray in his hair.

Javier is dead, Mr. Clark, here is your coffee. Two sugars, four creams, just the way you like it.

But he doesn’t look up, and Rosa doesn’t say it. She puts the paper cup down by the container of pens on the corner of his desk, a napkin neatly folded underneath, and steps back onto the coarse woolen rug in the center of his office. “Is there anything else I can get for you, Mr. Clark?”

“No, no, thank you, Rosa.” He flaps his hand in the direction of the door. “That will be all.”

Rosa nods. He still does not look up from the stack of documents.

Her heels clack resonantly against the hallway floor as she retreats to her desk, glad to be out of his presence and in the relative comfort of her own office. It’s small, sparsely decorated. She’s worked under Mr. Clark for just one month. Her first day of employment is circled in red on the calendar pinned to her wall, and the day of Javier’s death, another three pages back.

She sits and taps the computer monitor back to life. It’s mundane work. Prioritizing emails, sending them to their appropriate departments, delivering messages. Rosa treats her job with all the dispassion it deserves. Mechanically, she drags the messages into corresponding folders on the office cloud server. At noon, she breaks for lunch, just long enough to finish a convenience store sandwich and bring Mr. Clark his second cup of coffee. He dismisses her politely and still does not look up.

More emails. More junk. Many, many complaints, but that’s hardly unusual. There isn’t a legislator alive who doesn’t find himself bombarded with grievances of one kind or another. Lord knows Rosa has more than the average person. At six in the evening, she logs out and shuts down the computer, stretches her restless legs, and heads back to Mr. Clark’s office. Her body isn’t suited for this, she thinks. These long, motionless hours, the strained tugging somewhere deep behind her eyes.

She reaches the thick wooden door of his office. The golden plaque at the top gleams his name mockingly, as if she could ever forget it. She knocks softly.

“Come in.”

Rosa steps fully inside and shuts the door behind her. “I’m going home. Is there anything else I can do for you, before I leave?”

“No,” he replies thoughtlessly, but then pauses, lifting his pen from the papers underneath. He finally looks at her, but only for a moment. His irises are bright. A warm, jovial brown. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes are the only facial flaw unaltered by injections and creams, and she suspects these are purposely untouched to add to the conscientious, fatherly image his campaign managers use to promote him. “Actually, more coffee would be nice, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Planning to stay late?”

“Not terribly. But the city never rests, you know.” He smiles, the slightest upturn of his lips, and returns to his work.

Rosa stirs cream and sugar into the coffee and brings Mr. Clark his third cup of the day. She whistles cheerfully as she strides down the hallway. This is, after all, the most satisfying part of her job.

#

Rosa’s home is cluttered and heart wrenchingly empty. Pictures of Javier decorate the walls, the small table by the door, the windowsills. They’d been there even before Javier died, and she won’t take them down now. Desiccated black-edged carnations from the informal funeral still occupy a vase on the coffee table. The last thing Rosa wants to remember is that Javier is dead, but without a corpse or a grave to mourn over, the flowers are a necessary reminder against futile hope.

It takes an hour and four beers for her to ascend the stairs to Javier’s room. Her socked feet fall heavily against the steps. The rail bends with her weight leaned against it. The floorboards creak despairingly underneath the carpet. She pushes open Javier’s door and wishes it, like the rest of her home, would announce her entrance by a squeak of its antiquated hinges, if only to make the silence more bearable. Empty boxes lay open by the doorway, and Rosa kicks them toward the bed. Three months later, and she still can’t bring herself to sort through his things.

Stepping around the pile of dirty clothes on the floor, she compulsively reaches out to touch the basketball trophy on Javier’s desk but doesn’t. Her hand snaps back to her side. She leaves the settled dust and the mess and all the things they say about Javier to linger, the remnants of him entombed in this room but warped now by his death, abstracted and strange like the last impossible thoughts before sleep. She reaches instead for the one thing she has changed. Rosa opens the drawer of his nightstand and removes the false bottom. Javier’s stash lays preserved in plastic underneath, and the hatred tightening the muscles in her jaw nearly matches the resentment she holds for Mr. Clark.

The drugs are laced. The papers call it “the Rapture”: some highly addictive substance dealers began mixing into their merchandise, and Javier, like so many others, disappeared in the search to sate his unquenchable addiction. Missing to who knows where. She doesn’t allow herself to wonder; no one returns except, occasionally, in a bag, and nothing of substance has or will be done about it. Certainly not by Mr. Clark. Certainly not by his father. There’s no need to clean up the streets when the streets clean themselves, after all.

Conspiracy theories abound, but Rosa doesn’t need rumors to know where to point her finger, and she does not fool herself into thinking her son will be an exception, or that he might one day return. He’s dead. Believing anything else will only delay the merciful scabbing of the open wound on her heart.

#

Every seat in the conference room is occupied, and Rosa thinks the meeting must be important, though she can’t discern why. She’s stood in the corner for the past hour-and-a-half, patiently on-call for anything Mr. Clark might need. It’s been very little. She’s bored and their talk hardly helps pass the time. Mostly, their conversations amount to a few half-hearted policy ideas, some muttered diatribe about the upcoming election, and repetitious rounds of compliments. The main event came and passed already – Clark Sr.’s brief appearance to a hearty round of congratulations and handshakes. Their jovial greetings may as well have been parroted straight from the newspaper headlines: Lower crime rates! Lower expenditures! Lower taxes! People gone, missing, dead, though they don’t say that.

Still, Clark Sr.’s become something of a celebrity, and Mr. Clark along with him. Some people find their purposeful negligence worth commending – the people in this room, particularly so. Rosa smiles, stares blithely at the wall, and does not contradict them, though she knows better. They may be immunized to the silenced suffering of the city, but she’s well aware that the worst thing that happens in one’s life is often what happens to another’s.

At one in the afternoon, the group breaks for lunch. The caterers stride through the door dragging wheeled carts blanketed with sandwiches and pastries, soda, coffee and tea. Mr. Clark stands and stretches. He grabs a plate but pauses at the carafes. “Rosa?” She straightens, smiles at him. “Would you mind making me some coffee?”

“Of course not, Mr. Clark.”

He rejoins the group of lively politicians at the table while she stirs cream and sugar into a cup. The chitchat and exuberant laughter registers as one continuous note in her ears, just more of the same, which is fine. She’d rather not hear it anyway.

She places the paper cup by his plate. Across the table, Mr. Brigg’s waves a hand in her direction. “Don’t tell me you’re too much of a hotshot to make your own coffee now, Richard.”

“Hardly.” Mr. Clark laughs good-naturedly. He brings the cup to his lips, takes a long drink, and sighs with exaggerated contentment. “Rosa just happens to make it the best. She knows just how I like it.”

“As if you need any more coffee,” Mr. Bennett jokes, pointing at Mr. Clark’s hands. “I can see your fingers trembling from here.”

The group laughs, and Mr. Clark along with them. Even Rosa chuckles quietly.

“What can I say? I’ve been working late recently.”

“He’s become a regular workaholic,” Rosa confirms.

He’s passed increasingly more time stooped over his office desk since she’d been hired. Most of those hours are spent organizing and reviewing documents, making phone calls, building relations and scheduling appointments. Tonight proves no different. The meeting ends at two, and Rosa prepares to depart at her usual six in the evening only for Mr. Clark to stop her.

She entered his office to take any last minute requests but now idles in his doorway. The meeting went well, but Mr. Clark appears agitated nonetheless. He seems to be snagged on one thought or another, glancing urgently between his computer screen and the top of his desk and Rosa, unable to grasp whatever pressing thought keeps rapidly fleeing from him. She wonders if he notices the way his fingers twitch against the desk and decides he probably does not.

“This backlog of paperwork,” Mr. Clark grumbles. The sound of his own voice jars him slightly, and his expression clears. “It’s driving me a little crazy, I think. You know how tedious this sort of thing can be.”

“Yes, sir.”

He smiles apologetically. “Would you mind staying late tonight? I could use the help.”

“I have something planned this evening. How late were you thinking?”

“Not too late,” Mr. Clark replies in a rush. He at last notices the quiver in his fingers and slides his hands into his lap, though it doesn’t appear to worry him. There are more urgent concerns. “Just until I’ve finished – not too late, though. I could really use the help.”

Rosa doesn’t immediately answer. His irritation visibly grows with each passing second until it seems to buckle under its own intensity. His concentration lapses again, and she calmly studies his face. A sallow blue darkens the skin underneath his eyes. He must be very tired, Rosa thinks, and steps toward the door. The movement catches his attention. He lifts a hand to stop her. She already knows what he’ll say, but for the sake of consistency, she speaks before he can, “Of course I’ll stay, sir. Is there anything I can get for you?”

“Yes,” Mr. Clark slumps a little in his chair, relieved. He tips his empty mug towards her. “Would you mind bringing me another coffee?”

#

It’s three in the morning. Rosa has not slept. She’d hoped the sound of the crickets replete in the un-mowed grass of her backyard might lull her to sleep, but the air-conditioner sputtered and clanked in protest at the open window until she finally closed it. Now, lying in the dark, the silence tunnels through her ears and nests under her skin like a thick sheet of ice. She tries to comfort herself with the thought that Javier wouldn’t have been home at this hour anyway. Not during the summer. He would be at Carlos’ house, up late playing Xbox, pilfering cigarettes from Carlos’ mother, and trying to lie about it behind a guilty smile. She’d always been able to tell when he lied.

But Javier won’t be home, now or ever, yet the knock on the door does not surprise her. Rosa takes her time getting out of bed. She grabs her bathrobe and descends the stairs. By the time she reaches the door, the man behind it has knocked three more times. She doesn’t bother checking the peephole.

“Mr. Clark,” she greets. “What are you doing here at this hour?”

Disheveled, backlit by her porch light, and only half dressed in boxers and his unbuttoned work shirt, Mr. Clark tries to smile at her. He partly succeeds, but as if he can’t quite remember how. The corners of his mouth pull outward instead of upward. His teeth part, his nostrils flare, his lips twitch. Then, all at once, his face slackens, leaving his jaw hanging slightly open. A mosquito descends above the drop of sweat on his forehead. He does not move to swat it away.

“Are you alright?” Rosa asks.

A flicker of recognition breaks through the cloudiness overlaying his eyes. He startles, flinching as if he’s only now noticed her. “Fine. I’m fine. How are you, Rosa?”

“I’m doing well,” she annunciates the words slowly. He nods once. “Did you need something, sir?”

“Yes, actually,” Mr. Clark clears his throat. He tries to peer around her and into her home, and Rosa steps back to further open the door. His bare feet are scratched and bleeding in places. She wonders how he got here.

They make it into the living room before he seems to recognize the absurdity of his situation. Mr. Clark inhales deeply, the breath catching several times in his throat, and then he lowers himself onto the couch and sighs. He runs a hand through his hair and stops with it atop his head. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure…”

The blank expression on his face is achingly familiar. Rosa takes a seat across from him. “It’s alright. What do you need, sir?”

“Coffee,” he blurts the word as if it’s one syllable. Then, calmly, “Would you mind?”

“I’m afraid I don’t have any.”

Mr. Clark’s shoulders tense. “I’m sure you do – you must. You make me coffee all the time.”

“At work,” Rosa corrects. “I don’t drink it, myself.”

“You’re lying.” He’s on his feet in an instant. Rosa doesn’t react to his hostile posture. Mr. Clark takes a step toward her, stills completely, and begins to pace. His arms hang limply at his sides as if he’s only half aware of the movement. “I don’t understand. This doesn’t – you must be lying. You must have coffee somewhere.”

“I don’t. You can look yourself, if you’d like.”

“I’ll fire you,” he warns, his voice ragged and furious. Rosa laughs. She makes her way to the kitchen. A minute later, she returns without coffee, though not empty-handed. She sets the mug of hot water on the table. Mr. Clark grunts irately. “What is that?”

Rosa drops a few pinches of Javier’s stash into the water and stirs. She brought the container of sugar out of habit, and finding no reason not too, adds some into the cup. “Here,” she passes him the mug. “Drink.”

He does. They sit in silence while he drains the liquid and drops the empty mug onto the wooden tabletop with a clatter. The muscles in his forearms twitch as if pulsed with electricity. He scrubs his hands over his face. His skin flushes a bright red, and immediately, his eyes drift to the plastic bag.

“Keep it,” Rosa offers. There’s not much left. He’ll finish it before the sun rises. With no small amount of urgency, Mr. Clark snatches it from the table but stops abruptly with it in his hands, staring helplessly at the drugs, and then at Rosa. She gently ushers him to the door and outside onto her porch. “Go on, sir. I think you can make your own coffee now.”

He’s calmed somewhat from his disoriented rage, but his gaze still lingers unseeingly on some point between them as he speaks. His voice barely reaches a whisper. “You won’t tell anyone about this, will you?”

“Of course not,” Rosa soothes. “Goodbye, Mr. Clark.”

She shuts the door. He stands there for some time, motionless. When the porch creaks at his retreating steps, she checks the peephole, watches him walk away with his fingers white-knuckled around the bag, and climbs the stairs back to her room. She lies in bed and closes her eyes. The silence does not ring her ears anymore. The emptiness is not so powerful. In the morning, she’ll tell Clark Sr. that his son appeared on her doorstep asking for drugs, and that he’d vanished. Been “raptured,” as the papers call it.

Maybe he’ll be forced to confront the problem now, with his son missing. Gone to wherever they go. Maybe there won’t have to be others, but then again, Clark Sr. would hardly be the first politician to choose his career over his family. There’s a chance he won’t do anything at all.

She can only hope it’s the former, but either way, she doesn’t worry about what Mr. Clark might say about her involvement. She won’t be seeing him again.


Serena Johe is an avid reader and writer with a particular interest in speculative fiction. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Waccamaw, The Colored Lens, Chantwood Magazine, Schlock!, Typehouse, and The Forge Literary Magazine, amongst others.