The Box by Sidney Thompson

“I’m starting the video now,” said Finance Manager Kim Mickel, known in the sales tower as “Chemical.”

“Do what?” said Claude, looking up at the corners of the ceiling.

“No, smile right here,” said Kim, pointing to the camera mounted to the top of his monitor and aimed in the direction of Claude’s look of horror.  “It’s standard procedure.  To protect you as well as us.  It’s a good thing.”

Claude turned to consult Jodie, and she and Emma were unexpectedly serene.  “It’s okay, baby,” whispered Jodie, barely audible, as she gently patted Emma’s small back with a pretty hand, saying, “Shhhh, baby, shhhh.”

“All right,” said Kim, “how about we start with something easy, the Arbitration Agreement.”

Claude thought of last night, how they were kissing and he broke the kiss to ask Jodie if he could have a taste, a short one.

“A short one and that’s it,” she’d said. “The last time, Claude.  I mean it.”

“The last time?”

“The last time,” she’d said.

He’d debated, but there was nothing to debate.  “Okay.”

She’d rolled away from him, and on her back she drew her shirt up over her breasts.  “Go ahead, I love you, but this is it, okay?”

He’d nodded, then looked away from the night shine of her eyes and admired her chest in the faint light.  He traced her nipples with his fingertips, then between her breasts, beneath them.  They were as soft as two-month Emma was soft everywhere.  Then he lowered his open mouth over the nearest nipple and cupped the breast in his hand, pausing a moment to slow the moment before sucking the sweet warmth onto his tongue and down his throat.

He’d believed he could take the PT Cruiser better if he thought of its color as baby’s milk.  Not opal.  He would always think of it as baby’s milk.  Baby’s milk for Emma, from Jodie, his very last time.

“This what you really want?” said Claude.

When Jodie glanced at him, she was surprised and relieved he was looking at her, and not down or off somewhere unknown.

“We don’t have to if you don’t want to,” she said.

“Well, of course, we wouldn’t expect you to do anything you didn’t want to do,” said Kim.  “Here,” he said reaching for his mouse, “let me turn this off.”

“I don’t want to,” said Claude.

Jodie’s eyes lingered on Claude’s.  Not since the day they got married at the court house, right after they’d signed the certificate but before they’d paid for it, had they looked at each other full on like that before a witness.  And then she turned away.  “Sorry,” she told Kim.  She stood.  “Real sorry.”

Claude hopped out of his chair, scooped up the car seat, and got the door to follow Jodie and Emma out.  Then he ran around to get the next door, praying their salesman—what was it, Gary, Garrett?—wouldn’t see them and call out, and then Jodie would have to stop and apologize all over again.  But so far there was nothing but silence, it seemed like silence, not hearing his name called out as they slipped away gingerly into the warmer air with the stars, their 1999 Oldsmobile Alero with no air parked right there across the lane, like it was waiting on them, bald tires and all, like it was supposed to be this way awhile longer, their first car together.

Gingerly for Claude because his shoes were forever greased from KFC, where he worked as an assistant manager and had met Jodie a year ago.  She was on break from the Pizza Hut next door and still wearing her name tag, so he said, “Hi, Jodie, how can I help you?”  She was short forty-two cents.  “That’s how you can help, Claude,” she smiled, and he said he had it covered, then tossed in honey sauce for her biscuit without her even having to ask.

Now, he groaned with relief and rattled the car seat high above his head, leading their slow but steady charge.

And hugging Emma closer, Jodie jogged after him, swearing Emma for the first time was laughing, was drooling, but Jodie was leaking and Emma was crying.  They were all so hungry.

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About the Author

Sidney Thompson is the author of the short story collection Sideshow. His fiction has appeared in such journals as The Southern Review, Carolina Quarterly, and The Fat City Review, and is forthcoming in 2 Bridges Review and NANO Fiction.  He lives in Denton, Texas, where he teaches creative writing at Texas Woman’s University.