The volunteer, p.1
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       The Volunteer, p.1
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           Bryan Lee
The Volunteer
The Volunteer

  Bryan L. Lee

  Copyright 2011 Bryan L. Lee

  It was her snoring that woke him. A gravely, deep, rasping snore, followed by a rushing wind of exhalation, followed by a slight smacking of lips as the process prepared to repeat itself. Harry looked at the glowing orange face of his alarm clock and tried to focus his eyes. It read 12:45. “At least she’s consistent,” he thought, and started to yawn when he heard her mumbling.

  “Wahto. Mmm. Nomm.”

  Without turning over, Harry reached over and shook her shoulder.

  “Gladys. Wake up. You’re dreaming,” he said, more to the pillow than to his wife.

  “Mmm hmmm,” Gladys mumbled and rolled over on her side, taking most of the covers with her.

  Harry sighed and looked at the clock again. 12:47. He had to get up for work at six. She began to mumble again.

  “Tanto. Biscay. Earm.”

  “Gladys,” Harry said with some exasperation. “Gladys, stop mumbling and go to sleep.” She wheezed something else, then started to snore again. Harry shut his eyes tightly and pulled the pillow over his head. It was going to be a long night.

  When the alarm clock buzzed at six o’clock, Harry fumbled in the dark to turn it off. Gladys did not stir. “At least she’s quiet,” Harry thought. He lay there in the dark for a moment, then sat up, carefully pulled back the covers, and got out of bed. He was dressed and eating his Danish in the kitchen by the time he heard her stirring in the bedroom. He heard a wet cough, then smelled the smoke from her morning cigarette.

  “You’re still here?” Gladys said out of the side of her mouth as she walked into the kitchen. Her nightgown had a coffee stain on it.

  “And good morning to you too,” Harry replied and went back to his Danish.

  Gladys poured herself a cup of coffee and stood by the sink. She took a slow drag from her cigarette and exhaled.

  “You were talking in your sleep again last night,” Harry said. “Did you have a bad dream?”

  “Was I?” she asked. “I don’t remember.”

  “I couldn’t understand what you were saying, but it sounded like you were talking to someone.” He dunked his Danish in his coffee and took a bite.

  “Well, I wasn’t.” She took another slow drag from her cigarette. Harry hoped she would flick off the long ash before it fell onto the floor.

  “When are you coming home tonight?”

  “I’ll be a little late again,” Harry said. “Bob and I have to finish running through the numbers on the project.” She flicked her ashes into the sink.

  “You’re going to have to get your own dinner. Ruby and I are going bowling.”

  He knew what that meant. She would stumble home at two in the morning, sloppy drunk. Another night’s sleep shot to hell.

  “What’s the matter, Harry?” she asked, and lit another cigarette. “You forget how to cook?”

  “No,” he said to his coffee cup. “I’m sure I’ll figure out something.”

  “Damn right you will. And don’t go leaving the dishes in the dishwasher for me to put away tomorrow, either.”

  Harry finished his Danish and made a show of looking at his watch.

  “I’ve got to go,” he said, and stood up and put his cup on the counter next to the sink. “We’ll see you tonight,” he said, and grabbed his briefcase. She exhaled a long stream of smoke from the side of her mouth.

  “We’ll see you tonight Gladys,” he said again, more to himself, and walked out the door.

  Harry thought that the drive to work went more quickly than normal. He almost drove past the life-sized bronze satellite that marked the main entrance to the parking lot. Even after 14 years with the company, he still didn’t know much about satellites and telecommunications. But, he did know that they were expensive. And that made accountants like him almost as important as the scientists and engineers. The thought made him smile.

  Once he got inside, he found Bob working on Mr. Pearson’s travel receipts. The exertion had caused a slight sheen of perspiration to form on Bob’s balding head.

  “Morning Bob,” Harry said and placed a thick folder on his desk. “That’s the initial budgeting work on Project Marconi.”

  “Shhh!” Bob said, then looked around to see who was listening. He put the file in his top desk drawer without opening it.

  “Well, aren’t you even going to look at it?” Harry asked.

  Bob replied in a low voice. “Orders from Mr. Pearson. The boys in R and D are really onto something this time.”

  “I read the project description,” Harry said in an even lower voice than Bob’s. “Do you think there’s anything to it? I mean, do you think they really heard something?”

  Bob suddenly sat up and began to straighten out some papers on his desk. Harry took the hint and picked up his briefcase. The morning work teams were beginning to filter in.

  “Uh, do you still want to go over those figures?” Harry asked. Bob pointed to a note on his calendar that said “5 p.m., conference room.” Harry nodded and walked down the hall to his own office.

  At 5 p.m., Mr. Pearson introduced Dr. Weinberg who cleared his throat and wrote the words “Project Marconi” on the black board in big block letters. Then he began to chatter excitedly in his high pitched voice while he scrawled equation after equation on the board in front of him.

  When he finished, he turned to the group. “Gentlemen?” he asked. He pushed up his glasses and waited.

  Mr. Pearson stood up.

  “Walter, you know I don’t have the technical background to evaluate all of this,” he said waving his hand at the white board. “But, if you say it can be done, I’m behind you.” Mr. Pearson looked around at the room full of furrowed brows. It seemed to console him.

  “Mr. Pearson, I know it can be done,” Weinberg said in an even higher pitch than usual. “At least on a small scale.” He waved the chalk in Harry’s direction. “Our volunteers have already transmitted the first test messages.”

  Mr. Pearson slapped his hand on the table and then shook a finger at his engineers. “You hear that boys? That’s genius talking.”

  He stood up and pointed at the board, then turned to face the team. “Clear your schedules gentlemen.” He said it as if he were announcing a race. “We’ll start full-scale tomorrow.” Then he walked out the door.

  By the time Harry’s battered old dodge had pulled into his driveway, he had forgotten all about Gladys’s bowling plans. After his work day, he was relieved to find that she wasn’t home. He let himself in without bothering to take off his hat, and went straight into the bedroom. He walked up to the headboard and checked the dollar-sized silver disk he had taped behind it. Pulling back the tape, Harry saw that the tiny green light was on and shining steadily. He stared at it for a long time before finally smoothing the tape back into place.

  Harry was finishing the peas in his TV dinner when he heard the key rattle in the door. He could hear Gladys’s muffled swearing. He checked his watch, and smiled.

  The door flew open with a bang, and Gladys stood swaying in the doorway.

  “What are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice was too loud.

  “I’m eating my dinner, Gladys.”

  “Oh, what do I care? I’m going out with Ruby.” She dropped her purse onto the couch and put out an arm to steady herself. After a moment, she looked back at the dining room table.

  “What are you looking at?” she said.

  Harry shook his head and went back to his peas.

  “You’re not reading another Florida brochure are you?”

  “Well, no, I’m--”

  “I told you, we’re retiring t
o Toledo. Margaret’s in Toledo.” She reached up and scratched the back of her neck.

  “I know your sister’s in Toledo,” Harry answered back. “I’m just reading about Florida, that’s all.”

  She stumbled past him and down the hallway to the bathroom. Harry could hear her rattling through the cabinet drawers, then he heard the sound of glass breaking.

  “Gladys, what are you doing in there?”

  He got a grunt in response, and heard the medicine cabinet being opened.

  “Gladys!”

  “What?”

  “What are you doing in there?”

  She staggered back into the dining room with a bottle of aspirin in her hand. She hadn’t fixed her ruffled hair or smeared lipstick. Harry could smell the gin from where he sat.

  “My head hurts like hell,” she said and steadied herself with the back of a chair. She looked at the aspirin bottle in her hand and said “I need some water.” Her high heels clacked on the linoleum as she wobbled into the kitchen. She turned on the water then turned it off again, and moaned.

  “Harry! Damn it Harry call the hospital! My head feels like it’s going to burst.”

  She stood hunched over the sink, holding her head in both of her hands.

  He looked at the clock on the wall. It glowed in the dull orange light that shone in through the window. It read eight o’clock.

  “Harry, help me!” Gladys said and collapsed with a solid thud onto the floor.

  He picked up his TV dinner tray, and walked into the kitchen. He stepped over Gladys’s legs, opened the trash can, and dropped the tinfoil tray into it. Gladys groaned softly behind him.

  “Don’t worry Gladys,” Harry said gently. “It’s almost time.” He looked out the kitchen window. Orange light flooded the backyard, and he could hear a rhythmic, mechanical hum coming from just beyond the back porch.

  He knelt down beside her and stroked her hair, turning her face towards him. Her mascara had run and left dark streaks on her face. Smeared red lipstick exaggerated her twisted mouth.

  “Goodness Gladys, you’re a mess. You can’t be seen in that state.”

  Gladys made a weak attempt to push his hands away. Harry fended her off easily, then reached under her chin and jerked off the thin golden chain she was wearing. She gasped then was quiet.

  He stood up and walked to the kitchen door and opened it. He put his hand in front of his face to shield him from the blinding orange light. The backyard humming grew louder and more urgent.

  Gladys rolled over onto her knees and struggled to get to her feet.

  “Harry, you son of a bitch, what’s that noise? What did you do to me?” The exertion made her pant.

  Harry turned his head towards her. He looked like a boy about to go to the circus. “I didn’t do anything to you Gladys. They did.”

  Harry held out the necklace at arm’s length in front of him. The windows of the house began to rattle. He almost had to shout to be heard.

  “I taped the transmitter to your headboard. They’ve been talking to you for over a week now. At night, when you’ve been sleeping.”

  Gladys stared with wide eyes at Harry. The blazing orange light seemed to make him glow.

  A quivering purple tentacle with a circle of delicate pincers at the end came through the kitchen door. It seemed to sniff the air for a moment, then gently took the gold chain out of Harry’s hand. A gurgling, squealing noise erupted just outside of his view, and a second tentacle appeared. Harry smiled and pointed to the kitchen.

  “Dr. Weinberg asked for volunteers Gladys,” Harry shouted over the hum and Gladys’s screams. Six purple tentacles appeared and dragged Gladys out of the kitchen and into the silver space ship outside. He followed her onto the porch and waved as she disappeared up the shallow boarding ramp. “Of course, I volunteered you,” he said, and watched with a smile as the silver space ship ascended into the night.

 

 
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