The Horrible Initiative

Beside the board stands a young man, presumably Mr. P P-G. On his smooth face, a series of feel-your-pain frowns and so-encouraging smiles alternate as appropriate.

The Horrible Initiative
Photo by Mario Gogh / Unsplash

by Thea T. Kelley

In the dim basement of a decrepit office building, a man-sized mound of wet winter clothing hunches over a desk. A black rain jacket drips onto the carpeting. Fingers flicker over a tablet computer, the transient glows of which suggest a sputtering fire that is almost, but not quite, quenched by the sodden mass that hangs over it.

An appreciative mutter. “Now that’s an idea. For later.”

Something within the mound writhes, tosses aside a hat and two yards of woolen muffler, and becomes a young man with brown hair. He pushes his glasses further up his thin face and checks the tablet.

“Eight twenty-seven. Almost time.” He picks up the device and a flat cardboard box, leans back in his chair and speaks to the ceiling. “Well, sir, I think today’s the day. You can’t reasonably say ‘no’ anymore. And although I doubt your ass is looming above my head quite yet, I’ll be up there on time, awaiting your eventual entrance . . .”

With the box tucked under his arm he strides out of the cubicle-cave, glances down a hallway to the rain-slapped exit door, then ascends an echoing stairwell that discreetly drowns the sound of his whisper, “. . . in the presence of the incomparable Ruby.”

He steps into the second-floor office suite. Through the blades of a monstrous dracaena plant, the burgundy streak in her long black hair gleams like a beacon. He sets forth, an underfed Tarzan slouching through the jungle to her alcove.

“Bert! Good morning.” A waft of violets and eyelinered sympathy. “Of course he’s not here yet.”

Bert settles into a guest chair, admiring her ability to wear a silver-and-rose feather boa as bespoke business attire. On Ruby, a headset is a crown. Competently short fingernails, silver-painted, tap her keyboard. On the corner of her desk a book is trapped beneath an insulated lunch bag. Seeing his interest, she nods a go-ahead. He slips it free, flips through it.

The phone rings. “Horrible,” she carols into the headset. “May I help you? Yes, this is Richard Dinwiddie’s office but he’s not available right now. Certainly, I’ll tell him. Thanks, bye!”

“The King of Elfland’s Daughter,” Bert reads aloud, then turns to the back cover. “I’ve heard of this author. Any good?”

“He’s brilliant.” She gazes fondly at the black-and-white image, a handsome Brit with a mustache.

“Do I detect an actual crush on Lord Dunsany?”

“Well, if I can’t find the right man in my own century—” The phone again.

“Horrible—no, not the Orville Company, they’re in Freeport. This is The Horrible Company . . . no worries, have a nice day.”

She hangs up, returns her attention to the computer.

“How’s the new chair working out for you?” Bert inquires.

“Better than the old one. But it’s still not quite . . .” She fidgets, frowning.

“It’s not adjusted right for you. May I?” She nods, and he steps over to the chair, flips a lever, pushes, pulls. “How’s that?”

She wriggles a bit, testing, then grins. “Like I could conquer the world.”

“Sounds about right.” He glows at her, then quickly looks away. A wall calendar catches his eye, an 18th-century painting of witches cavorting around a bonfire. “Nice art. But you’ve skipped ahead to February.”

“January’s picture made Dinwiddie nervous.” She purses her lips, considering. “Frightened, I’d even say.”

Bert pulls the thumbtack, turns back the page. Another group of revelers are gathered in a circle, this time on a dark hillside, apparently listening to a talking goat that sits upright like a man. One long, twisted horn catches the moonlight.

“Fear of one-horned goats?”

“It’s not—see, there are two horns, one’s in shadow. No, I think he’s afraid of devils. Even pictures of them.”

“That’s kinda odd.”

“He’s president of The Horrible Company. You expect normal?” She gestures to the box next to Bert’s chair. “Whatcha got there?”

“Just a product idea I mocked up.” He opens the box and hands it to her.

“What are these? They’re pretty.”

“Tattoo stencils.”

“Speaking of normal. This is. So how is it our kind of thing?”

He recites, “The Private Places Tattoo Kit, for those hard-to-reach areas including eyelids, interdigital folds and much more.” His cheeks are turning a manly pink. “Um, careful, there are some very tiny ones there.”

Her eyebrows flee under her bangs. “Say no more. Unsettling, if not as hard-hitting as your blockbuster from last spring, the Drastic Weight Loss System. Lemme see if I remember . . . ‘Tips and tools your doctor will never tell you. Knife sharpener included.’ The orders are still pouring in, by the way.”


“Well, the surging trickle that counts for such at HC, Inc. Your products sell.”

“Oh, they’re not really my products.”

She rolls her beryl-brown eyes. “Yes, I know, you ‘just contributed an idea.’ Bert my boy, you should be in R&D, not Facilities.”

“Well. That’s what I’m talking to him about this morning.”

“Hey! You go, guy! Maybe this time he’ll see reason.” She sighs and picks up a mug of coffee. “I don’t know why you stay.”

“I think about quitting. Daily. But . . .” He looks down, swallowing, as her lips touch the rim of the cup. “This place has gotten under my skin.”

“That’s a horrible thought.”

His funereal face is enlivened by an aha! “That is—a Horrible idea, actually.” He taps a note into his tablet. “Anyway, I should have a better chance at the product job, now that there’s an open slot with Jason leaving. I’m going to ask for that position.”

Pity dims her luster. “Well, I hope you get it, but fourth-quarter sales were so pathetic. Apparently all those special someones who ‘deserve a Horrible Holiday Surprise’ got ordinary gifts instead. And the owners have been acting weird lately.”

“The Horabecks? Weird? You don’t say.”

She smirks, raising one brow.

From across the cubicle plantation comes the sound of the front door opening and a loud male voice tossing mock-jocular greetings at an employee, then apparently concluding a cell phone conversation. “Well yes, times are hard all over, but call back when you’ve got better news for us.” No goodbye.

The source heaves into view, a paunchy 50-something dropping a phone into a suit pocket. His sunburned bald spot is almost as red as his necktie. A glazed look slides past Bert, flicks over his secretary’s blouse, settles on her face.

“Morning, Ruby, and, eh…” Still facing her, he lifts a questioning chin towards Bert.

Ruby supplies a gentle hint. “Your first meeting this morning?”

“Well of course, I knew that, I was just uh, wondering whether, uh, there were any urgent messages. No? Okay.”

He turns to his eight-thirty and booms, “Bart! How’s it going down there in the bowels of the building? Everything moving smoothly, eh?” He chortles, delighted to share the gift of humor.

Bert grimaces pleasantly.

Twenty minutes later, Bert and the boss are sitting on opposite sides of a huge desk, in the middle of which rests the box of stencils. Dinwiddie slaps the unopened box to emphasize his words. “Well, sure”—slap!—“tattoos are popular these days, aren’t they? I think they’re all horrible myself, but I guess you’ve found a way to capitalize the H, as it were”—slap! He tosses the box onto his couch and guffaws at his own joke, at length.

Finally coming up for air, he says, “But we’ll have to see what Marketing says, right? You’re an idea guy, aren’t you? That idea about switching maintenance vendors was a winner. Cost-saving ideas, Bert, that’s what I need from you!”

“I can find cost savings from any position in the company. And beyond saving money, my product ideas have been making money, right?”

“Have they?”

“The email I sent last week? With the figures?”

Dinwiddie hits keys, peers at his monitor. “Oh, uh . . . not too bad. But of course R&D really ran with those.”

“To be honest, there wasn’t much running to do. Like the Do-It-Yourself Leech Kit. It’s pretty simple—a few dozen live, vigorous leeches plus an instruction booklet. And it’s in the top twenty-five percent.”

“So, you’ve had a couple ideas—”

“—and the Gurgle Unguent—”

“Gurgle . . . what is that, anyway? What’s it do?”

Bert squints. “It’s best not to ask.”

“I see. Well, what do we say about it on the website?”



“Top 10%.”

“Okay, so you’ve had a few good ideas for the Personal Care line.”

“And Home, including Installations—the headless statue garden. And Collectors, and Gourmet Foods.”

“Food?” The boss’s mouth opens slightly, his gaze drifting out the window to the donut shop across the street.

“The Attic Melange Loaf has been a huge seasonal hit for the past three years.”

The mouth twists shut, but the lull is brief.

“Well, we’ve got a pretty smart Facilities guy! Super! We welcome suggestions wherever they come from. Everybody innovates, that’s the Horrible philosophy. That’s why we’re in the Fortune Five Million, eh?” Chuckles rasp from the faux-jovial rictus that splits his face.

The tide of mirth retreating, Bert draws himself up. “Well exactly, Richard. And now there’s that empty slot in R&D, and I think I’m the right person to fill—”

“We’re not going to fill it.”

Bert pales, tight-lipped.

Dinwiddie bangs his hands together, signaling the meeting is over. “Times are a bit lean lately, so you just keep focusing on economy and efficiency and all that good stuff. Oh, and you’re welcome to share your ideas. But we need you downstairs. Bottom line, bottom floor! Thanks for dropping by, always good to chat, my door’s always open, except when it isn’t!”

His roar of hilarity propels the Facilities guy out of the office.

Four working days have passed, a minuscule mote in the lifetime of the ancient elevator that groans open, disgorging a hand truck stacked with boxes and topped with a head, Bert’s. Boxes and head make their way down an aisle between office doors and cubicle partitions, halting at the open door of the kitchen.

Bert emerges from behind the boxes and steps up to the fridge. A stickie note on its door warns, “Go ahead, steal other people’s food. Find out which item is poisoned.” He extracts a canned drink.

A man with a long, frizzy beard waves him over to a table where huddles a cabal of co-workers.

“Greetings, everyone,” Bert says. “What’s up?”

“More down than up,” says the beard. “Revenue is down. And something’s going down in the conference room with the Horabecks, who are down from Fairview.”

Bert sinks onto a plastic chair. “Dinwiddie’s meeting with the owners? What’re they here for?”

Glum looks around the table.

“I would guess,” a pale-skinned woman in black intones, “they are here to decide our goddamned fate.”

It is Friday, a day named for the Norse deity Frigg, who knew all fates yet would tell no fortunes. Whose name, appropriately enough, is a minced oath, a euphemism for a verb sometimes used to mean: to cheat, to destroy, to screw someone over.

The HC’s employees are frigged.

Late Monday morning, Ruby closes a spreadsheet and opens an instant messaging window.

RubyS:  hey

BertramB:  hey, how R U

RubyS:  OK & U?

BertramB:  i’m above ground, how was yr wknd

RubyS:  gr8

BertramB:  yes?

RubyS:  Jared Johnson concert in Boston

BertramB:  good?

RubyS:  he’s brilliant!

BertramB:  long trip, how’d you get there

RubyS:  went with some guy, had a car

BertramB:  IC

RubyS:  car A+, guy C-

BertramB:  o well

RubyS:  how bout you

There’s no answer. She yawns and stretches, then types again.

RubyS:  you there? how was yr wknd

BertramB:  o. i helped new roommate move in

RubyS:  thats how many roomies now?

BertramB:  5

RubyS:  mores the merrier?

BertramB:  if u say so. i need a new apt. for which i need a raise. for which i need a promotion. for which i hope in vain, apparently

RubyS:   :(

RubyS:   im rootin for ya

RubyS:   if I may change subject

BertramB:  please do

RubyS:  curious re the meeting last Fri?

BertramB:   i thought you’d never ask

RubyS:   Big D’s hiring a consultant 2 try 2 turn the biz around

BertramB:   splendid. how can it go wrong?

Two days later the cramped conference room is packed, its long table lined with a hodgepodge of old men in suits. At the end sits Dinwiddie, enthroned in the tallest chair, with Ruby at his right hand taking notes.

A  whiteboard is headed H&C TRANSFORMATION PROCESS. Apparently no one has pointed out that it’s HC, no “&”. The corner of the board nearest Dinwiddie proclaims “Digg, Twist & Dunne Consulting,” and below that, “Pearce Payden-Greene, MBA.” Beside the board stands a young man, presumably Mr. P P-G. On his smooth face, a series of feel-your-pain frowns and so-encouraging smiles alternate as appropriate. His small, almost-bulging eyes have two settings: zoom and dart.

The whiteboard has been busily inked with diagrams, numbers and insightful phrases like “pivot points for uptrending outcomes” and “robust e-tail performance.” In the interests of transparency and participatory management, the door is open and staff have been allowed to congregate around the threshold like peasants begging for crusts.

The consultant indicates the extra-tall chair. “Group, we’ve heard at length from Richard, and also from the managers, about the potentialities to be targeted in our work together. How about if we hear from the line staff now. Who would like to start?”

A chair creaks within the conference room. The IT guy breathes noisily. Outside the door a woman whispers.

P P-G waits.

A guy leaning against a cubicle calls out politely. “Well, I agree with what Norman said about professional development opportunities, and—”

“Absolutely,” booms Dinwiddie, turning to the suit next to him. “That was a great point, Norman, and as soon as we get our forecasts trending up again, I’m putting you on it.”

The cubicle-dweller calls, “Um, actually I didn’t mean after—”

“Yes, well, matters of timing, let’s not go granular right now.” He aims his mouth at the door. “Don’t worry about it, er—”

“Justin,” the voice calls.

“—right, Dustin, thanks for your input.”

The consultant’s attention flits from the cubicles to the head of the table. “Anybody else? What you’d like to get out of this process?”

A throat clears among the rabble. “Keep our jobs,” comes a voice. Heads nod outside and inside the room.

“Excellent, we have a multilevel convergence on that issue! Any suggestions for action items or objectives to help actualize that endpoint?”

A few eyes glance uneasily toward Dinwiddie, then away.

“Well, maybe we should table that discussion, as I see it’s almost five and we’re accountable to the schedule per previous agreeance.” He writes “Action Steps” on the whiteboard. “A survey instrument is now posted on the intranet for your completion by COB Wednesday. We’ll analyze all the data and then reconvene.”

“Thank you all for joining us again,” says Pearce Payden-Greene the following Monday.

The same suits are crowded in. Only a few staffers hover outside this time, Bert among them in a borrowed lunchroom chair, tablet in lap. He’s directly in line-of-sight of Dinwiddie but apparently unnoticed by the latter.

“I’m sure you’re all excited to examine the data in detail,” P P-G continues, “and we’ll do that. However, preliminary analysis by the Change Committee”—P P-G nods to Dinwiddie and one other suit—“leads us to a highly concerning hypothesis. It appears that H&C does not intimately understand its customers.”

Grumbles and sighs emanate from the suits. One of them, a man with a colorful tie, raises a sardonically tinged voice. “Pearce, our customers consist of several thousand P.O. box addresses. They never respond to surveys of any kind. All we know about them is that they buy Horrible Holiday Baskets for their friends—or used to—and Butt Biscuits for their dogs. So exactly how are you suggesting we learn to intimately understand these people?”

P P-G’s face switches to feel-your-pain. “Eugene, I hear you, and I applaud your previous efforts. What I propose now is a methodology called action research. In short, we’ll be asking you all, managers and staff, to put yourselves in the customers’ shoes, to”—he hesitates—“to use the products.”

Dinwiddie breaks the stunned silence. “That’s right! Team, I know this is uh, an innovation. It’ll take some guts to implement it, so I’ve already volunteered. I’m sure there’s a lot of commitment around this table—and out there on the floor—and I expect product reviews from you by next week. That’s all for today.”

Outside the door, Bert says “huh,” tapping keys, looking up only to nod thoughtfully at Ruby Sharpe.

A few minutes later in his cubby, he receives a ping.

RubyS:  so the problem has nothing to do w/ mgmt of course

BertramB:  o no, course not.   :P   i wonder how P-G talked him into volunteering

RubyS:  you kidding? the big D’s always gotta be first

BertramB:  OIC

BertramB:  but he wont be the only, weve got some strange rangers round here

BertramB:  including me

RubyS:  ha ha, me too, I could give some of this s##t a go

BertramB:  brave lass

RubyS:  but will we save the world

BertramB:  not that way, but…

RubyS:  yes?

BertramB:  ive got an idea

It is February, the month ruled by Februus, Roman god of purification. Of atonement.

The absence of managers is notable as a small party of employees chomp chips and burritos at an out-of-the-way taqueria.

A twenty-something blonde with a baked-in ironic expression pipes up. “So, what’s this meeting about?”

“Tell ya in a sec when everybody’s here, Trina,” says Ruby. “But hey, I hear some of us have tried out some of these inventions we sell.”

“What’d you try, Rube?” says Trina.

“Well, let’s just say I suffered for art. Some very tiny art that’s not on view to the public.”

Bert shifts in his seat.

“Dude, you look like you tried the Chilly Cheeks,” the guy with the long beard says.

“No, I’ll leave the assless winter wear to you, Barth.”

“Gee thanks, dude.”

“Actually, it should be obvious I’ve been using Great Spot Blemish Enhancer.”

“Oh, it is, dude.”

“Feast your eyes. I’ve filled out the user questionnaire and I’m done. The benzoyl peroxide goes on next time I hit the restroom.”

“Please,” Barth pleads. “So anyway, I sampled the Viscous Murmur Bindings.”

“What do those do?” asks a wide-eyed guy who looks too young for his mug of beer. Perhaps he’s new.

“Best not to ask,” chorus several others.

The feeding continues undeterred.

A sepulchral voice emerges from a vast, gunmetal-gray hoodie looming over the far corner of the table. In its depths, beady eyes can just be seen poring over a small white booklet held in a dirty-fingernailed hand. “You people are amateurs. I got the DIY Piercing Pack.” In a basso attempt at a nerdy voice, he reads, “‘Embarrassed to bare it all to the piercer? Kit includes dermal punch, forceps, hemostat, ball grabber and 10-day course of antibiotics.’”

“So what, Amos?” says Trina. “I’ve pierced my own ears with a sewing needle and a little alcohol.”

The hand pushes back the hood. The cheeks and forehead are pocked with paisley whorls of hardware. From the nose dangle iron boogers. From rings affixed at the corners of the eyes, chains pull heavily on the skin, forcing his face into an expression of abject suffering.

Murmurs of awe.

Trina breaks the hush. “Yeah, that’s pretty hardcore. But.” She holds up a CD player. “I listened to the entire 80 minutes of The Earworm Anthology. And if you think it’s not that bad, I’m gonna press this button and you all can spend the rest of your week humming ‘It’s a Small World,’ ‘Do My Thang’ or ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.’ Okay? My finger’s on the play button.”

Forks clatter onto plates. Chewing slows to a halt. The woman beside her snatches the player away. “People are eating here!”

A jangle of bells at the front door, and a pale woman is hurrying toward them, in black as always.

“Hey, Crow!” says Ruby.

“Sorry I’m late. So what’s this meeting about?” She takes the last open chair.

Calls of “Yeah, tell us, Ruby!”

The president’s secretary leans forward, her voice velvet-gloved. “So, it’s a big duh that this company is in trouble, and we all know the Real Problem sits ten feet past my desk.”

“The Big Dick himself,” says a cherubic redhead, testing the edge of a table knife.

Trina eyes the knife. “No-no, Polly.” Her face says yes-yes.

“Hey, Ruby,” Barth says, “what product did Dinwiddie try?”

“He says he read one of our books.” Ruby yanks her purse off the floor, pulls out a slick hardcover and reads, “‘Tender Tiptoes: The Lost Art of Footbinding. There’s so much more to this time-honored tradition than just wrapping the foot. Here are full instructions for each stage of the process, lavishly illustrated with full-color archival photographs.’”

“Well,” says Trina, “at least he spent a lot of time.”

Ruby snorts. “I typed his extremely short review: ‘An impressive work shedding light on why Asian women are so pretty.’ He didn’t read it. So, if I may continue. Not to be a mutinous, scheming traitor, but”—she whispers—“we need new management.”

Heads nod.

“He’ll never leave,” says one.

“Nope. What other company would have him?” says another.

“You’re right. I know more about him than anyone here, and I see little chance of him being greedily recruited away. Furthermore, I don’t see the Horabecks firing him.”

“Why not?” asks the new guy. “He’s . . .”

“A posturing prick,” says Barth.

“A leering troll,” says Trina.

Epithets buzz around the table like flies on a dead zombie. He’s a creep, a caricature, a carbuncle on the ass of commerce.

Ruby addresses the new guy. “To answer your question, Todd: he’s Agatha Horabeck’s son-in-law.”


“So career advancement and firing are out,” Ruby continues. “What other options exist? Murder seems uniquely suitable for our particular corporate culture—”

Eyebrows raise.

“—but we’re not quite that horrible.”

Mutters of “oh, I dunno” and “speak for yourself.”

“No, we don’t want to kill him,” Ruby interrupts, “just scare him a little. Or a lot. So much, in fact, that he’ll go from avoiding certain objects”—she pauses slyly—“to avoiding every last little thing about the Horrible Company. And our buddy Bert has a plan to do just that.”

Bert dips his head. “Oh, a lot of it comes from Ruby. She’s the one who noticed the chink in his armor. Certain pictures that freak him out. Horned goats. Fantasy novels with horned dragons on the cover.”

Ruby fishes in her big bag again, holds up a paperback. On its cover, a dragon faces off against a unicorn. “I had this sitting on my desk. Turned pale when he saw it. Snapped at me to put it away and ran off to hide in his office. But the biggest reaction came from this paperweight I had on my desk.” She pulls out a small Day of the Dead style figurine, a skull upon which sits a devil with a large horn on his head, the other having apparently broken off. “When he saw this he spilled his latte all over himself and went home.”

She beams darkly around the table. “I think the Big D has a phobia about the biggest D of all. The Devil.”

Barth whistles over his beard. “Now, why is it we have no devil-themed products?”

“Yeeessss,” hisses Crow, twirling an end of her blackened hair. “Why the hell don’t we?”

“Funny you should say that,” says Bert. “Since ol’ Dimwit isn’t scared to try new products…well, I’ve got an idea.”

“I hate to play devil’s anti-advocate,” says a guy with a ponytail and an Incubus T-shirt. “And I’m sure I speak for the whole R&D team when I say shit yeah, we’re on board with any plan that’ll work. But dear Dick can easily avoid sampling any product that gives him the chilly willies.”

“So true, Jake,” says Bert. “That’s why I have my eye on the installations line.”

“Installations?” asks Todd.

“You know,” Ruby explains, “‘Drench Yourself in Dreadful’? Like the haunted house, or the headless statue garden.” She turns to the rest of the group. “There’s no reason an installation has to be residential. In fact, we really should pilot a workplace product, don’t you think?”

Everybody’s staring. At Ruby, at Bert, or into space, mesmerized by the dream of Dinwiddie fleeing the office, never to return.

“You’re mad,” says Crow.

“Let’s do it,” says Barth.

Bert’s eyes glitter. “If we all work together on this—”

Noggins nod like demonic bobbleheads.

“—we can transform the HC offices into Richard Dinwiddie’s own personal Hell.”

The mutiny is under development. The boss is blissfully ignorant.

Conspirators congregate in cubicles, huddle in hallways, mutter amongst themselves, plotting, planning. Late at night they lurk in the eerie glow of desk lamps.

Bert hunches over a laptop in R&D territory, tweaking devilish designs, while in the next cube Jake and Amos inspect the tines of a plastic pitchfork. “Not sharp enough,” growls Amos.

Crow kneels in a carpeted hallway, painting a mural of hell on rolled-out butcher paper. A devil eating a sinner. Black birds fighting over the spilled guts.

Colluders watch as a “devil” pops up from behind a cubicle wall, a mannikin head with glowing eyes atop red clothes stuffed with scrap paper. New guy Todd attempts maniacal laughter, shaking the satanic scarecrow. His co-workers make kindly “keep trying” faces.

“The soundtrack,” Barth whispers as he places headphones over Trina’s ears.  She gasps and recoils, then raises two fists, thumbs up.

Bert emerges from the men’s room in a red devil costume. Spandex. Ruby titters. Bert’s face turns the color of the suit.

All part of the creative process. The Horrible Company, doing what it does. Leave it to the professionals.

“Thank you once more for coming, and for your action research,” P P-G announces to the conference room. “I’m told Norman, Eugene and Ralph won’t be joining us. They’re not feeling well.”

Two out of six middle-management seats are filled. The chair at the end is more than filled by Dinwiddie. Ruby is poised as ever. She winks at Bert, out there in the cubes.

He nods back and fistbumps Barth, who’s ambled over from R&D. They confer in whispers. Bert taps his tablet, shows it to Barth, who mouths “I’m on it” and heads back.

“So,” says Dinwiddie to the managers, “thank you both for being here, and for your product reviews. Myself, I’ve been using the Bedtime Noise Machine. Like it says here, ‘keep pesky children away from your bedroom with these soothing bedspring rhythms.’ I don’t know if Bobby still has nightmares, but he’s stopped running in whining to my wife in the wee hours. Tried the Bedside Potpourri, too, both scents—Durian Dreams and the other one. Keeps my wife away!” He brays. “Say, anybody here know what’s in that Rest in Peace mix?”

Faces go pale.


“It’s best not to ask.”

The president scratches his head. “Okey-doke. How ‘bout you, Mort? What did you sample?”

The man so addressed is dull-eyed and slack-jawed. “I listened to the Nature Sounds CDs. The mating rhinoceroses made me wish something would keep my wife away. Because I never want to have sex ever again.”

The discussion goes stagnant, a river of cold mud.

Finally a leathery codger with a buzz cut holds up a bandaged hand as if in a salute. “Suture Self, home surgery kit. Cut a cyst outta my hand. No anesthetic.”

It takes P P-G a few moments to find words. “I appreciate your participation in this exercise, Harry, and I look forward to your report.” He strides halfway across the room and strikes a thoughtful pose.

“But—I mean and, after a careful analysis of the preliminary data, it appears we’ve been on the right road, but going in the wrong direction. Our thinking is evolving. We’ve polled a large number of typical consumers, analyzed the results and envisioneered an alternative model that we’ll be testing in action in the coming weeks.”

He sails over to Dinwiddie, anchoring himself to the despotic density of the chief. “The hypothesis is this. The reason H&C is struggling is the products,” P P-G announces. “They’re horrible.”

“Of course they are,” says Mort mournfully. “That’s the whole point.”

Heads nod. Eyes narrow.

The consultant’s voice is smooth. “Let me ask you a question, Mort. Is this a for-profit business?”

The manager says nothing.

“The point is to make profits. If horrible products did that, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, would we, Mort. People buy wonderful products. Richard, would you like to speak to that?”

“He’s right.  So we’re going in a new direction: the Wonderful line. Products that are, uh, pleasant.”

The bystanders beyond the door exchange glances ranging from skeptical to appalled.

“But everybody makes stuff like that,” a manager moans. “What’s our niche?”

“I will leave that up to the creativity of this team. But the good news right now is: an end to the testing of horrible products.”

Ruby freezes. A hiss goes up from the cubes, the susurration of numerous lips all stifling a whispered “ssshhhiiitt!”

It’s five twenty-nine p.m., time for a summit in the Facilities dungeon. The troops will arrive soon to try to assemble new plans from the ruins. Bert has collapsed amidst paper coffee cups, rolls of 3D printer filament, glue sticks, pliers, fast-food wrappers. The wreckage of a dream, a fantasy of freedom from debt. Of an apartment that doesn’t reek of six men’s sweatsocks. A haven, a grotto to which, someday, he could invite a goddess.

As if conjured by his sigh, Ruby’s voice lilts in the stairwell, along with Trina’s. The fire door clanks open and the voices drop in volume as the women pause, believing themselves unheard.

“I forgot to ask, Rube—how was your date last weekend, that guy you met online? You said his profile was—”

“—brilliant, yes. The profile was.”

“And the reality?”

“Not so much. But . . . we’ve got another date. I mean, there’s nothing really wrong with him. Maybe ‘brilliant’ is too much to expect.”

Their footsteps approach. Distracted, Bert hastily sweeps debris off a chair, runs a hand through his hair. Trina strides in, followed by Ruby—evasive, wistful-faced. Perhaps she had hoped Bert’s idea would free her from the bloviating boss-beast.

More conspirators arrive. Today there is more than one crow in mourning-black. Gloom-garbed, they perch on folding chairs, croaking in frustration, a murder of Cornered Rabid Office Workers.

“Well,” says Ruby. “Anybody got any new ideas?”

A chorus of “uh…”

“You mean, any Wonderful ones?” Amos rumbles. From his metal-studded mouth the word is an obscenity. Noses wrinkle as if at a noxious odor.

Three more weeks have passed. It is now March, the rime-frosted time of crocuses and daffodils . . . and yet, it is the month of Mars, god of war.

Roads that were snow-clogged, pathways that were closed: are they open now to the determined feet of knights errant? Has the hero found a sword? Is the feverishly working Facilities guy—phone ringing, message window flickering, second monitor tiled with security camera views—juggling routine office tasks?

Or commanding an army?

“Any questions before we close the first half of the meeting?” Pearce Payden-Greene assumes a listening head-tilt as his eyes scan the managers and president. This time the conference room doors are closed, the hallway window blinded.

“You may be wondering about the noises outside this room and what’s been prepared out there,” he continues. “As part of the Wonderful Ware initiative, we’re again implementing some action research: a beta test of a new Wonderful installation, with you all as the testers. Ready? R&D would like to invite our chief executive to be the first to enter.”

He opens the conference room door. “After you, Richard!”

Dinwiddie swaggers out onto Astroturf. Butterflies flutter overhead on near-invisible filament line. The cubicle walls are transformed by murals of fields and hills where rabbits nestle amid the flowers. Potted trees line the lanes. From hidden speakers wafts birdsong and the piping of a pastoral flute.

Barth, dressed as a medieval peasant, bows. “We invite thee to take thy well-earned ease along the paths of thy realm, m’lord.”

The President looks blank.

Ruby arrives at his side, radiant in white cotton and lace-up vest, to bail him out. “Gee, Barth, that’s a lotta words to say ‘come on in!’”

Dinwiddie makes an “I knew that” face and ventures forward into the maze of muraled cubicles, his long-bearded guide at his heels, managers and consultant close behind.

Ruby fades off to join strapping young serfs Jake and Justin, who lean on scythes before a wheatfield vista. She busies herself tying a sheaf of wheat.

Once Dinwiddie’s retinue have all disappeared into the idyll, the three farmers set down their tools, regard each other, and snicker silently like cartoon villains. Ruby sobers herself, adjusting the mic of the wireless headset concealed under her hat, and they hurry off to peek through the potted shrubbery as Dinwiddie struts down the path.

“Nice details,” he says. “I like the—” He stops short, pointing to a mural at the side. “What’s that, poking out behind that tree? It looks like a horn.”

Barth’s voice is kindly reassurance. “Without doubt ’tis a goat, my liege.”

“It’s not a—”

“A unicorn, my lord? Nay, you jest! Surely they be but creatures of fancy!”

The hidden conspirators shiver with hope. Jake whispers, “I’m glad it occurred to Ruby how many of those images had a horn missing.”

“Yep,” she murmurs. “It wasn’t about devils. Or even horns, per se. Those were only hints of what really terrifies him. What was that word . . . monokerophobia.”

Bert’s voice chuckles in Ruby’s headset. “A crippling fear of unicorns.”

A whimper from the big D seeps through the cubes. “That’s definitely a u-u-u . . .”

With stealthy tread, the crew follow his progress, spying from leafy coppices and painted scrims.  A click behind Dinwiddie startles him into turning, and a single-horned pegasus swings down toward him from the ceiling. He cowers, then bawls, “Okay, fine, ship it! Now how do I—Ruby! Get me out of this!”

She maneuvers through the maze to his side. “Sure, Richard. This way!” She saunters around a corner. When he gets there she is nowhere in sight and he’s surrounded by faux-stone walls. He makes another turn and finds a man-sized plastic castle. On its highest turret a figure is perched, dressed in black feathers, head tucked under wing.

“Ha ha, well, at least you’re not a—”

It lifts its head, revealing a strangely pointy black beak above the face of Crow. The beak is a sharp-tipped horn. “Behold the crow-nicorn!” Black velvet shoulders and haunches rise, vaguely threatening.

“Crow-nicorn? Really?” Justin whispers to Jake, who shrugs and nudges him to watch Dinwiddie. The latter’s shoulders are high as he hurries past the castle. A light thud on the carpet makes him look back. A small drawbridge has fallen.

The sound of hooves and whinnies emits from the castle.

“Eahhrrr,” Dinwiddie comments, breaking into a trot.

The figure on the turret mutters behind him, “Nevermore, Richard Dinwiddie! Nevermore!”

Richard Dinwiddie has seen enough. Spotting his office door through the treetops, he pelts around the bend. Ruby sits calmly at her desk, no horned objects on display, innocently keyboarding. He yells “hold my calls!” and dashes in.

On his couch, Trina reclines, a virgin-white gown arrayed carelessly over naked legs and bare feet, the bodice displaying uplifted cleavage, a circlet of flowers atop her long hair.

He leers.

“Ah, Richard,” the maiden croons, “how cruel are yon miscreants! Come hither and let me comfort thee.”

He takes a step, but she’s looking past him, where something bumps against his leg—a German shepherd-sized unicorn stuffie, waddling on mechanized legs. Dinwiddie’s ungainly bulk defies gravity in a quick hop of terror, and upon landing he twists and turns amid a cavalry of unicorns emerging from under the desk, from behind the drapes, from every corner of his former sanctum. They converge upon him. Like a comic-strip housewife menaced by mice, he casts about for anything to climb onto. He staggers toward the couch and the lovely vision who lies thereon.

But now she cuddles a fluffy unicorn toy, and her voice is ice. “Forsooth, this is the only horn that will cavort in mine own lap, thou buttock-grabbing beef-wit.”

A quick, metallic whirring sounds behind him. A pointed object jabs his buttock, entirely too close to ground zero. Sweat floods his face as he staggers out of the office, panting.

“Richard, don’t worry!” Ruby chides, motherly. “They’re just little tiny toys.”

“Little tiny toys,” he repeats weakly.

“You look like you need some air.”

He lurches towards the back stairs.

Trina gathers her skirts and canters away in the opposite direction.

“Cue the exit soundtrack,” Ruby murmurs into her headset mic.

Dinwiddie barrels into the stairwell. He’s halfway down when the hoofbeats begin, echoing against cement risers and cast-iron railings. Piercing whinnies clash with an ominous orchestral blare, the Ride of the Valkyries reinterpreted in tribal trance and death metal.

“Gotta get a grip,” he pants. “It’s just sound effects . . .”

But the steps above him are shuddering now with a weight heavier than his. An unknown mass is clanging down the stairs.

He makes it to the fire door at the bottom, wrenches it open, stumbles past the cubicle where the Facilities guy watches, eyebrows lifted in mild surprise, with a few of the R&D staff. Dinwiddie ignores them. The final EXIT sign gleams up ahead and he’s halfway there, when behind him the stairway door bangs open and a basso roar fills the narrow corridor. Richard Dinwiddie jerks around.

An abomination of white rears up, nearly seven feet tall, huge hooves of shining metal pawing the air, tail laced with barbed chains, sharpened steel horn a yard long.

It’s Amos in a skin-tight latex unicorn costume, the horn wired onto his forehead via a ring of embedded metal studs. Even the staff shudder.

Dinwiddie’s scream vibrates the walls as he yanks open the back door. As the employees’ eyes meet knowingly, the wail fades slightly across the parking lot, dying in the slam of a car door and the startled roar of an engine.

And then hooves clatter—real hooves, across the paved expanse. The employees rush to the back door. A blonde maiden grips the reins as a galloping white horse—“that horn looks great, Bert,” somebody says—chases the screech of tires out of the parking lot and away into the distance.

In a brightly windowed office, three men sit hunched over computers. One of them mutters into his long beard. Another bobs a ponytailed head, a faint beat escaping from his earbuds. And a brownish-haired man nudges his glasses and whispers, “Huh. That’s an idea,” and taps on his keyboard. A large greeting card beside his Mac proclaims “Congratulations on Your New Job!” Atop a long cabinet stands a large stuffed unicorn that appears to have visited a piercing salon. One hopes the red stain on its horn is ersatz.

Footsteps approach. A black-haired beauty drumrolls her mauve fingernails on the “R&D” placard beside the open door. Bert looks up and grins. “Rube! C’mon in.” His voice drops. “So, how’s your new boss?”

She slides into a chair beside his desk. “Fine, just as I thought when I recommended her. And I wanted to tell you the initial sales are incredible for your latest creation—that Horrible Midnight Wax. What’s it do, anyway?”

“Well . . .” He calls up the details on his computer and pauses, grimacing. “It’s best not to ask.”

She tuts and turns the monitor towards herself. She reads for a moment. Her eyes bulge. “That’s horrible.”

He waits.

She smirks. “And brilliant.”

He inhales, quietly incandescent. Then, “Oh! I just remembered.” From beside the desk he lifts a large bouquet of black orchids and purple roses, then stands, presenting them to her. She rises and accepts the flowers, eyes kindling with pleasure.

“Congratulations to our new Operations Manager,” he says. “Where am I taking you for dinner?”

It is April, the month of Aphrodite. Ruby’s arms wrap around Bert’s neck and the dark blossoms caress his cheek, conjuring a twilit bower for the lovers’ embrace.

Thea T. Kelley broke up with the muse 25 years ago and began rebuilding the relationship in 2008. So far, she has two published short stories, two novels on the drawing board and a snowdrift of poems. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Twitter: @TheaTKelley