Spring 2024 • Vol. XLVI No. 2 2023 Short Fiction Contest |

The Hunting Vest

Clara had never seen the office before sunrise. The computers hummed behind their dark, still screens. It was easier to see, that early, how old the building was—something about the warp of the chipped windowsill, the uneven glass that made the parking lot down below foggy and unsure. The morning light fractured as it came through. It was almost pretty.

It was too early to text Alice, so instead Clara bathed in the electric white of her screen, going through the reports, fact-checking word by word. Every thirty minutes, she looked away and did eye-muscle exercises. The optometrist told her she needed glasses or contacts, but she hadn’t made the appointment. She’d found a strengthening routine online, given herself two months to solve the problem herself.

“God! You gave me a fright!”

Jamie’s voice rang out so loud, Clara sloshed her coffee.

He strode past her cubicle, laughing and shaking his head. “Thought I was the only one here this early.”

“No,” said Clara. Her heart was still beating hard.

“You’ve got to say something next time! Signal me! Maybe we’ll get you one of those orange hunting vests.”

Her coffee wobbled in its mug. He was still laughing. “Didn’t even see you there!” he said, but he was already walking away, already sounding like he was talking to someone else.

. . . . . .

What had attracted Clara to the job most of all was the building—it was the old Colonial Bank, the one she and Alice had walked by as little girls. She’d always asked their mother to stop on the sidewalk so they could watch as men took out the building’s insides, bucket by bucket. “That is a process called gutting,” said her mother.

“Why?”

“Because it’s going to be different inside now. But they want to keep the outside.”

“Why don’t they want the inside?”

Her mother answered a different question, “Because it’s so pretty,” and gestured toward the building’s facade in an unconvincing way. The building had a broad face. Its scalloped front steps gave the impression that it was wearing a collar pulled tight around its neck.

It wasn’t until she got the job that Clara stepped inside the Old Colonial. By that point, the interior had been flattened into a grid of conference rooms and cubicles. On her lunch breaks she wandered the empty third floor, trying to guess where the doorways used to be. The offices up there were supposed to have been rented, but they’d been vacant for months. She could spend a full hour tracing their perimeters, counting her steps up and down the hall. And now—lately—the third-floor windows offered something else: a vantage point all the way to the park, a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding sidewalks. A clear sense of what was coming.

. . . . . .

That afternoon, the office held a mandatory birthday celebration for employees born in the month of August. Clara had gotten her arrival times down to a science, but that day she made a fatal error, walking in so early that Sheryl was still setting up, flinging crepe paper streamers angrily across the backs of the chairs. Jamie sat alone at the conference table, answering emails on his phone. “I’m right there,” he was saying to Sheryl. “One minute and I can help.”

Sheryl smiled broadly at him, then lifted her face to Clara, let her eyes pass over her without greeting.

Clara busied herself with the birthday cake at the edge of the table: its frosting copy-paper white, bright yellow roses big as Ping-Pong balls piped along the edges. Sheryl had cut half of it into squares. She hadn’t wiped off the knife, just kept cutting until the pieces were smeared with errant crumbs, the once-smooth white icing jagged and disturbed.

Happy Birthday, August, it said. 

“Too bad August couldn’t make it,” Clara said, but the only person close enough to hear was Jamie.

“It speaks!” he said, and Sheryl laughed.

Clara shivered. “I speak.”

Jamie dropped his phone into his lap and held up his hands in mock surrender, or maybe a shrug. His hands hung around like they didn’t mean anything. “You know I’m just razzing you,” he said.

Clara snorted. She’d never heard anybody say the word razzing out loud.

“Here,” said Sheryl, sliding a roll of crepe paper across the table. “You can put that up.”

“Look out for this one,” said Jamie, pointing his pen at Clara. “She’s trying to outwork all of us.”

Sheryl smirked. “Is that right?”

“First in, last out. Right, Clara?”

“Not really.”

Jamie raised his hands as if he was shielding his face from an attack. “I’m just saying! Watch your back, Sheryl.”

Later, when the room was empty, Clara ran her hand across the golden cardboard the cake rode in on, scooped up a fistful of frosting, and licked it off her palm like a dog.

. . . . . .

Work Clara had a uniform: pantyhose and one of three shirtdresses. She preferred the clarity of costume. She tested the limits of small talk. “How’s this weather treatin’ ya?” was a favorite—not once had anyone ever laughed at her. To them, Work Clara was a simple woman with the personality of a popular man at a nursing home. “Doughnuts again?” she groaned on a Friday morning. “Jim, you’re killin’ me!” She always tried to land hard on the shortened gerunds, to be as cartoonish as possible, but no one seemed to notice that either.

“You better watch out,” Alice said. In the background, Clara could hear water running. Alice always did dishes during their phone calls, while Clara walked home from work. “You keep pretending to be a dork, you’re gonna get good at it.”

Buffoonery was not Clara’s first choice, in terms of humor, but it had a certain appeal. As a kid she had loved to make Alice laugh by pantomiming walking down an invisible staircase behind the living room couch, flopping her head back and forth like a puppet on a loose string as she sang.

“So when are you quitting?” Alice said.

Clara tucked the phone between her jaw and shoulder, then cut through what she’d always assumed was a dead-end terrace. It turned out the terrace opened up onto a little alley that led to another street, one she could take at least partway home. She’d taken a screenshot of Google Maps between her work and her home, and turned off all location tracking, just in case.

“I don’t think I need to quit.

One of the houses still had its Halloween decorations up from last year. A skeleton whirred to face her when she tripped its motion sensor, its jaw clattering open.

“No,” agreed Alice. “Not now. But I mean, this wasn’t going to be your forever job anyway. You always said you were just gonna stay a couple months.”

“Jamie is probably getting paid a third more than me,” said Clara. “And he’s a glorified secretary. Glorified being the operative word.”  Clara darted left down a new alley, one she hadn’t cut through before, and scanned her screenshot—she could take this the long way over to a side street near her apartment.  Avoid predictable routes, the website had said.

“Well,” said Alice. “It sounds like he’s sort of worked his way up.”

Clara rolled her eyes.

“You really could quit, if it’s so bad.”

“It’s fine. At least they leave me alone.”

At this, Alice went quiet, then began telling Clara about an article she’d read that described how octopi have tentacles so full of brain tissue that they essentially think with their arms. When she was done, she said, “You need to sleep on my couch tonight?”

“No,” Clara said. “I think I’m going in early again tomorrow.”

It was easy to complain about any job, she thought, as she turned the corner onto her block, and paused. For the most part, she wasn’t bothered. The work wasn’t stressful. No one called her in the middle of the night.

She stood on the corner of her block for ten minutes, scanning the sidewalks, making sure the lobby was empty.

. . . . . .

For weeks now, she’d watched her phone light up in the dark, rattling on the nightstand like it was possessed. “You can’t keep it on the nightstand,” Alice said, exasperated. “Put it in the fridge, for god’s sake. Turn it off.”

But it had to be on the nightstand. If it wasn’t beside her—not in the bed with her, but directly in her line of sight, within arm’s reach—then she’d spend hours jerking her head up from the pillow, wondering if she’d missed a ring.

“Block the number,” said Alice. “I’m looking at the website right now, and it tells you to block the number.”

Clara did not block the number. If the number was blocked, the calls would still come. She just wouldn’t see them.

. . . . . .

The man who stood, most nights, in the alley outside her building had been an earnest and nervous lover, the kind who asked Clara if she wouldn’t mind if he picked up penne instead of rigatoni. Attentive was the word she would have used at the beginning, though she was not sure what word she would use now. It was exhausting—the revisions.

She could not have known, she told herself. She told herself this a hundred times a day. He rode his bicycle everywhere to cut down on his carbon footprint. He’d taken her to the aquarium for a second date and knew the names of all the fish. He drank water from a metal bottle with a Planned Parenthood sticker on it. When she was tired one weekend, he climbed the five stories to her apartment with a steaming container of thai basil noodles and sat quietly beside her on the couch, watching G.I. Jane. He hadn’t even yelled or cried when she broke up with him, though it turned out that his resistance would take a different form.

When she listed all these things now she wasn’t sure what they meant to her. Just as she couldn’t recognize the person who stood for hours on the sidewalk outside her apartment building, she couldn’t recognize the people in these memories: not the man slurping noodles peaceably on her couch, and not the girl who looked at him.

The next day she went in even earlier—half past six, early enough that she clicked down the sidewalk in almost-total dark, waving to the deliverymen dropping off stacks of newspapers at the corner stores. The building was as quiet as it had been the day before, but something was different: there was a bag sitting on her desk that she had not left there.

She drew closer, peering around. No desk lights on, no computer screens glowing blue in the dark. The sun was just starting to come up, and it shed weak gray light through the window, enough for her to make out L.L.Bean  on the bag. It brimmed with green tissue paper, like a present.

“Hello?”

No answer.

You needed an ID to swipe into the building. This early—or late the night before—you wouldn’t have even been able to slip in behind someone. No one would have been coming or going. She said this to herself three times.

She pinched the tissue paper between two fingers and plucked it up. There was something soft in the bottom of the bag, sealed in crinkling plastic. No note.

An orange hunting vest. Size XL.

Jamie.

She flung the tissue paper to the ground and stuffed the vest into a drawer. After a second she took it back out and texted a picture to Alice, with the caption He spared no expense. It meets the blaze requirement in 35 states.

No answer. It was the crack of dawn. Alice was probably still asleep.

She scrolled through her inbox, hoping for a report she had missed, something to focus on, but there was nothing. She opened a blank email, typed in Jamie’s address, then closed it. It was still only seven—two more hours before anyone came into the office, before she could hold up the vest and say, Can you believe this jerk?

But whom would she tell? She didn’t have any friends at work. For all she knew, they were in on it.

Her computer dinged: a chat from Jamie. You get your present?

She closed the message immediately, then reopened it. She’d kept it open too long—he’d known she’d read it.

Her eyes hurt. She opened the drawer again, looking down at where she’d stuffed the vest. With one hand she crumpled the plastic, cracked it open along its seam. The vest was strangely cushioned, made out of a thin foam she squished between her fingers. It slid over her head easily, jutting off her shoulders, as if she were wearing a sandwich board. Clara sank down in her chair until her chin was lost behind the stiff orange material, and waited.

. . . . . .

“Maybe it’s a good thing,” said Alice. Clara had taken her phone up to the third floor, and stood tapping one of the windowsills with a finger. Down on the street, a truck pulled in front of a sandwich shop; she counted three men unloading sodas. She flicked her eyes toward the park. All the benches were empty.

“It sounds like they’re sort of welcoming you to the club, you know?” Alice was saying. “It’s an inside joke. You’re inside.”

“Yuck.” One of the men unloading the truck shouted something to the other men, darted down an alley Clara hadn’t noticed before.

Alice sighed heavily. “You know, they’re people too,” she said. “It’s not like you’re the only one with an interesting mind or whatever.”

“It is like that,” Clara deadpanned, but her pulse quickened at the harsh tone in Alice’s voice, as if she’d been waiting to say this for a long time. When Alice didn’t answer, she asked, “What do you mean?”

Alice sighed. “I’ve tried.”

“Tried what?”

Something was moving in the alley—she was sure. At least, she felt sure. She felt a heat that spread along her collarbone, sent her stomach roiling. He had never followed her to work—not yet—and she knew that Alice would have reminded her of that fact. Technically he had not yet touched her, not since this all started—Alice would have reminded her of that too.

“Just go back to work,” said Alice. “You shouldn’t even be calling me during work hours, probably. Put your phone away.”

Clara hung up. She didn’t know how to get the feeling out of her body, the rattling heat. She waited for Alice to call back. They always did this—fought, hung up, then called right back. It was some kind of cycle they had to go through, a release valve that had to be opened before they could achieve equilibrium. She closed her eyes, her hand wrapped tight around her phone. When it rang, she gripped it tighter, then pressed it to her ear.

It wasn’t Alice. She wasn’t sure what she heard before she was pulling the phone away from herself, before she was looking down at the screen, trying to understand. But she was having trouble seeing it. She was having trouble understanding what the words meant, what the shapes of the letters were meant to denote. Something itched at the back of her skull. She opened the window and threw the phone out, closed the window quickly before she could hear the crunch of the phone breaking on the concrete below.

The sound of her own panting was deafening and strange, as though another woman were standing beside her. The hunting vest had slid down her arms, and she shrugged it hard back over her shoulders. She stood in the window like a lantern. She scanned the sidewalk, parked cars, empty street below. Without looking at anything in particular, she lifted one hand and waved.

. . . . . .

When she entered the conference room, Jamie and Sheryl had their eyes fixed on the boss. They didn’t turn to see who was slipping in the door, seven minutes past. She took her usual seat at the corner of the table, the vest popping out stiffly, as if she were wearing an inner tube. She had to stick her bent arm out like a wing just to reach her legal pad. It was possible that this was a very bad idea. But something was thrumming in her, thrilled and relieved, as though she’d been just about to step off the edge of a cliff and something had yanked her back by the collar.

She sat up a little taller, shifting herself into a more comfortable position. She kept her eyes fixed on their boss’s rumpled chalk-blue sweater, did not allow herself even the briefest sideways glance at Sheryl or Jamie. Don’t hold your breath, she reminded herself.

“Won’t that be tomorrow, Todd?”

It was Emily, right beside her, and the faces around the table shifted to listen to her question. Clara kept her eyes on her legal pad. She felt the tingling, unfamiliar sensation of having no idea how she looked—whether her face was proclaiming nervousness or terror or excitement. She waited. Their boss seemed to be searching for a word.

“Good point, Emily,” he said, after a pause, and the faces shifted back, away from Clara.

Clara exhaled just a little too loudly, scanning the table. No one had batted an eye. No one said a word.

She sank into her chair until the vest rose over her chin, watched them like a crocodile in the water. Jamie squinted at his notebook. Sheryl tilted toward one of the new women, whispering something. The boss lifted his hand suddenly, shielding his eyes.

“That glare,” he said. “We practically need sunglasses.”

“We could draw the blinds,” said Clara.

“I can hardly see. Must be those windows across the street.”

“It’s not,” said Clara. “Something’s wrong with your eyes.”

“Jamie? Could you  . . .”

Clara crossed the room and twisted the plastic rod. The room went dark.

Photo of Mary Catherine Curley
Mary Catherine Curley has published short fiction in Blackbird, Sycamore Review, and Juked, among others. She earned an MFA from Hollins University and served as writer-in-residence with the Inner Loop in Washington, DC. She is currently at work on a novel, an excerpt of which was longlisted for the 2021 Masters Review Novel Excerpt Contest.

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Introduction

We’re pleased to publish the winner of the 2023 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest, judged by acclaimed author Danielle Evans. Evans chose “The First Robot” by Beth Bachmann as the […]

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