Ray sat listless in a listing office chair beneath a rust-brown stain. The stain was not truly the color of rust, but he preferred to think of it that way. At least it had stopped spreading. For several days, nothing warm and crimson had dripped on Ray's shoulder, or his brow, or the crown of his head, and not because he had taken to bringing a hoodie (and a lidded coffee mug) to work.
Ray claimed that he was cold. It was a ridiculous lie under the circumstances, but what else could he say? No one else who worked at the Florida Forest Service's Jacksonville Field Unit believed him about the stain, and he had quickly learned not to bring it up, not even to Byron. Ray was not sure that his coworkers could even see it. His eyes were more sensitive than most, and he had been alone in the field unit when the A/C died coughing blood like a tuberculosis victim.
That poor squirrel.
Ray was not alone now, but Carol was entombed in her office with her kittens - a pharaoh buried beneath bureaucracy instead of shifting sands. Likewise, the last remnants of Jim's open-door policy manifested as a hair's breadth of light between the knob and the frame, snippets of talk radio, and the occasional cry of a red-tailed hawk. Ray did not have an office, or even a proper cubicle, just a chipped particleboard desk and a few shelves mounted next to a window. The desk held a "Forest Trees of Florida" pamphlet; a desktop computer; a vanity copy of a thesis on laurel wilt; workmanlike sketches of the redbay tree (persea borbonia), the redbay ambrosia beetle (xyleborus glabratus), and, easily outnumbering the other subjects, the white fringetree (formerly, chionanthus virginia); various communications equipment; and a half-eaten Snickers bar (prospectively, diabetes mellitus) positioned as far away from the stain as possible.
Ray twirled a colored pencil around his index finger, looked out his window, and put the pencil back down. He furrowed his brow at the two-way radio and the telephone. We have ways of making you talk, he thought, but he was bluffing. The clock read 8:15. He looked out the window again. No sign of Karen's car, or any of the others'.
To hell with it, Ray thought. He navigated to a forum about "trees" and opened a review of glass bubblers. Before he finished reading the first page, his nose crinkled involuntarily. A stench that he could not place - rancid fat, perhaps? - turned his stomach. He shaded his eyes as though viewing a solar eclipse and looked at the ceiling. The stain lay dormant. A tide of relief washed over him. It washed right back out to sea when an axe blade peeked over his shoulder. He froze.
The axe bobbed up and down like a Muppet. "Say hello to Mister Axe!" said a high-pitched voice.
"Ahh!" Ray leapt out of his chair and collided with the axe's Muppeteer, a muscular, uniformed man wearing a goggled yellow helmet and a mischievous grin.
"Jesus, Byron," Ray said.
"Ranger Wong to you," Byron said in his usual baritone. "You better ease up on the weed, it's making you paranoid." He looked thoughtful. "Actually, don't - I want a new stereo."
Ray glanced at the stain again, just in case.
"You should stop by tonight," Byron said. "I have some new product. It's organic, locally-grown, and GMO-free. The hipsters in Riverside can't get enough of my weed. And those skinny yoga girls can't get enough of my-"
Karen entered the field unit customarily late and smiling.
"Morning, Byron!" she said.
"Sup," Byron said.
"Morning, Karen," Ray said.
Karen walked to her workstation. Unlike Ray, she rated a cubicle, but he was not sure what she actually did.
YOU ARE READING
King of the Woods, or Trivial PursuitFantasy
Florida Forest Service duty officer Ray Lumley is in love with a white fringetree. Not an I-read-Walden-in-high-school love; a sweaty, sappy, I-want-to-rub-against-you-'til-I-get-splinters love. It's awkward. So, he's relieved to learn that he's rea...