Harold and Caroline: Part One

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“Janet said you wanted to see me?” Caroline asked cautiously from the doorway.

“Yes, yes,” Harold cleared his throat. “Don’t just stand there, come in.”

Caroline closed the door and shuffled forward timidly, coming to a stop a few feet from his desk. She had her arms wrapped around herself, as if trying to shrink herself into as small a form as possible.

“Please sit,” Harold sighed. Why did she always have to be so diminutive and awkward?

She tried to smile politely, though it came across more as a grimace, then perched herself on the edge of the leather-cushioned seat. She did not appear comfortable at all.

“How are you Caroline?”

She nodded. A few seconds later she actually processed what he had said. “Oh, sorry! I’m fine. How are you doing?”

“I’m fine Caroline” he sighed again. “Why don’t we just get right to what I called you in for?”

“Yes, good idea.”

“Alright, well that last week I said we didn’t have any of those overtime opportunities you were hoping for… But, I think I’ve found something that you might be able to help out with if you’re still interested.”

She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, I’ll take whatever I can get! Thank you.”

“Well, let me explain it to you and then we’ll see if you’re still interested. In six weeks I’ll be taking a sabbatical for a while. I’m not entirely sure for how long, but perhaps as much as two months. Gus will be flying in to cover for me during that time. He’s a good man and he’ll handle the day-to-day things just fine. But he will have his hands full, and I don’t want to burden him unnecessarily.”

Caroline nodded.

“The thing is we have a few faxes that don’t come in until after hours. It’s basic invoicing from the Western shore after the factory closes, and I usually stay late enough to get those. They have to be received, transcribed, and filed before 8 pm. If you want it, then you’d probably be able to pull an extra hour or two each day taking care of that.”

“You don’t think that Janet would be better able to handle that?”

“I try to not keep Janet after hours when I can help it. I’m sure she would be willing if I asked her, but I thought I might as well offer it to you first, since you requested the overtime after all.”

“Oh I see. But would she be better at it?”

“It’s really not difficult. I would show you how I do it one evening and that’s all the training you would need.” Harold smiled. Clearly he felt he was doing a nice thing for Caroline, but she didn’t even try to hide the discomfort in her face.

“So…you said starting in about six weeks?”

“Yes. The fourteenth of June.”

She nodded. “I had been thinking to take some time off myself then, actually…I’d been hoping to get some overtime before then if possible.”

Harold shrugged. “Well I still don’t know of any overtime opportunities before then. If anything comes up I’ll let you know. On your way out could you tell Janet I’d like to speak with her?”

“Well, I’m not saying no,” Caroline piped up.

“Then what are you saying?” Harold said tersely, not at all amused by how she meandered around her decisions.

She bit her lip, and spoke out loud her inner reasoning. “I’ll just have to figure things out at home. I don’t know…but we can’t afford not to.” Caroline nodded resolutely to Harold. “I’ll do it.”

“Alright then,” he said slowly, as if waiting to see whether she would change her mind again. “When we get a little closer I’ll have you stay after hours and show you how everything works. That will be all.”

*

“How’s your son, Caroline?” Betty asked one morning after they had their first gap between calls.

“He’s doing really well,” Caroline asserted. “I mean, well, he’s still in a lot of pain of course, but he’s so patient and understanding with it.”

Betty tutted sympathetically. “It just kills you, doesn’t it? I always told my kids if you’re hurting go ahead and yell! It breaks my heart when they think they have to be so grown up all the time.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“How are you and Dave holding up?”

Caroline sighed. “We’re tired. It’s really going to help things having some overtime pay, but the timing of it couldn’t be worse. I’ll hardly be there for Zach during recovery at all, but I guess its for the best. I’m just anxious about keeping myself going with the extra hours–”

A sudden voice from behind made both Caroline and Betty jump in their seats. “Yes, especially given that you can’t even keep up with your regular hours already!”

Both women spun around to see Harold standing behind them with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips. He slowly pointed an accusing finger to the blinking light on Caroline’s phone which designated a waiting caller.

“Sorry sir,” Caroline gasped, clutching her chest as her heartbeat raced. She inhaled and exhaled deeply, trying to regulate her breathing so that she wouldn’t huff and puff during the call. As she picked up the phone and answered she heard Harold’s feet stumping away.

“Tech support? Please hold while I transfer you.” A silent tear trickled down her cheek.

*

“Yes, come in.”

“Hiya Harold!” Lucas said brightly as he strolled into the boss’s office. He was holding a small woven basket with a pink bow on the front.

“Lucas,” Harold said in a measured voice meant to counter the other man’s overbearing cheerfulness.

“I’m not sure if you heard, but Caroline’s got a son who is going into surgery next month. Expensive stuff, and we figured we could do a good thing and ask people to contribute to help her out a little bit. I know it would mean a lot if the boss-man made a healthy donation himself!” He laughed and extended his basket expectantly.

The “boss-man” peered with a wrinkled nose at the crumpled bills already sitting in the basket. “You’ve been going around to the employees and asking them for money?”

“Yes, well…it’s for a good cause, you know!”

“The cause doesn’t matter, its against corporate policy. People aren’t supposed to feel pressured by their peers to contribute while at the workplace. Don’t you think if people heard that their manager had made a ‘healthy donation’ that they would feel obligated to do the same?”

“Oh, uh–I suppose you’re right,” Lucas’s face suggested that that was exactly what he had been intending.

“Lucas,” Harold sighed as he massaged his temples, “the company provides proper methods for those who need extra financial aid to receive it. There is the Family Hardship Fund which provides large contributions each year to qualifying employees. However–”

“Yeah, Caroline said she already tried that but you said–but she was told that she couldn’t get any help.”

Harold frowned at Lucas’s weak attempt to iron the accusation out of his complaint. “She only started here four months ago. Certain programs are only available after employees have been here for a year. But my point was that there are proper channels for this sort of thing. Another option that’s available to her right now is if you coworkers diverted a percentage or two off of your paychecks towards a general fund. Then include a note that you want the contribution to go to Caroline, and I’ll see that she receives a lump sum. That way everything stays anonymous and no one feels pressured to do anything they don’t want to do.”

“I see,” Lucas said flatly. “Thank you, sir.” He turned to go.

“And make sure you hand back the money you’ve already collected!”

*

“Well this is never going to work,” Betty scowled as she looked over the flyer Lucas had made. He dumped a tall stack of those fliers on Caroline’s desk. She also took one to look over and quickly frowned. Printed on the flier was a detailed list of instructions for how one could donate a percentage of their paycheck to aid Caroline.

“It’ll never work,” Betty repeated. “It’s way too complex.”

“I know,” Lucas groaned, “but Harold says that’s the only way.”

“What that man’s problem anyway?”

“He hates people.”

“It’s alright,” Caroline shrugged. “It was really nice of you guys to try anyway.”

“Caroline,” Harold’s stern voice rang as he marched into their cubicles.

“Uh-oh,” Caroline whispered.

“Caroline these forms are all wrong,” he said in exasperation as he dropped a stack of papers on her desk. “See that top one there? It’s the order sheet for Asper Co. and you’ve filled out the contact information for Jake Sutherland. But I know Jake personally, and he’s from DeltaRay!”

“What?–oh.” Caroline thumbed through the papers. “I must have gotten a sheet or two off from my call list. I’m sorry!”

“That’s nice that you’re sorry,” Harold rolled his eyes, “but we can’t bill any clients if we don’t know which company they’re representing now can we?”

“No, of course not. I’ll fix these up first thing tomorrow–”

“That won’t cut it, your team’s quota is due today. You need to stay and take care of this now.”

“Oh but she had plans,” Betty piped up, earning a frown from Harold.

“I don’t like asking people to stay late, Betty. I make a point of not imposing unfair demands, but when a team has made a commitment and then they don’t deliver on them that’s on their own heads.”

“Well I could cover it for her tonight.”

“Do you think I hired Caroline for you to do her work, Betty?”

“Um…no sir.”

“If I’m not made confident between now and my vacation that she’s capable of handling things on her own, then maybe she won’t belong in this company much longer! Do I make myself clear?” With the last question he steered his focus back to Caroline.

“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of it right now, sir.”

“I’m sure that you will.”

Harold turned a strode away, leaving the three in stunned silence. Caroline clenched her fists, screwed her eyes shut, and for a moment her whole body shook in stifled aggravation.

“That…man,” Lucas seethed. His pause between words suggested that ‘man’ was not the first word that had popped into his head.

“I’m never going to survive doing that training with him,” Caroline moaned. “The two of us alone for two hours, can you imagine?!”

“Well sure, he’s a monster,” Lucas agreed, “but so what? I get him angry at me all the time and you know what I say? I say ‘so what, I’m still going home at the end of the day and there’s nothing he can do to me.'”

“I just…when he gets angry he shouts and I really don’t like it when people shout. If I’m around him I feel like I’m waiting for a bomb to explode! I get so self-conscious, I make silly mistakes, and then he must think I’m making those sorts of mistakes even when he isn’t there! And even if he doesn’t shout, there’s still just the way he looks at me. It’s like he sees right through me! Somehow he knows everything I’ve done wrong and he despises me for it.”

Betty tutted sympathetically. “Just remember that you’re not doing anything for him. This is all for Zach, and that’s all that matters.”

Betty sighed deeply. “Of course. You’re right. I’ll manage…somehow.”

Part Two

 

On Monday I discussed how many stories treat the protagonist’s biases as gospel. If the hero views another character as evil, then that character is evil. In these stories there is little space for different perspectives, ambiguity, or misunderstanding.

And depending on what the objective of your story is, that might even be the best approach. But obviously for a more nuanced tale, you would probably also want a more nuanced take on the characters. That approach is my intention with this latest short story.

To help with this objective, I decided to not portray the story from just one character’s perspective. By using a third-person voice I am able to avoid having one character cast shade on the other exclusively.

Next it was obvious I needed two characters that were both flawed. I imagine most readers will take the dimmer view toward Harold. He certainly is harsher than he should be, but it is also understandable why he is frustrated. Caroline is legitimately incompetent, though sympathetically so. My hope is that characters can empathize with Harold’s frustrations, even while wishing he would give the poor woman a break.

Another thing I experimented with in this story was to make hard cuts between each scene. This makes them feel more like isolated vignettes, like a sample of everyday life for these individuals. It’s been an interesting format to experiment with, but one side effect I hadn’t anticipated was the significant pruning I had to or else the story would become too distracted.

On Monday I’ll take a closer look at this idea of how not every scene belongs in a story, even if it is a good one. Then on Thursday I’ll present the second half of this story. I look forward to sharing these with you then, in the meantime have a wonderful weekend!

A Minute at a Time

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Christopher slowly cracked the door open, taking a peek into his son’s bedroom. Heavy curtains shaded the room in a perpetual dusk, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. His hopes of finding the child fast asleep quickly faded as he instead made out the silhouette of the little two-year-old sitting upright on his bed, clawing at the tube running into his nose.

“I don’t like it!” Teddy squawked in frustration as he caught sight of his father.

“I know, Ted, I know,” Christopher muttered, quickly closing the distance to his son and gently pulling his chubby hands down from his face. “I don’t like it either.” He tutted sympathetically at the red marks on the cheek where Teddy has successfully pried the tape loose. “Here, let me fix this.”

“No! Take it off!” the child squirmed, trying to fight Christopher off as he realigned the tube and taped it back into place.

“Don’t you remember what we said about this?” Christopher asked, his voice strained by the ongoing struggle. “We know it’s really, really hard. But this is so important because this is how you get your medicine. If you don’t get your medicine you’re going to be really sick like before. Understand?”

Teddy did not understand. He only became more agitated and began to lunge for the side of the bed, trying to get away from his father. “Let me go!” he whined.

“If you can’t sleep you don’t have to,” Christopher conceded.

Naps with Teddy were hit or miss these days. When he was able to sleep things were so much better. Sleep was the one time that he was free from the otherwise constant aches and pains, even if only for a short time. On the other hand, not being able to sleep meant that those aches and pains would now be compounded with general crankiness. The little boy might escalate in frustration for hours until sheer exhaustion would finally force him to lose consciousness. It looked like this afternoon was going to be one of the hard ones.

“Let’s try and eat some food, then,” Christopher suggested. Teddy had refused to eat any lunch before his nap.

“No,” Teddy shook his head as Christopher scooped him into his arms. “It’s ouchie.” By way of explanation he wrapped his hands around his throat.

“We’ll get some formula, then, something that isn’t too rough on you.”

Teddy didn’t protest, but he gave a small whimper of dissatisfaction. They made their way to the kitchen, and once there Christopher put his son down in a chair and began preparing the bottle. The child whimpered louder and rubbed his eyes slowly, but he was too tired to try and move from the spot.

“I want Mommy,” Teddy finally moaned.

“I know, buddy, I know,” Christopher sighed. “Mommy pulled the midday shift for today, though,” he explained before realizing his son wouldn’t understand. “Mommy had to do some extra work.”

“No,” Teddy shook his head.

“It’s important. So we can pay for your medicine.”

“No more medicine,” the toddler started clawing at his tube again.

“Hey, hey, don’t do that!” Christopher chided in exasperation. He spun the lid onto the bottle and rushed over to stop Teddy. “Kiddo, c’mon…”

Another brief struggle ensued as Christopher resettled the tube again. He tried to think of how to explain these things to his son, not for the first time. After a moment he shook his head in defeat, not for the first time. How was a toddler to understand having to hurt for his own greater good? A toddler shouldn’t have to understand those sorts of things. “Teddy I know you don’t want to have your medicine. But Mommy and Daddy need you to have it.”

“Why?” Teddy croaked.

“Just because we need you to.” Christopher stroked his son’s hair. “And we also need you to trust us. We need you to do this just because we love you.”

Teddy grimaced, and squirmed to get away from his father’s affection, too grumpy to accept that kindness right now. So Christopher grabbed the bottle instead. “Here, try this,” Christopher placed the nipple into his son’s mouth, where it hung loosely as Teddy just gave his father a withering look. “Don’t you want to try to drink some?”

“It’s ouchie,” Teddy merely repeated, tapping his throat lightly.

Christopher hung his head in defeat. The child didn’t go into a tantrum, he didn’t scream, and he didn’t throw anything. His eyes just started welling up with tears until he blinked and they gushed down his cheeks, a whimpering cry quivering from his lips.

Christopher felt the tension in him break and he started to cry as well. He knelt down on the floor and wrapped his hands around Teddy’s legs, clasping them behind his bottom, holding him ever so gently yet with such fervent intent.

“I’m—I’m sorry, Teddy,” Christopher gulped out. “I’m just so sorry.”

For a sweet, bitter moment they just rested there, breaking the silence only with the soft sound of their mutual sobs. Every now and then Christopher would look in his son’s eye and briefly reaffirm the difficulty of the situation.

“It’s really hard. Isn’t it, Teddy?” he’d say and Teddy would nod sadly and say “Yeah.”

“You don’t like doing this, do you?” he’d say and Teddy would shake his head and say “No.”

“You just want to be all better right now, huh?” he’d say and Teddy would nod again and say “Yes, daddy.”

As the tears started to slow down one last thing broke in Christopher and behind a fresh curtain of tears he muttered. “I wanted to never let something like this happen to you, Ted. I’m sorry.”

Teddy didn’t say anything, but he looked at his father intently, and as he did so his eyes stopped watering. Finally he raised the bottle back to his lips and took a few deep gulps from its contents.

“Good boy,” Christopher smiled, wiping away both of their tears. “You want to read a book?”

Teddy nodded and Christopher scooped him back up. Together they moved over to the living room bookcase, and selected a favorite story, one about an anthropomorphic boat. Christopher sat down on the nearby couch, Teddy on his lap, opened the book and began to read.

At five pages in Christopher noticed that Teddy had stopped sucking from the bottle and when he glanced down he found that the child was asleep. Christopher sighed contentedly, closed the book, and reclined more fully into the couch.

He began gently stroking his son’s back and he looked upwards, mouthing a silent prayer of thanks. Things were still hard and in only an hour the struggle would start all over again. But for now, this was enough.

*

As I mentioned on Monday, our nature is such that we give and take influence to and from those we are closest with. We are defined at least in part by where others’ shadows intersect with our own. In this story I tried to present a father and son that are hurting together. Though their specific roles in their shared challenge are different, they still do share that challenge. When one of them hurts, both of them feel it.

Also note how this story is presented in contrast to the short piece from last week. In both cases we began with a father trying to connect with a son. In this one, as in Cursed, the father is trying to give something to the child. Ekal was trying to give his son moral strength and Christopher was trying to give his son understanding. In both cases the son was not able to receive it. The difference here is that then Christopher transitions into taking, allowing himself to empathize for a moment with his son’s pain instead. Many relationships struggle when both parties are trying to actively push their influence on one another, never stopping to receive back in turn. We know that to converse is to exchange words in a back-and-forth discourse, but sometimes we forget to do the same with our emotions and empathy.

If there was a single word I would use to describe this short piece it would be “need.” Both Christopher and Teddy are coming into the situation with their own needs. At first they don’t even know what those needs are, and have to dig a little deeper to find what truly resonates. Character needs are obviously a huge consideration when sitting down to author a story, and I’m going to take some time next week to delve further into it. We’ll look more closely at the needs presented in this short story, and then consider ways other classic stories have incorporated their characters’ needs in a nuanced and meaningful manner. I’ll see you on Monday for that post!