A/N: so mostly I am writing things for regular publication these days. I wrote this a while back for some friend's just for fun anthology, but I figured you might want to get a peek at it.
This is Chester.
Chester's leaning up against the fencepost outside the office, pretending he's watching clouds when he's really brooding about the guy he works with. He's sucking hard on a tootsie pop because it's the only thing he's really had to suck in weeks, since he promised that handsome fucker Hank he wouldn't suck his fingers anymore. Fucker gave him no credit for it because Chester still has bleeding hangnails but he didn't say "get healthy fingers," he said "stop making that obscene noise with your goddamned fingers in your mouth."
Doesn't matter: there's no way Chester's ever going to be anything but an annoyance to Hank.
Chester's slouching up to the bus stop chewing on his lip stewing over the latest fiasco at work. Fucking Mariah wouldn't even take his application to step into the the job opening at the Fruitline office. Chester ought to have resigned on the spot, except he needs the job even more than he needs to get away from Hank.
It's pretty disappointing to be told point-blank he can't move to the Fruitline position. He should be more than qualified. It would even have been a step down in pay and seniority. Mariah refusing to take his application might or might not be illegal, but the message that she doesn't think Chester's good enough for it is discouraging. Yeah, she tried to soften it with "Really, Chester, I can't let you do yourself and us this kind of disfavor." But she obviously didn't mean it because the very next thing she said was that he'd made a mistake that morning.
Maybe Chester is as useless as Hank seems to think he is.
Chester's chugging cold coffee and considering just not going in today at all. Yesterday he made half a dozen small mistakes and Hank noticed every one of them. It should be worse that Mariah noticed them too, but Mariah's just his boss and Hank is Hank.
A man's got to make a living though, so Chester pulls himself together in time to get the bus just after the one he really needs to get, and arrives less than ten minutes late. Mariah says, if it's less than ten minutes he's supposed to write the regular time on his card, as if he had been on time. He doesn't bother rounding the time down though, because Hank is watching and just screw him and his disapproval, Chester's going to just own this screw-up, and to hell with them if they don't like it.
Chester's packing his stuff into a box and definitely not crying or anything. Mariah said it was no reflection on him and she was so sorry she hadn't let him transfer to Fruitline but she really hadn't known she was going to be told to cut her staff and best of luck and Chester just nodded and nodded and slipped out of Mariah's office as fast as he could go and to hell with all of this and especially to hell with Hank and his damned sympathetic smile and "Anything I can do to help?"
He doesn't know how he's going to live, though.
Chester's got his laptop in the sunny courtyard by the museum, trawling the internet for job offers, sucking on his fingers because who cares anymore without Hank to try to measure up for and who's ever going to look at his fingers when he can't get a job? At least the unemployment is okay. And then the science fiction story he sent in nine months ago got accepted, and that's a couple week's expenses right there almost because six cents times ten thousand words is six hundred dollars.
He wishes there was someone to tell about it. He has told some people, but that's all email because he still does not know anybody in this town but the people he used to work with and he hasn't spoken one word to them since he got fired. Not fired, laid off. Mariah insisted it was a layoff and she'd hire him back in a heartbeat if she could.
Still feels like he got fired though.
Chester's walking and walking, singing "dada deeda deeda, papa's got the walking blues," and the rosy evening light looks good on the walls of the building. He's got that money burning a hole in his pockets feeling but he's resisting it with both hands because just because he sold a few stories does not mean he's making a living. Still, with the unemployment going on the extra money feels like a fortune.
It would be a good night to be in love in, he thinks, holding hands on the avenue, bumping foreheads, all that kind of corny stuff people do. This thought does not, oddly, depress him, though it is quickly followed by the reminder that Hank thought Chester's hands were gruesome to look at with the scabs and the skin tags curling away at the base of his ragged fingernails. He moves his hands to his pockets and he walks a little faster. Until he sees the place where he used to grab supper on the way home sometimes when he was working and had money but no time.
Chester's eating a felafel salad and tapping away on his laptop. The story he just thought of is unacceptably close to home but the important thing is that it fits into a horror anthology and he could write it in a few hours and it will be acceptable. He thinks so anyway. Worth a try. Stuck for a word, he sticks his finger in his mouth while he runs the wrong word that's the only one he can think of through an online thesaurus.
"You should really eat your felafels and not your fingers." Chester jumps and his flight-or-fight knows it's Hank before his brain does, and he's closing his laptop in a panic and looking for all his things and...
"Sorry to startle you. I was going to say hi and stuff but you were chewing on your fingers again and I just turn into a crazy person when I see you do that." Hank has a surprisingly un-scowly expression on, considering he's talking to Chester, but that somehow makes it not at all better.
Chester mumbles something about how no, it's not Hank's fault, he just really has to go now, he's done for the day...
"Oh, that's too bad," Hank says. "Can I get your email? Mariah said you got to keep your work one but apparently you aren't using it? So you have another one?"
Chester's not capable of saying that he doesn't want to give Hank his email address because then he'll spend all the time reloading the webmail page looking for something he'd never get, so he gives it to Hank.
Chester's in the habit of checking his email many times a day to see if anything's been bought lately. He works very hard to say bought and not accepted because accepted sounds like something you do when you decide someone is an okay person and he doesn't need to take this writing gig personally, he needs to treat it like a job because it's the only job he's got. Because nobody else in the known world can get a job either, Congress has caved in and extended the time for unemployment payments, but still this isn't going to last forever and he'd better sell as many stories as he can to build up some momentum for when he doesn't have unemployment anymore.
So it certainly has nothing to do with Hank having his email address that he's peeking at his email right now, and everything to do with the fact that he has four stories out to well-paid venues. Sure. And it's not the lack of a Hank email that gives him the stomach-dropping letdown, it's the lack of anything writing-related. But it sure is annoying that Hank took his goddamned email address and then didn't send him a goddamned email. Fuck him.
Chester's cleaning out his spam bucket on the off chance that the story he sent to that new online magazine three months ago has been bought (or not) and the filter took exception to the address for some reason: and he discovers that it's kind of full of emails from Hank and Mariah.
Of course. At this point in this kind of story this always happens.
But when Chester opens the latest email from Hank he is disappointed to see it has a one-line body with an .exe link in it: malware. So does the latest email from Mariah. "I should just forget it," he says. "Let them deal with the fallout themselves."
But he knows he should do no such thing, and the only question is whether to call them up and tell them over the phone that their domain's been hacked, or hop a bus and tell them in person. Both seem like undoable efforts, considering his body still threatens to eviscerate itself with shame when he considers trying to use his voice in front of the major witnesses to his failures. For some reason, the telephone seems more difficult. So the bus it is.
Chester's not sucking his fingers, he's gnawing them, he did a terrible job shaving, his clothes don't fit right, he can't believe he's going into a place of business looking like this but what? should he wait and let them infect all their correspondents?
Naturally Hank doesn't look happy to see him. "What have you been doing to your hands? They're hideous," he says when Chester walks into the office. "And you were supposed to be here two days ago."
"Your domain's been hacked," Chester says, ignoring every stupid thing Hank says. "You're pumping out viruses to your whole clientele."
Mariah comes out and says, "Well, it's a good thing I got my budget back then, because you can start right away fixing that."
Chester's tempted to say no, he's a self-employed writer now, but honestly, his writing is not enough to live on and he only spends a few hours on it a day anyway, so he's glad to have the job back even if it means working in yearning distance of Hank who apparently still hates him.
Chester's at the little store down the block from the office buying a whole box of tootsie pops. He kind of hates them now but he hates listening to Hank complain about him sucking his fingers more, so if he's going to be working there again he's going to have a red goddamned tongue and a nasty taste in his mouth. He sets it prominently on his desk but forgets to open it and take one out when he gets to work.
Mariah brings him a stack of paperwork to fill out and some of it looks vaguely sinister. She catches him staring at the pages and says "Yeah, they added all this stuff to the packet while you were gone," and Chester thinks she's making it sound like he was on vacation or something and then he thinks yes, it was sort of like being on vacation, a vacation from thinking about Hank.
Because Hank looks up right then and that's not a scowl on his face at all and Chester remembers why he even cares what Hank thinks.
Hank plops a box on Chester's desk and Chester stares at it before he opens it. It's full of these little blister packs of—what? tiny condoms? The packages are labeled "finger cots." Finger cots? What does that even mean?
"What's this for?" Chester asks.
"You put one on your finger and then you chew that instead of your finger," Hank says without even looking up. "Saves your fingers and your teeth and doesn't stain your mouth that horrible color."
"Fuck you," Chester says as he's been longing to say for over a year and a half, but he says it without rancor and he opens one of the packs.
Chester's hauling a couple of filled garbage bags to the curb. Now that he's working again he's used some of his writing money for new clothes and it's really about time. He didn't get anything different from what he normally wears but everything is new and without tears or stupid tootsie pop stains or worn places the size of New Hampshire.
Not that it makes any difference, apparently. Mariah doesn't keep a dress code. She herself wears baggy jeans and sweatshirts with science injokes silkscreened on them. And Hank glared at him the first day he wore a new shirt.
But it's a bit more comfortable on the bus, knowing that he won't be mistaken for a homeless guy.
Chester's in front of the felafel place trying to decide between spending money on dinner right now and staying hungry till he gets home and taking a chance on whatever unsatisfactory combination of food is left in the refrigerator.
"We could split the large combination plate." Chester jumps as Hank's voice floats in from somewhere above his shoulder.
"Geeze," Chester says. "Yeah, okay, sure."
"Try to be less happy about it," Hank says. "Your enthusiasm is overwhelming."
"Sure," Chester says again, shrinking into himself.
"Is it a problem? I mean, I was trying to be nice, but if I bother you that much, you don't have to put up with me on your time off," Hank says, and Chester turns around to stare at him, gaping, for a moment before he bursts out laughing.
"Come on, let's eat," he says when he catches his breath. "We can piss each other off with full stomachs."
Chester's calculating how fast he has to move to beat Hank to the check. That fast, apparently. Their hands collide as they each grab for it, but Chester's got it.
"You should let me pay," Hank says. "You just got back to work after being laid off for seven months."
"But I've got extra money from my fantastic publishing career," Chester says.
"We could split it," Hank says.
But Chester's already keyed in his PIN and grabbed the little plastic number tent. "You can tip if you want," he says, smirking.
"So annoying," Hank mutters, but he shoves a couple of bills in the tip jar and follows Chester to the table. "This table is stupid."
"What's wrong with it? It has a view of the street. All right, we'll move then," Chester spits out, standing up.
"Nothing, don't bother," Hank says. "Sit down."
Chester sits down again, staring at Hank briefly before lowering his gaze to his ravaged hands.
"You chew on them in your sleep or something?" Hank asks. "Because you're not chewing on them at work anymore and they're still a disaster area."
Chester doesn't want to explain anything to Hank but there's nothing else to talk about at the moment. "It happens whether I chew on them or not. It's just the way my skin is," he says. "It's why I got in the habit, because they're always irritating me."
Hank laughs and shakes his head. "You try putting lotion on them? Supposedly you get hangnails from dry skin."
Chester rolls his eyes. "No, I tried bathing them in acid instead. Of course I do. Every day. They'd be even worse if I didn't."
The food comes and Hank takes over, apportioning the food according to some arcane philosophy that somehow results in Chester getting the exact parts of the combination plate that he likes the best, surprising because he's never shared a combination plate from this restaurant with him before. Chester raises his eyebrows and Hank smirks.
"I overheard you talking with Mariah before about this place. Endlessly. Like, do you go anywhere else?"
The way he says it, half defiant and three-quarters teasing, pisses Chester off and also—well, also pisses him off, but in a different way, because Chester cannot stand the thought of getting his hopes up about this fucker after over a year of knowing how much Hank is grossed out by Chester's existence.
"Sometimes," Chester mutters. "I like what I like. Similar to you, though in your case it's pretty much you dislike what you dislike."
"I'm much easier to please than you think I am," Hank says placidly, taking an immense bite of lamb gyros.
Chester's heading out for the bus stop and Hank is for some reason right behind him even though his bus stop is across the street and headed in the other direction. Chester turns and asks "What are you doing? Don't you get the bus over there?"
Hank scowls again and Chester's ready to punch the bus bench but instead he jams a finger into his mouth.
"Don't," Hank says, putting his hand on Chester's. Chester yanks his hand away. "What?" he asks.
"You know what," Hank says. "You suck your fingers like you're sucking a dick, and then your fingers look like shit. Like seductive and repellent in the same moment. Confusing."
Chester mulls this over for half a minute, and then, seeing the bus pull around the corner, he says, "Come home with me. You're at my bus stop anyway."
"Sure. I'll make sure you're putting the goddamned lotion on right."
Chester shakes his head. "Not taking any lotion on my hands unless you're giving me something better to suck. Are you? Because otherwise the lotion goes on right before bed. Tastes terrible."
"Yeah, okay, I got something better for you to suck," Hank says, just as the bus doors open and the bus driver gives them a quelling look.
Chester doesn't care, because that fucker Hank is coming tonight.