By Hallie Cantor
Dirk Q. Handsomebody looked up from his typewriter as the doorbell sounded an angry buzz. Rising from his cherry mahogany desk, he ran a hand through his rakishly cut hair that gleamed jet black as the night. Who could be calling at this hour? His mind immediately flitted to Penelope von Stein, his old college flame, with her large almond-shaped eyes and sleek chestnut hair. But Dirk hadn’t seen Penelope in years; it couldn’t be her. Or could it?
He opened the door to a short and stout delivery man, who wordlessly thrust a large plastic bag into his arms and left. Handsomebody’s roommate, Sallie, emerged from her room, glasses inexplicably smudged with peanut butter and hair darkened with the sheen of someone who’d woken up too late to shower for two days in a row.
“Oh, that’s mine, thanks.” She took the bag from Handsomebody without ceremony and returned to her room, probably to eat dinner on her unmade bed in front of an illegally downloaded second season of Friday Night Lights like a filthy small-time crook squatting in a warehouse instead of a civilized person with access to a kitchen table.
Back at his desk, regret gnawed at Dirk like a dog gnawing at a hard chew toy with saliva dribbling out of its mouth like leaky water from a faucet. He had lost touch with Penelope after their junior year, when she had dropped out to work for the father of Dirk’s old rival, Pierre Snivelli. Dirk had always suspected that Snivelli was up to no good when it came to Penelope, but when he’d shared his concerns, she dismissed them as childish jealousies. After a fiery quarrel, she’d stormed out. and they hadn’t seen each other since.
Dirk picked up the phone. Those old memories drifted in the air before him, where they mingled with the faint scent of mildew coming from every single one of Sallie’s towels.
Handsomebody held open the door for Penelope von Stein’s slender frame. Her tanned cocoa skin brushed against his expensive wool sweater as she entered the apartment and let out a gasp. For there, sprawled on the couch in a giant t-shirt and baggy boxer shorts (but not in a cute way like when some girls wear them), was Sallie, gnawing vigorously at hardened Sour Patch Kids like a woman possessed. “Oh, hey guys!” she said. “Want to try these? They’re really good frozen.”
Handsomebody shivered in disgust and ushered Penelope away from Sallie’s grotesque form.
“I apologize,” he said, gazing deeply into her eyes, their souls taking up the dance that had begun so long ago and would continue for years to come. “Please, tell me why you couldn’t talk over the phone.”
“It’s too dangerous,” Penelope said, her eyes jerked away from Dirk’s by some hidden emotion. “Pierre has someone watching me all the time. He doesn’t want me interfering with his plans to sell the company’s technological research to our competitors.”
“Can’t you stop him?”
Penelope shook her beautiful head. “The reason I left school wasn’t because Pierre’s father offered me a job,” she said softly. “I was doing top-secret work for a branch of the government that few people know about. Pierre could have my cover blown permanently.”
Dirk felt the floor shift beneath his feet. “I don’t understand. What kind of top-secret work?”
Just as Penelope’s beestung lips parted, an oafish knocking came at the door.
“Hey, do you know where the toilet plunger is?”
The next morning, after their night of desperately ardent lovemaking (interrupted briefly by Sallie inconsiderately and poorly singing along to the original cast recording of Thoroughly Modern Millie while she put away her laundry), Penelope was gone from the bed they had shared.
Handsomebody poured himself a strong cup of coffee and let its black bitterness sweep his mind clear of Penelope’s jasmine scent. The snow blanketed the sidewalk outside the window, much like Sallie’s dirty old blanket blanketed the couch because she liked to curl up under it and watch TV like some kind of fatally injured farm animal.
Something wasn’t right with Penelope’s story. If she had been using the Snivelli family business as a cover for her government work, why did she suddenly now care about protecting its interests? Dirk sipped his coffee, thinking. Penelope had always had a mystery about her, a secret she kept well hidden somewhere deep beneath her ample bosom (unlike Sallie, who rarely managed to keep her thoughts about comedy podcasts to herself). In the past few days, however, the seed of this mystery had sprouted into a vibrant flower, its petals falling in a vortex around Dirk’s head and obscuring his piercingly green eyes – and his judgment.
He grabbed his coat (and the overflowing trash bag, because Sallie would probably forget to take it out even though it was her turn) and headed out.
Handsomebody found Penelope’s office building and waited around the corner from the main entrance. The cold air whipped against his face as he ignored a text from Sallie about when he was going to be home because she had lost her keys for the second time that month.
After about ten minutes, Penelope emerged, looked quickly over both shoulders, and walked to the corner, where Dirk heard her confer with a sinister, tall man in a dark coat and hat. “He bought it,” she said to the man softly, the glint of a tear sliding down her smooth cheek. The man in the suit nodded gruffly and walked on.
Hours later, a darkness descended over the apartment where Dirk sat drowning his sorrows in shots of whiskey. Not a literal darkness, which was also coming over the apartment, nor the darkness of Dirk’s creeping certainty that he was at the center of a plot bigger than his own comprehension. No, this darkness was deeper and darker in nature, and it emanated, pulsing with evil, from the living room.
Sallie had programmed the DVR to only record Chopped and Friends reruns again.