From the author: When I wrote this piece, many of my friends were academic/literary. They were interested in the metaphorical meanings in the story. They didn't believe me when I told them it was just a childhood fantasy of mine transplanted into the adult world. Sometimes a shark is just a shark. JVP
Willard was day dreaming about Elsa when the shark caught Benford, the new mail boy, directly in front of Willard's desk. Lost in his dream, Willard didn't look up from the stack of forms he was filling out mechanically. Bustle and commotion were standard fare at The First North American Trust Title Company, and the boy's silent waving of arms wasn't enough to distract Willard. Then the boy screeched.
Willard dropped his pen and instinctively pulled his feet off the aquamarine blue shag carpet. The shark, a small one if its head were an indication, probably five or six feet long, had Benford by the calf. He screeched again, then started slapping at the fish with a thick manila folder. Papers squirted from it into the air, spiraling about like sea gulls. The boy twisted in an effort to get loose and his pants tore along the out seam. Willard saw a long stretch of white leg that ended at green boxer shorts.
"Help!" Benford said, his face an etching of pain and fear. He reached for Willard. Using his chair as a step, Willard climbed to the top of his desk, knelt on the desk pad and extended his hand to the boy.
"Grab on!" cried Willard, and their hands locked. For a second, he thought the shark had lost. Benford moved toward the desk, and his face beamed with hope. Then the shark regripped, shook back and forth angrily, sending ripples in the carpet that lapped against the other desks, and drug Benford under.
Benford's hand disappeared last, fingers still bent as if Willard had never let go. The carpet closed over him and the last papers drifted down to float on its now placid, blue nap. Then a dark swirl of red eddied at the spot, bloodying some of the pages. Within a few eye blinks, the color faded away and only the stained papers remained.
The attack lasted less than fifteen seconds.
Willard dropped his forehead to his hands.
When he had first seen a dorsal fin cutting through the carpet days earlier, he'd glanced around to see if anyone else noticed. Elsa, the prim title clerk he dreamed of in the desk beside his, didn't raise her head. A drooping of tight blond curls covered her eyes. Her cool looking, pale fingers moved efficiently to the next form and she began writing. The fin continued down the long rows of desks, avoiding a secretary carrying a stack of papers.
Later, he saw three fins circling the water cooler. They moved hypnotically around and around, and when Humphrey, the chief accountant, walked to the cooler for a drink, Willard bit down an urge to yell a warning. The fins widened their circle while the fat man filled and drank four tiny cupfuls of water. A bubble hiccupped in the large glass bottle each time.
No one else seemed to see them. He had attempted several times to tell Elsa. Once, he leaned toward her and almost spoke--the words were on his lips--but she glanced at him, her eyes bright, brown and shy, and he said nothing. He loved her eyes and the tiny wrinkles that radiated from their corners like she had spent time squinting at sun light. Lifeguard eyes, he thought. Protective eyes.
In the year since she had joined the firm, he'd never had enough nerve to talk to her, and she had not spoken to him, even when he left funny little sticky notes on her computer screen like, "HELP! I'M DROWNING IN DOS!" She'd smile faintly in his direction, then pull the note free and tuck it into a desk drawer. He wanted desperately to talk to her now, to alert her.
A heavy slap next to his ear startled a scream out of him.
"What the hell are you doing, Willard?" bellowed Mr. Trusty, the office manager. He was wearing his favorite grey, pin striped suit and an orange tie with the words, Get your butt in gear, printed over and over in black. "God damn it, Willard. You look like a seal crouched like that. Get off there right now." Mr. Trusty slapped the desk again.
"Yes, sir," said Willard, and he slid off the top into his chair. He braced his feet on a ledge in the desk so he wouldn't be touching the carpet.
"The deeds on the Hinson deal and the Arlington Estate have to be finished and at the bank tomorrow morning. I can't have you flipping out when there's work to be done. You'll stay late tonight."
The other workers began to clean their desks, putting folders into file cabinets and packing brief cases. It was quitting time. Mr. Trusty saw the papers strewn at his feet. His cold, grey eyes scanned the office. "Where is that little squid, Benford?" He kicked one of the pages. "Pick up this mess."
When Mr. Trusty turned and headed toward his office, Willard sucked in a sharp breath. The back of Mr. Trusty's jacket bulged slightly. Something between his shoulder blades pushed the jacket out, giving him a mild hunch back. Mr. Trusty grinned at another title agent a couple of desks away and said good night. His smile was full of teeth. Willard hadn't paid much attention to this before, but Mr. Trusty's face, when he smiled, was mostly shiny, white bone.
Other employees walked by Willard's desk. A couple nodded as they passed, but most didn't seem to see him. Their eyes were blank and, Willard realized with a rush, fish like. Several of them had oddly bulging backs, and Willard wondered if this had always been the case and he'd never thought about it, or if the bulges were new. He watched one man, one he didn't know well--Quinton or Quigley--as he walked away. Before he reached the door, Quinton or Quigley placed his briefcase on a desk, bent down behind it, as if he were picking something off the carpet, and didn't reappear. A fin sliced between the desk legs and sank out of sight near the photocopy machine. Although the office was almost empty, briefcases rested on many desks.
Willard didn't know what to do, but he did know that nothing was going to get him onto the carpet now, not after what he'd seen.
He wished he was back in his bachelor's apartment with its comfortable chairs and neatly swept, beach brown, hardwood floors, where he'd sit at his kitchen table and work for hours constructing ships in bottles. Not ones from kits, but ones he made on his own from balsa stock that would go into antique wine bottles he'd buy at flea markets and garage sales. Using special glues and long tweezers, he'd place each pre-painted piece in its place, plank by plank, until finally he'd attach the tiny spools and pulleys and raise the toy sails. Willard imagined standing on their decks, the wind at his back, the solid thud of waves passing beneath the hull, the smell of birds and islands and exotic flowers in his nose, and beside him, Elsa, tanned and laughing and loving. Willard never sailed his ships alone in his dreams.
A fleet lined the living room on shelves he'd built specially for them, and track lighting illuminated his best ones like art work in museums. Only his landlord had seen the collection.
Now that it was after five, the office was mostly empty. The steady patter of computer keys, the ringing of phones and the shuffling of papers was replaced by the buzz from the florescent lights.
A soft sobbing attracted his attention. He turned. Elsa's hands hid her face and her shoulders trembled. She sobbed again.
"Elsa?" he said.
Her crying continued. "That poor boy," she said, finally. Her voice was low, and even though it was caught in a sob, melodious. "That poor, poor boy."
Willard almost leapt to his feet; then he remembered the carpet. "You saw!" he whispered in exultation.
She said, "It ate him right there." She dabbed a napkin under her eyes.
"How long have you seen?"
"Since the first, I guess." She pulled a book from a drawer in her desk. "I've been reading about them. They're just big eating machines, you know."
A tall, grey fin glided smoothly past Willard's desk. It slid through the carpet for twenty feet, then circled back. Another fin joined it, then a third and fourth. A glimpse of tail fin broached the carpet and a wide expanse of solid, dark back. By the size of the fin, Willard guessed the largest might be fifteen feet long.
"There are so many," said Elsa.
A weighty thud almost knocked Willard out of his chair. He braced his hand on the seat, and a fin scraped it. The knuckles shown white, then beads of blood welled through the skin. He scrambled to the desk top again. Elsa climbed to the top of her desk too.
"Why are they going after us?" asked Willard. "They never bothered us before."
Fins crossed back and forth in front of him. His chair rumbled away, snagged on the back of one of the larger fish. The shark turned in its path, shaking the chair off; then its broad head broke the surface, mouth agape, teeth glistening and it ate the chair, dragging it under in one bite.
"Feeding frenzy," said Elsa. "They're stirred up."
The carpet undulated from their passage. Strong, fishy smells filled the air, like seaweed baking in the sun.
"It must be the blood," said Willard. He pointed to the late Benford's papers on the floor, many darkly stained. A fin cruised through the middle of them, pushing some aside. "Maybe I can draw them off." He yanked some tissues out of a box and blotted blood off his knuckles. Squeezing, he coaxed a few more drops from each one, then wadded the tissues and threw them as far as he could. They fluttered down ten feet away.
He waited hopefully, but after two or three minutes, it was obvious that the sharks weren't interested.
"It's not enough," said Elsa. "We'll have to out-wait them."
They watched the sharks' activity. It seemed they'd settled into a waiting mode of their own. Generally their circles were counterclockwise, although one would break the pattern and dash through the blood-stained papers once in a while, and several times the flurry of fins and splashing showed they were still agitated.
After a long time, Willard said, "Why didn't you tell me you saw the sharks days ago?"
She scrunched her knees around to make herself more comfortable. "Until you tried to help. . ." She gestured at the papers on the floor. "I thought I was the only one. Why doesn't anyone else see them?"
Through the western facing windows, the sun neared the horizon. Desks and computers cast long shadows across the blue carpet. Willard shrugged. "Denial, I guess, or they're with them."
She said, "Why didn't you tell me?"
He blushed, then turned his head away to hide it. He was about to say, "Because I was shy," but a movement in the back of the office stopped him. He stood on his desk to see better. Coming toward them, a fin five feet tall wended its way between the desks. "I don't think we'll be able to out-wait them after all," he said. "We're really in trouble."
The wave from its passage tumbled telephones to the floor. Desks rose and fell in its wake.
"Uh oh," said Elsa as she dug through the top drawer of her desk. She sat up holding a nail file.
"That won't stop it," said Willard. He imagined the shark that could have a fin that size. It'd swallow him and the desk and still want more.
Elsa stabbed her hand. She winced and stabbed it again.
"What are you doing!" shouted Willard.
"We'll have to divert them." She looked around the top of her desk, her hand dripping freely. The fin moved ponderously by. "Dang," she said. "Don't look." She unbuttoned her blouse, took it off and smeared the blood into it. "It needs to be fresh and there has to be a lot."
"Better hurry," said Willard.
The fin started back. Elsa wadded the blood-soaked garment into a ball, thought for a second, dropped a paper weight into it, and tossed it fifty feet away.
"It'll take a minute for them to notice," she said, "if they do."
Their reaction, though, was almost immediate. Three fins broke from the pack and headed for the blouse. With majestic grandeur, the massive shark ignored their desks in favor of the fresh scent. At least for the moment, no sharks were near them.
Willard's desk was twelve feet from Elsa's. He studied the carpet between them for sign of a ripple or any hint of a shark waiting below.
"Better do it," said Elsa.
He took a deep breath, jumped on the floor and onto her desk. She grabbed his arm to steady him. The fins closed in on the blouse.
"That won't hold them long," Willard said. "Should we go desk to desk, or sprint for the door."
She looked panicked, and he could see the memory of Benford surfacing in her eyes. She steadied herself and said evenly, "Desk to desk."
Fifteen desks later, they stood in the tiled hallway that led to the elevator. Willard propped his hands on his knees and breathed in loud gasps. Elsa said, "I've never seen one out here. Have you?"
He willed his breathing to slow down. "No, but I'll feel better when I get home."
He straightened himself. She clasped her bleeding hand next to her chest in a fist. A streak of blood marred one side of her pink camisole, and she was shivering.
"Maybe you could come with me," he said, "and I could bandage that." He could hear his heart in his ears. It was only the adrenaline from the rush to the door that gave him the nerve to be so bold.
She looked at him sternly. "Turn around," she said.
Confused, he did. She pressed her hand against his neck, then felt his backbone to his belt. He remembered the bulges under some of the employee's clothes, and he understood.
"You're a nice man," she said. "What kind of floors do you have?"
He laughed. "Hardwood."
"I'd be happy to go home with you."
As they walked away, they heard the crashing of office furniture. Frustrated, the sharks had begun to feed on each other.
This story originally appeared in Weird Tales.