“Shift Change” – A Short Story
Finally! Something about 2020 that feels normal. As he’s done in years past, author Eric Douglas has invited other writers to do some short fiction for Halloween. It’s always been fun, so I was happy to chip in another entry. You can read my prior Halloween short story here, as well as my two prior 100-word entries here and here. And, as always, head over to Eric’s place to check out stories from all the other folks.
Now, without ado – “Shift Change”
Vuzzaz sat at the end of the hall of the Amalgamated Union of Transdimensional Frighteners, Demons, and Purveyors of Dread building and watched the shift change turnover. He pretended to be engrossed in paperwork, but really he was just trying to get comfortable in his chair, watching beings. It was one of those hard plastic things designed to make you uncomfortable, but at least this one had an opening in the back so he didn’t have to sit on his tail. It swished back and forth slowly behind him.
He’d chosen this location carefully, after years of trial and error. It was far enough away that he couldn’t really overhear what anyone else was saying, but not so far away as to draw notice. Kothol demons aren’t known for keen hearing, anyway, but not every monster knew that. From here he could blend in and watch the low-slung shoulders, the puffy eyes, and other indicia of feelings even if he couldn’t hear the words.
The beings from the A shift shuffled out of the shift room, heads and tentacles down, with an air of defeat. One big red demon with four arms and a pair of swooping black horns was actually crying. Behind him, Munol, Vuzzaz’s counterpart for the A shift, put a tentacle on his shoulder in an effort at consolation. It clearly wasn’t working, leading Munol to turn and lock eye stalks with Vuzzaz.
As the A shift slid down the corridor and the B shift started to trickle in, Munol squeaked down toward Vuzzaz, his pungent slime trail dripping through the grated floor.
“Is it really that bad?” Vuzzaz asked.
Munol did the closest thing to a shrug a being with no shoulders and six flopping tentacles could. “I’ve never seen it like this. You have bad days, we all have bad days, but you don’t lose the love for the work.”
Vuzzaz looked through Munol as the rest of his shift shuffled in. “It can’t go on like this.”
“What are you going to do?” Munol’s dozen eyes all blinked at once.
Vuzzaz stood. “Go find every old timer you can find. I don’t care what they’re doing or how far up the chain they are. Tell them to come to the shift room as soon as they can.” As Munol began to ooze away, Vuzzaz grabbed a tentacle. “I mean every one.”
As Munol slithered down the hallway behind him, Vuzzaz watched as the stragglers of his shift filed into the room. Last, as always, was Bagrozoth, who looked like a pale three-foot-tall sprite or fairy, until her performance began and she tripled in size and turned coal black.
“Sorry, boss,” she said, voice squeaking.
“Get in there,” Vuzzaz said, following her in and closing the door.
The shift room was like a classroom that had seen better days. There was a lectern at the front from which Vuzzaz or his colleagues could speak to their charges. The members of the shift itself – normally an even dozen but Zongriruk was out sick today – sat in folding chairs barely big enough to hold most of them. There was room for, maybe, three or four beings to come and stand along the wall near the door.
The din of conversation among the shift quieted when Vuzzaz stepped behind the lectern. He took a deep breath, even puffing up his auxiliary swim bladder for effect. The room was very quiet for a long while.
“I understand,” Vuzzaz finally said, “that things are hard out there. But that is no excuse for not trying to do the best job we can. The Earth relies on us.”
“Then maybe the humans should cut us some slack.” It was Var’ath, a Kosmar demon who haunted dreams. “It’s a nightmare down there, even before I clock in.”
A rumble of agreement from their coworkers, including the low rumble that meant the mountain of rock named Billy, showed that they shared their opinion.
Vuzzaz held up his hands to quiet the crowd. “Tough times come and go when you’re an eternal purveyor of dread. Things will get better.”
“When?” Mizrolas stood up. She was a slender reed of a demon, pulsing blue green with three piercing yellow eyes and a mouthful of sharp, dagger-like teeth. “I was sneaking up on a girl, a teenager, someone I should scare the pants right off of. What’s she reading about on her phone? This pandemic that’s closing cities down, killing hundreds of thousands, impoverishing millions. How am I supposed to compete with that?”
Numerous others chimed in with nods of heads, stalks, or whatever appendage they had handy.
“I was nestled in the corner of a TV room,” said Jegexath, who for the moment had taken the form of a humanoid made entirely of chimney smoke, “just waiting for the right moment to seep out over the floor and imbue the family with dread. Do you know what they start talking about on TV?”
“Tell us!” cried out Gorkazod, like they were in their unholy church.
“Murder hornets!” Jegexath said.
Another dissonant din erupted from the room as some of the others called out the parade of horribles they had heard about, too.
“Wild fires!,” someone called out. “Australia was literally on fire!”
Another added, “so many hurricanes they’re running out of names!”
“Shortages of toilet paper! And yeast!”
They were so riled up that they didn’t even notice when Munol opened the door and walked in, along with one other old timer. Vuzzaz had hoped for more, but he’d have to work with what he had.
Vuzzaz put up his hands again, but with limited effect. “Now, now, let’s settle down.” That didn’t have much effect either. He didn’t want to go harder, but they were short on time and he had a point to make.
“KNOCK IT OFF!” Vuzzaz roared, eyes turning a shade of flaming orange while his knuckles went black as he clutched the lectern.
That quieted the crowd.
Vuzzaz took a few deep breaths to regain his composure. “Thank you. As I was saying, I know this year has been harder than most, but it’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before.” He looked to Gorkazod, a Muisto with a knack for dates and names. “When did I start trying to scare people?”
Its eyes rolled into its head for a second, then it answered, “1918.”
“That’s right. 1918.” Vuzzaz nodded, waiting to see if the date sank in. These young demons were so ignorant of history. “I first went to work while the Earth was convulsed in a terrible war, upon which a pandemic more deadly than the current one developed. Do you think I complained? No. I put my head down and did the job, because it needed to be done.”
“Due respect,” Gorkazod said, sheepishly raising a tentacle, “people were different then. They didn’t have all the horrors of the world beamed into their homes 24 hours a day.”
Silent nods greeted this, but at least they all kept quiet this time.
Vuzzaz hung his head, then turned to Munol. “Would you like to tell them when you first started?”
“1349,” it said, surveying the room. “That mean anything to anyone here?”
A silence fell over the room, punctuated only by the rolling gurgle that Xanuth did when he got nervous and couldn’t control his fluid sacs.
“The Black Death,” Vuzzaz said. “Killed half of Europe. People thought they were living in the last days, but did that keep Munol from doing his job?”
“You know it didn’t,” Munol said, folding his tentacles defiantly.
Sogthoz was just starting to explain his first years working during the era of the Mongol hordes when the door opened and Rilgaxoth walked into the room. Everyone froze – Sogthoz even stopped at mid sentence – when the boss entered. It took a moment for the shift to remember protocol before they leapt to their appropriate appendages.
Vuzzaz did his best to conceal a grin and made a mental note to buy Munol a couple of buckets of fish guts later.
“Good morning, First Supervisor,” Vuzzaz said, bowing slightly.
“Deputy,” Rilgaxoth said, with barely a notice. “Carry on.”
It took a moment for Sogthoz to get back up to speed, and Vuzzaz felt as though his hearts really weren’t in it at this point. Still, he at least made clear to Rilgaxoth why he’d been summoned here.
Before Vuzzaz had to think of where to go next, Rilgaxoth stepped next to him at the lectern, sulfur clouds billowing in his wake. “May I?”
Vuzzaz stepped to the side without a word.
“August 26, 1883,” Rilgaxoth said, barking like he was upset he had to be here. “A volcano called Krakatoa erupted, blowing most of an island off Southern Asia to hell. Killed tens of thousands. Was felt thousands of miles away. Affected the climate of the planet Earth for weeks.”
Rilgaxoth snapped his fingers and an image appeared in the aether beside him – a strange, malformed man with his hands to his face, mouth agape, under a blood red sky. “That’s what Norway – fucking Norway – looked like because of this. People thought the world was coming to an end.” He paused to let that sink in.
“And I started my work here on August 28, 1883. The Earth looked like it was on fire and I got out there and did my job. Now,” he barked again, before saying almost in a whisper, “get out there and do yours.”
Vuzzaz wasn’t sure if he actually shot out the door or just vanished, but all that was left at the lectern was a slowly dissipating cloud of sulfur. Vuzzaz stepped up and waved some of the fumes away. “Any questions?”
Xanuth, who had to double over just to fit through the door, sheepishly raised his hand.
“Yes?” Vuzzaz asked, glancing at the clock on the wall. He needed to wrap this up.
“If the humans are already so scared,” Xanuth said, “if their world is so terrifying, then why do we have to frighten them even more?”
Only then did Vuzzaz grasp how bad things were. His charges weren’t lazy or trying to get out of doing a hard job. They’d forgotten what their job was.
“What we do is so important,” he said, “regardless of what reality the humans are dealing with. The truth is, if the humans ever really sat and considered their situation, they’d never be able to leave the homes. They lead brief lives of survival and desperation on a rock hurtling through space with no purpose, no plan.”
He took a deep breath. “Our . . . competitors,” he said with a shudder, “think the way to help them deal with their situation is to give them hope, false hope, that it all really means something, that there is some ultimate reward. We know better. We know that humans can do it, they can face their fears and improve their lot. That’s why we frighten. That’s why we scare. We give their minds a place to confront darkness and vanquish evil so that in their waking lives they can get on with the business of surviving. After all, Xanuth, what’s another jammed commute or a terrorist attack or even a global pandemic once they’ve dealt with you?”
“Fair point,” Xanuth said, shaking what passed for his head.
“You’re damned right!” Vuzzaz was starting to warm up now. “Same for you and you and you,” he went around the room looking every last one of them in the eye. “You all make that world a better place, by giving them a chance to confront some fears they can conquer!”
“Yeah!” A ragged chorus responded.
“So what are we going to do?” Vuzzaz asked stepping from behind the lectern.
“And are we going to do it the best we damned well can?”
He yanked open the door. “Then let’s get going!”
The shift jumped to their feet and tentacles and stumps and started pouring through the door.
Vuzzaz waited until they were all out and striding down the hall with purpose.
“Hey, all of you!”
They turned at his call.
“Let’s be scary out there, all right?”
They nodded, whooped and gave each other high regards in various numerals. Before Vuzzaz knew it, they were out the door.
Munol was standing just behind him. “Good speech. I’ll have to remember that next time.”
“Won’t work next time,” Vuzzaz said. “Sad fact is, if that world down there doesn’t start to improve, our jobs are going to suck for the foreseeable future. I think I owe you some fish heads.” Munol licked his lips. All five of them.