Fringe Benefits

Cheaters never win.

The stakes are the same every year. The fastest five survivors of the company picnic game get a year of paid vacation to rest, rent a pet, maybe find a spouse. Everyone else keeps up their seventy hours a week. Non-participants—well, it’s a bad idea to call in sick. The alternative games are worse. At least here you’ve got a chance.

I’m putting my all into it this year. I need a sabbatical. I haven’t been able to focus. I barely finished producing the Newer You Toothpaste campaign commercials, and I think Lucinda’s perfect mouth had more to do with its success than I did.

I’ve been working out daily for six months. There’s no way to beat Samantha in risk management, but I should be able to eke past Mike in accounting. Bailey in logistics won’t be much competition since the “accident” a couple weeks ago. I refuse to engage in cheating but can’t say I’m sorry someone else did.

The picnic is all potato salad, hot dogs, and gossip for the first couple of hours. Finally, Cedric, the CEO, clangs a small gong. I’m not the only one surprised when he announces Lucinda will participate this year. Last month marked their tenth wedding anniversary. Until the marketing campaign, she didn’t have much to do with company business. But I knew she was a perfect toothpaste model the first time I saw her smile. I discovered the rest of her perfections later. Thank God for late nights at the office.

Cedric changes the rules from years past. He changes the rules at the office a lot, but a rule change at the game means he has to run everything by the productivity insurance company.  Instead of individual competition, we’ll be randomly assigned a partner. Only a couple of companies use teams in their benefits package. It complicates productivity insurance claims. I find myself wondering if this is the newest leadership fad. A few years back, it was quota scarring—an inch-long slash laser imprinted on your forehead or cheek every day you didn’t meet your productivity goal. Turns out the skin infections cost more than the revenue loss from loafing, so they dropped the initiative about three months out. I only have two scars. Could be why Lucinda fell for me instead of someone else.

I realize Cedric is still talking and bring my attention back to the rule change. Partnering us up means an extra sabbatical on the line, but if one member of the team dies, the other is disqualified. Cedric calls it a teambuilding activity. Everybody groans.

We all hold our breath until our partner is announced. “And Lucinda, my beautiful wife, the love of my life, will be teaming up with,” Cedric pauses, dramatic. I can almost taste the tension. “Veronica,” he finally says, pointing at me.

Now I’m worried. Lucinda hasn’t been training for this. She doesn’t need to since she doesn’t work. Some might call our forays exercise, and they’d be right about a couple of those all-nighters, but sex doesn’t prep you for tests like these. Not even really good sex.

Lucinda and I find our starting point on the field and try not to look at each other too openly. “Think he knows?” I whisper.

She shrugs and tries to put on a brave face, but I see worry in her green eyes. “If we make it through this,” she says, “get me away from here. Please.”

“We’ll be homeless and hungry,” I say. “Nobody hires deserters or divorcees.”

“I don’t care. I love you.”

One of the referees saunters up, so I don’t have time to reply. I’m not sure what I’d say anyway. Maybe I love Lucinda and maybe I don’t, but she’s been the only bright spot in my life for a year. I want her to be happy. I also want her to be alive.

The referee straps Lucinda’s right leg to my left with duct tape, then hands each of us a serving spoon and a grenade. Lucinda stares at the grenade like she’s never seen one before. It’s a good possibility she hasn’t since she doesn’t have a job.

“Only a few are live. The rest are props.” I’m trying to reassure her, but her eyes go wide and her perfect mouth forms a perfect ‘O’, the tip of her tongue stretching like she wants to say something. I have to look away—no time for those thoughts.

Her husband starts shouting through a megaphone. “The good news is HR says you’ve all paid the premiums on your productivity insurance!” The responding laughter is a ripple of nerves and incredulity. It’s not like we have a choice about what comes out of our paychecks, and productivity insurance only helps the company. We pay the premiums; they get the payout as long as our death is work-related.

Cedric keeps shouting. “As in the past, each lane has an equal number of land mines. Some explode. Some release acid. Some do nothing. I think I’d just avoid them if I were you.”

More nervous laughter. The new guy Paul faints and Mike, his partner, starts shaking him. Paul finally opens his eyes. Mike gets him standing just as the CEO says, “Your grenades are set to detonate exactly five minutes from activation or on impact. Two of the fifty are live.”

Paul faints again. Mike starts cussing at the poor kid.

“Leave him alone,” I say. “We were all new once.”

Mike ignores me. I’m pretty sure “ability to ignore people” is a qualification listed in his job description. I have at least eight reimbursement requests sitting on his desk.

“Employees, on your mark, get set, pull your pins!” Cedric looks right at me, and I’m pretty sure he knows I’ve been sleeping with his wife. I have a good idea where the two live grenades are.

Lucinda and I pull our pins and set the grenades on our spoons. We move in tandem, balancing them in front of us. Our legs and minds are synced as we swerve between mines.

Mike and Paul catch up to us on the right. Paul steps on a mine, and the explosion deafens me. A concussion impact forces me sideways. Lucinda moves with my wavering body, and we somehow keep our balance. Blood spatters against my neck, so I glance over my shoulder. Both Paul and Mike are injured, but not dead. Paul’s leg is barely hanging on. He’ll still be able to work. The company will only get partial productivity benefits.

Lucinda is crying, but we keep moving forward as if two parts of the same machine. I’m proud of her, but I can tell she’ll never be the same. This isn’t the life she signed on for.

We reach the finish line just behind Samantha and her secretary. Lucinda’s hand starts to shake. Her grenade teeters. I reach out and catch it before it hits the ground, dropping my own in the process. We both hold our breath.

Nothing happens. Maybe Cedric didn’t know after all. Maybe this was a warning.

The picnic ends with only five casualties, down six from last year. Could be there’s something to the teambuilding idea after all.

When I accept my sabbatical, Lucinda is leaning heavily against Cedric. I risk a direct look at her. She turns her green eyes into Cedric’s chest. I think maybe I do love her, but when he squeezes her shoulder and smiles darkly at me, I know we aren’t going anywhere. Turns out there’s more than one way to kill somebody.

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Issue 1.1 Paperback

Meet a satyr, learn how to grow a garden in an apocalyptic wasteland, and compete against your coworkers in a battle royale for a shot at a paid vacation.

Feel a mother’s love, learn what happens when songs end, and befriend the entity living behind the wallpaper in your house. Honor the bone god, come to terms with the past, and don’t let death stop you from exacting your revenge.

Whatever you do, steer clear of the shadows, don’t go anywhere without your EpiPen, and remember: your crew aren’t your friends.

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Fringe Benefits

Cheaters never win.

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