Claire walked into the office that morning to find her boss had melted. She had been expecting it, of course—his behavior in the last few weeks had been increasingly erratic, angry, and unstable—but she still sighed when she saw his puddled remains seeping under the office door. Following standard protocol, she carefully scooped as much of the mess as she could into one of the red buckets reserved for upper-upper management. Then she got on her hands and knees to scrub the rest away. Some mass would be lost, but when Jerry came back in a few weeks, reconstituted, his fellow managers would praise his new lean look and jokingly ask if he’d been working out. He’d preen, just like he had last time, and the time before that.
Claire, like so many of the editorial assistants, had cycled through multiple managers at the publishing house. The same men had shuffled through: managing, harassing, melting, undergoing resolidification and anti-harassment training, and starting again in a new position. Some of the assistants had taken to wearing only machine-washable clothing because they never knew when the spatter of sudden melting would splatter onto their outfits. Claire herself had ruined three tops—nice ones, too!—before she found that the spatter stuck least to cotton. She dressed each morning now with a careful eye for season, style, and likelihood of managerial melting.
The Melting Affliction (MA), as the newscasters called it, had begun a few years ago, not long before Claire graduated from college. It dominated the news, more than the election cycle even. The President of the United States called a task force within the first week, when his chief of staff melted in the middle of an international negotiation—one that was delayed anyway, because the staff of several other countries had disintegrated, too. Claire’s college campus was a mess; the solid students kept slipping in the dining hall, the science center, the dorm hallways. Women traded secrets about what areas of campus were safest to walk in without falling, or which brand of shoes gave the best traction on concrete smeared with fraternity goo. Claire’s graduation ceremony was delayed, then canceled, because of disintegration among the faculty and deans who usually performed the ceremony. (This turned out to be for the best anyway, since nearly all the flights between Houston and Baltimore were canceled due to melted pilots, and her family was stranded in Texas.) Claire received her diploma in the mail.
By the time Claire moved to New York that August, the MA task force had figured out enough about the timeline for reconstitution that they published short-term recommendations: how to recognize the early warning signs of melting; how to cordon off the area of melting to ensure the safety of the melted party; how to preserve the goo until it resolidified, which usually happened in a two-week window.
The subway had a new cleanup division for the large number of melted men on the subway, and the city encouraged everyday New Yorkers, especially the women who were usually first on the scene (“melting catalysts,” they were called in the official literature), to attend rapid response trainings. The mayor, after a few weeks out of the public eye during the peak of the crisis, reemerged to praise the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its rapid and efficient response to the emergency. He celebrated the program as a “life-saving opportunity” for the formerly homeless women who made up the majority of the cleaning crew. They stood in every station, and in every third train car during rush hour, with bright red buckets and splash-proof plasticized uniforms, ready to clean up the remnants of harassment at any moment.
These same cleanup recommendations were the ones that Claire followed now with Jerry. The cleanup process took about twenty minutes if done right, and Claire spent another ten minutes in the bathroom washing the spots out of her skirt. By the time she finished filing the report with HR, it was nearly ten o’clock, and she was behind on her work for the day. She texted Ella that she’d probably be late to their weekly lunch, then began responding to Jerry’s backlog of emails.
By the time Claire showed up to Mimi’s Grill, Ella was eating a salad, and a plate of grilled cheese and fries was at the place opposite. Claire slid into the seat gratefully.
“I hope you don’t mind, I ordered for you. And there’s a chocolate shake on the way.”
Claire nodded, mouth too full to respond, as Ella continued speaking.
“Have you heard who your new editor is?”
Claire swallowed, rather too quickly, and said, “Peter.”
Ella whistled. “Damn, I’m sorry. Maria had a terrible time with him two months ago.”
“I heard. She was crying in the bathroom almost every day for a while there. He was just awful to her when he came back last time. As if she meant for half the bucket to spill out!”
Claire and Ella both winced, thinking of a newly-scrawny Peter crawling from the sewage grate outside the office building, naked and glowering. The other editors had taken him out to dinner to “fatten him up;” Peter had spun tall tales about conquering alligators in the sewer system; and Maria had gone on extended unpaid leave. She’d only recently returned to work on a different floor.
“Well,” said Ella. She took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. “Maybe he won’t stick around too long this time.”
Claire sighed. “I hope so. I usually wear headphones when I’m working so maybe I won’t even hear it. I’ll just clean him up on day one.”
“Fingers crossed,” Ella said. Then their milkshakes arrived, and they talked of other things.
When Claire came to work the next day, she tried to cling to Ella’s tempered optimism. She was working on her computer, listening to Janis Joplin through her headphones, when Peter showed up at around ten-thirty.
“You must be Miss Claire.” He beamed, holding out his hand. She took it, and he shook it firmly, clasping her hand in both of his. “So nice to meet you. I’m looking forward to working together.”
Claire gave a small smile and said something similar in response.
“I’m taking over Jerry’s projects while he’s away. Why don’t you get me up to speed? By the way, that’s a lovely top you’re wearing.”
Claire told him she’d email him an update, but please excuse her, she needed to step away. She hurried to the bathroom, where under the fluorescent lights, she scrubbed her hands with hot water. When she returned to her desk, she dutifully sent off the project files to Peter, and kept her headphones in for the rest of the day.
For the next several days, work continued in this fashion: cordial, pleasant, Peter never quite crossing the border into melting. She watched his eyes hawkishly at every interaction, but kept things brisk enough that he had few opportunities to talk to her. His eyes seemed to follow her whenever she got up from her desk, but Claire could never tell if he was just checking the wall clock above her cubicle. So she continued to feel on edge, and was glad the air conditioning of high summer kept her sweat from showing too much through her thin cotton tops. In fact, she had started bringing sweaters to work; it was cold in the office, though the men in management seemed reasonably comfortable in their suits and ties.
That Friday was Ella’s birthday, and all the women in their office were going out for drinks and a movie after work. Claire wore a silk dress, cashmere sweater, and her grandmother’s pearls in honor of the occasion. Several of the women took off early that afternoon for celebratory manicures. Claire stayed behind to finish some projects before the weekend. By the time four o’clock rolled around, she was already daydreaming about dinner at Ella’s favorite Indian restaurant before the movie, and wondering if Ella’s cute friend would be coming to the party, too. So she was a bit startled when her desk phone rang. It was Peter, calling her into his office.
He smiled as she walked in. She remained standing, holding her yellow notepad against her chest.
“Ah, hello there, Miss Claire. Come take a look,” he said, gesturing to his computer screen. Carefully, Claire stepped around the desk. Peter rose from his chair, forcing her to step a bit closer to the screen in order to avoid him. When she finally looked at his computer, she became very still. On the screen was a photo of her and her high school best friend, Johnny. His arms were clasped around her. His boutonniere matched her corsage.
“You look very beautiful,” Peter said. “When was this taken? Your high school prom?”
Claire did not say anything. Her high school self smiled back, beaming with anticipation.
“Is that your boyfriend? I always pictured you with someone older, ha ha.”
“Well,” Claire began. She paused, trying to think of how to leave without touching him. His body was so close. She could feel his breath, warm and damp, behind her ears. She could have shot an elbow back to his stomach, made him double over. But she didn’t.
Instead, she ran her hands against her arms, squeezing herself tightly. She felt his hand stroke her shoulder. She shivered and felt a spark. Static electricity, she thought. Her sweater must have rubbed against the silk of her dress. And then she realized the heavy moisture of his breath had gone, silently, suddenly.
She turned to see a puddle on the floor. Well, that’s done it, she thought, and stepped over her melted boss to get the red bucket. But when she returned a few minutes later, the puddle had nearly vanished.
Claire stood for a few moments, trying to make sense of it. Had someone else come in and cleaned him up? But there were no missing buckets in the closet. She touched the floor where Peter had been standing. It was a bit tacky still, but drying fast. She couldn’t have imagined the whole thing.
She arrived at Ella’s birthday party still dazed. Ella shoved a gin and tonic into her hand and asked her what was wrong. By the time she finished explaining, a small crowd had gathered around her.
“So the puddle just. . . disappeared?”
Claire nodded. “I haven’t reported it yet because I just. . . didn’t know what to say. I’m going to be in such deep shit on Monday.”
“Who cares?” Ella grinned. “I’m so glad that asshole is gone. May he never darken another doorway!”
“What do you think caused it?” Jess wondered.
Claire thought back to the spark, and shivered. “I’m not sure, but—” She stopped, then said, “I felt something. A shock. Like static electricity, you know?”
“Do you think he’ll stay that way? Vanished?” Maria asked.
Claire paused. “I don’t know. But I think I know how to make it happen again.”
There was a painful hope in Maria’s eyes.
Laura Wang is a writer and educator in New York City public schools, where she teaches human beings about molecules.