Whitney Crawford

I pop the lid off a tin of sardines for lunch and spill fish-gray water all down the front of my dress. For the rest of the day, everyone pretends not to notice the reek. I suppose I should be grateful, but I can’t seem to come down from the irritation of it all—irritation at my own klutziness, at the too-tight cinch of my waistline, at the office thermostat that makes the whole place a tundra even in the dead of July. I am a blasted walking seafood market in the middle of a blasted tundra in the middle of a blasted heatwave. 

At just a little after three, I am already beginning to nurse my tender hope that the worst is over and that the day is drawing to a close. I fantasize about what I will have for dinner. My eyes wander to the clock at the corner of my screen every other minute. My to-do list finally seems to be dwindling, and I can see that my supervisor is no longer online to assign me another nightmare task. 

Then Elliot from finance’s service cat comes nosing around the corner of my cubicle to investigate my fishiness. I wonder if I am hallucinating it at first; you would too if you saw a little gray cat wearing a bright red vest slinking up to you on fifth-floor marketing. (Who ever heard of a service cat anyway?) 

I hear Elliot’s disembodied voice calling for him from behind the fabric partition.

“Bruce? Bruce, where did you go, bud? You aren’t bothering Jessica, are you?” I try hurriedly to shoo him away, but it’s too late. Elliot rounds the corner in time to see Bruce’s whiskered face shoved between the folds of my skirt, snuffing up my fish stains. He breathes me in desperately as he’ll never get enough of it, like a hound dog riled by the scent of prey. 

Elliot grinds to a halt. He must be stunned into silence by the sordid sight of us, but I cannot tell for sure because I am too mortified to look at him directly. I glare instead at his unrelenting Russian Blue. “Et tu, Brute?” I murmur. 

Bruce meows faintly. 

“His name is Bruce, actually,” Elliot supplies. 

“I know.” 

“He seems to like you.” 


If Elliot picks up on my vexation, he doesn’t seem put off by it. He saunters closer in and hops up onto the edge of my desk so that he’s facing me, legs kicking off the side like a little girl’s. I don’t know how he can stand it—the smell, I mean. Or my equally acrid mood. 

Bruce rears up on his haunches, lithe and weightless, and presses his paws against either of my shins. He starts kneading them gently. It’s a curious sensation but not entirely unwelcome: furry needlepoint mitts, divided only by the thin chartreuse veil of my sardine-stained skirts. Silken rubbing. Tender pinpricks. Not even skin deep. 

Elliot laughs. “I’ve never seen him act this way before. You must be a cat person.” I have never been called a cat person in all my life. I glance up at Elliot. He is leaning back on my desk now, crushing the neat stack of invoices behind him. He is in no hurry to leave.

I recoil a little, in spite of myself. It takes everything in me not to snap at him and tell him to take three giant steps back. 

“I guess so,” I manage. 

From this distance, I can see that his collar is rumpled, his tie loose, and his five o’clock shadow visibly patchy. By the looks of him, he doesn’t have a care in the world. I cannot bring myself to envy even that. 

“You know, Jess,” he muses, scooping up one of the grapefruits I keep next to my work and tossing it from one hand to the other. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something.” “Have you?” 

“Yeah. It’s just I’ve noticed how quiet you’ve been ever since… Well, ever since all that business came out about Doug. It’s like you’re always on guard around here.” I keep my gaze fixed on the grapefruit as he juggles it back and forth like a baseball. I keep thinking about how Trevor once told me he saw Elliot take a shit and then leave the bathroom without washing his hands. I’m not a clean freak or anything, but this is crossing a line. 

“I’m fine,” I assure him. “I’m not on guard.” 

“Well, I’m glad to hear that. Because he’s gone now. You have nothing to worry yourself over.” 


“Who do you reckon filed the report anyway?” 

“Don’t know.” I try to keep my voice level. My eyes could burn a hole clear through the flying grapefruit. “It was anonymous.” 

“My money’s on Cindy. I definitely caught them together in the breakroom a couple times.” 

I feel myself tense. I hope it’s imperceptible to Elliot, but his accursed cat extends its claws in response, purring eagerly. It seems he still hasn’t tired of the fish smell. His tender pinpricks lengthen with ardor. Skin-deep now but not forcible enough to draw blood. Somehow, I don’t mind it. 

“Caught them?” I repeat. 

Mew, says Bruce. 

“Oh, yeah.” Elliot chuckles. “Saw them whispering together, getting all touchy-feely. If you want to know my theory, I think those two were having an affair.” 

It takes me a moment to find my words. “So, what—you think Cindy just decided to turn on him?” 

He shrugs. “Hell hath no fury…” He stops tossing the grapefruit and studies it in his hands for a moment. “Tale as old as time, Jess–an office romance gone wrong. I’ll bet you anything things got ugly between them. Maybe Doug’s wife found out. Who can say? I’ll tell you one thing, though…” Leaning in, dropping his voice conspiratorially: “That Doug was a real player.” 

“That’s what I’ve heard.” 

It is a struggle to hold my nose against Elliot’s oniony musk. I make a mental note to stick a passive-aggressive pack of antiperspirant into his Secret Santa stocking at next year’s Christmas party. (I’d never actually, though.) 

“Anyways,” says Elliot, “I mean to sniff them out, whoever it was. I want to know exactly what Doug did to warrant a firing and a whole new HR policy. Did you see they just came out with yet another anti-harassment manifesto? But like I said–money’s on Cindy.” He grins at me like I’m in on the joke—like we all know how Cindy can get. 

Bruce’s kneading claws are like pinching fingers; they embolden me in a way. “How do you know it wasn’t Lynn?” I ask. “Or Diane or Amber or me?” 

For the first time, Elliot’s laugh does not sound the least bit put on. He shakes his head. “Lynn is ancient. Diane would never go for that. And Amber? Please.” 

I bristle. I am no longer worried that Elliot might notice. Bruce leaps up onto my lap and faces his master, bristling, too. He is leagues more observant than Elliot—who, I am beginning to suspect, is not extending unconscionable politeness after all; in fact, I am beginning to suspect he has not even noticed my sardine stench. 

Only Bruce knows the truth. Animal intuition and all that. 

“And me?” I retort, much to my own amazement. 

“Come on, Jess. Doug’s not remotely your type.” 


Nor was he Cindy’s, I’d imagine. 

From his perch, Bruce hisses at Elliot, as feral and detestable a sound as I’ve ever heard. When I see how taken aback Elliot is, I feel somewhat sated. 

Bruce!” he scolds. 

Good kitty. I stroke his gray velvet flank, lightly massaging in my thanks. Perhaps my lunch mishap was really a blessing, to have won me so true and menacing an ally—one with teeth and claws and zero reservations about corporate decorum. 

Bruce hisses again, rears back, and before I can register what is happening, he lunges at Elliot. He leaps from my lap to my insufferable colleague’s, needlepoint daggers at full extension, yowling and snapping like a rabid caracal.

Elliot cries out. In the ensuing commotion, in the wild flailing of his arms, he finally lets go of my grapefruit. I stand up to catch it out of the air in both hands. While he is still sputtering and fussing at Bruce, I squeeze it tightly, two thumbs pressing down, artery deep. 

The moment my nails puncture the skin, it suffuses a fresh citrus cloud of tangy sweet–a cleansing aspergillum balm, a holy font–nearly potent enough to exorcize Bruce’s faint litter box fetor, Elliot’s damp pit musk, and the fish-gray reek still emanating off of me.


The End

About the Artist

Whitney Crawford was born and raised in Houston, Texas, but currently resides in Virginia, where she is pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology. She is the winner of an honorable mention in the 2023 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, and her poetry and short stories have appeared (or are upcoming) in various literary journals, including Halfway Down the Stairs, Agape Review, and Ekstasis Magazine.