Somebody had to put a stop to it, this Happiness Month crap. Twenty-three working days in August, Talie counted as she got ready for work, the max possible. Dreading forced happiness had kept her up late, wondering if she’d have to take measures, what those might be, how severe. An Abe Lincoln quote ran through her mind, something her mother used to spout off: most folks were as happy as they made up their minds to be. Well, in this world if folks chose happy, then folks were morons. A double dose of stupid. But here again, stupid wasn’t a crime.
Still, putting up with it was misery, a prospect that had her dragging come morning, and wouldn’t you know, she was running late to beat traffic.
The day before, an up-to-then sweltering and bland July 31, her boss Randle had huddled the agency staff to propose a load of nonsense: celebrating International Admit You’re Happy Month as an office. Choose Happiness, that was the theme, and they’d kick it off with a big pot-luck in the break room. Talie had sat there biting her lip, sure the dumb idea would burn up as dumb ideas must, like worms did crossing a hot sidewalk. Everyone would see stupid for what it was, and they’d spend August like usual, buried under mailing lists and claim forms. Except somehow the party idea took hold, Bette volunteering to decorate, Lenagene and Kayla signing up for sausage balls and a green bean casserole. Randle all but begged for Talie’s white wedding cupcakes with almond cream. God, she hated baking.
On the way in, she stopped by the Übermarket, bought the smallest box available of those two-bite brownies, and not-so-accidentally left them in the car, in the August heat. She’d see how damned happy Randle decided to be about that.
Talie went to settle in for the day. Outside her cube hung a photo of a kitten napping on a devil dog’s haunch. It read: Happiness comes in all sizes. The same photo hung beneath everyone’s name plate and on the walls and bulletin boards as if happiness depended on overkill. A smiley face button rested on her keyboard. Admit it, read a handwritten note from Bette, you’re happy.
A shudder raced down Talie’s spine. Ahead yawned out a month of smiley faces.
Eight-thirty rolled around before Lenagene and Kayla waltzed in wearing skinny jeans and fat grins. Apparently their chosen form of happiness included clocking in late and helping themselves to the coffee Talie had put on, though for once they gave her a thank you. Of course they cooed over the kitten show, and of course they started in on her about Choosing Happiness.
“Is it lunch yet?” Lenagene said. “Because I am ready for one of your decadent cupcakes.”
Decadent. Last week the ladies had used the very word about her. They liked picking at her like that, always pressing for details on her “love life” or “latest boyfriend,” not that she’d had many. “Are you still seeing that optometrist?” they’d say, “Or is it the mechanic?” about guys she dated years ago. They’d say “Honey, if I could only be young and decadent like you.” Then out at the smoke shed they’d gossip over however she did or didn’t respond.
“Hate to disappoint,” Talie said. “No time for baking.”
That didn’t dent Lenagene’s grin. “Don’t you fret. There’s plenty of food. Kayla made banana pudding, didn’t you?”
Kayla was pinning on her smiley face button. “The recipe looked too yummy not to try it. Until Labor Day, I’m admitting calories make me happy.”
Talie didn’t get it, how they could pretend being happy here. This was the place where people complained about the humidity every hour like they might have teleported out of Tennessee, or that Randle had skipped giving raises again, or that the AC was up too high when they had a sweater right there in their cube. Yet this morning, all morning, Lenagene and Kayla and Bette chattered over the cube walls about what music got their toes tapping, which started them on what country cowboy they’d be stranded on a desert island with, which led them to concocting their dream rum shooters. Not even noise-canceling headphones blocked out the gathering cloud of stupid.
Quarter till noon an emoji-laden e-mail from Randle summoned them to lunch. Come on, his message closed, get happy.
Talie slogged into the break room. Bette had decorated with streamers and foil palm trees and put on music, the Beach Boys. The ladies fussed over how good everything looked, even her cupcake sludge. It did smell fine in there, Talie had to admit that, but no green bean casserole ever paid the gas bill or cut into the paperwork backlog, and anyway the casserole needed pepper. To hear Kayla gush, a buffet this good was better than sex. Okay, nobody reached that level of stupid and lived. Bunch of fakers, that was what they were.
Randle tapped a plastic spoon to his soda can. “Before Bette has us finding our happy places, I wanted to offer y’all a big congrats. It’s been a hard year. A good year, but a hard one I know. We keep at it, we might land the Southeast Tennessee sales award. I admit, that would make me and Mrs. Randle both very happy.”
Talie joined the smattered applause. Some bosses might have followed such an announcement by promising merit increases, but Randle apparently didn’t chose to spread financial happiness. She sat there weighing if her patience was a virtue or just a worse grade of stupid.
“Talie,” Randle said, “I was so looking forward to those white wedding cupcakes.”
“Sorry. Couldn’t get to it.”
“Well, no worries. We have all month.”
Lord, they sure did. With max possible work days.
Bette stood and opened a round-the-room game of what tickled everyone’s fancy most. She said time with her kids, as long as they were asleep. Lenagene claimed a Vegas suite with her husband but that she’d kick him to the Strip for good chocolate, like these brownies here. Kayla agreed, if the chocolate came dark. Randle said people living long, happy and premiums-paying lives. They laughed and laughed over their Tupperware until the laughing died and they looked at Talie.
The thing was, she could see they really wanted to know. Gone was the dull evil in Lenagene’s face, and gone were Kayla’s eye rolls and Bette’s well-bless-your-hearts. They spooned their banana pudding and bubbled with interest, genuine interest at what made her happy. She sank to the realization this month might not be an act but the dawn of something horrible. What had made this hellhole office bearable was that everyone there clumped around straight-up miserable, but unlike the others she wasn’t a jerk. Now here they were laughing and working at being nice. Choosing happiness.
Where, she wondered, did that leave me?
As the one who had to take measures.
“Hands down,” Talie said, “it’s baking. I promise, you’ll have those cupcakes soon as I can get to them.”
A murmur of delight passed around the table. Bette moved to the next question: favorite flower, tree or blooming bush. Talie blurted “Foxglove” so she could tune out the nattering and mull over those cupcakes, what she might put in them better than rat poison. The Übermarket sold any number of toxic chemicals there in the household aisle. Talie scanned the break room, and it occurred to her she couldn’t put the whatever in the whole batch. A pattern, that’d get her found out. Didn’t need to be a whole batch, though. Only one funeral crushed this Admit to Happiness crap forever.
Lincoln had happiness pegged for sure, as a choice. What to mix in that cupcake and how best to mix it, in the batter or the cream frosting, and when best to serve it up, who to serve it to, how to get away with it. Choosing each detail carefully would make Talie happy indeed.
Robert Mangeot lives in Nashville with his wife, pair of cats, and trusty Pomeranian. His short fiction appears in various journals and anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mysterical-E and Mystery Writers of America Presents Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War. His work has won contests sponsored by the Chattanooga Writers’ Guild, On The Premises, and Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. When not writing, he is known to count things or wander the snack food aisles of America and France.