Assignment: Person, place and thing. In this case:

The new guy

The post office

The scent of vanilla

Here we go:

The smell is what did it. When he looked back, examined the event, what was clear was the scent of vanilla had started the whole thing.

The assignment seemed easy enough. Go to the post office. Mail this package. It doesn’t matter when it arrives, but make sure someone signs for it and whatever you do, make sure you get a tracking number. Insurance if they ask, but not more than $400 worth.

Sure thing, boss, he’d said. He was the new guy, after all. Eager to please. Even if that meant spending his lunch hour standing in line between a man with body odor so rank that Mark  breathed through his mouth to avoid the stench and a woman hacking up phlegm with such force that he wished he could do away with breathing completely.

The fact that he’d left his phone at his desk only made matters worse. What did people do before smart phones? he wondered. Did they just stand in line and think?

And then, as he inadvertently inhaled through his nose, a sweetness pierced the odor. Vanilla. He snapped to and sniffed again. Yes, definitely vanilla. Shifting the package against his side, he reassembled his sense of cool and, assuming a certain nonchalance, glanced behind him.

Behind hacking woman was a business guy ruthlessly checking his phone – Mark twinged again at the stupidity of forgetting his own – and then, a college student type shifting from one leg to the other, likely waiting on a check from Mom and Dad, Mark thought. He knew the type, the type that didn’t have to work two jobs to pay tuition to get a degree just so some jerkoffs in an office could send a guy out to mail a package during his lunch hour.

The line shuffled forward. Mark hesitated, trying to avoid the BO dude and the woman who’d been coughing up a lung so consistently Mark was surprised she hadn’t keeled over. More importantly, he longed to discover the source of the vanilla he was beginning to think he’d imagined. No, he couldn’t have imagined it. And then, there it was again.

This time he whirled around, all pretense lost. Behind the counter, a petite blonde dashed back-and-forth, delivering packages to P.O. Box holders. Mark inhaled. Summer, ice cream, his first girlfriend, the one with whom he’d shared root beer floats. Mostly she loved vanilla ice cream. He’d always thought vanilla was a non-flavor, what weirdos who didn’t like chocolate ordered. She’d taught him that vanilla was a taste in its own right.

Something wet hit his forearm. He looked down. His blonde arm hairs glowed fuzzy in the afternoon sunshine streaming through the window, golden perfection marred only by a viscous glob, red-tinged, pooled a few inches below his wrist. His hand clenched the box. His stomach convulsed. He looked behind him. The hacking woman shrugged in apology. Mark’s mouth opened, then closed, afraid the contents of his stomach — not that his stomach had much in it, what with the skipping lunch to mail this stupid package — would pour out.

He bent his knees, placed the box on the floor, all the while keeping his arm as immobile as possible. What to do? This was 2012. He wasn’t exactly carrying a handkerchief in his pocket. From his crouch, he assessed the possibilities. Not too many existed. It was only fair, he thought. Without rising, he reached out and took the hacking woman’s skirt in his hand. Before she could pull away, he used her skirt to wipe the phlegm off his arm. It was an imperfect solution at best, Mark thought, but at least the glob was gone.

And she’d finally stopped coughing, he noticed as he stood. She looked at him, mouth wide open, but not coughing. “What the hell?” she spluttered as the line advanced. Mark pushed the package along the floor with his foot. “I should ask you that,” he said to the air over her head.

“You have no right to touch me!” the woman screeched. Her screeching brought on another round of hacking, sparing Mark her criticism as he retrieved his package from the floor.

“Technically speaking, ma’am, I didn’t,” Mark replied.

She snarled between coughing fits. “You!” was all he could make out.

People in line were starting to stare. Some openly, some sideways, pretending to read their phones, but really, Mark was sure, preparing to record the whole thing in case it’d be worth uploading to YouTube.

The postal workers ignored them both. “Next,” rang out from the center clerk.

The line moved again. Only some stranger and BO man stood between Mark and mission completion.

Well, and the hacking woman.

She was waving her finger at him now, her germ-laden finger. Mark looked at the ceiling, seeking some sort of Zen calm. While his eyes were focused upwards, she stabbed him in the chest with her finger. Her filthy, infectious finger.

He couldn’t stop himself. It was pure instinct, he explained to the police later. He’d been so instinctively appalled by her aggression, her disease, that his arms had shot out, causing the box he was holding to slam into her face. Or more specifically, into her nose, unleashing a flood of blood so immediately gushing that even the postal clerks stopped to watch. It was then that the cops were called.

Mark tried to explain. It wasn’t his fault. He was provoked. But she was covered in blood and it turned out the package his new boss had instructed him to send was full of sex toys. They’d opened the box after they’d handcuffed him. Good lord, son, the cop said he poured dildos, so many colors, sizes and shapes, out onto the floor. What were you thinking?

I was thinking, he began to say. Or rather, I wasn’t thinking. That’s as far as he got. As they ushered him away, the petite clerk tiptoed out to witness the finale. The scent of vanilla flooded his nostrils. Mark closed his eyes and breathed.