A free short story by Erin Zarro
The office was huge. Open space, desks crammed together, no cubicles, or privacy, for that matter. The sounds of computer keyboards being typed on, phones ringing, and people talking made me want to go somewhere and hide.
This was my new job. It wasn’t the perfect job, but I needed one and an opportunity had presented itself. Although, when I thought too hard about it, the details were fuzzy.
“Andi, so glad to see that you’re here. Let me give you the tour.” A woman with her hair in an elegant updo smiled and gestured for me to follow her. She wore a navy pantsuit. Her makeup — blue eyeshadow and hot-pink lips — clashed horribly with her choice of clothes. I tried not to stare. “My name is Leslie. I will be your supervisor.”
I tried to smile, but that lipstick gave me a nervous twitch. “Nice to meet you.”
Leslie gave me the tour, which consisted of taking me around to meet everyone (so many names and faces!). She also showed me where the bathrooms were and where the kitchen was. Gratefully, I got myself a cup of coffee and added lots of sugar.
Now I was ready to take on the world.
“You’re a coffee drinker, too, huh?” Leslie asked as we entered another hallway.
“Yep. Can’t live without it,” I said, taking another sip.
“The rooms down this way are management mostly, with a few odds and ends. That’s pretty much it.”
“Wow,” I said, not sure what to say. I was beginning to sweat from anxiety. How on earth was I going to be able to do my job around so many people and so many telephones?
Leslie touched my shoulder. “Don’t worry. It may seem overwhelming now, but soon, you’ll be a pro at this. It won’t seem so impossible.”
I smiled weakly. “Thanks for that. I’ll try not to freak out too badly.”
“And she has a sense of humor,” Leslie murmured as we made our way back to the main room. “Let me show you to your desk.”
Leslie had left me to fend for myself. I tried to fight the rising tide of anxiety. I tried to focus on the present.
My desk was in a corner, wedged between two other desks. There was no room to move around — if I moved too far in either direction, I’d be touching my new co-workers. And no one wanted to be touched by the weird new girl, even by accident.
Leslie had explained that I’d receive at least a hundred invoices to enter daily. That was the minimum we were expected to enter. There could be more, but never less.
When I’d asked her what the invoices were for, she just said, “Various businesses we deal with on a daily basis.”
Holy vague and strange. What was I getting myself into?
I took a deep breath, trying not to panic. Surely it would be okay.
The guy to my left flashed me a smile. “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.” He paused to type something. “Did Leslie mention the invoices aren’t in English?”
My eyes widened. “Really?”
“It’s not a big deal, actually,” my new friend said. “The only thing that matters is the numbers. As long as they match, it’s all good.” He stuck his hand out. “By the way, my name is Marty. I’ve been here for centuries.”
“You mean years, right?” I asked, my mouth going dry.
“No,” the girl to my right interjected. “He’s been here forever.”
Marty shook his head. “It just feels that way, you know? I’ve actually been here for…oh…at least twenty years.”
I looked at him a bit more closely. He wore jeans and a tee-shirt. His hair was in dreadlocks, and it was pretty long. His skin was smooth, not wrinkled at all. No gray hair, either. Maybe he’d started working here really young. Or maybe he dyed his hair. “That’s a long time.”
“A very long time,” the girl who’d interrupted us said. She glanced at me, her gaze assessing. “It’s about time we got some new blood ’round here. My name is Carla. I’ve been here about as long as Marty, here.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes — her very hollow eyes. I couldn’t explain it — they just looked dead and wrong, empty of all life and emotion. Creepy.
“Lemme show you how to do this,” Marty said, getting closer to me. We were almost touching now. Just a few scant inches separated us. He reached over and took the first piece of paper off a huge stack that I didn’t notice until now.
“Is that…my work?” I asked.
“Yep,” Marty said with a grin. “Here’s what you do…”
Three hours later, my eyes were crossing and my butt hurt from sitting in the same place for so long. My wrists hurt, too. All those numbers. All that typing.
And not one word or name in English. The language didn’t look like any language I knew of, which didn’t mean much, as I wasn’t a linguist. But damn, it looked weird, more strange than foreign.
But maybe my imagination was running off on me. Maybe I was just tired.
Five hours later, it was time to go home. I’d never been more happy in my life. I stood, stretching my back and arms and legs. Other people were doing the same around me. Some were frantically finishing up their work.
I looked around me, and watched as everyone got into some kind of position — a straight line facing the door, their eyes fixed on a point just ahead. They looked like soldiers…or robots.
I nudged Marty’s side. “What is with you guys? No one’s moving.”
Marty flicked his gaze to me without moving a single other muscle. “Shh. Watch.”
A shrill bell cut through the room, and everyone moved toward the door. A mass exodus. But somehow, some way, they were orderly about it, not speaking or pushing each other, just one at a time, single file.
And then they vanished.
As soon as I walked through the door, everything went fuzzy.
The next morning at work, I felt odd. Like I hadn’t slept, although I knew I had slept because I’d had some dreams. I didn’t know of what — they were fragments of images that I didn’t want to think about too closely.
“So did you do anything fun last night?” Marty asked me as he stirred his coffee. He reached for the cream and poured more into his mug.
I blinked at him, momentarily struck mute. I didn’t remember what I’d done last night.
“Um,” I said, taking a sip of my coffee, “Nothing exciting, I’m afraid.”
“I thought you said you were going to watch the finale of The Bachelor.”
An image of the end of the finale popped into my head. Of course! “Yeah, I did. And he was an asshole. They all are.”
“I don’t understand those shows,” Marty said, heading for the door. “It’s just such drama.”
“Women like it, I guess,” I said, following him. I wondered when I’d started watching The Bachelor, and I found I couldn’t remember. In fact, I was never into that type of stuff before. Huh.
When I got to my desk, I found a stack of invoices double the height of what I’d done yesterday. They looked like they were about to tip over any moment now.
“Oh, looks like your quota has changed,” Carla said with a chuckle. “You must have finished your first stack in record time. No one has ever had their quota doubled on the second day.”
A cold ball of dread settled in my stomach. So they rewarded productivity with an increase in the quota? Crap.
I worked steadily and made sure not to finish before quitting time. Marty and Carla were standing and waiting for the bell while I finished my last invoice.
“What are you doing, Andi? You need to shut down and prepare to — ” Marty started, but the bell rang.
I quickly shut my computer down and sprang to my feet, following the end of the crowd to the doorway.
Just like yesterday, people vanished as soon as they crossed the threshold.
As soon as I crossed it, everything went fuzzy. Again.
A week of this went by, my quota thankfully not changing. The first day of the following week, however, my quota tripled.
I slumped down in my seat. I hadn’t slept well, the coffee wasn’t working, and my eyes were permanently crossed. I hadn’t eaten in who knew how long. I was ready to drop from exhaustion, and now I had triple the invoices to enter.
“I think you might need some help,” Marty said. “If you give me your log-in, I’ll take about a third of those off your hands.”
A blade of anxiety cut through me. “Is that allowed?”
Marty grinned. “If no one tells Leslie.”
“I have something that might help, Andi,” Carla said with a grin. “Something that will make you feel so good, you’d swear you’d been brought back to life.”
“I don’t think that’s the kind of help she needs,” Marty said, holding his hands up as if to physically restrain her from…whatever she was about to do.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.
“Carla, it’ll be bad. And we don’t like bad, okay?” He gave her a hard look. “Andi, don’t worry about it. Carla’s just blowing steam.”
“Okay,” I said, turning back to my work. But I wondered. What was their secret? And why would it be bad for me? And could this — whatever it was — fix my problem so I didn’t feel like a zombie?
It’s drugs. A shiver went up my spine. Yeah. Definitely bad.
“I haven’t met the other managers yet,” I said thoughtfully as I logged in. My ID, was, oddly enough, mort, the French word for dead. Leslie had explained that they gave us log-ins in different languages for extra security, and mine was completely random. But I wondered. Who else had a log-in that meant “dead” in a different language?
“They’re around,” Carla said. She was a whiz at typing. I wondered why her quota never increased. “They are sneaky sometimes, ghosting around as if we can’t see them. Crazy.” She rolled her eyes. “So watch yourself.”
“Thank you for the tip.” I pulled the first three sheets off my pile. Okay, clearly my eyes weren’t working right because…the numbers weren’t numbers at all.
They were squiggly lines.
“Um, Marty?” I asked.
Marty stopped typing abruptly, not glancing my way. “It’s the squiggly lines, isn’t it?”
“How’d you know?”
“Everyone gets them. You have to learn how to read it,” Marty said, finally turning my way. “Let me show you.”
To my tired eyes, the task was impossible. I now had to translate the squiggly lines, which Marty assured me were indeed numbers, and then enter them properly. And do triple the amount normally required of me?
Not. Happening. Right. Now.
I didn’t finish.
When the bell rang, Leslie came into the room and stood in front of the doorway, stopping me from leaving. “You need to finish your stack, Andi.”
Crap, did she expect me to finish the invoices now? When I could barely parse English, let alone some other language, with eyes that were chronically strained? With a body that hurt everywhere? A brain that never got sleep?
“I c-can’t, I’m sorry.” I tried to walk around her, but she dove and barred my way no matter what I did. “I don’t feel so well. I’ll finish tomorrow, I promise. First thing.”
Leslie looked at me as if I’d just grown insect wings and a proboscis. I shuddered, thinking of The Fly. “That is unacceptable. Now you will finish those invoices before you leave.”
Her statement chilled me to the core. I knew when I was overruled. Might as well get it done, right? Then I could get back home to —
“Yes, ma’am,” I murmured as I booted up my computer and logged in.
I barely noticed the passing of hours. When I was just about to drop, I finished my last invoice and Leslie permitted me to go home. It was midnight, and I found it odd that she was still there. Maybe to keep me in line or to lock up? Either way, it was weird.
“Can I ask you a question?” I said just before I walked through the doorway. Leslie turned and faced me, her expression neutral. “Why did my quota get increased so quickly? I’m having trouble keeping up.” Oops. I probably shouldn’t have admitted that.
Leslie did not smile. In fact, her face looked made of stone. Just her lips moved. “We increase quotas per a very complex, mathematical formula. We — management, that is — rarely pay attention to it as it’s automated. Somehow, someway, you showed an exceptional aptitude for the work. You should be proud.”
I was anything but proud, but I tried to smile. “All right. That makes sense. See you tomorrow.”
Why did everything go fuzzy as soon as I crossed the doorway?
Two weeks later, I got an answer.
I noticed that I never remembered what I did after work, or if I slept. If someone suggested something I did, I’d immediately “remember” it. But things didn’t make sense. Like my sudden love of The Bachelor.
I also watched the others more closely around quitting time. They didn’t move at all and their eyes flickered like lights within their sockets.
And Leslie never, ever left.
I knew because I’d had to stay the entire night to finish my now-quadruple quota of invoices.
Exhaustion weighed me down.
My hands felt like they were about to fall off.
My brain felt like it had been put into a blender…for a really long time.
“Why do I feel fuzzy when I leave here?” I asked Marty one morning.
Marty’s eyes widened. “I wouldn’t be asking those questions, Andi.” He lowered his voice. “No one really knows how things work here.”
“Are you sure it’s just not stress or sleep deprivation?” asked Phillip, one of my other co-workers, who sat next to Marty. “Because doing this day after day is tough on the body, especially if you haven’t had enough sleep.”
“I am sleep deprived,” I said. “But I have holes in my memory.”
Marty and Philip exchanged glances. “Do you remember anything from before you came to work here?”
I inputted the first series of numbers, pondering. What did I do before this job? Did I have a boyfriend? A cat? Did I like Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi? Was I a coffee drinker before coming here? And what were my opinions on The Bachelor?
Didn’t I hate The Bachelor? And…I loved Diet Pepsi, but wouldn’t touch Diet Coke. And…
Carla leaned in close to me. “I have something to show you, but only if you want to know the truth — “
“Don’t do that,” Marty hissed. “You’ll get us all in trouble.”
Carla frowned. “She needs to know, Marty. You of all people should understand that.”
“But it’s too soon!” Marty said. “She can’t handle it yet. It’ll destroy her.”
“Regardless, she needs to know,” Carla said.
“It won’t hurt,” Philip said thoughtfully. “Maybe she will be able to concentrate on her work if she knows…you-know-what.”
Guys, I’m right here,” I said. My stomach twisted into knots. What were they talking about? What did I need to know, and why couldn’t I take it now? “Please don’t talk to me like I’m not here.”
Carla turned her computer screen in my direction after checking to make sure Leslie wasn’t wandering around.
A chill went up my spine. It looked like a newspaper article. The headline read: “Champion Ice Skater Andi Lauren Dies of Drug Overdose.”
My stomach twisted into knots. “Who is Andi Lauren?” I whispered, not wanting and wanting to know at the same time. I had a funny feeling about this.
Carla plucked my work badge from my neck, laid it on her palm, and showed it to me.
It read Andi Lauren.
Some numbers below the name that were previously fuzzy revealed themselves: Date of death: 13 May 2014, exactly three weeks ago.
“Do you understand now, Andi?” Carla whispered. “It’s a time warp. You never really leave here at night.”
“You mean I’m stuck here?” I asked, tears filling my eyes.
Carla squeezed my shoulder. “It’s not so bad. You don’t need to eat for sustenance. You don’t need sleep…or sex…or anything, for that matter. Our days are filled with purpose and structure, and everyone is happy. You will be, too, in time.”
I sat back against my chair, feeling empty. “How long?”
“Centuries,” Marty said with a smile. “Now, get back to work. Your quota just increased again.”