He bent farther and farther over the keyboard, his eyelids growing heavier and heavier as the hour grew later. The question of a life/work/study balance was moot in this case; his thirst for knowledge was near parasitic with the physical toll it took on him.
Through the echoing absurdities of internet rabbit-holes he searched, the long night growing longer and longer with every hot breath he took. The pounding rhythm of his heart beat in his ears like a drum until he felt that the inescapable sound would drive him mad.
A cool hand crept across his shoulder and down his chest; he jumped nearly from his chair.
“Come to bed, darling. Google will still be here tomorrow,” she said, softly closing his laptop and taking his hand to draw him up from his seat.
He nodded, the splinter of sense that she’d driven into him digging deeper until he felt more like himself again, and realized that it was well past time to join her in their bed.
She leaned down to kiss him, and the softness of her lips was enough to make up his mind.
“Have a seat, Barbara.” Mr Nichols gestured to the chair to the left of his desk. He waited patiently as she strode into his office and swept her skirt behind her knees as she took the proffered seat. “It’s come to my attention that some of your transactions are, shall we say, disputed.” He raised his left eyebrow and maintained eye contact.
In Barbara’s defense, she remained cool and collected. “If you’ll have a look at my history with this company, sir, I believe you’ll find a bit of poorly hidden contempt for me coming directly from accounting.” She was unable to raise a single eyebrow, so she pursed her lips the tiniest bit.
Mr Nichols leaned back in his leather chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “That’s where you’re absolutely correct, Barbara. I’ve already taken the liberty of reviewing the files we have on you from when you were a junior assistant, and I haven’t caught a single bounce or blooper. But if that’s so, why have these reports begun turning up on my desk, day after day?”
“Tactical espionage.” she answered, with the merest hint of a shrug. “I’m far from the first person to cope with such workplace persecution, and I certainly won’t be the last, even in this illustrious field. Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you took over as Vice President, you had a tiff or two with Human Resources.” She smiled, believing this discussion to be over.
She was correct yet again. Mr Nichols laughed aloud, throwing his head back and holding his belly as he spewed forth joy. “You win again, Barb. I’m firing Steven by the end of the week. Keep up the good work.”
I blew out a breath, directing it upwards to flutter my bangs across my forehead. This wasn’t going to work out. I pushed away from my desk, the carefully aligned row of Erlenmeyer flasks and the murky deformity that lay within the last one to the right.
“What’s for dinner, babe?” I hollered down the hall. My partner was in his own office, proofreading college essays. A thankless job, but it brought in enough extra money that we could afford a fancy dress date night once a month.
He didn’t respond. This wasn’t entirely unusual; sometimes he got super engrossed in whatever cockamamie theory some student was proposing and tuned out the rest of the world.
I tiptoed down the hall to the door of his office, where I paused to listen quietly. Sometimes a soft chuckle would escape the confines of his office, but I didn’t hear the occasional paper shuffle that usually accompanied it.
I lifted a finger and tapped gently on the door, then more insistently when he didn’t answer me. Maybe he had his headphones on again, but he hardly ever turned the volume up loud enough to not be able to hear me yell if I needed something, which was pretty dang often.
I’m pretty accident prone, and in spite of a ton of safety equipment, I’ve been known to stab myself with a needle. Once I even got a tiny droplet of extremely corrosive acid up and over my safety goggles. I still have the little scar right next to my left eye. Man oh man, that was a scary day, let me tell you.
I dropped my still-gloved hand to the knob and turned it as I pushed on the door. And there he was, the man of my dreams, kicked back in his recliner and watching YouTube videos on his phone.
“Instead of working like a responsible adult!” I hoped that I raised my voice enough for him to hear me over whatever garbage he was watching. I had.
He slammed the footrest of the recliner down and closed and quickly snatched the headphone cord out of the jack in his phone. “Oh, hey, babe, I didn’t hear you knock. You did knock, didn’t you?” He raised an eyebrow at me.
“You’re not gonna get off that easy, mister. I know we have our rules to leave each other alone while we’re working, but you didn’t answer when I did knock, loudly, and besides, it sure looks like you’re not actually working anyway. Are you? Is this some new sort of research that you’ve embarked upon?” I was pretty upset that he’d accused me of being a jerk when he was the one being a jerk. The jerk.
He raised his palms in submission. “Okay, okay, you’re right. I”m not working. But I’m just taking a quick break from working, so I might as well be. Jeez, calm down.” He turned his wrist to check his watch. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize it was so late. Let’s go get something for dinner, shall we?” He rose and gave me a kiss on my cheek as he passed by, towards our bedroom where I’m sure he was going to get a fresh pair of socks from the dresser.
How can I stay mad at that? I can’t. “Did you have something in mind for dinner?” I whined as I followed him to the bedroom, where sure enough, he was digging furiously through the sock drawer, brows knit in fierce concentration.
“Have you seen my green socks? They’re not in here.” He trailed off, pouting his lower lip out the tiniest bit. “I could have sworn I washed them when I did laundry last weekend. I specifically remember folding them and tucking them back into the sock drawer.” He looked up at me. “Have you seen them?”
I hung my head, abashed. “See, you were sleeping so good this morning that I didn’t want to turn the light on wand wake you up, so I just grabbed the first pair that my hand touched when I went in the sock drawer, and well,” I grasped my pant legs and slowly raised them. “Sorry.”
He laughed and gave me a kiss. “But where’s the other one, silly goose?”
I don’t believe I’ve shown you the chair my loving husband bought me.
Dogsbody returned to the great brick building and reentered the revolving glass doors. The same receptionist sat at the same front desk, and she greeted him with the same warmth.
“Mr. Walker, right? Seventeen, sir.”
He nodded sheepishly in her general direction and tugged the collar of his coat up the tiniest bit. The smudge on the up button from his previous visit had been carefully wiped away, and Dogsbody stared at the button for a moment before touching it, wondering at how quickly even an entire person could also be wiped away, as if that person had never existed.
Again as before, Dogsbody was the only person in the elevator, but this time he appreciated the matte finish of the interior, dropping his coat collar for a brief moment of normalcy. He watched the numbers light up sequentially.
The elevator dinged, and Dogsbody exited to the hallway with the lone door and the sign calmly and quietly declaring Mr Walker. When Dogsbody stepped up to the door, it fell open before him before he had a chance to knock his raised knuckles against it, and there sat Mr. Walker himself, in the same position at the same desk, in the same suit of clothes.
Fora moment Dogsbody wondered if Mr. Walker were human at all, or instead a robot or maybe even a cleverly designed hologram.
“Sit down, my good man, sit down. You have satisfactorily completed the assignment that I have given you, and that’s good. That’s very good. It would have been quite the disappointment had you not done so, and when I’m disappointed, well, sometimes bad things happen.” Mr. Walker made the same gesture at the empty chair before his desk, and Dogsbody slid to it as thought magnetized.
“Yes sir.” The only words Dogsbody could manage to scrounge up from his blankly frenzied mind dropped from his scarred lips like rocks.
“No need to talk. You have one step left before we can reinstate you into the human race. But as I told you before, it isn’t a quick sort of thing; it’ll take you several months of surgery and rehabilitation. Once again, are you up to the task? You can nod.”
“Very good. I have three more letters that must be mailed for a very important client. A very important client. As before, they must all be mailed from different zip codes, but that shouldn’t be a problem for you, should it? It’s not like you have anything better to do with your time.” Mr. Walker laughed, and the harsh sound echoed against the plain walls of the warehouse-sized office.
Dogsbody didn’t move a muscle.
“Well then.” Mr. Walked opened the top right-hand drawer of his desk and removed three innocuous enough letters. “Here is your precious cargo.” He slid the envelopes across the desk toward Dogsbody. “Go ahead. Get up and take them and be on your way. I’ll be in touch.”
Dogsbody blinked twice, slowly, and rose from the chair, pressing down on the arms with such force that his fingers turned white. He took the three steps forward to Mr. Walker’s desk and tentatively reached out a hand to pick up the letters. He looked as though he was afraid that Mr. Walker would suddenly snap at him and take a hand off, leaving him to bleed out on the floor.
In fact, this was exactly what Dogsbody was afraid of, in the visceral depths of his mind, those places that he wasn’t fond of going but was somehow forced to visit far too often.
Mr. Walker regarded him expressionlessly. Dogsbody slid his fingers across the paper and picked them up, reflexively reaching to his breast pocket to tuck them safely away. Mr. Walker nodded his approval and looked down at the papers he shuffled across his desk, dismissing Dogsbody without another word.
Dogsbody didn’t realize that he had been holding his breath until the elevator doors slid closed behind him and he staggered, nearly falling. He took great, heaving breaths of the air untainted by Mr. Walker’s aura, and thought he felt a tear slip from his eye. He reached up to wipe his face, but felt nothing.
When the elevator reached the ground floor, Dogsbody exited, nodding a goodbye to the receptionist, whose smile remained bright as ever. Fifteen blocks away, he came to the nearest post office. He pulled out the first letter his questing fingers came to, and glanced at it before dropping it into the box. It was addressed to Shepard Strom. The name didn’t ring a bell.
Thank you to my handsome husband for the lovely flowers he hid in my office.