She held her breath. One, Machiavelli, two, Machiavelli, three Machiavelli. Sarah exhaled very slowly, the yellow Post-it note stuck to her computer monitor flipping gently in the breeze.
“Lori called. Urgent,” it snapped, in bright red ink.
Sarah couldn’t remember for the life of her who Lori might be. Accounting? Sourcing? Maybe a new member of the merging Credit and Marketing divisions? There were so many new people here now, it was hard to keep track. She guessed she should be worried about it, after all, it was urgent. It was just that she had more pressing matters on her mind at the moment.
It was preternaturally quiet today, the grey omnipresent carpeting on the walls and floor and cubes muffling any sound that there would have been. Sarah wondered where everyone was. Probably they were all taking PTO, it always seemed to happen after a long weekend. Last Friday was a half day, and the Mondays after always seemed to be quieter. People wouldn’t be able to drag themselves out of bed and into work, or suddenly get deathly ill, especially if it was sunny outside. For people who weren’t quite as dedicated to their jobs as others, Sarah thought.
No one doubted that Sarah was dedicated. She’d been here 10 years, since she turned 29. Her ID card had a faded picture of her from then, springy mouse-colored hair, thick round glasses like the bottom of a pint glass, teeth that had been a little big for her face. She’d matured since then, though, and had her hair cut short and sleek and more flattering modern glasses. Not that men seemed to notice, she thought, except maybe for David. David looked like someone hadn’t baked him long enough, like the dough was soft on the edges and you could tell his middle was going to be chewy, maybe even cold. She wasn’t interested at all, but she would be his friend. He would hang around her cube and tell her stories about his three little dogs every day, some funny story about how one of them nipped a neighbor or left a pile in his bathroom. Her mother told her she didn’t have a boyfriend because she spent too much time at work, and where was an eligible man at that place? It was mostly women, rows upon rows of women stacked up in neat little cubicles with pictures of their kids and cats all over the carpet walls.
Sarah’s cube was homey, she thought. A little small, since the company had been moving more people onto the already-overloaded floor. It had just gone through the fifth buy-out since she’d been here. She had gotten used to it, and didn’t see why everyone was freaking out about losing their jobs or being “re-assigned.” It was always the same, shuffling and re-training and then settling down until the next time.
Sarah’s cube was stacked with papers, all the proofs and edits and copywriting paraphernalia. She had a stuffed bear, and a rubber plant that had grown its own ecosystem. She called it Harold. Partially covered behind a thesaurus was the plaque Mom had sent her. “Stay single,” it said. “Stay happy!” Sarah thought her mother should have taken her own advice. She heard the longing in her voice on her mother’s less and less frequent phone calls. Mom had resigned herself by now to a loveless marriage, to a man that had lost everything and now spent his days watching the History Channel and griping about his useless adult children.
Sarah wanted so badly to tell her mother not to ever speak Bob’s name again and that if she mentioned his kids one more time she would puke all over her loafers, but she was too polite. She knew her mom didn’t have anyone else to complain to. So she would sigh and pretend to listen while she flipped through her DVRed shows in front of her big TV in her tiny apartment. She was addicted to reality TV, shows about fat people and skinny beautiful people and everyone trying to catch a few seconds of fame or money or temporary love. Usually all three at once, it made things more interesting. The things Sarah spent money on were usually gadgets and electronics. She had an iPhone, a flat-screen 54-inch HDTV and satellite radio even though she mostly listened to one or two stations at most, the talk shows and classic rock.
Sarah had a lot of work to do today, and she couldn’t quite focus on it enough to make sense of her tasks. No-one was calling today, and there weren’t any deadlines to speak of today. Some for art, but none in her department.
She pulled up the email again, the one that sat burning in her inbox like incense, its thick smoke making her cube stifling and tightening her throat, making her want to gag and choke. At first glance it didn’t seem like much, just a forward that had already made the rounds of most of the employees. It was addressed to everybody, yet Sarah couldn’t help thinking that it was just for her.
The email contained a crass “LMAO!!” from the person who had originally forwarded it, followed by strings of signatures and names that everyone had been too lazy to delete when they passed it on. That always annoyed Sarah. How hard was it to hit the delete button? It saved everyone so much scrolling-down time. At the bottom of the email was a scan of a newspaper clipping from some po-dunk town in Florida, slightly blurry and hard to read. It was the headline that jumped out at you.
“Copywriter found dead at desk. Body discovered 3 days later.”
Sarah folded her upper lip up to her nose, smelling it. She always did that when she was thinking hard. She liked the smell and feel of it, but tried not to do it when anyone was looking. It would be hard to explain the weird face, to explain that it smelled comforting, like a clean baby. Unless she’d had something strong-smelling for lunch, of course. She liked the feel of the tiny spiky hairs against her nose, too, like rubbing a peach on her face.
She just couldn’t imagine that poor man dying and no one discovering his body. Three whole days! And then to have the story of his sad death passed around like some kind of joke. What she could read of the article said that he’d been 65, single and had probably died on Wednesday. They’d found him late Friday before everyone headed home from work. He must have started to smell by then, she thought. Even though most of these places were kept as cold as a meat locker to extend the life of the equipment. And probably the lives of all these old biddies in here, she thought. Being kept on ice probably got a few more years of work out of them.
Sarah glanced toward the corner of her screen. 10:30 already. Where had the day gone? She’d spent all morning on a few mindless tasks, organizing files on the server. Jobs that were waiting for her attention were lining up, their allotted time beginning to clamor for her. They sat in the folders on her desktop, each whiny little voice beginning to get louder as she ignored them. She just didn’t have the heart to put into them right now, and she always put a lot of heart into her work. She loved it, she really did, the nitpickiness of making sure each number and price was correct, the grammatical correctness of everything and the way it all fit together like a puzzle. Days just seemed to fly by when she worked, and sometimes she would realize it was past 5 o’clock and she was still working.
She wondered suddenly of that’s what had happened to the man in the news story. If he’d just been poured into his work, the little jobs calling to him, when all of a sudden his heart had seized and he’d felt it all start slipping away. Sarah couldn’t imagine what that might have been like. Did he see his days pass before his eyes like they say happened when you died? Sarah thought about her days. They were very similar, work, work, work, quiet weekends alone watching TV, the infrequent visits of her mother. Those days, she was already looking forward to waving as her mother got back on the plane to go home. She always thought she wanted her around when she wasn’t here…then when she was, Sarah would be exhausted by the effort of keeping her mother happy. It happened every time. Sarah realized her life flashing before her eyes would hard to differentiate; the days would all look exactly the same. Something unwound in the pit of her stomach, the feeling you get before you had horrendous diarrhea.
Papers shuffled behind her, dropping into her inbox, and feet pad-pad-padded by the opening to her cube. She didn’t turn around fast enough to see who it was, but the work in her inbox would tell her. She glanced back at it. It wasn’t overflowing, another testament to the fact that not many people had shown up today.
Sarah felt a sudden pain in her chest, a sharp shooting pain. She held perfectly still, trying to probe inside herself with her mind to see where it came from. It was on the left side of her body, where her heart was supposed to be. She realized she was holding her breath, and let it out in a long sigh. She was ok. There was nothing wrong with her. Her doctor said she was perfectly healthy, but that it would help if she got some exercise. Her flesh was too soft, too fragile. She got bruises sometimes when she slept, presumably from the sharp corners of pillows. She didn’t really know, but thought of herself as a modern Princess and the Pea. Maybe there was a small green bruiser hidden under her pillowtop mattress. The pain subsided, and Sarah concentrated on breathing normally. She often noticed, sitting in her ergonomic black chair, that her breath barely moved when she was at work. It was like her body slept during the day while her mind concentrated on its fact-checking duties. That could explain the tossing and turning and bruises at night.
Laughter filtered over the walls, muted but recognizable. Sarah would know that laugh anywhere. Mary. Her skin crawled. Sarah mostly believed herself to be better than the silly rumors and office politics that were a given in a whole building full of women, but Mary was one woman she could not stand. She wouldn’t admit it even to herself, but once in a while when she saw her in the parking lot she would imagine revving the engine of her Volvo, seeing the terror in the bitch’s eyes, and just plowing right over her. The satisfying crunch of Mary under her tires would give her goosebumps, she just knew it. Then she’d catch herself in her murderous fantasy and feel terrible, while at the same time thinking through the excuses she’d use if it really happened.
“Oh no, oh my god! What did I do? My foot slipped, the gas pedal stuck! Oh how awful, how terribly awful!” she would say, meaning every word. Then would come the insurance investigation, in which the investigator would conclude that it was a terrible accident probably due to a defective accelerator. And Sarah would send flowers to the funeral, a huge bouquet of white lilies…
“Sarah? Oh good, you’re here. I’m having the hardest time tracking people down today,” the gravelly voice interrupted her fantasy. She turned with a fake smile plastered to her face.
“Oh, hi Mary. Is there something I can do for you?” Sarah’s smile widened, showing her teeth. She had a good smile, it always looked genuine.
“Yeah. Lori called you, didn’t you get the message?” Mary’s pug face stared right at the note yelling on her computer. “We’re going to need you to re-do the TS-4111 form right away. The printer called and it’s the wrong size. I don’t know how that could have happened, I checked the paperwork and it had the correct dimensions. It must have fallen through the cracks somewhere.” Mary crossed her arms, smugly grimacing.
“Oh no,” said Sarah. “I can’t imagine where that might have been. I’ll get on it right away.”
“Good,” said Mary, nodding sharply, her neck flab wobbling. “I’ll let them know you will stay late today if you need to, to get that taken care of.” She turned sharply on her heel and marched out, the effect lost by the muffling carpet.
Sarah’s skin crawled. She thought that this must be what hate felt like, though she didn’t have much experience with the emotion. Any emotion, really. She didn’t think she had ever been in love. There was one guy, in college…but he had run off with one of their professors to live in Thailand for a year, presumably eating a lot of rice and buying cheap clothing. Sarah wasn’t really an emotional person. Out of spite, she snatched the note off her monitor and crumpled it into a tiny ball. Unthinkingly, she flicked it over the top of her cube wall.
“Hey!” a feminine man-voice complained. Ugh. Harry. She didn’t know what the new guy’s real name was, but he was a very follicly-gifted man. He walked with a swish, and used a terribly fruity lotion. She liked to talk about him to the ladies she ate lunch with. They all called him Harry now, and Sarah was afraid she might call him that to his face someday so she studiously avoided him.
Sarah pulled up the email again. The dead man’s name was Ron Arons. She thought about his family, how awful they must have felt. It was a terrible story to have to tell somebody, that grandpa or dad or whoever he was to someone else had died and been left for three whole days. Did nobody care about the poor man at all? Was his life so empty and lonely that no one even noticed? He must have lived alone, in some little apartment with dim lighting and brown furniture from the 60s. Maybe he had a cat, or a bird. Wouldn’t the animal’s hungry noises have alerted someone? Surely, someone would have had to have noticed. Maybe they were just afraid to be the one to check, not wanting to break the news that there was a dead body here at work. Sarah thought that if she had been the one to have found him, she would have been able to pull off just the right balance of sympathy and horror.
The news story said the man had just slumped over his desk, and that he had stayed in an upright position. The reporter was trying to hypothesize about how Ron had been unnoticed for so long. Sarah slumped forward in her desk, leaving one hand on the mouse and the other on her desk as a support. She relaxed the rest of her body, making sure that none of her muscles were engaged. The chair rolled forward, and she found that she was supported though her head hung toward the keyboard. She slowed her breathing slightly, so that her chest and back didn’t move. Pad-pad-pad, someone hustled down the hall, disappearing around one of the ant-farm-tunnel halls. Sarah let herself be perfectly still. Slowly, sounds came into focus. The hum of her computer, the tapping of Harry’s keyboard-probably IMing his boyfriend- farther away, Mary’s insipid laugh again. At the farthest end of the building the microwave alarm went off, and the wretched smell of burnt popcorn floated through the air. Really, how hard was it to follow the instructions on a stupid popcorn bag? The smell made her sick. Sarah rolled her eyes, but didn’t move. As her body settled into its position, she felt almost comfortable, like she could stay in this spot forever. The floor creaked, and someone else walked by. They didn’t slow, and Sarah didn’t move.
Her phone rang, shattering the calm that had settled around her. She still didn’t move. The skin-colored old phone rattled a few more times, then fell silent. The red light blinked, telling her that she had a voicemail. At the same time, the mail icon in the corner of the screen began hopping. Sarah felt frozen. After a while, amorphous shapes obscured the screen. She had her screensaver set for 20 minutes, but it didn’t feel at all like she’d been sitting in this position for that long. She let her eyes drift to the corner of the screen. Almost lunchtime. She thought about Ron again, wondered if he had a lunch crew that he met up with every day, whether they had just assumed he had other plans. She knew her lunch ladies wouldn’t assume that about her, unless it was a doctor’s appointment or something. She never had other plans. Her bones felt solid and still, her butt welded to the position.
“Hey Sarah? You busy?” A shuffle of papers behind her. She didn’t move, and after a few throat-clears the person went away. A strange thrill went through her, thinking of Ron. He’d been left in peace and quiet, to die, to maybe contemplate the next life. He would have been frozen, just like this. The time kept ticking away. Her phone rang once more, insistently, and she couldn’t have answered if it she had wanted to. Her body had other plans.
Sarah breathed as slowly as she could, ignoring her bladder. The sun through the few slitted windows at the west side of the building was sending errant rays through the air, illuminating the dust motes that filtered continuously from the pale ceiling. Her thigh itched through her beige slacks, but she controlled the urge and eventually it went away.
Through a haze, Sarah heard people beginning to take their leave for the day, inconsequential and insincere goodbyes. She didn’t raise her eyes, knowing that it was close to five already.
Her heart hung heavy in her heavy body. The light began to fade, and before long her fluorescent desk lights were the only ones left on.