Emily stared through the bulletproof glass into the waiting room. No-one around, again. Quiet days like this had a tendency to stretch on forever. She glanced around the office, trying to think of something to do. There were always things to do--application packages to make up, refilling the copiers, tackling the answering machines…the usual grind. She’d already done half of her to-do list, though.
The smell of toner, warm paper, and artificial flowers from the air freshener mingled in a nauseous miasma. Resting a cheek on her hand forlornly, she glanced at the computer screen. Having been glared at a few times already for non-work-related internet use, the temptations of knitting forums were off limits. Better not to irritate The Boss and make her trundle out of her cavern for a scolding. Same thing went for her smartphone. She couldn’t wait for the rotation to be up so she could get back to her campaign for a cushy Oil and Gas job.
With a sigh, she got up and headed towards the copy room. The smell of overheated engines and paper clogged her nose, and she gagged a little. Feeding chunks of flattened dead tree into the drawers of the printer, she wished she’d called in sick. She trudged to the mail cart and did a bit of sorting.
Finally, it was all taken care of. She was out of meaningless small tasks, and there still hadn’t been any clients. Resting her forehead on the chipped arborite desk, she thought about nothing for a while.
Footsteps. She startled and sat up. One of the workers smirked at her, and she grinned back, her face quivering with the half-hearted effort. He shook his head and disappeared down the hall, heading back towards the narrow labyrinth of offices.
As always at times like this, The Box seemed to beckon.
It wasn’t much, really. A round, grayish, black-and-white box. A little scratched around the edges, probably from being carelessly dropped too often. There was something sticky on its lid, too, that felt like tape residue. The whole thing was fairly solid, about four inches across and three in height, and made of some sort of heavy, smooth stone—probably marble.
Once, she’d gotten up the courage to ask The Boss who it belonged to. The Boss had grunted and said, “Why do you want to know?” and returned to her paperwork.
Emily had sought the advice of the admin team instead. There had been many temps before her, from her company and from others, and before that, there had been a permanent secretary. It was (probably) the former permanent secretary’s.
“So…whose is it?”
“It just stays there,” said Answar, shrugging. The client workers kept their heads down, for the most part, and though he was usually one of the more helpful of the lot, Answar was still just a client worker.
“Okay. Cool. Was just curious.”
Emily had headed back after that, knowing she wouldn’t be able to figure out anything else useful.
She shuddered and withdrew from her reverie. Someone was knocking on the glass and scowling. She took their papers and put on her brightest fake smile. By the time she was done, Lindy was already coming around the corner.
“Break time,” she said. “Get outta here.”
“Back in fifteen,” said Emily quickly. She scuttled off to the small, dingy kitchen.
Staring aimlessly into the bottomless pit of Facebook, she fidgeted and listened to the kettle boiling. It sounded like a tiny thunderstorm. Judging by the narrow view of the grimy office buildings and scraps of sky, though, it was perfectly sunny today. She shook her head at herself and fumbled with a teabag.
“Goddamn…” she tore through the paper packet. Why are my fingers shaking? Dunking the teabag in the hot water, she watched the slow golden-brown blossoming of the tea dissipating through the water. She shivered, wondering why the office was so damn cold all of a sudden. Cupping her fingers around the mug, she took a long sip.
The clock on the wall stared at her, an unsmiling face. Time to get back to work already. Shrugging and flexing her shoulders, she walked back down the hall, clutching her mug.
When she returned, and had dealt with the long, dull lineup, she found herself at loose ends again. The box seemed to stare at her.
She often wondered what was inside, had been wondering since she’d gotten there. Paperclips? Rubber fingertip covers? Elastic bands? Spare change? It was Aladdin’s lamp, mysterious genie included, perhaps. Or did it hold something sinister, like a severed finger?
Emily shook it off. Severed finger? It was silly. And yet, she couldn’t help picturing it—dried blood and white gristle poking out of the end, the nail broken and chipped from fighting, the flesh dry and desiccated…
Don’t be an idiot. It would rot. You’d smell it.
The box was cool to the touch, smooth under her fingertips. Had it been a valentine’s gift? A souvenir from some dull beach-bound vacation with too many martinis and not enough adventure? It was awfully plain for a souvenir, and awfully dark for a gift. There were no markings on it, except the small scuffs on the edges and the lid.
The lid. The office was empty. The Boss was upstairs in a meeting. Time to open it. Her curiosity burned, made her shiver in anticipation. Setting a fingertip on the edge, she—
The phone rang. Instinctively, she picked it up. The box would have to wait.
The bus ride after work took an unusually long time, and instead of playing with her phone, she watched the other people. Their tired faces revealed nothing. Her phone vibrated, but she let it be. Not a baby cried, not a person talked on the way home. It was eerie. Through the tinted windows, she could see clouds rolling in.
At home, her apartment seemed unusually empty. Since her cat had run away months ago, the place had been too quiet. To kill the silence, she turned on the television and let it run, listening to commercials as she mindlessly cooked dinner.
Trying to eat was a different matter. It turned to ashes in her mouth, the pasta dry and too bland. She chewed and swallowed mechanically, forcing the food down.
Emily glanced at her own finger, imagined it in the box. Shuddering, unable to face the rest of her tomato sauce pasta, she stood up and shoved it back in the fridge.
According to the clock, she still had time for a workout, but it didn’t feel right. Instead, she pulled out her laptop and looked through humour sites for a while. A story about a woman almost losing her finger while she trained someone on a veggie slicer came up, and she wriggled uncomfortably, setting the laptop aside.
Something brushed against her neck. It was cool, feathery, even. She gasped, then realized it was her hair, falling out of her ponytail.
Emily gave up and headed to the shower. Might as well make an early night of it, and head off to bed.
She had eczema again. Frowning, she scratched at it. It spread before her eyes, crawling over her ring finger to cover her middle and pinky fingers. The red, hard, itchy places began to crack. As she flexed her sore fingers, they split, and oozed. Terrified, she watched as the ooze hardened to a yellowish crust. Her palm was covered in it, the strange oozing stuff. Suddenly, it split apart, rotting—
Emily’s eyes snapped open. She lifted her hand and glanced at it. Perfectly fine. Just a dream. Thank god. Shivering, she got up for a glass of water. It was a long time before she got back to bed.
The next day, she dragged herself in blearily. “You look terrible,” said The Boss. “And you’re late.”
Emily grumbled an apology and sat down.
Okay, she thought wearily. I can’t go on like this. The box waited. Before turning on the phone, checking the mail, any of it, she had to know. She lifted the heavy lid, stuck in place. Her fingers slid, sweating, and she found—
Nothing. It was empty.
Relieved and disappointed, her heartbeat slowing, she set it down again. The lid rested off to the side. She stood and leaned against the counter, catching her breath, and started to set up for the day.
She’d barely finished when the first client came up, and then the next, and the next. When it was over, and she’d gone for her first break, she found The Boss waiting for her at her desk.
“Can you copy me about a hundred of these and then cut them to size? Thank you.” She left the paper on the desk. Robotically, Emily went to the printer and started to run them off. Staring at the loading screen, she waited. The smell of toner and warm paper was in the air, as always. The air conditioner was over-tuned, as always. She wondered what had been so terrifying yesterday.
She turned around and put the first batch of pages on the papercutter. Lining them up carefully, she raised the stainless steel blade. They were perfectly at the one-third mark. Her hand shifted and her sleeve caught the edge of the pages. She adjusted it again, guiding the pages with a fingertip. The blade glinted in the yellow light.
She pulled it down.
Chop. A burst of pain. And then, Emily started to scream.
Short(er) Fiction Vol. 3 is a collection of Blasted Tree original short stories.
ISBN [Digital]: 978-1-987906-14-1
Cover Design by Kyle Flemmer - Cover Image by Bernd Liebers
Feature Image by Marc Hoffmann