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BY M.T. MILLER
On Monday Bob got fired. He showed up to work promptly at eight that morning as
normal, parking in his assigned space outside squat, concrete building NINE-ZERO-K. It loomed
over him as he passed through the gaping automatic doorway. The secretary did not look up. The
elevator went sixteen floors down, stopping three times to pick up passengers. Bob looked at the
toes of his shoes. His floor was fourteen, set to exactly seventy-two degrees, the carpeting
minimally plush. He stopped to get coffee on the way, two sugars by plastic mini-spoon and skim
milk. Ken from row S was hanging around in his row again, so Bob dipped left between the
featureless grey cubicle walls, doubling back along a similar pathway a few subsections up in L.
He saw into the entrances of them, the people with their backs turned, glossy black handsets
droning ceaselessly like insects before the killing electric light of the trap. Bob knew his row was
more productive; had been told so by the second general logistics supervisor of management in a
chance comment. Cubicle M-3 was home to him, the muscle car calendar turned to July with
markered Xs up to the previous day. He added another. From his wheeled seat he heard whispers
of conversation floating over the dull plastic dividers, an endless mumbling rush of things bought
and sold and moved and changed. Bob pressed a button and the computer lit up, the company’s
private operating system logo flashing across the screen. He keyed in his assigned password
dutifully, threw the empty coffee cup into the black wastebasket at his feet.
The time was ten past nine am. His fax machine wheezed, spitting a piece of paper into
the tray. The ink was still warm as he picked it up:
MEMO - ROWS 27-50L, 1-45M, 27-99R
FROM - THE ASSISTANT UNDERSUPERVISOR OF MERGING AND TIME-LABOR
MONDAY BRINGS LABOR SKILL-INTENSIFICATION FOR HIGHER VERSATILITY.
LATERAL MOVEMENTS BRING EXPERIENCE AND FULFILLMENT. HAPPINESS COMES
THROUGH CROSS-TRAINING AND THE EXCITEMENT OF OBJECTIVES. VOLUNTEERS
WILL BE AFFORDED BENEFITS.
UNITS RESPACED: L-4, R-6, R-93, M-17, L-49, M-3
It filled barely half of the copy paper but Bob read it three times, staring at the
memorandum’s precise conclusion. It seemed to him very long. He let it drop to his desk and it
landed face-up. An email waited for him, stamped at the exact time of the fax, curtly informing
him of his new duty assignment: V5X5M//2. The numbering was strange, not from anywhere
within five floors up or down. It did not seem to be divided the way it ought to. He felt
weightless as he stood up, in a daze down the center of row M. Ken was leaning in the same
spot. Bob did not look at him. The sound of his voice was barely above a whisper, whisked away
efficiently into the air conditioning vents.
There was a steady coming and going of people until close to floor twenty-one. The lights
grew dimmer and the people grew sparse, and still the floors went on and on, and Bob saw
nothing close to the look of his assignment on the rectangular screen to the left of the door. The
metal box hit something solid beneath it and clunked to a stop, the number freezing at forty
exactly. The doors rolled open to a hallway lit by flood-lamps, reflecting off bare drywall and
open plywood seams. Bob’s shoes echoed as they tapped on raw plank flooring. It was the same
way in either direction, as far into the distance as he could see, all littered with abandoned tools
and oversaturated by harsh electric bulbs. Bob could not convince himself of danger on company
property. But as his steps echoed in the bare husks of what he thought would one day be offices,
a tension rose in his gut. He continued on, further and further, ears straining for any sign or
sound of life beyond the dull hum of machinery emanating from somewhere in the darkness. He
did not dare stray to seek out the source of it. The more he looked into the bare, raw-edged
doorways, the more it seemed to him like a gaping maw closing around him ever so slowly,
assured of its next meal. Bob wondered if he would ever see his wife and children again, and
how he would get home on time working so far down. His fingertips dug into his reassignment
paper, sending jagged creases through the default font.
He quickly lost any sense of how long he had been walking for, his cellphone battery
dying at half-past eleven. After a short while the endless half-finished construction jumbled into
a constant, recycled sea of swirling white dust. It settled in his lungs and made him cough into
his fist. His eyes stung. The hallway ended abruptly in a single door. It was unassuming in its
frame, polished nickel handle set against cheap glossy wood. The door was cold, solid against his
palm, treated cedar. Light spilled out from under the threshold and pooled around his shoes. He
pulled it open. He found himself blinking in the sudden rush of light and sound as he the door
Bob felt familiar carpet under his feet, heard the cacophony of telephones and copiers.
He stood frozen in the threshold for a long moment, staring dumbly at the set of cubicles in front
of him. They were identical to his own -well, not anymore- floor’s office. An empty secretary’s
desk headed off fifteen rows of square grey work-boxes. They hummed with the dull throb of
indistinct voices, whispers of clicking keys and fax machines smogging the air. He stretched his
trembling hand towards the lip of the desk, as if it might melt away on contact. The phone rang,
VRRRRRRR! VRRRRRRR! He could see it vibrating in its hook on and on. The secretary was
nowhere in sight and neither was anyone else. Bob wanted desperately to see a face, any face at
all. He dashed down the walkway, stopping at each of the empty cubicles. The computer screens
were powered up, coffee mugs set beside folders of paperwork, calendars dutifully turned to the
correct month. Voices and whispers of familiar conversation tantalized Bob as he ran, always two
spaces down and too far to chase. They were here, Bob thought, because they had to be here. He
called out for help, someone, anyone, I’m lost, I need directions to my floor. The air-conditioning
droned on. He turned and bolted for the door he had come through, but the door was stuck,
locked tightly in its frame. He attempted to ram the door with his shoulder, but it did nothing
except make his arm ache.
He staggered back down the row, holding his sore shoulder and calling for help. The
voices had wormed their way into his head, half-glimpses of lives he could never lead. He
wanted them all to be quiet, please be quiet, my mind is breaking. He felt nausea’s roiling punch
in his gut, thought he might vomit onto the carpet. He wished he could go home, told the empty
cubicles so. Then, up ahead: a voice. An uninterrupted voice, a conversational, jovial tone,
slightly too far away to make out. He ran recklessly toward it, calling out hellos and how-do-Iget-out-of-here’s. He crashed through the thin divider walls without pausing, rounding a corner
into the open walkway of the adjoining row. A looming pillar of crimson, waxy meat blocked the
center of the aisle, throbbing and oozing pus into the carpet, horrible muscle-roots trenched
deeply into the floor and ceiling. Bob threw himself backwards, staring in dumb confusion as its
shadow loomed over him. The stench of it was sweet, sugar wetly glazed with rot, curling in his
nose and making him heave. From the wall of meat emerged the circle of a face, fingers,
cufflinks, recently-shined shoes. Bob and Ken met for the second time that morning. Ken said
hello, his fingers curled. Bob began to crawl backwards, feeling the awful thing’s
acknowledgement creep over him, Ken’s lurid gaze scraping him clean. It was a familiar face,
but loose like a mask. It would like to have him, Bob knew, wanted nothing more than to devour
everything in him and crumple him afterwards into a wastebasket. The face in the trembling
mass spoke in Ken’s voice, but it was all wrong, broken and guttural. His eyes jerked round and
round in their sockets, voice rising to a piercing, yawing pitch, as though the man were only a
puppet for an enraged, unseen master.
Bob got halfway to his feet when the floor began to rumble beneath him, and he bolted
away from the horrible thing in the hallway. He could hear it wailing behind him, enticing words
in a deep, unearthly buzz. Promotion. Benefits package. Retirement. Every phone was ringing
off the hook, the sound crashing over him and making him scream in pain, the dial tone circling
ceaselessly and rattling the lights so that they flared, throwing the world into sharp contrast. Bob
begged, pleaded, ears bleeding, but his voice was drowned out. So he ran on and on, ever deeper,
the hallways and zigzagged empty office rows winding themselves like a vise around him until
he was swallowed whole into the belly of the monster.
That great gaping maw of darkness yawned wide to receive him, teeth gnashing and
tearing, until even the faintest thoughts of Bob, the unit from M-3, were gobbled up and digested,
and the beast was fat upon them, and production began again.
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