On Working Night Shift
For the vast majority of my post-adolescent existence I wasn’t interested in chasing the carrot, so to speak, of high earning jobs. Perfectly content simply coasting through numerous low skill employments, some permissible for admission here were: a customer support attendant, a research interviewer, receptionist at a hostel (where I met the love of my life) and a low-entry document processing clerk. This last position I held the longest thus far in my career life, and it was for the Big O———— Corporation, an information processing company dealing with the backlog of invoices and tomes of lawsuits and health charts, all within their innovative cloud network.
Why am I sharing these mundane details at all? Consider this a foundation for what is to come, so that my actions since can be put in the “right” context, and without any mistaken interpretations. I am not crazy.
Back to the topic of work—all of those jobs were easy. Don’t get me wrong, they were all hard jobs, but anyone with a good work ethic and the right attitude could’ve succeeded in them without copious amounts of effort. I was never impressed with co-workers overstating their positions in order to appear better to their own peers, nor was I ever swooning over people sacrificing their own time to make sure everything met SLAs (deadlines).
But once someone is told they can do anything, told they can aim much higher than they have before, things change.
Someone showing me this had begun a domino effect, or perhaps a downward spiral in my mental wellbeing. I decided I could do something more, prove my worth, if not to others then to myself. Working like a dog, meeting all deadlines even with a severely understaffed team, suffering the indignations of co-workers who although being on the same level as me, tried to push me around in their little cliques. I wasn’t going to let them get me down! Any work coming in late which needed to be done the same day, I’d stay in late for. Anything urgent I’d take home. To make sure I stayed up to date with all the office happenings I had to illegally download and install a hacked version of the company’s email software and sign into the company servers from home, GDPR (Graciously Derivative Pretext for Regulations) be damned! It got to the point it severely impacted my personal life; social circles outside of work were thinning faster than my hairline, dozens and dozens of missed calls from family, evenings spent reading about spoilers for my favourite TV shows because watching them took too much time—but I didn’t care.
After being told that the “carrot”, or my “reward” for all the hard work will come any month now, week after week the phrase “Jack, just be patient and wait”, and after nearly five years, after earning (paid for) professionally recognised certifications, after losing my car and having to commute by train to the nearby town, then walking up a mountain every morning to work, after slaving hours upon hours with chores for middle management in offices on the other side of the building (where the actual office was) I finally had enough!
About to get up from my work computer and march into my manager’s office, when she called me in. It threw me off a little. Her office was a place barren of vivid colour. Walls plastered with motivational posters. The plain grey desk on the other side of the room, the distance traversable within seconds, but if one walked through the tangy musk, one could feel the humid strawberry-smelling air suffocate them. Yet the closer I got to the pair of chairs in front of the desk, the heavier my feet became. Almost dragging them to the chair, I was beckoned by a rowdy Eastern-European accent to sit down:
‘We have to talk about something!’ the woman, my boss, a bob-cut-ginger chain-smoker with a tendency for challenging fellow middle management to contest-shows of strength extended her hand out, pointing it at the chair which I almost collapsed by.
Holding to the chair’s armrests for support I dragged my feet and slid into it.
With a mumbling beneath my nose, ‘I wanted to talk to you, I—'
‘You’re getting a promotion!’ she screamed.
There were caveats to the “good” news. It astounded me how much of a coincidence this entire event had been. Only moments from losing one of their best employees, they managed to free the carrot dangling in front of his face. The amount of string pulling she must’ve done, all the meetings and discussions, graph-charts upon productivity reports upon compliance reviews just for a single soul to have a chance at moving up from within.
That night, I did not return home to scour the net for a new job.
That night I did not return home at all.
It was with the greatest hangover in my history, I came back to work the next morning and resumed my duties as if nothing happened. A week from then I’d have my dream job!
About the caveats though, there were two. The job I so fervently sought required me to move to the Company’s southern offices, by the sea. So that was one, adjusting to a new route. Two, the shift pattern would be far more chaotic than my current contract allowed for. In keeping with far greater demand since the recent worldwide events, the company for which I worked for was under stress from the powers-that-be to provide their services 24/7—day and night. Customers needed constant attention, low-tier employees needed constant encouragement, projects needed constant management, deadlines were hectic. Things were so bad they couldn’t be left alone for a few hours—let alone for a whole night! Let me be clear in what I am trying to say here, the position of Project Manager (Junior Project Manager, but details right?) was offered to me on the basis I would move offices, and I would work in the new scheduled rota system.
When the bob-cut-ginger handed me my new timetable, I thought it was a joke. Night shift. For a project manager? Our meeting lasted an hour longer than she likely intended. But her explanations weren’t completely sinking in until she gave me a number. That important sum with so many important zeroes latched behind it.
The meeting ended with me shaking her hand and thanking her. She thanked me too, though when she explained what she thanked me for, my mind had already left the room, left the building. Getting into my car after work, my body could not help but shake with excitement, but also with fear.
What was I afraid of? Some semblance of prescient thought fired warning shots in the neurons of my brain. But I didn’t listen. I drove home happy that night.
I should’ve listened to those recesses of my brain warning me. To the nagging feeling telling me something was amiss.
But I wasn’t in the right state of mind. In seeking my goal of winning in the workplace, there had to be sacrifices. One of them was the love of my life.
Not to sound terribly cliché, but when I met her, I knew we’d be together for a long time—and the five years we’ve lasted were mostly perfect. Things changed, like they always do, later down the line. When we were still at the honey-moon phase, I thought I finally met my soulmate. She’d send me text-messages telling me she was thinking about me, we’d send each other emails and Skype texts at work, see each other in the company lounge, sneak into the janitor’s supply closet in the moments of down-time… and after she appeared from behind a door in her room of an apartment, wrapped in nothing but present ribbons for my birthday, I knew I had found the one.
It was a shame she didn’t agree.
One day she disappeared. No note, no email, no message. Nothing. Only a dismal confession the week before—something about how she met up with an old “friend” of hers… I’m no fool! I know what she was—
She was a big part of my life, big enough that such a thing tore me down. Perhaps this was why I buried myself so deep in my work? Thoughts of her sprang upon me the first night since the news of my promotion. Feelings and memories previously blocked away so I could move on now resurfaced, struck a heart-wrenching attack. Panic seized me. Seizures of fear. Images of her flashed before my eyes. That bitch!
She should die, she should die, she should die, she had to die!
Over and over and over again I lost myself—whatever hollow husk remained of myself at least. Rage and hatred. The curve of her waist, the lines on her face, every strand of hair. Those eyes. The same eyes as mine. I used to think it meant something, it had to mean something—the coincidence bringing us together, the stupid eye colour.
I had wallowed in self-pity for the entire night, seemingly a never-ending cycle of waking and sleeping, swinging between the tether bounding me to dream and reality.
When I awoke blinded by the fluorescent morning, it was in the pool of my own sweat. I had been lying on the floor of the bathroom, naked. My hands were red with blood spewing from the cracks of dry skin, hangover induced eczema. It had cursed me since school, perhaps even before then, but it was worse after drinking.
I did not recall how I got there, or when I fell asleep or why I took my clothes off—the entire memory of the night blurred after I had left the threshold of my home.
Every night until my new job started, was the same. Those strong emotions like blunt knives at the back of my brain trying to cut off any hope for the future, waking up the following mornings in places least expected: the kitchen, balcony, the hallway of my apartment complex. Pills for anxiety made it easier. I do not remember the name of them, or how I got them, but by the time my first shift rolled on I was ready to tackle any tasks which may be required of a night shift project manager, however ridiculous the idea sounded.
But aside from the lack of sunlight outside, and the dull brightness offered by the office lighting, the general atmosphere had been as expected. People went into the office, they worked, talked, then they left.
I heard somewhere, the seaside southern offices which were a new concept entirely to me, had been around since the company’s inception. Not only was I moving up in the world, I was a worker granted entry into the gates from which the Big O———— Corporation first slithered out into the rest of the unsuspecting but surely worthy world, before it had become a behemoth in the industry.
It was situated atop a pier, specifically the H— E——— Lower Pier of Marathon East district of a little town called Hagullton, to be exact.
The team I was assigned to threw me a party on the first night, one of them said that no one, not even the janitor coming in every morning at 6 could believe at long last a newbie, some fresh blood, would be coming in from the new head office. Moving up from within. I was so afraid they’d think I’m not good enough, afraid they’d think I was stupid or something. And even as I wrote these words down, they still didn’t feel like my words. My desk was beside two guys, and there were two girls sitting opposite us. Our line-manager was a bit of a high-strung micromanaging macho bald man with great big cat-like whiskers for a moustache and eyes of the sickliest hue of green.
I would be loath to bore anyone with the details of our work, but there had been a lot of setbacks previously with certain jobs from certain clients where their expectations might’ve been set too high for the scope of our operation. At least until the nightshift became a thing. Because the company was transitioning into a very brave and new schedule, they needed to hire new staff to fill out the roles of what amounted to worker-drones. The work in data entry, for example. And they got their worker-drones alright.
Every night had been spent obsessing over missed SLA tasks. The teams working on projects I managed either didn’t have the mental capacity to operate our complex in-house designed software systems; or our complex in-house designed software systems were so broken that the technical assistants two desks down had to be interrupted from their midnight viewings of Last Jedi to answer question after question on every process and every step in the workflow. The most common phrase in my Lessons Learned reports was: “if only…”.
This phrase, if only—something was this way or another thing the other way—if only, then things would be so much better! It became something I’d utter every night. Only to myself at first, in my thoughts, and only about the other workers in the other teams. How dared the Innovative Technologies Technician not support my plan for increasing production outputs via cutting down on unnecessary workflow tasks and removing the useless fat, broadly speaking, from the system code?! How dared the Live-Environment Beta Tester not endorse my efforts at seeking out input from the major stakeholders regarding some side projects of mine?! And I won’t even go on to mention in great detail how useless the Key Specialist Operators have been in introducing the Data Inputters into the new process of producing weekly KPI reports along with their rigorously detailed time sheets!
But it was only a few nights after I had settled in, after the mountain of introductory webinars and compliance training and after the scriptures of best practices had been read, I discovered my teammates and some people from the other teams went on midnight walks down the pier during their lunch breaks. When they’d leave the office every night, to go on what they’d tell me were just, simple team building exercises for which I simply “hadn’t had the time for” in my busy schedule, I simply knew whatever “in” group or social clique had been set up in the office since its inception, had decided not to invite me in. I was not part of it. Not part of them. This terrible segregation had caused me a great, unimaginable distress with bouts of panic and fear throwing my nightly work routine way out of whack.
I arrived to work 30 minutes late, at first, then turned up 45 minutes late, until starting one whole hour later became a regular occurrence! I even missed deadlines, but the brunt of the issue didn’t really begin until only two months into my new role.
In a meeting, shoulder to shoulder sat around a great big table, surrounded by the vilest vultures of the “upstairs” offices, I was under live peer review. My astonishment, anger and defensive stance deflated the moment I walked into the conference room. Under normal considerations, the gross indication I had been mismanaging my time would not warrant a single audible gasp. However, the accusation of inaccurately projecting output charters due to incompetence and a “struggle to keep up with the work” had riled me up in a way I had not expected it to.
Almost bursting into tears when I realised my inner thoughts had been let loose by my stupid mouth, about this “struggle to keep up with the work” which in fact had been solely the failure of the team I was in, and the teams surrounding my team! Trying to organise meetings to discuss the business cases, enterprise environmental factors and organisational process assets, for all and dozens of the projects I helped manage, had well and truly been a feat of herculean—or perhaps, more aptly put, a Sisyphean effort! But they didn’t understand. Why would they? Those vultures of the upstairs offices!
And when I realised this tantrum had taken place not inside of my head, but was spoken out loud, the room went silent aside from the cursed clock above the window. That ticking clock unnerved me, something about its constant noise, tick and tick and tock. The window, with the town port and the sea engulfed in darkness outside was more like a mirror. Maybe the few lamps had made the pier, a distant docked cruise ship and some waving trees visible, but their details were obfuscated in the reflected visage of me, and a dozen of men and women in suits and business dresses with eyes like dead fish.
It was closing in on 3am, the clock ticked away in the room uncaring as to what was happening to me. When they voted, concluding something had to be done about my general attitude, I had no power, no will left other than to accept their proposals and to submit myself through the rigours of… extra training sessions! There was simply no way, under normal circumstances, I would ever agree to such a joke, but worse yet they surmised my “personality” was not meshing well with my colleagues, and “something” had to be done about it. That something of course meant, and they were very clear about the need for this, sensitivity training.
I felt like standing up, there and then, punching a hole in the wall.
I don’t need this shit. These words echoed across my mind.
It wasn’t until a few hours afterwards, when there was some time for me to cool off by my desk, that the terrible realisation came to me; I did not merely think the words above—I said them right in front of those people along with the earlier breakdown. Never in my life prior have I lost my temper, lost my cool in such a public and humiliating manner. All the rage flushed away, replaced by a choking shame. I still remember what they told me after the meeting, what room to report to and when. I had no choice. If I wanted to keep my job—and I did—I had to do whatever they told me.
Slinking away into the comfortable yellow lights and walls of the breakroom, I hid away from my teammates. Though they were not privy to the moment when I lost my cool, I could not bring myself to be in their presence. I couldn’t bear to look them in the eyes or be around them. I wanted to be alone, yet the loneliness did not help. There was something missing in my life, some semblance of normalcy escaped me. Will this cursed form ever know the gentle caress of another again? Ever since I killed the kindred spirit in me there was a hollow emptiness deep inside, burrowing. More every night. There was no escaping it. Those lonely days in bed trying to sleep whilst the waking world beeped and hoovered and sang across the street outside my window and the city beyond bustled with horrid life; the putrid petri dish of good mornings and hellos and the screeching’s of new life cursing the pain of birth—the baby next door wept…
Still in the breakroom, I noticed in the reflection of the mirror that has become of the window, there were mustard yellow on baby blue striped cardigan, black smart jeans and reindeer socks approaching me. She with her chestnut straight hair like silk tapered down to her shoulders and those thick-rimmed glasses looked at me as if through me. As if she were looking at the window, past her own reflection and away into the darkness outside.
‘Is the seat taken?’ she mumbled.
Uncertain why, but her question vexed me. I looked around to make sure, but the entire breakroom, four tables, five cheap plastic chairs surrounding each of them were vacant.
‘Sure.’ I blurred out.
‘My name is Mary.’ she said.
Her voice was soft, with a strange accent I could not place. In retrospect I could have asked her about it, about where, if anywhere, she was from.
‘I’m new. Only started yesterday.’ she continued, a one-sided conversation for some twenty minutes longer.
At some point, if memory still serves me correctly, we talked about books and our favourite authors. She mentioned H.P. Love-someone or other. I laughed at the irony of it all. It was nice to meet another newbie, and someone who I didn’t have to talk to about work with. Though some portion of my soul felt somewhat rejuvenated at the prospect of social activity, when it came time for her to return into the office, I felt a pain inside, not in any way shape or form physical, but this feeling of anxiety returned the moment those thick-rimmed glasses turned away from me, and the moment those tight-fitting black jeans disappeared behind the closing door.
Only 4 more hours until the end of tonight’s shift.
But when morning dawned there was no reprieve in the arid sunlight or the calming waves of the ocean humming against the backdrop of the seagull songs. No. When the wave of employees from the night shift exited the building, there was a wave of arriving cars belonging to the morning workers. And when I got into my car there were still swarms of people exiting the building, the night workers—my project teams, the vultures from upstairs despairing in the first light from the horizon. Some of them exchanged glances at those of the morning shift, some even stopped for idle chit chatter. The memory of seeing one of them through the reflection in my rear-view mirror, one of those vultures who voted to send me to sensitivity training, staring at my car as if straight at me, sent shivers down my spine.
I was fine when I turned the AC off, though.
That morning something called me to a place I haven’t thought about in years, it was this quiet sea-side spot I was fond of during my far less lonely time. The cliffs and the town of Er——. I drove down the M27, slow due to the speed limits—the fault of never-ending roadworks. The little cliffside town still haunted my emotionally fragile self. All hour and a half, all those couple dozen miles all had been for this: to arrive at the last ever place where I took her before our relationship ended.
I found a parking spot on a side of a windy road, just outside of town. The light of the sun hadn’t pierced through the thick canopy of trees I chose to park under. The dashboard lit up with the yellow engine light which always turned on when the engine of that particular make and model was switched off, and when all the lights in the car died, I could see the reflection of my face in the windscreen. Seeing such a visage caused a smile to crack, yet the morning light did not somehow reach my eyes, casting a great shadow over them to the ridge of my brow. I turned towards the little handle to my right, pulled at it and immediately the car doors swung open, with the freezing gust almost snapping my skinny neck back. The sheer force of the wind almost ripped off the door, though I managed to hold onto the grip. Stepping out, the light from the horizon and the green valleys greeted me. I made sure to park outside of the town, and from here the sea could not be seen, only those green rolling valleys with the mansions of the excessively well off. One odd thing of note, as soon as I stepped out of my car, the freezing wind ceased and the air around me seemed to have warmed up a little.
Making my way to the cliffs by foot, it came to my attention how quickly my energy was exhausted. Not even passing through the fields and the little town and the valley beyond caused the muscles in my legs to tingle in subtle soreness. While the lower body ached in pain, strolling down the familiar paths brought forth a burrowing sensation in my chest previously only drowned out with booze. Now when the alcohol was out of reach, I had no choice but to face those demons head on and whimper and wry, never looking in the eyes of anyone who crossed paths with me. There were dog walkers, groups of friends out enjoying the limited sunshine, couples holding hands…
Past the little cobblestone town there was a long asphalt path. Why did I not drive down here? Why did I make myself walk all this way? Was it in the hope I’d simply run out of breath before reaching the cliffs themselves? Those damn cliffs where we’ve spent time walking and talking and where we held each other and I held her as if she were mine.
The emotional breakdown distracted me away from the pain of my sore legs enough that I could tread onward. The raw impulse of walking on, passing by the cottage deep in the wild of the valley by a river, under the terrible swaying clutches of the trees obfuscating the sky and shimmering with their leafy greenery.
I’ve reached the spot where one could see the line of the sapphire horizon.
The sun was still high up above in the blasted blue, laughing in blinding rays it felt like a spotlight. I could’ve walked up some steps cut into the ground itself with half-log pieces of wood, but upon remembering we had walked there in the past, where I held her and she held me, and where we talked, and where after a while of walking we turned back because the trail along the cliffside was long and boring and did not lead anywhere interesting, I decided not to go through such a thing again.
With each heartbeat, an image flashed in the tortured mind caused me to instead venture straight forward to the caverns. To the left of me there was the cerulean sea beating with white foam against the rocks at the bottom of the cliffs, a little further along there was a way down there, and if I had taken the route right I would have reached those cliffs again. But there was a strange feeling engulfing me, aside from the pain in my legs and the frantic anxiety in my mind. Instead of going where memory lane led me, I followed the way my feet wanted me to go and descended down the cliffside, into the rocky platform above the sea level, only almost falling down and breaking my neck twice. There was nobody else down here, and from looking upwards I could see the clifftops and the verdant hills with their waving bushes were devoid of any life too. Yet I did not feel alone. It was as if someone watched me, but not from above, the feeling came from the sea itself. I thought I saw a figure bathing below the surface of the ever-shifting water. Upon closer inspection, there was nought but a smile creeping across my face at the realisation that there was, in fact, absolutely nothing in the water. It was all my imagination.
Have I gone crazy?
At last having enough in shares of unbearable heartache and almost slipping twice on my way up I ascended back to the clifftop and back to land proper. With each step there was a haunting eagerness to stop and turn and look back one last time at the sea and at the cliffs. The sun, that in all this time dreadfully stung, now relaxed coolly above the horizon. The afternoon departed. It was not until the pink and blue hues of the dying sky sparked something in the darkest recesses of my tired brain, it thrust me into the driver’s seat, to light the ignition and speed away from that place, from that quiet peaceful town of Er——.
My shift was soon upon me, and I had no sleep!
During the drive back to the office, the rays of the lamplights bouncing up and off my dashboard almost hypnotised me into a state of calmness, though whatever little reprieve helped restore some peace of mind shattered upon gazing at the dashboard clock. After haphazardly parking my vehicle at the quay and hitting… well lightly tapping, at least, the car I knew belonged to an old man whose skills did not include bay parking; who swore up and down—argued vehemently even, that the bay lines were only valid during the day. I ran into the sobering white light of the office, the hum emanating from the electricals surrounded me. When my palm swatted the sweat from my shining forehead (I could see myself in the reflection of the windows and in the glass of decorative cases) I looked at the time in the clock of the office.
I was twelve minutes early.
The office itself looked as if someone took a photo of an IT classroom. There were rows of seats and tables spawning from the walls on the side and a path in the middle where a break between the tables led to the altar afar on the other side of the room. The computer screens on the rows of desks faced the back of the room, away from the door.
There were a dozen eyes staring at me as the door closed behind me. Faces pale in the white light of the monitors. In situations such as this, back in my school days, it would always be wise to sit at the back of the classroom, away from the prying eyes of the teacher—but not completely at the back, not on the last row of the tables, because just as the front rows, the last row was always on the teacher’s radar… However, here what looked like the teacher’s desk, the altar, was at the back of the classroom. As such there was an issue, if I sat at the back I would be seen more, and in thinking about it I stood in the middle of the room, in the space between the rows of desks where at least three people could comfortably walk across, and I heard a gentle, almost muted coughing behind me. Turning around I saw a tall slinky of a figure wearing a mustard shirt and a dark brown tie. After noticing he looked down on me, I moved out of the way into the nearest seat.
The man moved to the back of the room and sat at the desk.
‘Today. Sensitivity training. We will start on section 5, please have the finished sections 1 through 4 open on your desktops.’ he said with a dry yet squeaky tone.
Initially I thought he meant the monitor desktops, however when everyone around me shuffled around in their seats and grabbed several documents each out of their bags a slight worry overcame my consciousness. Helplessly feeling like a schoolboy, I raised my hand.
‘What is it?’ the man at the back snapped.
‘This is my first session.’ I mumbled.
He snickered, staring directly at me, never breaking eye-contact, said:
‘John, share your sections with…?’ his words ended in a raised intonation.
For a split second I thought not to answer. A last, pathetic struggle for individual independence unhindered by such an indirect and rude confrontation, could have been so easily avoided if only I had not lost my cool at the meeting with those vultures from upstairs.
‘Jack.’ I said.
The man smiled. I did not like his smile.
However, my attention was drawn away from the back of the room and towards my monitor and the desk. Directly in front of me I saw were scattered booklets and reference materials, notebooks and papers printed out with text and black smudges, and hands, desperately going back and forward between document, between paper and notebook trying to organise it somewhat.
‘Sorry about that.’ said John, he was sat next to me.
I didn’t even notice him when I came into the room.
‘When you’re ready, open the application on the monitor to the left-hand side.’ The man at the back spoke to the whole classroom.
I tried keeping my focus on the monitor in front of me while my eyes made sense of John’s documents.
‘They’re reference materials, here.’ He passed one sheet of paper over to me.
Then the monitor in front of me switched on, I followed the instructions barked from behind me. I heard a click of a pen from my right-hand side, where John sat, but thought nothing of it. On the screen, the icon of the application was a greenish circle, an eye with a blue N inside. John dropped his pen, releasing an audible gasp as he swooped under the table to grab it. I didn’t look at him though I heard his whines. No, my eyes were transfixed on the bright flash on the monitor. I wasn’t looking at anything else. How could I? There was another flash.
A strange sensation washed over me. A flow of energy inspired me to pay attention to the words on the screen, words of old scriptures in a language I could not decipher, yet the font, the letters forming words and sentences rolled into one another. Those damn words poured into my head and left an imprint, if not in my brain then in the back of my eyes.
John banged his head against the table as he tried rising back to his seat. I would have laughed but… Would have I? Now that I think about it, I don’t think I would.
The rest of the session was boring.
Assessment after assessment, situational and behaviour tests synthesised to show me—and I supposed the others in the room—what it meant to be a team player. Best systems approach for managing stress and excessive expected workloads, and how to remain politically aligned with the values of the corporate overlords. Those people upstairs.
‘That will be all for today.’ the man at the back of the room announced.
I expected to feel relieved, but instead I felt sad—I’d have to return to the normal office, to my team, to the operators and the analysts and other project managers.
But first, a well-deserved break!
The breakroom was as quiet as ever, with just me, the single soul enjoying the air-conditioned tranquillity it offered. After the special training, a session which lasted half of my entire shift, it was good to have a moment to unwind to the ticking of the clock looming over the room above the door frame, to the humming of the aircon unit and the general haze of the yellow light on yellow painted walls against the windows which had become like mirrors in the dead of night. Only orbs of light, the lights of the lampposts and moving headlights of cars in the distance shone through the darkness. Yes, it was quite tranquil, if not for the buzzing chit chatter emanating from Mary’s lips. Predictably she wore a baby blue on mustard yellow cardigan and black smart jeans. She waved the strands of her hair out of the way of her thick rimmed glasses and tucked them behind her ear.
‘Are you listening to me?’ she pouted.
My gaze switched from the clock, to the door, to the kitchen area, from her top my eyes strained down across her figure falling to her reindeer socks—this time the reindeer on them had a red glowing nose. But Christmas was still such a long time away.
‘Of course.’ I said.
‘So? What do you think happened?’ she asked.
‘They quit.’ I replied, though I did not expect her eyes to open so wide in surprise they almost became bigger than her glasses.
‘You don’t understand. They stopped talking to me.’
‘Well…’ I was about to say something when she jumped in a fright, looked at her shoulders as if something grabbed her.
When she scanned the entire room with her four eyes, I stared at her in silence, trying not to breakdown in laughter at the nervous wreck before me. ‘How many coffees did you have?’
‘Four.’ Her words were quiet, a tinge of shame shook her voice.
For a brief moment I managed to break the wretched eye contact and stare off into the abyss behind the windows, the dark nothing mixed with flickering tiny lights, where there was complete darkness, I knew there was a sea, deep within which lurked the strangest of things a schizophrenic mind could come up with. Sighing in a restful confidence with my mind never being clearer and freer than ever, I looked back at Mary, who still yapped on about something.
‘First it was Janet, she didn’t leave apparently, but went upstairs. Then Laura and Emma…’
But my thoughts were with the sea, imagining the sound of its waves as it beat against the pier, as the water foam gently slid across the beaches, listening to the ticking of the clock and the hum of the aircon.
‘They’re fine.’ I said.
‘They wouldn’t just stop talking to me like that, I know them!’
‘You’ve been here less time than I have, how well do you know them?’
This little waste of time went back and forth until at last I showed her that even if she thought they were her friends they more than likely didn’t want to be anything more than co-workers. This entire exchange drained me more than the training session. So it was with light feet I jumped up, making my way towards the door. The last thing I heard before the door shut close behind me was a cheery “see you later” …
It was not until I got home when I once again felt some sort of relief. Though I am not sure if being away from the office or being away from Mary helped more. The morning dawn still shone through the blinds of my windows. Specks of dust flew chaotically within the enclosed space that was my room of an apartment. The kitchen area was beside the living room beside the bedroom—truth be told, lately this was the only place for me where I could think and be myself. At least until recently, what with those nightmares.
I don’t remember getting in the shower, but I emerged out of the bathroom naked and with my skin still steaming when I saw my bed made ready for me, with the sheets neatly placed over it without any creases. It was strange, but at the same time comfortable. Having fallen on top of them I must’ve dozed off immediately into a blessed slumber, only vaguely do I remember tossing and turning several times until before me appeared the sleek long legs of my co-worker junior project manager Ioana. Ioana sat opposite me in the office. Her little toes were covered up by the lady heels she always wore and which gave her a few inches in height. Up her smooth long shins, past her knees, her voluminous thighs eventually led up to the end of her skirt, where a mystical darkness resided from within and where the most grotesquely inappropriate imaginations marinated inside my brain to produce the images of only the most unprofessional whimsical fancy. For a moment I looked at her eyes and they locked with mine. I think I smiled, maybe. She shuttered, looked away and got up from the desk to talk to some group of guys around the other end of the office. After a while of them talking they looked at me. Then whispered amongst each other some more.
I looked around not quite sure what was happening.
The clock on the wall near my desk said the time was one in the morning. The clock on my computer confirmed it.
The perky pair of assets that was Ioana, in more ways than one, turned away from the group of hound dogs who laughed and jived and jockeyed at each other and who stared vehemently at the woman as she paced herself, cantered toward me. To my shock and horror, her words weren’t accusatory, or inflammatory. No, in fact they were inviting me to join her and a few others on a walk, their lunch-time prowl across the pier.
I refused. Of course.
It wasn’t until she put on her coat, and when others had gathered at the door ready to brave the great dark outside, that it truly hit me what an indecisive fool I can be sometimes. As if shocked by lighting, I stood up from my desk, pushing the chair behind me across the office and into the wall. But they were already gone.
I went and grabbed my coat and headed for the outside. It was a quiet night, only the drones typed away in data entry. They were after all, paid by the hour.
In a corridor of luminescent white light, there were several doors I walked by, until near the end of this arduous journey I saw the exit. The end of that tunnel was a dark black void, until I got closer. Then it became a reflection of myself bent and stretched in odd shapes. Just the magic of light and glass, I supposed.
Opening the doors was a strenuous endeavour, the wind blew with such wrathful might I could only push it enough for my meek frame to pass through the opening, and once I was through, that was it. All it took was to let go and the door slammed shut behind me.
I followed the sole voices in the darkness carried by the wind.
Sometime later, something odd happened in one of my training sessions.
The sensitivity of my eyes must’ve gotten better, the flashing light which had been blinding me before now, had no effect on me. It only induced a mild headache. It was fine though, because—and perhaps due to me going a little crazy—between every flash I saw her. On the monitor. Her. I knew her yet I could not remember where from. Her skin was pale but her cheeks brimmed red with rosy life, she looked at me and her faraway gaze latched onto me, then I remembered. I thought she was dead! But it didn’t matter. Something gripped my heart like the first time we met in that damn 3rd world country hostel. And my heart was ready to be ripped. Flash. Then her face. Flash. She came closer, smiled. Flash. She was gone. Again.
The software finally opened and the tabs and clickable options were at long last presented to me, like they have been every time before. Ready to continue my gruelling assessments and activities, I was interrupted by a wild scream coming from the person sitting next to me. It was John.
His eyes were a pair of gaping holes through which you could almost see the curvature of his eyeballs, red cracks like thunder on the white wet surface, tiny shivering black dots fixated on the monitor before him.
I turned towards his computer but there was nothing strange on it. It was the same screen which appeared on mine. Frankly, I felt he was overreacting to the sensitivity training.
‘What the hell is that thing!?’ John shrieked, looked at me as if I were supposed to see something other than the poorly designed user interface.
Then he gazed at my monitor, almost jumping from his seat. He stood up, swung his head around the class and reacted to every screen he walked past. Once by covering his mouth, another by crying and wiping his tears away, and I am sure at one point he even preyed to… something. But the reaction making me rather upset, wasn’t when the manager walked up to our row of desks and proceeded to tell us both off, no, it was when John grabbed the monitor, lifted it up—it was an expensive thing, so the moment he moved it there was a screech and a slight spark came from one of the wires it connected to and the whole thing was dead, an oversized paperweight.
But then he threw it at the manager’s desk. How he managed to muster up the strength to do such a thing was beyond me, but that wasn’t even what really made me upset. He grabbed his chair up and started beating me with it. Me! Somehow even holding my hands up in front of me in defence, I ended up on the floor. The first thing I saw after my head adjusted to the rapid change in altitude, was the scurrying feet of that pathetic loser. John made his way into the middle of the room, pushed down and broke several more monitors on his way and belted the manager with the chair. When I arose, looking around I could see the eyes of utter indifference, the other employees were completely frozen. It wasn’t fear gripping them, I don’t know how I felt I knew this, but it was as if we were all invisible spectators in what deep down, we knew was inevitable.
The manager begged us to intervene, as if something primordial awakened in something slumbering until that moment, until the moment the back rest of John’s chair knocked out the glasses from his temples, when the armrest dug into his stomach, as the seat of it muffled his screams, John raised the chair above his head, then dropped it on the mangled remains of a crying pulp below his feet. And we watched.
The chair broke upon the mound of flesh, leaving the whole thing looking like some post-apocalyptic rubble.
We were silent when John looked at all of us, one by one he turned towards each and every one, but when he looked at me, his wide eyes closed. He walked back, as if something in his head exploded and caused great well-deserved pain, when he opened his eyes again, he ran for the exit door.
I couldn’t help but follow.
By the time I reached outside, the first rays of the sun had bathed the horizon in pitiful egg yolk glow, while the clouds above were nothing more than a smoky haze. John was already in his car; I knew it by the rattle of his car’s engine. He zapped past me through the pier and towards the main road and town, however at the juncture with traffic lights he drove through red, straight into the underbite of a three-container-long truck which itself had gotten to such a speed that when it rammed into John and drove over his car, it did not stop until it reached the middle container.
John’s car crashed by the weight of the truck, rested between the wheels and underneath the platform holding the container.
Something forced itself out of my guts and through my mouth when I saw some dark liquid spilling from the gaps between the dented and crashed doors. It mixed with the multi-coloured hues of the car’s blood into a blend of organic and mechanical apex. Swaths of night shift workers came out with their phones, managers sped past them and turned towards them, threatening severe reprimands and pay cuts if everyone didn’t get back into the offices.
The blissful smog of rainclouds caped the sky.
The waves of the sea beat harder against the poles holding up the pier. Water constantly shifted, constantly… there was a great loud noise, it almost made me jump before I could get back into the office. It came from one of the docked cruise ships. I’ve heard that horn before. Every night shift in fact. One would think I’d get used to it by now.
Our work was far too important to be abandoned for even one night, even one moment—the management and the people upstairs deemed it valuable for the majority of the workforce to continue and “dredge on” even after John’s gruesome demise. Personally, I didn’t see a problem with it.
After the incident, which I considered to be an added bonus to the whole affair, as they saw fit to revaluate my state of being and decided I will no longer need to go into those sensitivity training sessions.
The next time I heard that horn was on another post-midnight stroll with my co-workers. Shoulder to shoulder with Ioana, two girls walked at the front and two guys behind. We started down the pier, toward the sea. Once we reached the end we stood there for a while, still talking.
‘He was completely wasted, trying to chat them up!’ one of the guys from the back said to the other.
‘Worst thing, they were falling for it!’ he laughed, the other guy laughed, the girls laughed, and I felt as if something deep down beneath the surface of the ocean slithered, chuckled.
It was dark, but we’ve had a good time.
‘What happened then?’ one of the girls who wasn’t Ioana asked.
But I wasn’t paying attention to the punch line; too busy listening to the hushed whispers coming from Ioana. She mumbled a little, it was cute though it reminded me of someone else. When the wind picked up in such a way I could no longer hear the waves of the water beneath the pier, I decided to tune back into the conversation.
‘It’s tough work, but it’s good.’ one of the guys said.
‘Yeah, the job itself is a bit of a slog, it’s the people that really make it what it is.’ one of the other girls added.
‘I didn’t believe it when I saw the salary, but what, it being night shift it totally makes sense! This job wouldn’t be worth doing for anything less.’ the guy with the loudest laugh said.
And I knew he was the guy telling some kind of a funny story earlier, the joker of the group, so to speak.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked him.
‘Well,’ the Joker stumbled a bit with his words until he rose up from the pressure of everyone silently staring at him and blasted something from his mouth ‘…as she said the job itself is a slog. Come on, 24 hours of running projects? What projects? Half the staff just watch movies while the other drone away at their computers typing up the most useless information I have ever come across, we all know the clients themselves don’t care about all of that.’
‘Part of it,’ the other girl said, ‘I heard it was because our clients are international, all around the globe. And you know that entire thing of the Earth revolving around the sun? As we speak there is someone phoning one of our salespeople about issues with the omni-doss-controller or something.’
‘Also, it’s great to worship the glory of Nuth every night.’ Ioana added.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
Then one of the guys looked at the Joker and grabbed him by the shoulder.
‘But what were you saying earlier?’
The Joker stayed quiet for a moment, until the guy gently shook him as if trying to wake him.
‘Praise be to the glory of Nuth?’
‘No, earlier. About the money?’
‘Ah, yeah, the money’s great. Honestly, I wouldn’t bother working here otherwise’
I looked at Ioana, the other girls and the guy and our smiles disappeared from our faces—our faces could be seen even in the darkness at the end of the pier. The mood of the entire group bar one shifted in an instant. We all grabbed the joke-cracking money chaser and held him up. He screamed. He cursed. He begged. But before anyone had any second thoughts, we threw him across the barrier and into the waters below. There was a loud splash and I could swear some of the water hit my face. For a moment, his entire being disappeared under the waves of darkness, glistering in the pale cold light of a nearby lamp.
Then his head emerged, then shoulders, and we could see the hands he waved about to keep himself above water. He laughed. We looked at one another and laughed also, but I looked down again at the man we doomed to disappear and the weight of that action pulled me downwards. I could not laugh. Ioana held my hand, she told me it would be alright. The man in the water swam towards the shore, but something stopped him. He looked up at us, screamed about something and disappeared beneath the surface of the peaceful sea. The water bubbled and foamed in his place, but soon everything returned to normal. Waves beat against the poles holding up the pier.
The haunting echo of the horn from some docked ship or other didn’t startle me, and the only reason I noticed it was because for the first time since I started this great new job, hearing it didn’t send shivers down my spine.
The hall was a long vertical tube with something shining a blinding radiance from the above down, the source of which was unknown. It was as if someone took a sun and placed it up there. The walls were black, lined with green slime and orange rust in places. On the floor there were great statues placed around like the numbers on a clock, up by the walls. At 12 o’clock was a man, naked with his hands held up. At 3 O’clock, still a man though his eyes were diamond shaped and his appendices oddly elongated, and he was tall, almost seven feet. I could not see what statue stood behind me. The thing lying on the floor at 9 o’clock was beyond anything I’ve ever seen before. Its face, a human one contorted through pain of being devoured by some squid-like creature into a twisted amalgamation of a face within a face. The dead black of the squid-creature’s eyes gleamed in the arid light, yet the rest of its being was dark grey matte of stone with no reflection but a texture of a black crackle zippo. The body of the being was carved into a scaly surface of a human torso, yet it had no legs or arms, instead tentacles spewed from where those should have been. The tentacles themselves were long and curved in zigzags. Even for a statue, it seemed alive, it moved inch by inch every time I looked away from it.
Gold sand dusted the floor. I stood in a circle of robed figures, yet they were neither hooded nor masked. I could see their faces and they were my co-workers. Not all I could recognise, but there was Ioana, the manager from the sensitivity training and the vultures from upstairs. In the middle of the room there was a stone slab, we all stood around it. Upon the stone slab laid a naked woman with a wondrous petite body, alluring curves with a tightly built stomach and abdomen complementing her wider hips and those small yet perky breasts. She wasn’t chained, but she could barely move her head. Her eyes darted from one hooded figure to the other until at long last they graced me. And I recognised her. She was Mary. For a moment, the iris wells of her eyes shimmered in the light from above, her face relaxed but after a second, she looked around and again strained into a fearful, teary look.
When she looked back at me for the second time, her face did not relax.
She opened her mouth, but no sound came.
Her lips skewed into a spasmic V, anything resembling the look of hope turned to fear and disgust. I could only imagine the kinds of thoughts running across her drugged up yet fully conscious mind. She was there, unable to move, naked, surrounded by people in cloaks no doubt she recognised were her co-workers. Her body shivered.
One cloaked figure, the face of whom I could not see, took a step forward out of the circle. After taking another, the figure brandished a knife, 12 inches long with something akin to Mandarin symbols etched as runes into the silver blade. I saw my reflection in it, and the figure looked at me. She was someone I recognised in an instant, though initially, I could not tell where from. It had been such a long time since I moved from the W——— Office, built on top of that god-damned mountain which for a long portion of my working life I had to climb every day—but I already talked about this. The figure looking at me, and who gave me the knife was my boss from there, the bob-cut-ginger chain-smoker.
‘I gotta say Jack,’ she spoke, ‘Of all your side projects this is sure to appease Nuth the most.’ she whipped back her cloak and returned to the circle.
After that, I realised I myself had moved out of the circle and now stood over the trembling naked body of Mary. My own hand quivered then, as I gazed upon my own reflection in the knife. I knew it was my own visage looking back at me, though there was something odd about my appearance and I could not tell then exactly what it was.
Without anyone telling me what to do, I knew what had to be done.
I cut her.
Blood dripped from the knife, from the wound left in her shin. Her eyes rolled back in ecstatic pain and I handed the knife to the person next to me, to my left. They also cut her, but in a different place, in a shoulder, then handed the still bloody knife to the person to their left. Mary was cut again and again, in the arm, through a breast, until almost the entirety of her body was covered in red strips and lines of falling blood droplets, they were shallow cuts. Until the knife had made its round and was given back to me.
The cloaks on everyone’s shoulders dropped to the gold sand and I looked around at all of them in sheer horror as their bodies begun turning. White flesh torn, ripped apart from the inside by green, slimy tendrils. The men’s torsos grew scaly silver layers and the women’s chests bulged out, then as if by breathing in, their breasts withdrew within themselves before also growing layer upon layer of silver scales. The men shrivelled and withdrew within themselves too. No matter the differences in gender, skin colour or body type, they all turned into the same creature which looked like the statue standing at the 9 o’clock mark by the wall of the hall. But their transformations were going further.
Mary looked up at me. Helpless.
‘Get away from me.’ I heard her.
Then I stabbed her in the heart, and she ceased crying, moving, or breathing. Then I went to join my brothers and sisters in the feast.
Praise be to Nuth, kthunghra’ghal’amoten. The triumphant primordial love, its precious love, its caring and pure gift that the Goddess bestowed upon our present, and her ever-watchful haunting eye will forever bless us in the future. Tra’vahg Sendfgrth Dfogwhg Llimb’vadfh! The tendrils may have taken some time getting used to, but the constantly moist slime-skin certainly beats eczema any day!
All in all, I am glad the commute to my new job doesn’t require me to climb a mountain every day anymore.