About ten minutes later, Newspaper came back into the office.
At least, I assumed it was him, but I couldn’t be sure, because I was too stubborn to look up. And I also feared that if I looked up, I might involuntarily chuck a knife at him.
Oh, no. I was going to stay cool. Hell, I was going to be so cool we would have to crank up the thermostat. After all, tranquility was the greatest form of intimidation. So, forcing myself to relax and push the murder fantasies to the back of my mind, I cleared my throat, smiled, and said sweetly, “Hey.”
Just as I had hoped, that comment seemed to be a bit of a shock to Newspaper, since he had probably been preparing for a stapler to come hurtling towards his face. His jaw opened and closed for a few seconds like a dumbstruck fish as he looked over me with what appeared to be a mix of confusion and concern. I waited patiently for a response, but it looked like Newspaper had momentarily forgotten how to form words.
“Where were you?” I asked nonchalantly, like I was some super-hot stoned celebrity that didn’t really care.
“I…” He shifted uneasily in his chair, which was teetering dangerously. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. It was like we were on some sort of reality TV show, and I was busting him for getting drunk at a club while he was supposed to take care of the kids.
“You don’t have to tell me,” I said gently, making sure I sounded as condescending as possible.
Newspaper was still searching me nervously for any sign of disturbance. Oddly, I was suddenly offended by the fact that he thought there was no possible way I wasn’t angry with him. Was I really that terrible?
I laughed to myself. Who cared? I was freaking him out and it was awesome.
Meanwhile, by the looks of it, Miller’s brain had finally caught up with him. Still giving me a strange look, he raised his eyebrows and asked, “Are you okay?”
A part of me thought I should stop playing with his head and just tell him how much I wanted to kill him, but what was the fun in that? “Is there some reason I should be…less than okay?” I cooed, trying to act like most of my attention was on my computer screen, which (it was a good thing he couldn’t see it) was completely black.
“It’s okay if you’re upset. I deserve it,” he said sheepishly.
That definitely wasn’t what I expected. Two apologies before three-o-clock? It didn’t sound like Newspaper at all. I turned around and stared at him, trying to detect his emotions. His eyes were severely focused on the edge of his desk, but he certainly wasn’t smiling. That was a step up, wasn’t it? Then again, he didn’t seem all too apologetic either. I kind of wished that we were on a reality TV show, because then at least Newspaper could punch a wall or something. It was so much easier to tell what someone was thinking when they punched a wall.
“I’m not upset,” I lied through my teeth, and even I knew that it didn’t sound convincing in the slightest. I couldn’t help it. I was getting angry fast, and I didn’t exactly have the temper of a princess. There was something, well, frightening in the way that I had no idea what was going through his mind. I felt like he could somehow read my thoughts, so why couldn’t I read his? What was different about him?
Miller ran his fingers through his dark hair. “I know you asked for my help, and I—”
“I didn’t ask for your help,” I burst out. Clearly, my plan was going downhill, and since mind control wasn’t working, it was time for denial. Sure, it was kind of ridiculous, but I wasn’t one to go down without a fight. After all, he couldn’t prove I asked him, right?
Jack’s brow furrowed. “Uh…forgive me if I’m mistaken, but I could have sworn I saw you say the word help—”
“Well, you were wrong,” I interrupted. “I was actually saying, uh…kelp.”
His eyebrows raised. “Kelp?”
“Yes,” I confirmed hastily. “The plant that fish eat. It’s my favorite word. I just love saying it, you know? Kelp, kelp, kelp.” Before any of that absurd speech could sink in and he could fully realize the length of my insanity, I added, “Anyway, you’ll be glad to know that I handled it just fine. By myself. Without you.” I cleared my throat and gazed at my blank computer screen again, silently cringing. Real nice, Essie. Cool as a cucumber.
“Good,” I heard him say under his breath.
Before I could make an even bigger fool out of myself, the phone rang.
Of course, due to my jaw-dropping reflexes, I immediately flinched and fell backwards. I was about half a second from colliding with the ground when I was caught by something firm. Eagerly, and because my main concern was not breaking my neck or another vital body part, I grasped it and pulled myself up.
Just my luck, it was Newspaper’s hand, who had somehow gotten to my desk in groundbreaking Edward Cullen speed, and he seemed to be just as surprised as me. I wasn’t exactly sure if it was because he had caught me, or because he was finally taking in my kelp monologue, but I didn’t have time to think about it right then. “Thanks,” I panted instinctively, my head still reeling.
“Sure,” he replied, probably also on instinct, because his brow furrowed after he said it like he wasn’t sure what had come over him.
The phone was still ringing, which I found a bit strange considering it felt like at least a few minutes had passed. Somehow my hand curled around it and I lifted it to my ear.
“Hello?” I asked uncertainly, wondering who in the world it could be.
My chest tightened. I recognized the voice at once. Low and stern, like a sergeant. I knew that it could only belong to one person. “H-Harley?” I squeaked. Hurriedly, I corrected myself. “I mean, yes Ms. Harley, ma’am.”
“Essie Spiros,” the voice said again, the message exactly the same as if it had been replayed on an answering machine.
“Yes,” I confirmed, unsure of what else to say. Guilt washed over me. This must be because of how I chickened out before, I thought anxiously. What is she going to do to me? What do I say?
“Meet me in my office in five minutes.” The line went dead before I could respond, and in a moment, it was as if the call had never even occurred. I put the phone down slowly, biting my lip so hard I could taste blood.
Newspaper wasn’t laughing now. He stared at me, frosty eyes wide. “T-That was—”
There wasn’t much else to say. I was pretty sure that when you went into Denise Harley’s office, you didn’t come out. Ever.
For a moment, silence hung over us like a fog, then he spoke.
“Well, it was nice knowing you.” A clownish smile spread over his face like a virus.
I rolled my eyes. Jack Miller, always the gentleman. “Don’t flatter me,” I pretended to beg, grabbing my coat. Something told me it was going to be awfully cold in Harley’s office.
“Come on, you’ll be fine,” he assured, crossing his arms.
“Wow, you really haven’t worked here long,” I noted. “Just don’t be surprised if you find an angry ghost haunting you when you come home at night.”
For some reason, that comment seemed to make him uneasy. Before I could wonder if he was afraid of ghosts, he said, “I’ll look forward to it,” and headed back to his desk.
I stared at him longingly, wishing I had one more delay before having to face my doom, but it didn’t look like he had any other witty remarks for me. So, step by step, like I was heading off to my own hanging, I made my way to the door and pushed it open.
I took one more wistful look at the office, trying to preserve my sight while I still had it. Oh, come on, a voice inside my head taunted. Harley’s not going to kill you.
Why did I feel like I would never set eyes on this office again?
Somehow it seemed to take ten minutes to saunter over to Harley’s office, even though it was only at the end of the hall. There was something about confronting impending death that really made your feet want to stick to the floor.
Breathe. Just breathe, I reminded myself as I found the door within arm’s reach. The lights were dim in that part of the hall, so I could barely see the knob clearly. It looked like nobody had wandered down this area of the building in years, and who could blame them? Harley was a bit of a mystery to the workers at Zippy’s Oats. Apparently no one had seen her come in or out of her office since the dawn of mankind. Daphne once explained that there must have been a back door somewhere where she exited at night, but I had a feeling she just made that up so I wouldn’t have nightmares.
I tried to think of what I would say to her. Harley, I mean. After all, I didn’t have any heroic, spine-tingling reason for acting like a total idiot on the phone. The truth was that I was of absolutely no use to this company, and it was only a matter of time before someone found out.
I leaned forward and knocked twice on the door.
The second I did it, my heart dropped to my knees. Now there was no turning back. In a few seconds the door would open, and I would be face to face with my boss. In a way, though, I was glad I had the guts to do it then, because God knows if I tried to over think it, I would be out of there before my hand could even move. I inhaled slowly, hoping it would calm me down.
Big mistake. A cloud of dust flew up my nose and I hacked and sputtered uncontrollably, stumbling around on one foot as water rushed to my eyes.
Of course, at that moment the door opened, and Denise Harley was staring down at my pathetic, sickly face with a steady, blank gaze.
She looked exactly the same as when I had first seen her: cold brown eyes, stringy black hair in a tight bun, meaty arms that could wring your neck and slice onions at the same time. She waited patiently as I grappled to get a hold of myself. After a devastatingly long time, I finally spoke up. “G-Good morning, Ms. Harley, m-ma’am,” I stammered weakly, hoping that she might feel pity and wait for another few moments before murdering me. Figuring it might reduce my pain if I couldn’t see the saw launching into my chest, I closed my eyes and waited.
No knives, no flying monkeys, no rabid raccoons, just complete silence.
When I opened my eyes, she was still gazing at me, as if time had stopped or she had suddenly been paralyzed from the waist up.
“Essie Spiros,” she said, her mouth barely moving. So it begins. I swallowed and peered meekly up at my boss, bracing for whatever was too come. Maybe I had given up on flying monkeys too soon.
But what happened next was far worse than flying monkeys. In fact, it even beat rabid raccoons right out of the park.
Harley smiled. And it wasn’t just a weak, half-hearted smile. It was a giant, terrifying grin that transformed the whole bottom half of her face into a set of glistening, blinding teeth.
“Please, come in,” she crooned.
Meanwhile, my brain was still in what-in-the-world-just-happened mode, as I struggled to process what could only be a hallucination that had occurred after my real boss had slaughtered me and sent me into a coma.
However, it didn’t look like Harley had the time to wait for my high-tech thought process to continue churning. She reached forward and gave me a gentle push that sent me tumbling helplessly through the doorway.
Luckily, the fall was enough to send me out of my hypnotic state. Once I regained my balance, I managed to take a look around. The office was vast; nearly three times the size of the office I shared with Jack. The middle of the room was occupied by an enormous wooden desk, which was overflowing with papers and tangled with phone cords.
A white board loomed menacingly overhead with sketches of the all too familiar Zippy’s Oats logo and photographs of the new box designs lined up in messy rows.
I didn’t know what I was expecting. Probably man-eating spiders or a pack of hungry wolves. Either way, this didn’t seem like Harley’s office. It seemed like, well, a normal person’s office, cluttered and disorganized, with ideas oozing out of every corner.
“It’s a bit messy, I realize,” Harley apologized, sighing as she took a look around. “It’s not usually like this, but with the commercial I’ve just been so…” Her voice trailed off as she glimpsed my expression, which had morphed to utter shock again.
What can I say? She was actually saying she was sorry and blushing over some misplaced papers on a desk. This was the same woman who had to duck so her head didn’t reach the ceiling. It was too much to fathom.
“Take a seat.” Harley sent a giant armchair flying effortlessly across the room towards me. I stared at it for a second as if it was some alien creature before finally sitting down.
“Comfortable?” Harley asked, biting her lip.
I opened my mouth to give some sort of reply but stopped myself as a thought hit me. She must be faking it, I thought. She’s putting on a kind front so she can stab me in the back when the time is right.
I had to give her props for it. The whole angel-boss thing was certainly very convincing. And no matter what crazy expectations for her cruelty I could cook up, this was by far the worst, because as I stared up at her deep black eyes I realized that I had no idea what she might say or do next.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you in today, Essie,” Harley began slowly, her gaze never straying from my face.
“Y-You could say that,” I managed to get out once my throat started to perform its natural duties again.
“I like you, Essie. You’re focused and you’re dedicated. You’re a good employee.”
My eyebrows raised and a giggle slipped out before I could stop it. Dedicated? What was this, opposite day? I spent most of my mornings googling which celebrities had the same birthday as me. If that wasn’t slacking off, I didn’t know what was.
Harley didn’t seem to notice my reaction. “You’ve been a great help to the office,” she continued. “I appreciate that.”
My mind was stumbling over each word as she spoke. All of the flattery, the lies, the thank-you’s…they were building up to something. Something I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear. As far as I was concerned, the nicer the remarks, the meaner the result, and on a scale of one to ten, Harley was pelting me with an eleven.
“There isn’t an easy way to say this…” Harley started rummaging in her desk as I watched, open-mouthed. I knew it. She was firing me. My thoughts raced. Well, it wasn’t that much of a shock. Like I said earlier, I wasn’t exactly The Dark Knight of this company. But if she wanted to kick me out, why do it now? The whole phone incident couldn’t have been that important, could it? There were plenty of other times I had screwed up. Like when I tripped that guy in the hall (accident, I swear) or when I stomped up the toilet in the ladies’ room.
As my thoughts were slowly morphing into the conclusion “you’re fired, you’re fired, she’s firing you, you’re done”, Harley had finished searching through her drawers and was pulling something out.
“Do you know what this is, Essie?” she asked gently, placing the object lightly on my lap.
Hesitantly, I picked it up and examined it halfheartedly. “I-It’s a tape,” I said faintly.
“Yes. Do you know where it’s from?”
I bit my lip. “Uh…” I stammered. A million ideas came to mind, of all of the things they could tape in this office that would get me fired. Maybe it was video proof that I had stolen that slice of pie from the cafeteria. Or some kind of farewell video they play for all of the employees they’re kicking out, like a sappy, heartfelt goodbye.
As my armpits were slowly morphing into waterfalls, Harley rose from her chair and placed it in the cassette player. I stared at her blankly as she spun the computer around to face me.
It was a security tape from the camera in my office. I squinted at the footage. It was taken from earlier that day, but as I looked more closely, I could see that something was wrong. What was it? Everything looked normal. I saw myself, standing near my desk by the door. I saw my black dress, and my caramel hair, and the ugly scar on my cheek. What was so off about the tape?
Before I could ask any questions, Harley pressed the play button. I saw myself smirk and reach for my jacket. “Don’t flatter me,” I was saying.
I remembered that conversation. Harley had just called me to tell me to come in, and I was telling Jack that—
Where the hell was Jack?
I narrowed my eyes at the video. Jack wasn’t there. He wasn’t on the tape. The place where he had been standing a few minutes ago when this conversation occurred was…empty. But how? It wasn’t possible.
“Wow, you really haven’t worked here long,” the woman on the tape who so clearly resembled me was remarking. “Just don’t be surprised if you find an angry ghost haunting you when you come home at night.”
She said some other things, but after that I kind of stopped paying attention. I racked my brain for some sort of explanation. There had to be some sort of explanation. No. Jack had been there. I saw him. I looked back at the computer. Maybe the lighting was bad. That was it. He was there, all right, but the camera was shot. That seemed a lot more probable than…than…
“T-There must have been a mistake, ma’am,” I stammered.
“What do you see?” Harley asked tenderly, ignoring me.
I raised my eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“On the tape. Can you tell me what you see?”
My thoughts racing, I drew my eyes back to the screen and concentrated. This was some sort of test. Whether or not it would ensure my job here, I wasn’t sure, but for all I knew, this comment could change my life forever. I tried to summon up some intelligent thoughts, maybe a wise remark or two, but confusion seemed to be forming some kind of barrier in my mind. Why would Harley want to know what I saw in the tape? What was going to come out of this? “Um…” I stuttered again, closing my eyes. Just tell her the truth. Right. No real harm could come out of the truth, could it?
“I see myself,” I said quietly.
My brows furrowed as I looked at her. “And…that’s it, I guess.”
“You guess?” Harley asked, regarding me with a creepy fondness.
I exhaled slowly. “Ma’am, are you sure this tape isn’t…compromised?”
She was asking so many questions, I might have mistaken her for my therapist. “Just…compromised.”
Harley gave a little sigh. “No, Miss Spiros. I can assure you that all of the security footage in this building is right as rain. I checked all of it myself.”
That doesn’t say much, I wanted to say.
She rewound the video and played it again. Once again, I heard my voice, and once again, I saw no Jack. I was getting pretty uneasy about the whole thing. Something wasn’t right. Not about the video, it was probably just screwed up, but about the whole situation, the way everyone was acting. I get called in here by a random phone call that gives no explanation whatsoever. When I finally get here, I’m greeted by compliments and smiles and love, but still no one is willing to explain. They tell me things; they show me things, expecting me to come to my own conclusion, all while trying to protect me from something I wasn’t aware of. There was something else going on here, something Harley didn’t want to tell me. And I was determined to find that out.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but can I ask why you called me in here?” I said firmly, locking my eyes with hers. Cut the crap, Harley. It’s just you and me.
As we stood in silence, my heart pumping out of my chest and my fists contracted, there were a million things that I predicted she would say. But once again, Denise Harley was taking me by surprise.
“I want to help you,” she told me, her gaze not wavering.
“Help me with what?” I asked through clenched teeth.
She swallowed and pointed back to the computer. “Can you tell me who you’re talking to in this video?” I merely stared at her, so she pressed a few buttons and another video came up on the screen.
This one was from a few days ago. I was sitting on the floor, sharpening pencils. I remembered that well. The phone call had been cancelled, so Jack had suggested—
My stomach dropped. He wasn’t there either. He had been sitting right next to me when it was recorded, but somehow he just wasn’t showing up in the footage.
“Or this one?” Harley pressed. When I didn’t answer, she played me a few more. They were all from the past week, scenes I could recall easily, but always with just one thing missing. The only thing that remained of my incorrigible desk mate was empty space. It looked kind of funny, actually. If it wasn’t some mean prank, I might have actually laughed at the sad portrait of myself it created; a woman who was making snide remarks to herself, laughing at something that wasn’t there.
But Jack was there. And I wasn’t going to put up with this taunting.
“How about this one?” Harley repeated, showing me yet another scrambled clip of conversations I partly recollected.
This was getting ridiculous. If she wanted to know, I would tell her. “Jack Miller,” I said, keeping my voice calm. “Tall, brown hair, gray eyes, you know, the light of everyone’s life. Well, you should know, since you so graciously hired him into my office.” I know, I know, I shouldn’t have been talking that way to my boss, especially when I was so sure she was on the verge of firing me, but I couldn’t help it. She was trying to make me look like an idiot. All traces of civility were quickly fleeting and I just wanted to shove all her kindness bullcrap right up her muscular ass.
Harley took a deep breath. “Miss Spiros, a Jack Miller was never hired into this building.”
I began to laugh, but her grave expression stopped me. My heart sank for a moment. “What are you talking about?” I murmured weakly. None of this made any sense. It was like trying to piece together a puzzle that had no picture, a story that had no end. She was lying. My boss was lying to me. She had hacked the tape and now she was treating me like some child who had lost her blanket.
“You are the only one in that office,” said Harley. “Jack Miller does not exist.”
“You’re a liar!” I hissed, leaping up from my chair. I was fed up with all of this playing around. Clearly she was trying to knock me off my feet, catch me off guard so she could kill me off with ease. Yes, I could imagine her now, editing Jack out of the footage so it looked like I was talking to myself, laughing as she did it, thinking that she was really doing a number on me. But I would be damned if I didn’t go down without a fight. Of all things I had been in my life, crazy was never one of them. There were times when I thought I might lose it, especially before I met Sylvia, but I never did. That was the most frustrating thing about losing my parents. I remembered every crystal clear detail. I didn’t try to block it out with rainbows and butterflies. That wasn’t the way I handled things back then, and it wasn’t the way I was handling things now.
“What is this?” I demanded. “If you want to fire me, just do it.” Then, just for good measure, I added, “I have rights!” Truth was, I wasn’t exactly sure how many rights I actually had, or whether they had anything to do with situations like these, but I was willing to give it a try.
“I don’t want to fire you, Essie,” Harley answered, her tranquility only making my anger rise. “You need help.”
“Help. With. What?” I spat, stepping closer to her with each word. I wanted her to yell back at me, to tell me to leave, to do something.
She simply shook her head. All she said was, “I’ve made an appointment for you tomorrow morning.” She placed a card into my hand, and I glared at it.
4:00, it said. Room 304. “What is this?” I mumbled absentmindedly. An appointment? So she wasn’t even the one pulling the plug, it was one of her superiors. What was this, then, a preview for the main event?
“It’s a therapist. The best we’ve got.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. My mouth couldn’t even form the words for a proper reply. A therapist? Like for insane people?
“I expect you to be there, Essie,” Harley said, her thin lips tight as if someone was yanking them together from within. “I know you can get through this.”
We spent about ten seconds staring at each other. I studied her face, waiting desperately for her to finally crack, to tell me that this was all some ploy to get me out of here without a fuss, but she didn’t. And that’s when I finally realized this wasn’t a prank. She wasn’t lying. Denise Harley was more serious than she had ever been.
The next few moments were a blur, but somehow I found myself standing outside of her office alone, my head hurting with the information I was trying to process.
No, was my first thought. No. This couldn’t be happening. My own boss was convinced I needed special attention from some stupid video on some stupid tape. If I was crazy, it was because I drew pictures of weird guys on trains or sat on the floor during lunch hour. It was not because I was chatting up imaginary aliens.
I went over our conversation again in my head. Now that I thought about it, everything I said only made me look more psychotic. Isn’t denial one of the symptoms?
There was one thing I knew. Jack Miller existed. Even though I had barely known him a week, I had talked to him for hours. I had felt his hand close around mine just earlier that morning. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the sensation. Warm, tingly, and yet cold and still all at once. Nothing had ever felt more real in my life.
I made my way down the hall. The door to my office was open. My feet started working before my mind, and I raced over, my heart pounding in my chest.
He wasn’t there. The office was empty. The place where he had been sitting right before I left looked as vacant as it had been a week ago.
Maybe he left early. Maybe that’s it. I turned the idea over in my mind.
And maybe you did make him up, I suddenly thought. You’ve had plenty of time to lose your mind after all these years. Why not now?
As I glanced around the room, the empty space seemed to close around me. The truth was, I didn’t know what to think. The memories that I had of Newspaper seemed to crumble one by one, as if they were never there. I put my palms down on my desk and let my weight fall on it. My eyes strayed to the wastebasket, which hadn’t yet been emptied. I spotted a balled up piece of paper, my drawing of someone who I hadn’t thought existed. Maybe I was more right than I thought. Slowly, carefully, I reached in and picked it up.
The paper was blank. There was nothing on it except for lines. My face scrunched up and I dropped in back into the trash. Every sign was telling me that Jack Miller had never come to this office. Any reasonable person would tell you there was only one explanation that made sense.
All my life I had been looking for explanations that made sense. Maybe my mother had to go away on business. Maybe my father had died from some disease he picked up. Cause and effect. All things I could understand. But not this. Because deep down, something was telling me that I wasn’t crazy. That they were the crazy ones.
I looked at the card in my hands. Room 304. I was pretty sure I knew where that was. I could go. And what would happen if I did? Now that I considered it, I was probably long overdue for therapy. And if anything, this would be my chance to prove I wasn’t crazy after all.
I buttoned up my coat and hurried off into the afternoon, making my train by half a second.