PseudoPod 827: She Works in the Office Where They Died
She Works in the Office Where They Died
By Alex T. Singer
Dezra works in an office where 1000 people died. Well, 1082. People round down.
No one’s told the ones who died.
“Good morning,” says Dezra, to Brenda the security guard who mans the bag check.
“Morning,” says Brenda, with a tired nod.
Caroline, the receptionist, is hunched behind Brenda. She’s looking at someone, but it’s not Dezra, as her mouth moves silently. There hasn’t been a proper receptionist working there since the building opened. No one’s told Caroline. She was the first confirmed casualty. Dezra smiles and nods anyway. Brenda searches her bag.
Sometimes before lunch, Dezra finds a man in the elevator, waiting for someone to pick his floor. He can’t do it himself. His hands pass right through the buttons, but he tries again and again. Dezra hits it on her way down. It opens, and he drifts out. A woman follows her through automatic doors on her way back. She doesn’t activate the motion sensor. A pair of admins, Yasmin and Brent, wait for packages in the mailroom. They’ve been waiting for years. The clerk looks straight through them.
When Dezra first started, she asked about it. She got a lot of blank looks. Most of the office shrugs off the little weirdnesses, like they shrug off Steve’s moods. The chairs that are moved a little further out than they expected. The brief cold patch as casualty 351 glares at the printer. She’s not sure if they don’t see or if they just don’t want to think about it. Everyone’s got deadlines to meet. It happened a little over twenty years ago. Who has time for that kind of thing anymore?
It was all over the news. They all saw the way the earth opened up. They all saw the block go down. A row of buildings proud and tall like teeth, all at once sank down and crumbled, like a sandcastle, not at all like a concrete structures with thousands of people still alive inside. One building fell into another, and another, and they all went down — the whole block. Dezra was twelve at the time. She saw the last building collapse live from the TV in the school library. It turned into a column of smoke.
‘I just saw, like, 100 people die,’ she thought. She never did finish the book she’d started.
Now she works where like, 100 people died. And about 900 more. And 82 extra. But no one ever counts the last 82.
The last 82 don’t know that. When Dezra sees some of them chatting around the espresso machine, they don’t seem to know they’ve been counted at all.
“Excuse me,” she says to them, as she nudges a latte out of the machine. It took one of the perfectly living communication managers frowning at her to realize the guy with the red-beard in front of her probably won’t ever excuse her. She steps around him anyway, back bumping the counter. She doesn’t like walking through them. In an hour or two, his eyes are going to go wide and he’ll vanish through the floor. Dezra tries not to look.
After the buildings fell, the city argued over what to do about it. The first set of officials wanted a memorial. The next set wanted a park. The next wanted revenge for whoever they felt had done it. All of them argued so long that their voters started to forget, so they built a new row of office buildings, filled with cheap offices for rent, 15-20 per floor. The building is stubbier, blander, and less likely to collapse. They stuck a plaque in the sidewalk at the corner. School kids make crayon rubbings of it on Wednesdays, but otherwise you’d never guess it happened at all.
Dezra knows it happened. She knows every time she goes back to her desk. The new complex is less expensive than the ones that fell. In order to save cost and promote ‘openness,’ every wall in the office is made of glass. Start-ups rent their 20 x 20’s, hoping one day they can graduate to the 20 x 25 in the next floor up. They apply their logos as stick-on decals, and peel them off when they leave.
The remnants of two of these decals hover over the door to the open office where Dezra works. Through the right wall, she can see the logo for the mail-order winery and a sports supplier. Everyone stoops shoulder to shoulder on desks that look more like craft tables. Everyone can see every one of those heads all the way down the hall. Dezra tries not to think about what it would be like if every single one of the glass walls shattered at once. Every morning she takes her coffee, sits down at her desk, and watches people pass the glass door to their own glass rooms.
It’s gotten easier to tell who’s alive and who’s dead. Dezra found their faces on old web pages and online articles. Dezra feels the cold air as Tommy walks through one of the glass walls on his way to his morning meeting.
The ghosts aren’t really the issue. Dezra’s a new hire, and she has bigger things to worry about.
Steve checks in at 10 AM. Steve’s the co-founder of the merchandise start-up. If it’s a good day, he’s got coffee and doughnuts and says good morning. If it’s a bad day, he’s got his cellphone and asks Dezra why she didn’t call the client yesterday.
“I messaged you about it,” says Steve. The message came in at 2 AM.
“Sorry,” she says. She’s learned the hard way not to point out stuff like timezones. “I left a message this morning–”
“Should’ve left one last night,” says Steve, with a brittle smile. He’s not a bad guy, when he’s not stressed. “Have you called them back yet? Dez, we really need to be better about this.”
Behind him, Joe Borghese, who was caught in the collapse, is leaning to look out the window.
Steve notices Dezra’s eyes drifting. “And I need you to be present, okay?” He goes back to his phone.
He promises to buy the office lunch.
Lilly walks in next. Lilly’s a little nicer. Lilly’s the other co-founder. She wears three sets of heels a day and sparkles at the shareholders. She squeezes Dezra’s arm as she says, in her sweetest voice, “Hey, girl. Can I hop on the computer for a sec? Just a sec!”
And Dezra slides over the next stool. Most of the in-house management systems are proprietary and don’t run on her personal laptop, a problem the contracted tech support keeps promising every two weeks that it will be fixed in the next update. Dezra’s access is limited to the one desktop on one of the two workbenches stretched wall to wall. Lilly checks her emails and Skypes with potential clients and college friends. Dezra spends the next two hours next to the dearly departed Robbie Grey, a CPA for a law-firm that went down with the old building. Someone who probably doesn’t exist anymore is yelling at him through his phone. He stares sullenly at his empty bench.
“I feel you,” she says to him.
But Robbie has never heard her and she doubts he hears her now. She pulls up her own phone to fit in what work she can until Lilly goes to brunch with more prospective clients. Dezra has checklists. Dezra is very good at check lists. She checks the copy she’s made of the office excel sheets. She checks her copy of the office calendar — the one she can actually access. The last one was locked to the person who used to have her job, and they never figured out how to get her in. Dezra checks the time, because she knows late morning is when the ghosts start really moving.
Steve blows in two hours later like a changing of the guard. Lilly glows happily when she returns. Steve often simmers with barely contained irritation. He hangs over Dezra’s shoulder to make sure she’s got the web portal open.
“Why did it take you so long to update the site?”
Dezra’s not the webmaster. She’s not actually sure who that actually is. “Lilly needed the computer.”
“Okay, but that had to be done! Why wasn’t it done?”
“…I could do it if I, er, had my own computer–”
Steve scowls. “We’ll talk about it.”
He leaves to take another call. Dezra stares blankly at Robbie. Robbie has his head on his desk, hands over his head, shielding himself from a coming impact.
“It’s okay. It’s over,” says Dezra, smiling weakly.
The dead man doesn’t smile back.
Dezra’s a project manager. Her job is to manage workflow. There’s a lot of flow to be managed, especially in a building where not everyone is strictly alive. There’s even more than she expects, because she’s also managing IT requests, client calls, manufacturing, distribution, tax prep, and now the web page. She codes email blasts. She schedules promotional events. She writes copy when no one else will, and rewrites it when Steve inevitably complains about it where he’s sure she can overhear him. She is bright and friendly, even after accidentally stepping through Joe Borghese one morning.
“Are you cold, hon?” asks Lilly, for once waiting for her in the office. “I can get a space heater in here.”
“I’m–” Joe Borghese is gazing worriedly out the window again. Robbie is having a quiet mental breakdown over calls in the corner. “I’m good. Did Steve say anything to you about getting another computer?”
“We’ll talk about it,” promises Lilly, who’s currently on the one in the office, “but in the meantime, I’ve got something really important.”
She hands you a package. It’s got ribbons on it and bright wrapping paper. It’s addressed to someone with the same last name as Lilly. There’s a ‘Happy Birthday’ sticker on the front.
“If you could just run this down to the drop box around the corner,” bubbles Lilly. “It’ll be a great way to test our mailing systems. Oh, and can you check the office mail on your way back? Oh, and I printed some copies in the lab — thank you so much. You’re such a rock star.”
Dezra has a degree in business administration, but nevermind all that.
Dezra hits the button for the man in the elevator. Dezra says hi to Brenda, who is alive and on shift, and Caroline, who is not alive but still on shift. It’s a cold morning, like it was the day everyone died. Dezra measures the shadow of the building as it stretches out over the payment. Is it longer than it should be? Dezra can’t tell. She sends off Lilly’s extremely important birthday gift. On her way back, she looks up and spots the silhouette of someone standing on the top floor of the building. They’re staggering along the railing, holding hands, looking down, gauging something.
Dezra swallows and looks away. She stares at her feet as she comes back through the glass doors to the glass building made of glass walls. It’s late morning. This was around when the building started to shudder and crumble. Dezra’s office is fine, but the ghosts aren’t. Caroline’s smiling face jitters in and out of focus behind Brenda. The man in the elevator is plastered against the far wall. Dezra hits his floor anyway, for all it matters. The doors open on nothing.
“You can go if you want,” says Dezra.
He just slowly drops his head into his hands.
Ghosts are rushing through the halls when Dezra checks the mailroom. It’s easy to tell them apart from the living this time of day. The living are just walking. A woman sprawls across the floor. Brent’s huddled under the desk. In the mailroom, Yasmin staggers with her hand along the wall, coughing viciously. The last Dezra sees of her is her long black ponytail, swallowed by the mailboxes.
The office common is lit in neon purple lights. This has nothing to do with the dead and everything to do with building management. They wanted to look modern. They wanted to be fun. It’s made to look like a bar, with stale beer on tap. Steve’s sitting on one of the stools. He stands up when Dezra walks in. A club remix of some twenty-year-old pop song plays softly over the loudspeaker. Steve smiles when she comes in, which is a good sign. He offers her one of the designer cookies from the specialty bakery on the second floor, which is an even better sign.
Then he asks, still smiling: “Where have you been?”
That’s when Dezra notices he’s been tapping his hand on the bar the whole time.
She swallows, accepting the cookie and the tactical error. “Lilly wanted me to–”
“Forget what Lilly wanted you to do. I need you here.”
Dezra holds up the mail and the print outs.
Steve rolls his eyes, but has the grace not to say out loud how pointless he considers the gesture. “I think it’s time we did your six month review.”
He conducts the review then and there, in the common area, with everyone from the other offices walking in and out while the ghosts crawl across the floor to avoid a memory of smoke. The list of complaints range from ‘doesn’t answer messages fast enough’ to ‘are you wearing perfume? Because if so, stop. No one likes it.’ Joe Borghese crawls through one of Dezra’s feet, she jumps.
“…and you need to be more focused,” says Steve, the end of a long list of complaints. “I just want you to be better. Do you think you can be better?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“You need to do better than that.”
“Okay, but you see them, right?” Dezra blurts out, pointing.
Steve pauses. He follows her finger. He looks straight at Joe Borghese, who’s trying to crawl for the doors, the neon lights cut straight through him.
“You mean all the dead people?” he asks, sounding like he does on his good days. “That’s what this is about?”
Dezra lets her arm drop and nods. She swallows a sharp sob of relief. Steve sits back down.
“I guess they are kind of a distraction,” Steve admits.
“A little,” says Dezra, in a clipped voice.
Then Steve sticks out his foot straight through Joe Borghese’s head. Joe Borghese doesn’t react. He’s too busy shielding himself against the rubble that must’ve fallen in the middle of the old floor.
“See?” says Steve, wiggling his foot around. “They can’t do anything. I know it’s a little weird, but you can just ignore them. It’s what everyone else does.”
Dezra looks around. Everyone else who’s not a running, crying, praying ghost is going about their day. They’re carrying coffee or they’re eating lunch or grabbing napkins. Not a single one of them is looking at a single one of the ghosts.
“Just like that?”
“‘Just like that,’” says Steve, with an ease more chilling than the ghost under his foot. “Dez, it’s fine. They’ve been dead for, like, thirty years.”
“Twenty one,” says Dezra, faintly.
“I don’t care!” Steve whips out his phone and walks away. “I get it. It takes some getting used to. Just don’t use them as an excuse next time, okay?”
Lilly’s waiting in the office, with a big pitying smile.
“Tough meeting?” she asks, like most of the floor hadn’t heard. Robbie’s holding his face and hyperventilating. Dezra can’t help but notice Lilly’s shoved her chair a little to the side to avoid him.
“I should check those client sheets…”
But Lilly’s sitting at the computer, and shows no sign of removing herself. “Thanks for doing that,” she says. It’s far past the point Dezra can bring herself to smile. “I just want you to know, I’m totally here for you, whatever you need.”
“Another work computer, maybe?”
“We’ll talk about it,” says Lilly.
Dezra goes to the restroom, sticks her knuckles in her mouth, and screams into it. No one will hear her. The club remix plays at top volume. She’s pretty sure this room used to be a stairwell in the old building plan, because sometimes she can just hear phantom feet rattling the floor outside the stall, almost in counterpoint to the thumping beat, trying to outrun the inevitable crush. Dezra can just about smell fire. Sometimes, Dezra can smell burning rubber and plastic and hair. She wishes she didn’t know that last one was hair.
Dezra counts her breaths. Lists, she thinks. Lists. She’s good at those. She thought she was good at those. She’ll make a new excel sheet. She’ll start bringing her own laptop. She’ll get a stronger prescription on her anti-anxiety meds. She’ll petition for a new client management system. She’ll stop thinking about the shadows on the roof.
Someone knocks on the bathroom stall.
“Are you still in there?”
Dezra looks up. She hadn’t heard the door open. It’s not one of her co-workers. “I’ll be out in a sec.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Then, after a second. “Whatever they’re paying you? It isn’t enough.”
“It’s okay to call out tomorrow.”
“I’m fine,” hiccups Dezra.
Pressure on the door, like someone’s leaning on it. “You should call out tomorrow.”
“Just do it.”
Dezra opens the stall just in time to see the back of a woman’s long ponytail vanish through the exit door.
“I have to go,” announces Dezra, when she gets back to the office.
Lilly’s still at the computer. “Oh, no. Dez. We still need you to–”
“I have to go,” repeats Dezra. She picks up her bag and leaves. A dark shape streaks by the window as she goes, in a heavy downward trajectory. She doesn’t stop to look. She’s seen it before.
She enters the lobby shoulder to shoulder with the fleeing ghosts and lawyers on their way to an afternoon smoke break. She notices Brenda glances back over her shoulder, sighs, shakes her head, and gets back to work. Caroline’s not visible anymore, but the black stain behind the security desk spreads out across the floor. A few of the lawyers discreetly step over it. They know. They all know. They just don’t want to think about it. They have work to do, after all.
Dezra calls out the next morning. She rolls over and sleeps in, for the first time in months she doesn’t dream about spreadsheets or breaking glass. She wakes up at noon the next day, and for once her heart isn’t trying to fly out of her chest.
She checks her phone. She’s got thirty text messages. This isn’t a surprise. The surprise is that the last one from Steve was at 10 AM.
It says: “ANSWER ME. NOW.”
The next one’s from her sister: “Hello?”
The one after that’s from a friend she hasn’t had a chance to talk to in five months: “Just saw. You OK?’
Then her mother: “Sweetie, can you call me?”
Then her mother again: “DEZRA R U OK????? PLZ TEXT US.”
Dezra calls Lilly, but her voicemail’s full.
Which is around the time Dezra decides maybe she should get online.
Her inbox is full of emails from the office building management. They say things like: FIRE ALARM PROTOCOL and LOCK DOWN IN EFFECT. A quick check on the news sites shows Dezra a bunch of aerials of the building itself.
The studio chat site is quiet. No one answers. No one’s signed on since morning. By 5 PM, the news feeds have updated:
It turns out, Robbie Grey wasn’t a CPA for the law-firm that’d gone under when the building fell. It turns out, Robbie was a CPA for the exact same start-up as Dezra. He’d been very much alive, and very much tired of people not noticing that. He’d come in that morning to express that opinion in a manner which required police barricades and Active Shooter warnings.
His photo hangs over the left shoulder of the reporters as she explains all of this. His professional headshot looks as sallow and baggy-eyed as he did the last time Dezra saw him, holding his head and shaking. Just behind the reporter, Dezra spots a young woman with a black ponytail duck under the police tape. The woman pauses, blinking as though she were seeing the sun for the first time in ages. Then she slips through the barricades like a shadow at dusk. Swallowed up like a shadow at dusk.
Dezra comes in to drop off her keys to the office four weeks later. Caroline’s sitting behind the newly installed metal detectors. The man is frowning in the elevator. Steve is pacing in the common area, texting. He doesn’t look up when Dezra walks past him.
The glass walls are boarded up. She can’t see down the hall anymore.
“Are you sure you can’t stay a little longer?” asks Lilly.
Lilly wears a bit more foundation than usual to hide her own exhaustion, but fashionable even in the clothes she wears to cope: a black pencil dress with a light grey brocade over the sleeves and hem. She has sharp red shoes to offset. Tasteful, though. Red like wine, not blood. They’ve obviously replaced the floorboards.
“You were a real rock star,” Lilly continues. “Did I ever tell you that?”
“You might have mentioned.”
“Sure you can’t stay?”
Lilly needed someone to show her how to use the spreadsheets. She’d never bothered to learn how. Dezra notices an owl-eyed new hire her approximate age sitting in the stool in the corner, where Robbie used to hold his head. There’s still only one computer on the workbench. Lilly’s perched in front of it, cheerfully typing into the chat even as she tries to look sad.
“No.” Dezra slides her keycard across the work bench and walks out, careful to move around Joe Borghese as she goes.
Steve steps into her path.
“Hi, Steve,” says Dezra.
She braces for either a blow out, or some forced cheer — but when Steve frowns, it’s slightly to her left, as his mouth moves silently.
“Bye, Steve,” says Dezra, exhaling for what felt like the first time in months.
She walks through him. It’s cold, but only for a moment. It’s not like he can do anything anymore. It’s an office where 1000 people died.
Well, it’s 1084 now — but after the first 1000 you really do start to lose count.
About the Author
Born in NYC, Alex Singer now lives along Long Island Sound with her wife, two cats, and too many SFF novels to count. She is the author of indie titles MINOTAUR, SONG OF THE BULLRIDER, the graphic novella SMALL TOWN WITCH. Her short stories have appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine, Utopia Science Fiction, and Apparition Literature. For more, visit her website at littlefoolery.com or twitter @sfeertheorist.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a jack of many trades, master of none. But seeing as she loves the rogue life, that’s ok with her. You can hear stories she’s narrated on all four Escape Artists podcasts, StarShipSofa, Glittership, and Asimov’s Science Fiction podcast or you can buy the audiobooks she’s narrated at Audible.com under the name Danielle Daly. You can also contact her on Twitter @danooli_dani or at danielledalyreads.com if you’d like her to read for you.