As time inched closer to 5 o’clock, the ambient keyboard clicks on the accounting floor scattered and slowed. I fired off a few email replies and slid back my headset, rested it around my neck and rubbed my eyes until I saw spots.
I had no real problems with this job during my five months at Goldleaf Bank, only that the place was so colorless and dull that I felt myself turning more and more into a potted plant. And an artificial plant at that, since my cube was flooded with cold hospital lighting with not a window in sight to remind me that I was not permanently in white collar purgatory.
I had once tried to decorate my cube with homemade pieces from art school, but that was met with a passive aggressive email from our boss Cecelia, whose hair was always pulled back a bit too tight and seemed to own a pair of sensible heels in every shade of beige. We just think it does not quite jive with the bank’s long renowned conservative image, but we can certainly utilize your creativity somehow, I think! I am certain the best way the company who scoffed at my art could think to use my creativity would be using my pottery as a paperweight in a stuffy corner office. The only one who I could really share these feelings with was Nora.
Nora and I did not spend our time at the water cooler prattling on about the stock market or the caucus, or the current sale on patio furniture at Big Lots. With us, the conversation jumped from dirty jokes to stoner flicks to ranking each other’s Hollywood girl crushes. She began working as an assistant in the accounting office just a year or so before me, so I looked up to her professionally and personally. When she got promoted and I became her understudy, so to speak, we clicked instantly, and we have been throwing paper airplanes over our shared cubicle wall ever since.
Nora was skilled in botany, design, and drinking dry red wine. Since my choices in décor were a bit ostentatious for stuffed-shirt Cecelia, today Nora was kind enough to share fresh cut peachy tulips from her garden so my desk would not be so sad. She also had moody purple orchids on her desk that could nearly reach the top of the wall to peek over at me.
“Becky, I think my eyes are about to fall out my face,” Nora stood up and stretched her arms high, then lightly fluffing her thin chestnut hair. “You still coming over tonight?”
“Depends, are you going to keep trying to put me to work for you?” I teased her. Not only was Nora a botanist before switching lanes like me, but she also handcrafted her own perfumes on the side. I had been lucky enough to sample a few of her finished concoctions, but the idea of helping with the process made me nervous.
My medium of expression felt like primitive etchings compared to her intricate alchemy, heating and cooling, rendering and reducing. Nora, like myself, really had no one else to share her craft with, so she had been hinting at and hoping for a partner in crime with her fanciful fragrances for several weeks.
“Uhhhh, yes!” Nora giggled, draping her arms across our cube wall. “Come on, Becky, I do not know what you are so afraid of, it will be so much fun! It will be like following a recipe, just like making homemade pizzas last week.”
“Yeah, except you cannot fuck up pizza,” I replied with a gentle smirk as I clocked out and began packing my purse. I spoke a little too loudly, as our neighboring coworker cleared her throat sharply at my language. Nora and I shared a knowing look and a muffled snort.
“Let’s go girl, it is finally Friday, and all I want to do now is chill out with my people, and maybe make some magic,” Nora winked at me. We nearly simultaneously swung our purses over our shoulders as we headed down to the basement parking garage and far away from the dreary, grey, absurdly named Goldleaf Bank.
“Do you want red or white wine?” Nora called out behind an open cabinet, still in a turquoise pencil skirt and sheer white ruffled blouse, her mousy hair now in a messy bun and bare feet patting along the kitchen tiles. I stood up from her chaise lounge and smoothed my chocolate brown sheath dress. I popped my head into the kitchen.
“That depends, which one will get me drunk faster?” I quipped back, to which Nora let out a howl.
“Ha! Now you’re asking the right questions!” She generously poured for each of us half a bottle of cabernet so deeply crimson it was almost black. As I brought the stemless glass to my lips the wine kissed my nose with dark cocoa and blackberries. Nora took a carefree gulp and started towards her study with me close behind.
“I am so excited you finally decided to be my partner in crime,” Nora chuckled as we entered her workspace.
Wall to wall cherry oak bookcases flaunted overflowing flowerpots, aging oils, books and tools, and intricate empty glass bottles waiting patiently for their turn to house the next concoctions. Positioned on a faux fur rug was a heavy antique desk in the center of the study strongly resembling a freakish Frankenstein tea cart strewn with dried spices, alembics hanging over twisting tubes, Bunsen burners and florist shears. Nora glided over to the wall and slipped down a few reference books, which at second glance seemed to be her own handwritten journals.
“This one should be fun. I had a request put in from the VP for his wife as a gift! Apparently, she is hooked on these sultry, woodsy scents—the envy among trophy wives these days.” She flipped through a notebook as she walked back to the desk, and a single slip of paper slid out of the folds and feathered down to the rug. “I do not play with those recipes nearly enough, so we will both go on an adventure I suppose.”
I set my wine down carefully on the desk and reached for a particularly striking opaque perfume bottle on the shelf. It felt slightly heavier in my hands than the others.
“May I?” I asked her.
Nora had busied herself grinding star anise in her mortar and pestle. “Be my guest,” she chirped over her shoulder.
I lifted the sapphire stopper on the bottle and lifted it to my nose. A potent mix of bright, powdery gardenia and fresh tennis balls took me aback. “Whew! No offense Nora, but this one smells straight up like old lady. To each their own, I guess.” I swirled the bottle a few times and heard a faint rattle against the glass. “What is inside this one, something new you do to protect the scent?” Suddenly I heard a sharp clink, and I turned to see Nora squeezing the mortar down into the desk, her eyes gleaming at me not quite with anger but with intense interest. My skin felt instantly cold.
“That is my grandmother’s perfume,” she stated. I must have I crossed an unforeseen boundary line, so I apologized.
“Oh god, Nora, I had no idea. This has to be so special to you,” I said as I began to gingerly close the bottle.
“No no, don’t be sorry, I was actually looking forward to sharing this with you.” She left the mortar and picked up a long pair of tweezers. She took the bottle from me and reached inside. Suddenly on the other end of the tweezers was a tattered leathery finger with a golden wedding band hanging by fleshy ribbon
“Jesus Fuck, Nora!” I gasped. “What the hell is that? Why—why do you have this!” I stumbled backwards and smacked my shoulder blades on the bookshelf behind me. “Fuck, I don’t understand! What are you doing?”
“I wish you were not so upset, there is nothing wrong,” she looked at me with an oddly kind, furrowed brow. “This is simply another memory I wanted to show you. Except this one I made from scratch.” She let go of the tweezers and the finger plopped back inside the bottle, stirring the scent swiftly back into the air, the scent that now sickened me in an all-new way. “She was already dead when I took this, I did not hurt anyone if that is what you are on about.”
“What do you mean? Who is she?” I could not take my growing eyes off the perfume bottle in her hands. She set it down. I still did not look away.
“Grandma Margaret, my mother’s mother. She has been gone for almost three years now. She was so lively and fashionable in her time. I looked up to her, and I mourned her hard when she passed. Her signature perfume stopped being produced when I was still a little girl, so when she died, it seemed almost like her scent died with it.
“Do not get me wrong though, it stayed alive in my mind, in my olfactory nerves, like an imprint. Did you know that some of your first memories as a baby are rooted in smell? Like the smell of your security blanket or your mother’s milk? And it is proven that scent is the strongest trigger for memory? But even with all my training, I could not replicate the scent.
“Then I remembered, perfume smells different on every person, it interacts differently with every pattern of DNA. To replicate the smell of the perfume on her, I needed her. This is like recreating and bottling memories, like my own museum. You do not understand, I was excited to share this with you…”
“Your own museum or mausoleum, Nora? Do you see how crazy this is?” I shrieked, then I instantly regretted the question when I saw her face darken in a way I had never seen before as she advanced on me purposefully.
“You know Becky? I had hoped of all people, you could appreciate my art,” she drifted off, glimpsing at her reflection in the shears. She advanced upon me. “I suppose my secret has to remain just that, a secret, for a little while longer.”
She lunged forward and sunk the scissors inwards and upwards through my abdomen as I pleaded breathlessly to her. The thick blades ate through my skin, only slightly catching on the threads of my dress as they soaked with blood. She snatched the shears back through my flesh, and I clutched at my stomach through the warm, sticky mess.
I stumbled for something, anything to steady myself as my brain caught up to my pain. I clutched for the chair and only grasped air as my knees buckled and I crumbled into a heap of meat and bone on the rug. My mouth went dry and my fingers numbed as she knelt beside me to pick up a fallen slip of paper. As she studied the note, a sideways smile stitched its way across her face.
A sharp ring overtook my ears, and I could not hear what she was saying to me, but I barely made out this from her lips.
“Don’t worry Becky, I will keep you.”
She turned over the paper to share with me an etching of a finger with a gold wedding band. Inscribed above it alongside several indecipherable measurements were the words “Grandma Margaret.” She set the slip on the desk and reached down for me. I thought maybe this was just a warning or a test, Nora would save me for her plans.
Then she stretched out my index finger and rested it between the jaws of the scissors.