The quiet winter storm reminded Pamela Thornton that nothing screams like silence.
She stood at attention before a tall window in the conference room at the law offices of Weimar & Dollop. Outside the falling snow looked a pale gray, almost ashen, except for a few flurrying white cones beneath the arcs of the parking lot lamps. She smiled softly to herself. The whole lot was covered in a few inches of snow, and every vehicle looked just about the same, with their dull panels of gray metal. Her bug, meanwhile, stood out like a light in itself, coated in freshly buffed lime green. For all that, it belied the deep, thrice-black darkness which rested in its owner's soul. One simple idea kept Pamela afloat: that, in an office full of worker drones, she was unique. Singular. Alone and not lonely.
Pam couldn’t tell whether she’d been standing there for a few minutes or a few hours. Her legs were still fresh, but her mind was tired. With some effort, she came out of her mind and back into her body. Silence fell away like a sheet from a wardrobe, revealing a shrill, meaningless din. She turned to look upon her coworkers—the pudgy, Christmas-sweatered lot of them, excepting the guest of honor.
A man with sweat-stained armpits and a horrible mustache met her eye. “Shall we?” He gestured to the conference table, around which eight tupperware containers were meticulously arranged.
Pam smiled, but her words were barbed. “I think we can wait for Janet.” The jingling of the bells on her sweater undercut her authority only slightly.
“Could be she’s trapped in the storm or some such,” mused Lisa, who had slick black hair like a cockatiel’s crest and probably thought it gave her a youthful edge.
Trapped in the storm? No. No, no, no, that simply won’t do.
It wasn’t that Pam cared much for Janet; in truth, they were nearer mortal enemies than friends. Which is why it was so very important that Janet show up to the office cookie exchange. It had all been for her. If Janet didn’t show, then the whole night would be a waste of time, and wasting time is what ordinary people do.
“Where is she?” someone asked.
Lisa answered. “She’ll be coming straight from her boy’s game. The Harvard one, Quincy.”
“Good for him,” someone said. The group mumbled in agreement, then drifted off into their own little sub-conversations. That left Pam with Lisa.
“On a basketball scholarship,” Pam snapped politely, effectively undercutting the young man's achievement.
“Still,” Lisa said. “Harvard. Jan has raised herself an impressive little family there. Sorry, an impressive big family. Quincy’s about six-nine, six-ten now. Wicked smart. And handsome… he’ll be beating the girls off with a stick.”
A cold anger set Pam’s jaw. “One compliment was sufficient, Lisa.”
This wasn’t ideal, but at least Janet would hear the stories Monday morning. In any case, Pam couldn’t hold the room forever, nor bear another second listening to praise for the woman’s family. She cleared her throat to gather attention. “Alright. I suppose we can begin.”
The coworkers—paralegals, secretaries, and a couple of clerks—spread out around the table, standing by their tupperware offerings. They each looked to Pam trepidatiously, uncertain of how to proceed.
“Let’s go clockwise. We’ll start with Greg.” She looked pointedly at the bald man to her left. She would go last, of course. The grand finale. The piece de resistance, she thought. She wasn’t like other women; she knew a little French.
Greg looked embarrassed before he even opened the container, which was unnecessary, because nobody expected much from him. He passed his container around, and everyone added a sample to their tasting plate. He’d gone for a simple chocolate chip, but managed to bake a paradox instead: cookies burnt to a crisp on the bottom, yet apparently uncooked in the middle. The man next to him, with the mustache and the sweat-stained pits, achieved something similarly avant-garde with the snickerdoodle. Pam waited until they were chuckling at themselves to laugh in their face, loud and hard.
Dan the Man surprised everyone with a delicious homemade cream-cheese frosting, but the crumbly sugar cookie beneath lacked imagination. It may even have been store-bought, which Pam decided should cost him a few points. Not that this was a competition. Not to anyone else. Not really.
Lisa, Liza, and the other Lisa, who everyone forgot about… bless their hearts. They all attempted a certain lemon bar, the recipe for which had been printed in Sunday’s paper—the Dear Abby column. They’d all had the idea independently, but perhaps they should have worked together. Lisa’s topping was too tangy, Liza’s too sweet. And the other Lisa’s crust seemed to be some newfangled species of particleboard.
Penultimate was the appropriately named Bertha. Pam thought if anyone was going to give her a run for her money, it was Bertha. But all the broad woman revealed was a good macaroon. Not a great macaroon. Not a mouthwatering one. Good. Pam hid a self-satisfied smile.
Then it was her turn. Giddy with excitement, she caressed the smooth corners of her tupperware lid. Her coworkers had no idea what a treat they were in for.
Until Janet walked in and spoiled everything.
All the others were perfectly happy to see her. Janet was tall, and jovial, and red-cheeked from the cold, like the mother from a classic Christmas movie. Her tacky sweater was wrapped in a string of multicolored lights which twinkled as she moved to the table and set down a tupperware container identical to Pam’s.
Pam’s knuckles turned white. She caught herself shaking and flushing red just before anyone else could. “Janet! Nice of you to join us.”
“Merry Christmas Pam! Wow, look at all these sweet eats!”
Don’t rhyme at me, you bitch. “Uh-huh. Let’s see what you brought,” Pam blurted. She reminded herself how confident she had been a moment ago, but that did little to calm her now. Her forehead dripped with sweat.
“Well, alright. I hope you like them, I threw this all together last minute.”
Janet opened her container and tilted it, pointing it around the room for all to see. The cookies were a marvel. A sweet buttery base. Indulgent white chocolate chunks. Playful cranberry accents. They were tasteful. Refined. A cookie that didn’t look down on its audience, nor clamber for their respect. The thinking woman’s chocolate chip. Pam held one in her hand, inspecting it incredulously.
It was the very same cookie she had chosen, only better executed.
In that moment, Pam passed away, and the earth exploded with such force that the solar system was propelled into a black hole, which by some unlikely chain of events caused the universe to collapse, but don’t worry, because it was born again, and then a bunch of dust suddenly appeared in the nothing and spun around itself until there was a planet very much like ours, and volcanoes erupted, and monkeys climbed out of trees, and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, and then there was a woman named Pam who worked at a law firm called Weimar & Dollop who glared at a cookie because she hated a woman named Janet almost as much as she hated herself.
Something in Pam’s mind slipped and crashed, like a stack of stones blown over by a gust of wind.
Pam crushed the cookie in her hand. Crumbs fell between her fingers. “Last… minute….”
“Yeah,” said Janet. “No good?”
“Yeah… no… good….” Pam repeated dumbly, for she no longer had a grasp on the proper shape of words. In point of fact, there was no longer any such person as Pamela Thornton. Only an ordinary body, a screaming silence, and a thrice-black darkness.