I felt a tickle on my brow and I nervously wiped away the trickle of sweat that had built up there. It felt like butterflies were whipping up a hurricane in my stomach as I sat in my office chair. I peeked over the low wall of my cubicle and looked around, but the only people I saw walking around were a few of my coworkers headed to the break room. I swallowed and rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants as I sat back down.
Reaching out to my keyboard, I continued to stab quickly at my keys. Line upon line of code began to scroll across my screen. My project was due before the end of the work day and I was determined to get it done, whatever it took.
My typing slowed and my brow scrunched in confusion as I stared at the blocks of syntax in front of me. What was I programming? I glanced at a second screen next to me that listed the parameters my project manager had given me to code, but none of it seemed to make sense. I squinted at the document and tried to read the text, but the letters seemed to take on a life of their own, wiggling and dancing in place so that I couldn’t focus on any one word. I shook my head. I’d been staring at screens for too long.
Reaching for my mug, I attempted to take a sip, but found it empty. I groaned and stood, shuffling out of my cubicle towards the break room to refill my coffee.
As I entered, three of my coworkers looked in my direction. None of them spoke. I wasn’t exactly the most popular programmer in the building. They did, however, continue to stare at me unnervingly as I went to the counter and pulled out the decanter from the coffee machine and poured the steaming liquid out into my mug. I didn’t bother with sugar or cream and took a sip, grimacing at the burnt taste of coffee that had been sitting on the warming plate for far too long. I wished, not for the first time, that the company would invest in one of those brew-by-the-cup machines.
I sighed and turned to shuffle back to my cubicle, but not before glancing at my coworkers again. None of them had moved, nor had they spoken since I entered. They all stared at me, their eyes following me as I walked away. I waved at them awkwardly and walked out. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I looked back over my shoulder. I couldn’t see them anymore, but I could hear odd whispering drifting out the door.
I made it back to my desk and flopped into my chair. Leaning back, I reached up to rub my eyes, groaning in exhausted frustration. I sat back up and just as my fingers touched my keyboard, I heard a noise behind me. Startled, I jumped and spun in my seat, eyes wide.
My project manager stood in the small opening of my cubicle in the same drab khaki slacks and dark blue button up work shirt he wore every day. A dark red satin tie dangled from his neck and I couldn’t help but think it looked like blood cascading down as if someone had slit his throat.
I cringed. “Yeah Keith, what’s up?” I tried to correct my posture so it didn’t look like I was trying to crawl away from him and attempted to smile. I don’t think I succeeded.
Keith’s expression didn’t change and he didn’t move. I leaned forward to see if I could see his chest moving to prove he was breathing, then jumped as he chuffed and wiggled his thick mustache that hid most of his mouth. “Have you finished that work I gave you?” He raised his arm slowly to look at his watch, then returned his empty gaze back to me. “It’s almost four and I expect to have it in by five.”
“Uh,” I glanced at my screen, but it had changed to a screen saver of a dragon that flew back and forth, blowing fire across a black background. I quickly tapped a key to bring my work back up and nodded, turning back to Keith. “Yeah! I should have it done. I think I could have it finished in another 45 minutes!”
Keith didn’t move. I sat uncomfortably, adjusting in my seat as he finally nodded and began to move away. “Good. The big boss wants you to send it to him personally and meet him in his office.” He disappeared down the corridor of cubicle walls.
Sweat began to build on my brow again and I wiped it away quickly, turning to move on to the next line of code. It didn’t take long for me to get lost in my typing as I hammered away at the keys. As my brain went into work mode, all other thought was pushed aside and the minutes passed by without notice.
By the time I got to my last few lines of code, my coffee had grown cold. I took a sip anyway, my face scrunching in disgust at the taste of it and looked at the time.
“Oh, fuck!” I didn’t even have time to debug. I let out a stream of curses as my fingers flew across the keys as I compiled the code and zipped it up to email to my boss. I hoped upon everything that I’d had a good programming day and hadn’t made any stupid rookie mistakes or misspelled anything.
My back felt damp and cold from the nervous sweat as I pressed send. I quickly got up and started making my way to the elevator at the other end of the building. The big boss was a couple of floors up. The thought occurred to me that it was a little odd to be called to his office directly after finishing a project. Normally, my work would be sent to the team for review, then to the project manager, who would then send it on to whomever needed it. I don’t think I have ever even actually seen any other managers beyond Keith, much less executives. This fact itched at my mind like an annoying ant I couldn’t slap away.
The hairs on the back of my neck began to tickle again and I glanced around. Several coworkers had lifted in their seats enough that I could see their eyes poking above their cubicle walls and they all watched me as I marched to the elevator. I shivered and tried to look away, but my eyes caught sight of other faces peering out from the cubicles I was walking past, many of them leaning back from their computers to watch me pass.
“What the hell?” I whispered under my breath. Why was everyone being so weird today? Did I forget to brush my hair? Do I have something on me I haven’t noticed yet? My steps quickened and I stared hard at the elevator, determined not to look at anybody else. It felt like the corridor stretched on forever, but I finally made it and I jammed my thumb onto the button to go up.
I refused to turn around, but my hair was still standing on end as the bell of the elevator dinged and the doors slowly slid open, creaking slightly. I should let maintenance know they might need to grease the doors a bit. I quickly stepped inside and kept my eyes down as I turned and pushed the button for the boss’s floor.
The doors began to close and at the last second I looked up only to swallow a scream and jump backwards, bumping against the back wall of the elevator as Keith’s face filled my vision. He stood just outside the doors of the elevator staring at me as they closed, finally blocking my view of him. My heart hammered in my chest and I took several deep breaths. I could feel the lift beginning to rise, the ropes creaking overhead. Was this elevator always this creepy, or is it just me? What is wrong with me today? I closed my eyes and sighed, trying to get control again and slow my heartbeat and breathing.
I glanced at my watch. 4:53 pm. A sense of dread washed over me. I began to fidget, my weight shifting from foot to foot and my fingers began to pick at each other. My thoughts turned back to why the boss wanted to see me. I hoped I hadn’t screwed something up. I enjoyed my job. It wasn’t my dream job, but programming has been my life and I loved doing it no matter what it was I had to program. True, the office life was a little… weird, but I didn’t really care about that as long as I could feel the joy of creating something useful. There was something blissful about writing something from nothing then seeing it all come together and work.
The elevator stopped and the doors opened slowly, creaking in that sad way. I stepped out and was greeted by a receptionist who was on the phone. I stood patiently waiting until she was done with her call and looked around the lobby. A few leather chairs stood at one end, flanked by fancy looking end tables topped with pots growing some sort of fern. To the other side of the room was a matching leather couch with an abstract art installation clinging to the wall above it.
Something about the art bothered me. It appeared to be made of long, twisted metal pieces and the longer I looked at it, the more it seemed to twist further and begin to slither.
“How can I help you?”
I snapped my attention back to the receptionist who stared at me questioningly, unaware of the seemingly living metal on the wall next to her. “Oh, uh, yeah,” I began to shift my weight back and forth nervously again. “I am here to see Mr. Thuller. He asked to see me after I sent him my project.”
“Have a seat.” She picked up the phone and dialed an extension. I could barely hear her whispered remarks as I walked to the chairs, far away from that twisted metal art.
Bouncing my leg nervously, I sat with my eyes to the floor studying the repeating pattern of the luxury rug that filled most of the available area. I wiped my sweaty hands on my pants again, trying to keep them dry. The last thing I wanted was to be expected to shake the boss’s hand with clammy moisture clinging to me.
I sighed a breath of relief as the phone rang and the receptionist motioned for me to enter the large wooden doors to the left of her desk. I had to trust that my passion as a programmer got me through all the hard work I put in to get this project done quickly. Straightening my posture, I opened the door and attempted to have an air of professionalism and confidence as I approached the large desk at the end of the big room. I balked at the massiveness of the room. It could easily fit six cubicles in it. I guess that’s what comes with the power of being so high up the pay chain.
For the size of the room, I was amazed at how empty it was. There was the large desk with two chairs in front of it along with a couple of shelves that held only a few books and some knick knacks. Behind the desk was a window wall, but there were pale curtains drawn across them blocking the view and diffusing the early evening light. It cast a sort of gloom over the room.
I sat in one of the seats next to the desk. Mr. Thuller sat there, staring at one of the three screens in front of him. He was typing, and I waited quietly so as not to interrupt his thought. He didn’t seem especially intimidating. Mr. Thuller appeared to be a middle-aged man with a receding hairline. Not youthfully fit, but athletic as if he might be one of those guys you see running in the early morning before work. He made a few more keystrokes, his finger coming off the period key in a flourish as he turned to look at me and smiled. His eyes were sharp and intelligent, but something about his smile made me uneasy.
“Good to see you, Ms. Larson. I understand you were tasked to finish a big project for one of our clients today. How did it go?”
My mouth felt dry and I quickly licked my lips. “I, um… I think it went well. I did e-mail it to you as requested.” Oh, please work. Please work. Please work. My fingers picked at my pants at the knee, trying to keep my leg from bouncing.
“Let’s have a look then!” I couldn’t see the screens, but I watched as Mr. Thuller navigated his mouse across the desk and typed in a few things. He stopped and started reading, scrolling through what I could only imagine was all of my code. I crossed my fingers that it all looked good. “It appears to include everything we needed. Have you run it and debugged it yet?”
My face fell. “I’m sorry, sir. I ran out of time, but I am happy to stay late and make sure it’s all good to send tomorrow!”
His eyes sparkled and he grinned. My stomach dropped. Something felt very wrong. “Oh, it’s okay, Ms. Larson. We can test it here. I’m sure we’ll find it works just fine.” As he finished the last sentence, I cringed as his voice seemed to twist like the metal in the lobby, screeching slightly in my ears. I closed my eyes against the sound, but when I opened them again I scrambled up out of my seat, knocking it to the ground.
Where Mr. Thuller had sat behind the desk was some sort of… thing. It’s lines shifted and warped and I couldn’t seem to quite see it’s full shape as it stared at me with dark, bottomless eyes. I froze in its gaze and felt myself go numb. Lights, like stars, seemed to whip by in the center of those dreadful, unblinking eyes. A tear slipped down my cheek and I felt my heart would pound right out of my chest.
That deep, metallic voice grated against my ears as it laughed. “Good job, Ms. Larson. You have completed another day of hard work. I’ll see you again tomorrow.”
I managed to pull my eyes away from the horrific depth of its stare and watched as its fingers came down on the keyboard, hitting the shortcut to run the program on its screen. I screamed as I felt the world around me warp and twist and I clawed at my ears, trying to block that grating laughter. I felt sick and I squinted my eyes closed, feeling the floor drop beneath me and for just a moment I was suspended in space.
There was a long moment of silence and calm. I opened my eyes. I felt a tickle on my brow and I nervously wiped away the trickle of sweat that had built up there. It felt like butterflies were whipping up a hurricane in my stomach as I sat in my office chair…