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Fiction Suspense

Who knew the human language could possess so many variations of pissing people off? 

Craik Corporation was never a very accommodating company. Its exterior was grey, the cubicles were uniform, and there seemed to be a stench of peanut butter wherever one went. Even the people who weren’t allergic to peanut butter felt like they were allergic to it after a certain period. To Carl, he felt as if he would suffocate to it. He never told anyone.  

His job, like everyone else’s, was to make people’s day worse through answering phone calls that went to the wrong place. They got all sorts of messages, from customers asking for a refund for a defunct article of clothing to emergency distress calls where a loved one’s life was in danger. Whenever a member of the company started, they were given a large manual that was six inches thick of paper that gave advice on how to irritate people. At first, Carl thought it was all a big exaggeration. If he wanted to read a thick book on how to irritate people, he would have chosen the Bible. But one look inside was like opening Pandora’s Box; once he started reading, he could go on forever.  

Phrases included: 

  • Can you repeat that, please? 
  • I’m sorry, can you repeat that one more time? I’m hard of hearing. 
  • I’m sorry? 
  • What do you want me to do about it? 
  • There’s only so much I can do. 
  • I would suggest taking it back a couple of notches.  
  • You’re being a bit hysterical, ma’am. 
  • Calm down, please. 
  • You’re acting like a child.  

Due to these phrases, Carl got used to people on the phone cursing at him, but all of that flew through one ear and out the other. Carl didn’t know exactly when he started to develop this inclination towards ignoring what people screamed at him; it just happened. He didn’t even know when he started working at Craik; he could imagine it was at least ten years ago, but twenty years also seemed like a viable option. Some of his coworkers had come and went over the years, but he just liked floating on the raft that the company had provided him, with steady pay and manageable hours. And he had distanced himself enough from the people who called him to ignore how these calls made him feel. When customers called him, he liked to think that it wasn’t people who were behind the line, but the phone.  

At 4:53pm on Friday night, just as he was getting ready to clock out for the weekend, he got one final call. Despite the rumbling in his stomach and the fatigue in his eyes, he reached out his right arm, which burned with a dull ache, and picked up the phone.  

“Hello, this is Carl,” he monotoned. “How I may I help you?” 

“Um, hello,” a female voice rang on the other end. “My name is Carol and I think a rabbit just ate my son.” 

Carl shook out of his stupor. His eyes bulged, and he begin to feel a light pain in his chest.  

“Excuse me?” he said, according to the six-inch manual. 

“A rabbit ate my son.” 

“A rabbit ate your son?” 

“Yes, a rabbit ate my son.” 

Perspiration sprung from Carl’s forehead. Some dripped onto the page of the manual. Carl’s eyes darted for a next available line. 

“Do you want me to do anything about it?” He prayed that the phone didn’t pick up the slight shake in his voice. 

It felt like hours before she responded. 

“No, I just want to talk to you about it. I’m sad.” 

Black spots overtook Carl’s vision. He grasped at the table for any sign of stabilization. This couldn’t be happening. It couldn’t. The phone couldn’t talk back. Why was it talking back?  

“My son was a beautiful boy. He always loved rabbits. It was a shame he had to die at the hands of one. It was a few weeks before his thirteenth birthday. We were going to give him a rabbit for his birthday, you see. We were sure he was going to love the gift.” 

“Ma’am, if you don’t mind, tone down on the hysterics, please. You’re being quite difficult,” The pain subsided a fraction in his chest. Carl exhaled. Maybe he could do this. 

“But I’m sad. You of all people would know. Your whole office smells like peanut butter. And I would know, I used to work there.” 

The pain in his chest turned nearly blinding. It was impossible to see clearly now. He grasped blindly on his desk, toppling his soup can of pens and knocking the stapler and lamp onto the floor. He heard the lightbulb explode for a second before the woman spoke again. 

“Are you okay, sir? Do you want me to continue?” 

Carl’s patience with his own body—and with the woman—had reached its limit. He had to get out of here—but where? Home? He barely remembered a single detail about his home. He barely remembered anything outside of Craik. What was going on? Why was he acting like this? 

Grasping onto the phone for dear life, Carl brought the phone to his sweaty mouth. “Yes, ma’am? Please continue. Sorry for the interruption.” 

“I’m sorry about disturbing you. It’s just that I felt quite terribly about the rabbit eating my son, and I thought you would have some sympathy.” 

Suddenly, Carl’s heart and body quieted. His vision cleared. His breathing was still shaky, but it no longer felt as if he was suffocating in his office. He looked around, and found that the manual was all that remained of his messy desk. As he touched it, he felt a wave of relief course through his veins. 

“Well, ma’am,” Carl chirped, coming back down to reality, “There’s simply nothing I can do at this time. I’m sorry to let you down. Have a good day.” 

Carl heard an audible sigh on the other end of the line. “Have a good day. See you around, Carl.” 

A dull ringing was being emitted from the other end of the phone. The call was over. Carl could go home.  

With an intense degree of caution, Carl pushed himself up from his desk using his hands. He grabbed his suitcase, straightened his tie, and pivoted towards the elevator that was just down the hallway. He put one foot in front of the other until he was finally safe inside the cocoon that was the elevator.  

He glanced up at the flashing lights indicating what floor they were on. Each light flashed red—seven...six...five...four...three...two...one. When the doors opened, Carl made good use of his feet and walked through the front lobby.  

Carl opened the door to Craik Corporation and collapsed dead. He was found by his coworkers the following morning. 

July 23, 2022 03:41

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1 comment

15:44 Aug 01, 2022

Hi Ally, I have really enjoyed this story. It is amazing how it easily flows from a feeling of funny to a tragedy. Quite an unecpected (and sad) end. And it also puts under the spotlight the constant stress felt by people dealing with phone calls at work,from hospitals to call centers in general. You never know what is waiting for you from the other side of the receiver. So, nice story, really. And if you get some free time, please feel free to read/comment my recent story.


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