's 2018 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Delcat

The coffee is flat drip, the remains of a regional variant called Sweater Weather, pricier than the usual break room fare. Someone’s birthday, she thinks vaguely. She signed a card a few days ago, but she’s coming back from her weekend, she missed the party. She prefers it that way, likes that there might be cake in her future that she hadn’t planned for until five minutes ago. It’s the closest she gets to gambling. She brews it straight into the cup, one of the ancient, unknowable mugs of the hand-me-down army that lines the formica counter. There’s the high school basketball mascot, there’s the floral print of ambiguous quality, there’s the job in-jokes gifted by friends and family. The one she is using is easing into its teens and says “THERE IS NO I IN TEAM”, with a graphic of an eye instead of the letter. It is a stylized drawing, belonging to a brand that was the subject of intense zeitgeist several years before, and looks like this:

She takes the cup back to her desk and opens a drawer. She starts to reach into it, then stops, nerveless. She is never sure what will be in it, and she has a bad feeling about this week. On the best weeks, of course, it’s empty, and stays that way. She has gotten used to some of the patterns that go by on an average day more than she likes. Sacks, quite frequently. There are a lot of things that can be done with a sack. She will never know which of them has been done. Impartiality is critical in this line of work, and she’s gotten to be just that--impartial. But something crackles along her spine, and her hand lingers on the flimsy metal of the knob.

She breathes, long and slow, and turns the mug in her hands. It warms her fingertips slowly, and the jitters fade. You get used to it, she understands, the same way farmers get used to pigshit, just take your time and the worst will be over before you know it.

She checks the segmentation requested between items for this order and exhales wearily. A short sequence between pings, and a specific one--exactly eight minutes and thirty seconds.

She turns on her recorder and opens the drawer.

She retrieves and places on a white platform nine small, sharp pieces of broken glass. They are colored in white and blue, ridged on the edges.

She thumbs the alarm onto her phone. Eight minutes thirty. She drinks her coffee.

The alarm goes off. She puts the broken glass into her outbox.

It only takes a few minutes to get a ping. She reaches into the drawer again.

A tenth piece of the same glass.

Oh hell. One of these.

These are even harder to get used to, she’s been told. Some of them earn a reputation--the time Evan from three cubicles down and someone who had left long before she joined had almost come to blows over three weeks of nothing but driftwood, arguing whether the proper stitchwork was of pirates (the sure bet in the office pool) or of birds (the long shot).

She places the glass on the white platform. She resets the alarm.

The alarm goes off. She puts the tenth piece of glass in her outbox.

They aren’t actually supposed to talk about work to each other, of course, but the higher-ups don’t mind. The weeks can be very long, and it gives them something to do, keeps them happy, and it’s harmless enough. No one’s really meant to guess that the victim in the story is the goldfish, or a blind circus performer, after all. She supposes that maybe some people do--she has suspicions about Evan, who keeps wire puzzles at their desk and was the only one betting on birds, however much they claim now it was a joke--but they’re paid enough not to.

The ping is longer in coming this time.

She opens the drawer.

She retrieves and places on the white platform a sample of carpet, medium shag, brown, with dried red stains on it.

She resets the alarm.

Three minutes tick by without the prompt lighting, then four, and she sneaks out her phone. This feels like a long one. The best segmenting sequences have some leeway, and everyone argues about what’s ideal. In her opinion, the longer, the better. Some people complain about getting bored if it goes longer than a half-hour. Some people don’t have eight seasons of an obscure fictional baking competition anime to catch up on because no one in their chat group will shut up about it.

Maybe she can fit in an episode. Maybe they’re really stuck on the other end, and--

The second she opens the app, the light goes off, and she mutes it hastily and irritably.

She opens the drawer.

She retrieves four teeth, three of them human.

She sets them on the white platform.

She resets the alarm.

She sighs, long and hard, the novelty of being back at work after the weekend already wearing off. There are so many other things she could be doing. That’s the hell of it, isn’t it?

What the hell is there to do in eight minutes, thirty seconds?