She dreamed about Fox again. He didn’t seem entirely human with his long, slender limbs, narrow hips, and with a bit of imagination, she could almost see pointy ears under that shock of red hair.
“One day you’ll return to the hidden world and leave me here,” she half-joked.
He just laughed.
Engaged, engaged, wedding, traveling, having the time of their life. Looking at her Facebook feed, Karen felt like everyone and their mother were part of a worldwide living-the-dream conspiracy. Her glance fell on the ads.
Are you at peace with yourself? 20 tips to overcome negative thoughts. Find your inner peace. The power of positive thinking. How to deal with toxic people? 5 reasons why you are beautiful. 10 reasons why you are perfect just the way you are (& don’t believe anyone telling you otherwise!!).
Why do I have all this shit in my feed? I don’t even like such pages.
Before work she jumped down to shop for groceries. She was the only customer this early in the morning, so she finished real quick and was packing the veggies in plastic bags at the checkout counter, lost in thoughts.
“Smile, and the world smiles with you,” the cashier beamed at her.
He pouted in a mockery of a sad face. “Why so grumpy on this beautiful day?”
She squeezed out a smile. “No, I… I’m fine, thanks.” She gathered her things in a haste and left.
Her cubicle was around the middle of the hall. It was a converted warehouse, with the white paint peeling off the cement walls, partitioned to rows upon rows of cubicles. Hers was barren of pictures of family or pets. She saw no point in trying to make it look cozier. She heard Kevin nearby, talking to someone on that soothing voice of his. He was good at this stuff.
The day went by quickly (with unusually few pissed-off callers this morning, thankfully); she almost didn’t notice it was nearly one. Karen logged off and went to the kitchen. She hoped Kevin would join her soon. He was the only one at the firm she’d found a common voice with so far.
She was waiting at the microwave when Amy and Chris from accounting came in. She tensed immediately.
“Oh, hi, Karen,” tall, blonde Amy called out. “Come, give us a group hug, honey.”
The microwave pinged. Karen shot a longing glance at it.
Amy sighed. “Why are you so grouchy all the time?”
Chris put a hand on her arm. “Amy, please.”
She held up her hands. “I’m sorry. I just… I really don’t need all these bad vibrations in my life right now.”
“Still, you don’t have to be so offensive.” Chris turned to Karen. “Everything alright with you?”
“Yes, I…” she spotted Kevin above Chris’ shoulder, watching them. He looked straight at her and shook his head barely perceptibly.
“You know I have some really great tricks to find your inner balance, if you are interested,” Chris offered. “There are meditational techniques to block the negative energy flow.”
“Thanks, um. Maybe later?”
She looked hurt. “Oh. Okay. Care to join in a group hug first? Amez? Come on guys, let’s generate some good vibes.”
Karen went. She had a feeling she’d better.
I was thinking about you, I’m on hols traveling around India. ADORE the ethnic flavor!! You’d LOVE it here. I also landed this job as a traveling writer for Lonely Planet; it’s a dream come true. So happy!!! ☺ How are you? Any traveling plans?
A handful of postcard-snapshots followed; sunset over the Ganghes, beach party in Goa, etc.
Karen sat staring at the screen. She knew Stacey didn’t do it on purpose. She didn’t mean to rub her privileged life in others’ faces; it was just the way she was. They used to be close a few years back, but lately Karen had to fumble for things to talk about with her.
She glanced at her phone. She still had Fox as wallpaper. He seemed to be watching her with those stormcloud eyes of his. They had good four years.
What was she supposed to tell her? Everything is glitters and unicorns farting rainbows. Thanks for asking. Stacey would prefer an answer like that probably.
After a few minutes of thinking, she typed, ‘Awesome! Sounds fun.’
Monday morning found her in her cubicle, trying to placate a caller.
“Hello? Are you there, miss? I’ve been waiting for quite a long…”
“I’m sorry, my computer froze. May I put you on hold?”
“Why don’t you ask someone who knows how to operate that thing to do it?”
Karen sighed. “Not like they can do much about a frozen computer.” She clicked on the Start button but nothing happened.
“Don’t you go smart mouthing me, young lady.”
She glanced at the clock on the wall. Still an hour and a half till lunch, then another four hours before she could get out of here. From the corner of her eye, she caught Kevin gesticulating wildly. He nodded towards the office door. Kelly, one of her supervisors was standing in it, watching her.
Karen looked back at Kev. Run, he mouthed. She felt the hairs prickling at the back of her neck.
“I’m sorry, may I put you on hold? This might take a while.”
“No, you may not. I can’t believe there isn’t one person in that office…”
She hung up. It was against the rules, but she was past caring. Immediately there was another call, but she ignored it. That was against the rules, too. She ducked under the table and pressed the reset button. Until the computer rebooted she could sneak over to Kev’s cubicle to ask what that was about.
When she reemerged, Kelly was standing in the doorway, spotless in her dove-gray suit and matching pumps. “Could we talk?”
Her stomach flinched. “About what?”
“Just come to Jason’s office, alright?”
Great. Just what I needed. She smiled at Kev in passing. He was watching her with wide, frightened eyes.
“It’s okay. Just the usual earful, I guess,” she murmured. He didn’t smile back.
When she entered the office, all the supervisors from her department plus Mark from HR were there.
“Karen, are you feeling well at this workplace?” Jason, the head of the department asked. He peered at her benevolently from behind his thick glasses. The crammed table hid his modest pot-belly.
No, I hate it, but I gotta pay my bills.
“What is this about?”
“Close the door, will you? Please, have a seat.” He cleared his throat. To his credit he looked as uncomfortable as Karen felt. “Look, we can’t help noticing that you are a little stressed lately. This, by itself, is not a problem, and you are not to blame for it but, see, you are bringing it to the workplace. We are striving to promote positivity; it’s what we try to communicate to our clients. You need enthusiasm to work at this company. We are all hopeless optimists here. We want to create a feel-good atmosphere for both our clients and our colleagues, and I’m afraid you’re not cooperating on that front.”
They were recording phone calls, but even if they didn’t, they had their informants, Karen knew. “So, what are you gonna do about it? You never feel down?”
Kelly stood uncomfortably close behind her chair. “No need to be defensive about it, Karen. It’s one thing to feel down, but it’s another thing to bring everyone else down as well. We don’t want to have that kind of toxicity around, see what I mean? It’s called energy-vampirism, and we are having none of that here. Can you relate to that?
Jason stood, and closed the circle they were forming around her. “It’s important that we inspire each other. Now, can you do that with a constant gloomy expression, rejective body language?”
Bethany, another supervisor, spoke up. “So, do you want to share what kind of problem is spoiling your attitude? We can only help you if you are willing to let us help.”
“I don’t need your help. If you are not happy with my work, fire me.”
“We won’t fire you,” Brad, the only guy among the supervisors, said.
Karen sighed inwardly in relief and disappointment.
“But we cannot have you spread around all that negativity either,” Mark added. “Here or at another workplace.”
Karen frowned. “What do you mean?”
The circle tightened around her. “Society today rejects pessimism. The world doesn’t need all that gloom and doom. We all prefer to look forward with shiny eyes.”
Karen stood, but Jason pushed her back into her seat.
“Get your hands off me. You know what, I quit. I’m sick of your creepy shit.”
Jason sighed sadly. “See, this is exactly what we were talking about.”
They towered above her, and Karen couldn’t see past the wall of bodies. She swallowed. “So, what are you gonna do?”
“What are we going to do?” Kelly laughed, as if it were a trivial question Karen should know the answer to. “The same thing we do to all negative people.” Her grin was full of teeth. “We eat them.”
This short story was first published in the Aphelion Webzine in February 2018.