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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
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Sunday, 18 November 2012

Finally: A Late Halloween Treat, "No Free Lunch"

Hello hello!
Well, I've been less reliable lately, but I hope you all still love me. I did promise that I would finally catch up with Halloween content. I still have some reviews of classic monster movies that I'd like to stick up, so hopefully those will be going up in the next week. I don't want to promise too much, because NaNoWriMo has been eating my time like a cat with the last can of his favorite wet food. The good news is...this means you can probably have a new book by December. I KNOW, RIGHT? So, stay tuned for more info about that!
The fun thing about the story that follows is that it's 'based on a true story'. This one is dedicated to Kim, Rebecca, Linda, Judy, and Malek, as well as the rest of you at the office (you know who you are). It was a pleasure working with you. Events were a bit different than this, and may have included less ghost, but we did, in fact, win the haunted cubicle contest with a house basically the same as the description below.
So, without further ado, I present a new short story written in the spirit of holiday frivolity--ladies, gentlemen, and others, I hope you enjoy "No Free Lunch".

*****

No Free Lunch

Sam adjusted the garbage bags in the far corner carefully. The time leading up to Halloween was seldom as nightmarish as the weeks before Christmas, but this year, the Haunted office decorations had been more intense than usual.
She had been wracking her brains for ideas. The other people on the admin team, Janet and Amrit especially, had had no idea what to do this year. The competition for a free lunch was fierce, and Sam’s nerves were frayed.
The already nightmarish mountains of paperclips around her desk seemed to grow by the minute. Flurries of sticky notes surrounded her like snow. The work was fast paced, and now, this; even the office supplies seemed to be mocking her, ganging up her... It had to be the stress of the season and her lack of sleep lately. Had to be. She rubbed her eyes and pulled some more tape from the roll. Alone in this empty cubicle, at least she didn’t have to stare at her desk, and at all the work that was waiting for her tomorrow.
The garbage bag fluttered in the air conditioning. The wall was covered, the window slide was covered, and the third side was blanketed in dark plastic, but the entrance was still waiting for her. Holding her torn garbage bag in one hand and groping for the top of the cubicle with the other, she stepped from the chair to the desk precariously. Doing this with help would have been better, but necessity was the mother of invention, and desperation, the mother of stupidity. Sam tried to cheer herself up with the thought of weeks off with pay if she ended up with a workplace injury. Thoughts of hyperbolically messy leg wounds and cracking her head open invaded her thoughts gorily. Sam decided that thinking about horribly broken limbs was inviting fate, and concentrated on her task.
Holding her breath, she pressed the masking taped edges to the ceiling and fumbled for the overlaps on the adjoining bag.
There, perfect. Now for the second layer, thought Sam. The walls and roof were now shrouded in darkness. Resenting that she was alone for the task, Sam worked her way around the second layer.
The bags covered evidence of the world outside the cubicle quite well, draping sleekly over the wrap-around, faux arborite desk. Everything was darkness, and even the sunlight through the blinds near the entrance couldn’t penetrate it.
With everything blocked off, Sam suddenly felt keenly aware of how alone she was.
Not a fax or printer beeped. Not a cell phone rang. Her own, charging back at the desk, was out of reach. She suddenly craved music, even footsteps, but apart from air conditioning and a faint sound of the light, there was only silence.
Sam shook her head. Come on, she thought. It’s just a haunted house. Cubicle. Not even a real haunted house. Just a friggin’ cubicle. Precariously, she reached up for the light and started taping the square halogen over. The red tissue paper fluttered in her fingertips. Resisting the masking tape almost playfully.
She overlapped three wide panels, and it was done. The shroud of darkness now had cherry-red lighting illuminating its shining surfaces. The sanguine gleam was as eerie as she’d hoped.
A rustle in the sealed walls made her startle. Just the air conditioner, she thought. Just the AC.
Sam decided not to think about horror movies. The idea of a beast lurking, unseen in the vents, coming out to maul homeless people and interns, waiting for a temp like her to be alone.
Silly, she thought. Don’t be a dumbass. A largish predator would leave dung and corpses. They’d smell it coming.
She giggled, cutting the silence. It sounded a little hysterical. Gathering her wits, she extracted the roll of ‘bloody gauze’ and the “caution” tape. Hanging the gauze from the doorway, she taped the yellow ‘danger’ emblazoned plastic strips at odd angles around the room. The plastic darkness was fluid angels and curves in the room subtly shifted in wrong ways.
Ignoring her shudders and the eerily rustling plastic, Sam looked through the bag of decorations. She hung the skeleton garlands and glow in the dark cotton webs on every surface, draping them eerily to make the most of the hidden corners.
The cubicle was small, but the plastic that sealed her from the outside world made it seem larger. Colder, too, and oddly cavernous.
Sam reached into the bag again and felt cold fingers. She yelped loudly. Extracting her shaking fingers, she peeked inside the bag. A severed hand, its stump and fingernails bloody reached up for her.
“Fucksticks!” It was just one of the decorations. She’d even seen it before. The house and her insomnia were getting to her. She prayed Amrit and Janet hadn’t bought anything else terrifying and unexpected. Janet’s suggestion of a scary office with piles of work everywhere was looking like a much better alternative to the hellfire and skeleton theme Amrit had pioneered.
As she strung up caged ghosts and dark-eyed skulls, Sam forced herself to think about clich├ęd, goofy horror movies.
She was wearing plain underwear, wasn’t blond or noticeably slutty…so far, so good for survival odds. Still, she thought, the idea of an office ghost, some poor idiot who’d had a heart attack in the waiting room or a vengeful file clerk who’d keeled over from boredom, seemed a little too realistic. Of course, thought, Sam, it might be a more sinister creature…
The empty eyes of plastic skulls burned hollowly into her back as she contemplated the possibilities. Perhaps a lady ghost with trailing tangled hair, flowing like ink, coming to avenge herself on the world? Or a shambling monster, lurking near some rift in time and space, waiting for some accidental conjunction to let it tear into the real world? Visions of long claws, grinning teeth, and burning eyes crept through her mind.
You’ll drive yourself crazy, she reprimanded herself. Sam felt cold, not just because of the AC, which was on over-drive. The silence of the office and her enclosed space weighed down on her.
Okay, she thought, time to treat things as a comedy. If a ghost does show up, how do I handle it?
With shaking fingers, she adjusted the recording in a hidden corner. The screams, moans, and sounds of howling wind were underlaid with the music from “Thriller”. It was a surprisingly creepy combination. A particularly agonized moan made her jump, and she found herself giggling hysterically.
The room was cold and covered in decorations. When something snagged on her ankle, she shook it, expecting to dislodge the garland. It didn’t budge.
Sam knelt down to look and found herself staring into a white face with glowing sockets and emaciated features. It opened its mouth and cackled. Sam kicked the animated zombie’s face in annoyance before remembering that it belonged to Amrit.
Feeling foolish, she checked it for damage. One of the arms had gotten caught around her leg, tangled with a garland. Huffing in frustration, she extricated herself. It hadn’t been her imagination that it seemed dark; the lights in the reception room were half out. The sound track of moans from the digital recorder jarred her nerves further. Then, all at once, there was a yowl from a different direction, startling her.
She stomped out to reception and put her most patient smile on.
There was an ectoplasmic horror clawing at the glass barrier and moaning.
Years in admin had trained her well.
“Can I help you?” she blurted out.
The apparition pawed at the glass again, its sinewy, translucent fingers leaving a glowing trail on the glass.
Sam thought quickly. Sam wondered if she should duck out of the way, and considered that the ghost would likely follow her.        The black eyes held a faint white spark at their centres, like a pupil, glowing in an unholy way.
Sam forced herself to breathe. Her heart was trembling like a moth trapped in a lamp.
Either it was the best costume she’d ever seen, or a bona fide apparition. It moaned again. Admin face, she thought to herself. Put your secretary face on.
She carefully scrawled the emergency number on a post it. “I’m sorry, but I can’t quite make out what you’re saying. I’m afraid the office is normally closed right now.”She slipped the note under the glass. “Here’s an emergency line you can call, though. They’re available twenty four hours a day.”
The ghost moaned angrily and slammed itself against the glass. “I’ll have to ask you not to do that, or building security will need to escort you out, and I won’t be helping you today.”
The specter became quiescent, and groaned quietly as it backed away. 
I can’t believe that worked. “Thank you. What did you need help with?”
The ghost moaned and gestured vaguely, its words incoherent.
I’m sorry, perhaps you could…here’s a note bad, will that work?”
The hollow eyes met hers as the specter nodded mournfully. Its skull shimmered for a moment as it stared at the note pad.
"Oh, there’s a pen to your left…”
With a forefinger, it traced a few letters shakily on the paper.
Lonely. Need job.
“We don’t really, ah provide employment services after hours, we’re more about basic needs…y9ou can come back for counseling in the day time, though…”
The ghost growled and gestured to its right. Behind the wall was her haunted cubicle.
Sam got a very bad, very good idea.
“The haunted office?”
The ghost peered at her. Its cadaverous, flowing features looked hopeful.
“Promise not to steal our souls or otherwise open doorways to hell> I am ram not allowed to let clients back there and I definitely don’t think they allow demons.”
The ghost yowled indignantly and gestured to the tattered remains of an ID lanyard around its neck.
“If you’re an employee, I guess…that’s fine? Okay, I’ll let you in,” said Sam, “but you have to stay in the haunted cubicle until the judges get here tomorrow morning. “
The apparition flickered out. Sam blinked several times, still not convinced that she hadn’t fallen asleep at the desk at some point.
She heard the door beep, and there was a sudden gust of cold air as the door shook on its hinges. She yelped, involuntarily. The lights flickered back on, all at once.
Sam shook her head. Well, it had to have been a dream or something like that. Sleep deprivation did that, didn’t it? Made you hallucinate? Suddenly, the whole office seemed happier, brighter, and so was Sam, as she considered the completed office. Loaded with candy and surprises, it was sure to land them a lunch. She sighed, feeling relief that her nightmare hadn’t been about evil paperclips, and finally headed home.
The next day at the Tulip and Sceptre, Amrit and Janet were discussing their great success in the cubicle project.
“I have to admit, I love what you did with my ideas, said Amrit, beaming. “II mean, seriously, it was awesome! They really screamed in there!”
Hand to be the music, Janet asserted proudly. "And the candy helped. We had the best house though. No competition whatsoever.”
Sam smiled at them and bit into the salad, enjoying her free lunch. “Something like that. Something, she thought.
Amrit sighed. “I wish they’d let us keep the cubicle up year round. It’ll be so empty when we take things down.”
Sam kept her face neutral as she set down her fork. “I dunno,” she managed. “I think it’s less empty than it looks. I…I’ll be right back.”
Janet and Amrit made sure to put up pictures before they took down the house and the garbage bags, but the sadness of tearing it down seemed even more overwhelming than they’d expected it to be. Amrit mentioned to Sam that the cubicle seemed less empty than she’d thought, even without the decorations, and Sam had only excused herself, laughing.
Janet was especially puzzled by the ragged ID tag she found under the desk, weeks later, after Sam had left for her next placement. The face was scratched away, the name illegible, but it seemed familiar. The pipes overhead rattled, and a stray moan cut the air.
"Can it, Larry,” snapped Janet irritably. “I want to go home. Save your antics for the next temp.” A sad moan trailed through the air.
“It’s okay, buddy. We fooled her good. Same time next year?”

Fin.

*****

Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on Twitter, Facebook, and on Tumblr. Don't forget to check back for short stories, more politics, analysis, scraps of science, and even some reviews. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out!

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