Nine to Forever
Stories are true.
Belief begets power, and that’s what feeds the supernatural beings of the world. Well, that and, you know, food. We’re not all strange beasties sporting perfect hair, mystical abilities, and problems with sunlight. That’s mostly because vampires are a tiny portion of what’s para about our normal, despite their sudden popularity. Lately, people hear supernatural and go right to vampires—which is great if you’re a vampire.
Until the sudden onset of sparkles has them using curse words that fell out of use centuries ago. That never gets old. I’ve seen it happen twice. (I’d snorked my latte and almost choked on a bite of coffee cake, but the guy behind me knew the Heimlich. No lasting damage.) Sometimes new stories manifest themselves when enough Belief builds up around them. Being a creature of myth, legend, or fairy tale can be hard on a person over time and through trends in popular fiction.
I’m not a vampire, a werewolf, a goddess, a goblin, or a siren.
I’m just the daughter of a wicked step sister.
Most people forget the wicked sisters were anything other than the shadow to offset the princess’ light. While stories are true at their core, the details vary, and not everything popularly relayed is accurate to history. Cinderella? Not a woman we want our daughters to emulate. She smokes like two-for-one night at the seniors’ bingo hall, has been known to hide corpses in the deep freeze in her garage, and has knocked off at least one Prince Charming in her time.
She’s family. For family, we mostly overlook the little indiscretions. Mostly.
There’s a chance my uncle will thaw out.
I frowned a little and flicked my blinker on as the guy behind me honked his horn, really leaning into it. No turn lane—just me, traffic, and angry commuters slowly clogging the main drag behind me. Not a morning person. I checked my watch. Plenty of time to get into the lot and get inside for my very first day.
The slow cruise through the surprisingly full lot took a littler longer than expected. I had plenty of reading material to keep me entertained while a couple of other office drones lot sharked ahead of me.
Back off, I’m a Goddess!
Something Wiccan This Way Comes.
Honk If You’ve Loved Hermes.
Hades Does It Hot.
There seemed to be an inordinate amount of multi-theistic sticker prattle going on for your average American business. According to Chase, the acquaintance who referred me here, this place had practically been around forever. It was under the radar, she’d said. What radar? Who wants to keep track of a local office for some auction house? Or was it shipping company? The details were a little blurry in my mind. Not enough caffeine. I was only here to office temp. Typing, filing, and fetching coffee were my likely purview. The alphabet—my war cry. Oh, ye word processors, fear me. Secretarial powers activate!
My Frakking Fandom Doesn’t Have Shields.
And one science fiction nerd in the mix. Good to know. If I have computer problems, I’ll just look for the pale guy with the Bad Toaster mug. I passed the little compact car plastered with intellectually nerdy stickers, and wedged my very own compact car (also plastered with intellectually nerdy stickers), into a space that was just big enough for it.
Parking lots tell you a lot about a sub-culture. And that’s what this world is, a mess of tiny little encapsulated cultures all vying for control of your life. Take this lot. It’s an office building, one of those typical multi-story numbers with the polished doors, tinted windows, unremarkable, but acceptable (and expensive) landscaping, and a large, well-lit lot brimming with just about as many middle of the road, middle class, nondescript cars are all you could ever hope to pack into one place. The status quo is a living, breathing thing here.
Bumper stickers are the billboards of the century. Political, sexual, social, scientific, philosophical inclinations—all of them can be found on the ass ends of cars. People only see them when you’re leaving. They barely have time to squint and see if it’s a Darwin or a Jesus fish before you’re gone, gunning it through a red light on your way to the supermarket, bar, or all night video rental down the way. That’s why I love parking lots.
I glanced down as I stepped up onto the sidewalk and noticed a small ink stain on the hem of my skirt. My new skirt. My skirt purchased for this newly necessary employment. My mother cut me off when I said adios to her favorite of my suitors—her best client’s son. Thanks for the support, Mom. Since I’d grown accustomed to things like food and shelter, it was the job market for me.
I felt the eyes on me a moment before I glanced up. A tall, dark haired woman was standing on the walk watching me. Her eyes were a pale grey-blue and her gaze was intent. I put her age somewhere around forty-five. She was watching me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. She was watching me in a way that screamed ‘superior’. I resisted the urge to fidget when I noticed she was wearing Italian tailored everything, and was, at that very moment, probably noticing the creeping run in my stocking that was presently making its slow course over my left kneecap.
As she turned to face me more directly, I noticed the wink of a fancy lapel pin on her jacket. A tiny owl, with articulated metal wings, seemed to be watching me too—with disdain. Perhaps the platform Mary Janes were a poor choice of footwear for my secretarial debut. I fought the urge to glance down at my toes, and reached up to adjust black-framed glasses instead. I opened my mouth to introduce myself, but the grey-eyed woman interrupted.
“You’re the new temp.” It wasn’t a question. There was something about the way she looked at me, the way she said those words, that brooked no argument. It was just a good thing I was the new temp. I didn’t see arguing with this lady as being a very fruitful endeavor. She said temp like it was a special breed of not-quite-person.
“Yes. I’m Neva—“
“I know. Come with me. I’ll show you to your desk.”
She looked like a stranger, but I felt, for a moment, as if I were speaking to my own mother. She hardly ever deigned to let me finish a sentence either. All the comforts of home and a paycheck too? I consoled myself with the thought of free coffee and, I glanced at my watch, possibly doughnuts.
Visions of powdered sugar ushered me on, inside the chrome and glass structure, past security and up to the elevator. I was just sliding into true wakefulness when the elevator doors opened, and the reality of my situation became painfully clear.
A honeycomb of cubicles filled the largest part of the wide open room. Dozens of tiny workstations were nestled up against each other, and the sound of phones ringing, keys clacking, and clocks ticking came to me in a wave of sensory input. It was like stepping into a massive cave with fluorescent lighting. A woman in a pressed skirt and rumpled dress shirt ambled by, as if in a daze, half-eaten muffin in one hand, steno pad in the other. I glanced over at my guide, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Over there,” she said, “Cubicle thirteen.” She managed half of a smile, then turned on her heel and left me standing there. Cubicle thirteen. They had numbers? I glanced at the clock as I passed by. 8:02.
After some experimentation, mostly consisting of peeking over the edge of half a dozen temporary walls, I located an empty cubicle that could very well have been number thirteen. There were no personal belongings in sight—just a fresh legal pad, a cup of pencils, two erasers, and a single stack of post-it notes. I saw a long and glorious array of tiny yellow paper airplanes in my future.
I bent over to pick up a stray paperclip from the carpet, rolling it over in my fingers. I picked up the phone, listened for the dial tone, put it back. I was reaching for the power button on the computer when a voice startled me.
“New girl. Coffee. First hallway, last office on the right. Black, two sugars. Good luck.”
By the time I turned around, the speaker was gone. Vaguely creepy messages & luck wished for coffee delivery. Does that seem right to you?
It was only when I almost kicked it over that I noticed a large mug on the floor of my cubicle, dead center of the doorway. The guy could have put it on the corner of my desk, but he scrammed before even bothering to reach inside my corporate mini prison. The mug was blue with little white sheep on the side. It was also empty. I tugged up my sleeve and checked my watch. 8:02. Huh. Must be slow.
The hallway stretched out before me. I made my way down a darkened hall, procured coffee mug in hand, glancing back to the fluorescent cheer of the outer office only once before I committed myself to this venture. My attention was drawn as the lights flickered down the hallway. There was a thud, and a faintly ominous gurgling sound. I frowned slightly, then moved forward. A hand clamped down on my shoulder. “New girl. Wrong turn. Break room. This way.” My rescuer was a twenty-something in a blue button down and yellow tie. People were strange and abrupt here. They used a minimum of words to pass their messages. No one seemed to like standing still for very long. “Don’t eat the muffins,” the blue-shirt said sagely to me, before pointing to the break room. He turned to go.
“Ok, thanks.” I went to pour the coffee. It took me a moment to locate two sugars in the basket of artificial sweeteners and “substitutes.” Rip, pour, it was all pretty simple, routine. Mission well in hand, I took the mug up and turned from the break room, headed through the main office, and went for the last office on the right. First hallway. Before I could make it into the corridor, there was a sharp ding from the bank of elevators nearby. I glanced over.
The doors opened, and a trio of long legged, short skirted, long haired women stepped out. They laughed musically, loudly, and every head visible above the cubicles turned toward them. A few popped up from inside the cubicles like curious gophers. I noted most of them were male. I glanced over to the women again, where they’d taken up posing against the water cooler. Several other bodies surged toward them, the drones rising from their work stations to drift into the orbit of three very celestial bodies.
A redhead in a champagne colored wrap dress skittered past me. She tucked something against my arm, but I paid her little mind.
Just then, the office manager strode down the way, a trio of steno pads in her hand. She stiffly held them out to the women, and nodded toward the corridor to a large conference room. She didn’t have to say anything. The tallest of the leggy ladies gave a brief pout, then they sashayed off en coiffed masse. I spun and headed out on my mission again, before the cool grey eyes found me malingering. Clock said 10:04. How did that happen?
I glanced down to find a muffin perched in the crook of my arm. The woman who’d touched my arm earlier had slipped me a muffin. Drive by baked goods. Sure. I glanced back to the clock, and the snack food weirdness was chased from my mind.
The lighting in the back of the first hallway was darker, the walls painted a dull grey. Even the carpet seemed more charcoal than medium grey, and something about the decor prompted a little shiver of unease to slither right up my spine. That was silly. My everyday life is weird—this was just a day job. An office. A cup of coffee. A menial delivery.
I knocked lightly on the door, pushed it open, then stepped in to tiptoe into stark office, past the ash grey furniture, toward the large marble desk. The walls inside were painted middle grey. In fact, pretty much everything in the office was a shade of grey, and the walls had some sort of weird textured paint on them, like gritty sandstone, only… grey. This guy had a serious yen for cave-like office space. I traversed the length of the room quickly, blue coffee mug in hand. The merry little sheep design on the side seemed almost ominous in a room with this much oppressive lack of color. The white of the fluffy little sheep bodies almost glowed in a room this dark. The occupant of the office had his back to me, and was seated in a large leather chair. The length of the phone cord, also grey, spiraled in a little corkscrew around the edge of the chair, which led me to believe he was on the phone. There was no talking, though. Silence.
I crept up and leaned in, stretching my arm out to edge the coffee onto the very corner of the desk, so as not to interrupt the non-conversation at hand. Truth be told, I had no interest in meeting the grey overlord.
“WHAT IS YOUR NAME!” Yelled the mysterious guy in the chair. He was… loud.
I became aware of a burning in my hand, and realized I’d sloshed the coffee all over the floor, my hand, wrist, and down the side of his desk. It would be fair to say the volume the man achieved startled me. “Sorry?” It was not my finest hour.
I quietly flicked the cooling coffee from my poor pink hand. Ow. I was prepared for the second bout of yelling, but I was not expecting it to be directed to me. My hesitation didn’t phase the man. “SORRY, WHERE IS MY SNACK?” Snack? I turned, halfway between the desk and the freedom promised by the hallway. Maybe the man’s low blood sugar made him literal.
“Uh…” Sometimes I even impressed myself with my quick thinking.
“WELL?” He snarled, turning in his chair to face me, top-volume.
I blinked, and took in his appearance. It was a little disorienting, at first. He had very little limp blond hair atop his head, and one of those generic button downs with little grey pinstripes on it. The rest of him was hidden behind his desk, but I did note the monstrous coke bottle glasses, and the presence of an eye-patch. It’s hard to miss an eye patch. Arr, matey. Err, I mean, he probably had a scratched cornea. “Snack…”
I was looking directly at him when he talked this time, great gaping maw opening wide to bellow, “I HUNGER.” I noticed then that he was wearing a tie—a blue tie, with little white sheep all over it. The fluffy white sheep marched up his tie toward the knot. It kind of looked like they were streaming toward their doom, on a neat little carpet of blue, inside this slate-grey room, toward the depths of his gullet.
“Well, I do have this yummy blueberry muffin.” My brain overtook the shock of being yelled at by a bespectacled man with an eye patch, and I shoved the muffin forward, leaving it to teeter on the edge of the desk. Eyepatch swiped a meaty paw at it, snatching it up. He gave a great sniff, nostrils flaring and billowing as much as nostrils can.
“IS IT HOMEMADE?” He roared suspiciously.
Fib time. I didn’t know for sure where the lady out in the office got these muffins, but I had a fifty-fifty chance of being truthful here. Karmically speaking, I was willing to go with those odds. “Sure.”
He inhaled the muffin. I don’t think he even removed the wrapper. It was there one minute, gone the next. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it, not even in high school, when I had the singular displeasure of sitting across from the football player table. Seventeen-year-old boys didn’t eat like this guy. Seventeen-year-old football players would have been shamed by Mr. Eyepatch.
“Okay, enjoy. I’m… there’s urgent filing to be done.”
Dark, beady little eye turned to me, pasty lips still slightly parted. He looked hungry. He looked like he was going to howl something else at me. He reached for his mostly empty coffee mug, lifted it, and took a hearty slurp. Before I could say more, he yawned, then pitched right over on his desk, face down in his blotter.
Divine intervention. I took advantage of it, and took off into the hall. I left Eyepatch in his cave with the sheep. The irresistible urge to check my watch guided my hand. 12:57. Something was wonky with my time piece. Almost lunch time?
I approached the water cooler where several of the ladies from secretarial seemed to gather when they weren’t engaging in flirting rituals and internet surfing. I discovered that the cafeteria is on the basement level.
“Where’s the cafeteria?”
“Basement,” someone muttered. I wasn’t sure whom.
Behold, my investigative prowess in action.
The natives didn’t really like to chat. Several of the ladies eyeballed me, straightened their office garb, then turned to go. One reached her hand up to her mouth to gnaw her fingernail. She watched me, a tremor under her eye.
“You should bring your own food from home,” she finally muttered, hoarse voice barely understandable thanks to the contiguous fingernail gnawing.
“Hey,” I asked the straggler, “Is the food really gross or something?,” but she scurried off toward her cubicle without an answer.
This level of avoidance in a population is usually reserved for a murderous colonizing force with a serious case of Manifest Destiny. Or pyramid scheme peddlers. Since I was neither, I must have missed some nuance of corporate etiquette. Ever since I walked into this sterile little environ, I hadn’t been able to think clearly. Can a brain overdose on office fresh scent? Maybe corporate America was just like that. I noticed they squirreled away office supplies before they headed out of the room. Right. Lunch.
The lunch room was a large, open space with huge windows in one wall, and lots of potted plants suspended from the ceiling. Cheerful wooden tables were clustered in groups. It was certainly very clean. The majority of the room was already occupied with seated office workers. The ones with cafeteria trays lounged lazily in their seats, a few of them even tipped back or slouched, mouths open, eyes closed. I could hear the snoring from my place in line. One of them provided a lot of bass. I turned back to the rows of freshly-made sandwiches, Jell-o bowls, fruit cups, and other fare. My hand hovered over a cup of yogurt pretzels. A small sticker with a flower caught my attention. It was a black and white design edged in silver—very striking.
“A lotus, I think,” I said to myself.
The guy ahead of me in line looked back. He shoved a yogurt covered pretzel into his mouth. They looked really good. He grunted a flat, “A lotus.” I couldn’t really tell if it was a confirmation. I squinted a little. His eyes were slightly glassy, a little red. While I watched, he blinked a slow, soporific blink, and teetered a little on his feet.
Something tickled at the back of my mind. I didn’t have a handle on it yet, but when a girl like me gets a feeling like that, she listens. I stepped back from the counter, hands empty. The lady who’d handed me the muffin earlier sat at the register ringing people out. Vending machine. Maybe I’d just go find a vending machine.
I assure you, there was never a bigger lie than happily ever after. My auntie murdered my uncle and stuffed him into the freezer in the garage, where he sleeps with the ice cream. I think there’s a Chubby Hubby joke in there somewhere, but I love the guy too much to think it through to a punchline.
My mother designs living spaces for demonic entities—really. She’s an interior designer. She doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or moral leaning. Just cash. Boy does she spend a fortune on flame retardant upholstering.
I don’t want to get denominational or preachy here, but demons do exist. They aren’t all bad. ‘Demonic’ really is a misnomer. Just because something’s evil doesn’t mean it’s a demon. And just because something’s a demon, doesn’t make it evil. I’ve seen plenty of plain old human evil—too much to pass judgment on everyone else. That said, my ex boyfriend—kinda evil. His Dad? Evil. But rich. And that’s just how my mother likes them.
My cell phone went off in my pocket on the way back to cubicle land. Speak of the devil. The dong-dong of heavy church bells was rounded out by the call of a raven and leathery flap of bat wings. I customized my ring tones. “Mother.”
“Neva, do you think you’ll come to dinner at the end of the month? I’m having a little gathering, and I’d like you to make an appearance.” On the surface, the request seemed reasonable.
I love my mother, but she doesn’t make a habit of being reasonable. “I’m at work. Do you think we could skip to the part where you tell me Dev’s going to be there, so I can remember that I have an elsewhere to be?”
“Yes, I’d heard you’ve taken the leap into the realm of gainful employment. An office temp? Really, Neva. No one in our family works for a living. You’ll come my dinner party, and we’ll forget all about this silly spat.”
“I work for a living, Mom. I have an apartment and a life.”
“I thought the working was just a phase. After you lost your last job, I didn’t think you’d bother again.”
“Dev got me fired, Mom.” I frowned. It was a war we’d been fighting for months now. “Wait, why are you giving me three weeks notice for a dinner party? That’s a bunch of time for me to find an excuse.” My mother preferred to corner me at the last moment. She arranged lives and furniture like other people waged war. Take no prisoners.
“You might be there a while, dear. When you’re through appeasing the Greeks, stop by my office. We’ll settle this once and for all. Try to make it soon, I really do despise waiting around for these odysseys to work themselves out.” She made a sound in the back of her throat. “I’m afraid I can’t get you out of your mess.”
The Greeks? The way she’d said that made it important. Greeks, big G. I wouldn’t usually think anything of that kind of phrasing, since my mother was given to dramatic over stating, but last month… last month I assaulted a Greek god.
“My mess.” I took a breath. “I’m—I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” I had an idea, but telling her that would just encourage these life checkup phone calls. “If you’d support me without trying to foist my ex back into my life that would be great. You’re my mom, Mom. Great customer service doesn’t include bargaining your daughter off to some rich guy’s son so you can try to talk your client into a top to bottom renovation.” Ever since she was beat out for the last prince, Mom had this thing about getting me married. It went a little past cute and was sliding on down into creepy territory.
“He’s a prince, darling. You should be so lucky!”
“I’ve got to go, Mom. My hands are pretty full. I really—” Click.
Some people think it’s unforgivably rude to hang up on your mother. Or lie to your mother. Pretending to lose a connection mid-sentence isn’t quite a lie or a hang up. It’s more of an all-around polite fib. I turned my phone off just in case she was quick on the redial.
I shoved my phone into my pocket, and continued on my way down the corridor. So much for finding a vending machine. A half hour for lunch really isn’t enough time to deal with the combined crazy of this place and my family life.
Last month, I caused a little bit of a ruckus when I clothes-lined Cupid in the back alley of Bar Olympus. The little shit meddled in my personal life, and wasn’t even sneaky enough to cover up his own tracks. I feel kind of bad about it now—not just because the bartender is pissed at me. Cupid’s over the hill these days, and not in a small way. The man has some serious centuries under his belt, and I don’t think his back has yet recovered from the little scuffle we had. I don’t like beating up on old guys, even when those old guys deserve it.
Shortly after that back alley misadventure, when I’d been down in the laundry room of my apartment, trying to get the feathers off my assault ensemble. A neighbor wandered in. Her dark hair still shimmered blue-black despite her advanced age, and her skin showed barely a wrinkle. Though she harbored all of the old lady traits (six cats, rollers in her hair at 3pm, and cranky possessiveness about her newspaper), Nemesis lived the night life of a thirty-something clubber. Vengeance was alive and well in the modern era.
She glanced over at me as soon as she walked in. Her voice was smoky, a little throaty, with an undercurrent of gravel. “Zeus serves a mean Appletini. You should show respect in the house of a man who serves an Appletini like that.” News traveled fast on the Grecian grapevine.
I glanced over at her, my fingers hovering guiltily over a large feather. I pulled it free of the weave of my dark sweater. I needed a drink. My mouth was dry. I eyed the goddess of retribution. She had a laundry basket. Maybe she was there to do some laundry, I remember thinking. “I was thinking more like: you should show respect when the bartender is the Daddy of Greek Gods, and he has a lightning propelled vengeful streak wider than the Aegean Sea.”
She’d just smiled and moved down the row to an empty washer.
“That one doesn’t—”
She shoved her quarters in and the thing started right up. She ripped off the taped on ‘OUT OF ORDER’ sign and tossed it aside. Her smile widened, but she didn’t say anything.
Every once in a while after that, I caught her watching me. That is I saw her out of the corner of my eye now and then over the weeks following, but she was always on the move by the time I looked over. Maybe it was just coincidence.
After the little phone conversation with my mother, that vague inkling of unease settled into a ball of full-on worry right in the pit of my stomach. Flashing back to Nemesis turned that ball of unease into a giant rock. I frowned.
Demons exist. Glass slippers are real. Except that they aren’t true in the way we normally think of truth. The truth in the supernatural world isn’t static. They exist, the bare elements of them—the flavor of them is real and immortal. Ghosts, goblins, witches, and trolls—all real. They have their own societal bias, their own cultures, traditions, and language. And they also have their own stories. Eventually every story is twisted, and molded back into something suited to the purpose of the teller. Pieces are lost, re-invented, recreated, but the essence remains the same, and eventually someone down the line will recognize the elements, re-tell, and re-make. Sometimes the changes stick. There’s power in those stories too. Sometimes the will of a fairy tale creature or an old god can play a role in what it is, but sometimes that is overpowered by Belief. The human mind is a very powerful tool. Get enough humans thinking the same thing and it can change our reality. The trouble is, we always remember what changed, when, and why.
When I returned to the maze of cubicles, I glanced at the clock. Barely 1pm. No way. The day somehow slowed down even more. My mother’s words echoed in my head. Greeks. Vengeful Gods. Odyssean something or other. If I remembered my mythology right, these things tended to go on. Forever.
Cupid isn’t good at keeping secrets. I still think it’s a little gauche to go tell Grandpa you got beat up by a half mortal girl. He only did it because he’s mad I refuse to call him Eros. Cupid fits better. It’s kind of valentine-y and silly. Ok, it could be because I broke his bow. Next time, maybe he’ll be more careful who he shoots in the ass with that thing. Right. Maybe next time I’ll just count to ten in my head.
How could this day get any worse?
I sank into my chair, and those words repeated themselves in my head. “New Girl.” Thud. A huge stack of papers landed on my desk. The office manager stood next to an office paper mule. The young man mechanically dropped off some originals of a few hundred pages. The manager’s grey eyes were sharp and fixed on me. “Fifty copies of this, bound, on my desk. You can go when you’ve finished.” She watched me for a moment, and I opened my mouth to reply. She cut me off. “Only when you’ve finished can you go.” Her calm eyes remained on me for a beat while the finality of her words settled around me.
The tower of paper teetered precariously and half of it slid onto the floor. I glanced down to the papers resting against the toe of my shoe. When I looked up, Athena was gone.
“Never ask how things can get worse,” I chided myself under my breath, and bent to pick up and reorganize the paper-lanche attempting to eat my shoe. The terms had been issued.
Those collated copies would be mine.
I don’t have forever to sit around in a cubicle if I plan to get out of this place before I age up to Cupid. The copying would distract me from the rising urge to kick his ass. Again.
Some people learn faster than others.
“Excuse me. Could you tell me where the copy machine is?” I asked a petite woman who was trekking across the office. She turned to me, little bits of shredded up paper stuck to her upswept red curls. She looked a little strung out, stressed out, or just really tired. “Are you okay?” I asked. She looked like she was really pretty close to snapping and certainly very caffeinated. I was careful to make no sudden movements.
She lifted one pale hand and pointed down the hallway I’d explored earlier in the morning. A spatter of ink stained the skin of her hand, wrist, and forearm. There was a brownish-black stain spreading across the sleeve of her eggshell silk top. She burst into a sudden bout of tears then ran for the bathroom. At least I assume that’s where she went. That’s where I’d go if I were buzzing from caffeine, and I looked like I’d had a shredder attack me with a cavalry of leaky pens in tow.
“Okay, great. Thanks,” I told the air where the girl used to be, before I turned to look down the hallway. No time like the present.
I hefted the stack of papers, tried to ignore the impression that someone was watching me, and headed down the hall. That creepy tingle between my shoulder blades was persistent. The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. Zeus couldn’t keep me here forever, could he? It’s bad form to entrap other creatures of myth, legend, and fairy tale—yeah, even the relatives of the supporting cast.
The hallway stretched on before me. Every question, every hesitation, seemed to make the journey longer. I stopped walking. I squinted. Very slowly, the hallway stretched. As I stood still, the proportions shifted faster. My hesitation literally made the journey longer. Shit.
I took off at a run, office decorum be damned. I caught up to the pace of the hallway’s growth, held even for several paces, and struggled with the papers. I kept a hand on the top of the stack, supported all the weight with the bottom hand, and ran. I almost dropped the whole thing twice before I saw the doorway I needed. I lunged through it when I drew up even, without giving the corridor a chance to pull any Hogwarts-style shenanigans.
No, I’ve never met Mr. Potter. I wouldn’t mind meeting Severus Snape.
Sorry. Too much information.
The lights flickered once as I rested against the wall, stack of papers clutched in hand. After that, the lights remained cheerily on, buzzing slightly. The room was empty save two appliances—a massive fax/copier, and an espresso maker.
“That’s a weird combination.” I settled the massive stack of papers down on the lid of the copier. There was an unusual ink stain on the wall behind the thing, and the paint was a little cracked here and there. This area of the office wasn’t as well-kept or traveled as the rest. It had a sort of desolate vibe going on. I reached for some papers, and engaged the behemoth.
Ten minutes into trying to feed the first stack of papers through the copier, I didn’t think the espresso machine was so weird, mostly because my attention was focused on the copies. It was the slowest, most grumbly, archaic piece of machinery I’d had the displeasure of coming across in the last decade. It scanned the pages, printed half of them crooked, the ink was spotty, and it took close to four minutes to spit out seven copies. I could have desktop-printed them faster. I probably could have handwritten them faster.
“Oh, come on. I have fifty copies of hundreds of pages to do, Junkzilla!” I tipped back and kicked the copy machine. A spray of hot espresso caught me in the side. Sneak attack. “Yow!” I turned on the culprit, tugging my steaming clothing away my body. It didn’t really help the slow burn.
I reached over and yanked the espresso machine’s plug out of the wall. Its logo read Whirlpool. I made a mental note to avoid that brand, then returned my attention to the ailing copier. It read paper jam in flashing letters. I sighed, and bent down to pull the side door open. A crumpled piece of paper obstructed the rollers, wedged in. “Oh, come on.”
I leaned in closer, bending over the machine with my head practically in its belly, fingers searching its innards for a good place to grab the offending paper. It was in there pretty good. A small scrap of the corner ripped off in my grip.
Plastic groaned. The copier door swung partially closed and trapped my arm. My hair was sucked in halfway, and the machine rumbled to life again. Toner smeared over my skin as I struggled with the beast, yelling obscenities while I kicked and flailed to free myself. It sucked in my sleeve, and I braced my foot against its side, then kicked off as hard as I could.
There came a plastic gnashing from the belly of the beast, a hard, brittle sound. It let go just after I kicked off, sending my body hurtling backward with momentum that sent a shot of adrenaline through my system. I shrieked, arms windmilling. I fell through empty space. The button from the cuff of my shirt cracked and splintered as it was sucked between rollers. It rattled into the belly of the beast.
I stumbled against the opposite wall and slowly slid down the nondescript off-white paint to sit on the carpet. A dull ache crept up my spine, and settled somewhere in the back of my cranium.
Only when you’ve finished can you go. Athena’s words did a little drive by in my brain. Fifty copies. Collated. Bound.
My headache grew to the size of Nebraska. The burn on my side throbbed dully. The spray of of coffee cooled slowly, setting into my office wear. My new office wear. Sticky toner smudges halfway up my arm smelled strongly of despair. Ever get the feeling that someone is very unhappy with you in the very cosmic sense?
The ancient coffee machine burbled, the copier chugged, and toner dripped from the still-open maw of a door, as if awaiting a wrong move, a step too close, a loose piece of clothing within grappling range. Wait. I unplugged the espresso machine. My eyes flicked to it. Still unplugged—still bubbling. Great.
I edged up the wall, pushing off of the floor with one hand. The papers meant to be copied lay in a heap across the floor. The tray of warm, recent copies was still, peaceful. A lure to come closer.
I looked between the machines. A normal person would run. I told myself this, and straightened my espresso-stained shirt, pulled my jacket closed, and did up the buttons. The office door slammed shut on its own. I eyed the two machines again, and straightened. “Okay. I see how it is.” A normal person wouldn’t talk to appliances.
I am not, as discussed, a normal person.
“Look, you and I are going to work together, and than I’m going to leave, and you can torture the next doe-eyed temp or intern or Grecian misfit that walks through those door—.” In all of the tales I’d ever read about the Greek gods and their antics, one thing held true for all, at least that I could remember. Whether it was hubris, jealousy, passion, or revenge, every story revolved around a power dynamic. Gods vs Greek mortals.
I’m not a god, but neither am I entirely mortal. Or Greek. I believe in Zeus, but I don’t believe in the all powerful, almighty, thunderbolt hurling, swan seducing, look-at-me-I’m-a-sexy-bull and I own you Zeus. Sometimes stories have power over you. In some cases, they have only as much power of you as you allow.
“Scylla and Charybdis, I presume.”
“If you want me to go all Hercules on your butt, I will. And then I’ll drive to Staples, shell out the thirty-five bucks, drop the copy job on Athena’s desk, and call it a day.” I leaned in a little. “Wouldn’t you two rather play with someone who Believes? My suit’s already ruined, but I can go a few more rounds.” I pulled off a shoe. The heel was high enough to do some damage. “You think paper jams? Think again.”
I’m not above tough talking a copy machine into submission.
“How about if I make an offering of a fresh toner cartridge?” The one-two punch of a threat and a kindness proved too much for the old gal. It spit out several copies it’d been hoarding somewhere in its mechanical guts. Who says a woman can’t be reasoned with?
I glanced over to the espresso maker. Its logo glinted in the dull lighting. I thought for a moment, then reached over very slowly. It bubbled at a fairly sedate pace. I took hold of the cord, gently plugged it back in, and said, “Sorry about earlier. It’s been a tough sort of day.”
The spouts and dials of the machine remained stationary. Nary a droplet of hot espresso burbled up from the valved pipes.
It didn’t take me long to fetch a new toner cartridge for the surly behemoth. I took a few moments to clean the espresso machine. It was clogged in places. The exchange was tense, but no further assaults issued from either side.
I emerged some fifteen minutes later, collated stacks of copies finished in hand. My sleeve was torn, hair a little shorter on one side. I had a few burns, but those were hidden by my closed up jacket. The espresso stain barely showed.
When Athena bid me a good evening, she smiled. Her eyes stayed on me when she said, “Eros is recovered. If you plot revenge, it’s best served in time, when his grandfather has forgotten this business between you, and best done in a more anonymous fashion.”
“Me? I wouldn’t—”
She smiled. “You would. You probably will. Be more careful next time.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
On the drive home, I fished my cell phone out of the compartment between the front seats, and dialed up my favorite Indian delivery place. If I timed it right, they’d hit my apartment five minutes after me, traffic willing. Nothing washes away a bad day like wood stove-baked naan. When a familiar voice answered, I smiled, already in a better mood. “Hey, it’s Neva. How are you?”
“Neva, where have you been? When you don’t come in on Thursday night, we worry.” The greeting was brief, and the concern was touching. It’d only been two days since I saw them last.
“It’s only been—” I tried to speak.
“Two weeks. We thought you got hit by a bus, or skipped town, or…” Hit by a bus? Skipped town? First, I don’t come in and it’s skipped town or hit by a bus? Second, two weeks? Cupid. Zeus. Dev. Someone, someone, would pay. Given the way I’d spent the entire day, I was leaning toward Dev paying the price this time. Even when you’re only mostly mortal, it’s a lot like tempting Fate to deliberately go after a god… or his aged godly grandkid.
I love Indian food, but Padmakali was going a little over the top with concern. It’s not like I lived in their kitchen come hell or high water. I love naan, but not that much. Padma fancied herself a seer, with intuition and knowledge beyond your average restaurant hostess. We were friends. “Sorry, you said two weeks?”
“Yes, two whole weeks. Where is it you have been?” When she got upset, she had a little trouble with syntax. Under normal circumstances, you’d never know English wasn’t her first language.
“Working. Working hard.” And, apparently, getting stuck in time distortions at the whim of geriatric deities. “Padma, I’ll come see you later in the week. We’ll sit, talk. For tonight, the usual, extra spicy?” It was a plea as much as a request. The day was a long one, and I just wanted to go home. She agreed, reluctantly, with a soft sound of assent (or disapproval). I disconnected and checked the date on the phone. Yep. Two weeks. Greeks are as bad as Faeries.
I arrived home in record time and lugged my stained, slightly crisped self inside to shower off and change. The doorbell rang when I was in the bathroom trying to figure out what to do about the lopsided haircut. I walked out through the living room and pulled open the door with a smile.
The smile vanished. It wasn’t Padma or her delivery driver standing in the hall.
He stood there with his head tipped slightly back, eyes taking a slow circuit of my body, wrapped as it was in a bath robe. He looked like trouble, mostly because he was. I hadn’t seen Dev in a few weeks, we barely spoke for weeks before that. We were not on friendly terms. I could practically feel him thinking inappropriate things as he dragged short nails across the scruff along his jaw. His leather jacket cost more than some cars. He was dressed in all black, except the tee under his jacket, which was a burgundy wine. Not that I was staring at his chest or anyth—damn it.
I tightened my robe sash and dropped my hands. My other robe was in the hamper, so I had grabbed the nearest one, the one hanging along the back of the bathroom door. It was warmer, fluffy. It also happened to have the Powerpuff Girls on it. (It was a gift from my niece. It was. I swear.)
Dev’s eyes lingered for a beat on the robe. Few seconds passed, but it felt like minutes. My hands went a little cold and my eyes narrowed. He smirked and asked, “How was your day, baby?” The bag of carryout, from a little Greek place down the street, crinkled in his other hand.
I didn’t even consider counting to ten.
I broke a nail and bruised my hand when I punched him in the jaw.
I slammed the door in his face.
I thought I heard a familiar throaty laugh from my watchful neighbor down the hall.
Sometimes, being descended from Princesses is a challenge.
Nicci Mechler is a recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University’s Masters of English program. Her fiction most recently appeared in Rapunzel’s Daughters. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she writes, paints, and falls asleep with armloads of books.