“He goes through five Kleenex boxes a day,” Heather said.
“He uses them to masturbate. That’s why he keeps his lights so dimmed.”
Peter was game for a little playful ribbing, but he didn’t quite get the joke. It was true that he’d been granted permission to bring in a few low-watt bulbs to replace the overhead fluorescents. Some coworkers found his newly tampered area to be “a bit too dark,” but he wasn’t sure how this had been extrapolated to include masturbation.
Peter waited a moment before entering the kitchen. “I’ve had a cold recently,” he smiled. “That’s why I have so much Kleenex.”
Heather and Francine each took a sip from their respective coffee mugs and then left the kitchen.
On his way back to his desk, Peter stopped and said “Hi” to Karl, director of development.
“I’m a little bummed out because I really like her. Between you and me, I have this hope that Heather and I might grab a cup of coffee after work sometime.”
“Uh huh.” Karl’s thumb shifted between photos on his cell. “But did you address their concern?”
“I was just responding to what had been said.”
“You’ve got to be careful about sexual harassment.” He put down his phone. “I wouldn’t talk about that stuff.”
“You’re probably right.”
Peter was entering the copy room when he saw Heather exit the workspace of Morgan, the company’s human resources consultant.
“Hey,” he said.
Heather grabbed her chest and fell against the wall.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I’m easily startled,” she said. “Even my roommate startles me.”
Peter returned to his workspace, turning the lights up a bit.
It occurred to him that Heather might have been talking to HR about what had happened in the kitchen. There was still time, though, to explain the situation before it got away from him.
Peter stuck his head over the top of Morgan’s cubicle.
“Do you have a moment?”
“Sure,” Morgan said. “Should I grab a conference room?”
“I just wanted to say that I saw Heather leaving your workspace and I think it’s part of a misunderstanding.”
“I should get a conference room.”
Morgan led Peter to conference room H and then stepped out before returning with Matthew, the finance manager, and Frank, a vice president.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you, anyways,” Morgan said. “So I thought I’d just use this time to address some concerns.”
“Oh?” Peter placed his palms on the table. “I just wanted to ask about paid time off.”
“We really think that you need you to explain yourself,” Matthew said.
“I’ve had a cold recently.”
“I’m sorry, Peter,” Frank said. “We have to let you go.”
As he was escorted out of the building by a pair of nameless security guard, the only item that Peter took from his desk was a framed photo of himself, an ex-girlfriend and their shared, deceased dog all standing in front of Santa Claus. His hard drives were left behind and his cloud access had been revoked.
Sitting in the Lehigh Mall Starbucks across the street from the office, Peter thumbed his recovered ID badge and sipped a Frappuccino, waiting for Rosanna and the rest of the office cleaning crew to turn off the lights.
Peter carried a cardboard box purchased at Lowe’s as he approached the building’s front door and swiped his ID. He walked down the hallway, watching the window’s moonlight fill up the path ahead of him. Peter moved through rooms, workspaces and closets, touching his hands to each inch of surface he could reach.
Room by room, office by office, workspace by workspace, Peter touched everything. He touched books on shelves and pens in drawers, as well as the drawers themselves and every part of each bookshelf and filing cabinet. He touched each part of every wall and stood on desk chairs in order to reach higher sections of walls and ceilings. He touched every part of each chair after he’d stood on it.
If a drawer was locked, he tried to open it with a butter knife from the kitchen or else he tried kicking it a little bit. He touched every part of all forty-eight computer monitors—towers, power cords and the outline of each socket, being careful. He reached into his cardboard box and pulled out a screwdriver and unscrewed each plastic wall socket cover and then touched every part of each socket and each part of every wall that had been covered by the socket cover and screwed every cover back into each wall section.
He turned off each light switch and standing on a chair, again, reached up and touched every part of each overhead light and then unscrewed each overhead light bulb and overhead light bulb cover. He touched the socket where the bulb had been screwed into each fixture.
He touched picture frames, photos of children, the painted bald eagle inside of the office of Phil from Marketing. He touched each part of the three standing lamps that he’d brought into his own workspace.
If Peter had to move any objects in order to touch a wall or the back of an object, he took care to place each item back in its original location after he was done with it.
From the cardboard box that he’d brought with him, Peter removed seven staplers, seven hundred fifty red, green and bright orange post-it notes and a ten-pack of Bic pens. He placed each item on its appropriate shelf inside the primary supply closet and then he knelt down in front of the supply closet and said the Lord’s Prayer.
Who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day
Our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those
Who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
Peter was heading towards the exit when he walked past Heather’s workspace. He poked his head back inside the area and then picked up a photo from her desk. He removed the picture of Heather and her mother from its frame, touching each part of the photo again and then touching each part of the frame before placing the photo back inside of its frame and back on her desk.
Peter took a step out of Heather’s workspace and then entered it a third time. He picked up the frame and pulled it close to his face. He brought the picture down towards his mouth and then pressed his lips against the glass frame so that they could cover Heather’s face and her head and her whole body. His lips were covering her face. His lips were covering her head. His lips were covering her whole body.
Ryan Sartor earned an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. He lives and writes in New York, NY where he hosts The Difficult to Name Reading Series. This is his first published short story.