The Dotted Line
a short story
Candi pulled on her shit-kicking boots and stared out the window. She was dressed in a long sleeved shirt, denim dress pants, and a sweater. She glanced at the clock, feeling the anxiety in her stomach, and finished her third cup of coffee. She stood up slowly, her muscles tense and achy, and stretched out her shoulders. She felt like she was going into battle, but she was only going to work.
She wanted to laugh, but knew if she gave into the desire she would end up on the floor, in the corner, sobbing. She checked her lunch bag: nuts, protein bars, a peanut butter sandwich, caffeine pills and energy drinks. She poured her fourth cup of coffee in a large travel mug and set everything on the table beside the door.
She went through her small house, ensuring that the windows and doors were locked and that her cat had enough water to see him through if she didn’t make it home for a while. She stood beside the tub and looked at the faucet; she wanted to leave it dripping in case he had to be alone for days, she considered leaving more bowls of food and snapped back to reality. “You’re going to freaking work, Candace, not war,” she muttered softly.
She pulled on gloves, a scarf, and a nice leather jacket she’d found for only five bucks at the local Salvation Army. She grabbed her keys, took half a dozen deep breaths, and stepped out into the morning. The sky was overcast, the wind cold and wet, and she could smell snow in the air. She glanced over to see the snow shovel resting by the porch and had to restrain herself from double-checking the fact that there was one in the trunk. She knew she had placed it in there, as well as, other articles to protect her in blizzard season and she refused to check again. She was tired.
She drove slowly, taking an indirect route to finish her coffee and smoke a couple cigarettes. She parked in the lot and looked at the towering building. It truly wasn’t towering when compared to the other buildings beside it, but when inside, it felt oppressive. It hadn’t always been overwhelming, though, for eight years she had enjoyed her job, loved it actually, but companies change hands and when hers did it resulted in most of the staff being fired or laid off. New people were brought in to replace the, now, abbreviated job titles, and Candi was one of the “lucky” ones who had been spared.
She crossed the parking lot and stepped into the building. She shunned the elevator and took the stairs. It’s training, she thought as her breathing became heavy when she turned onto the fifth set. She counted as she walked. She knew how many steps there were for each floor, and she knew how many steps there were from the parking lot to her small, cubed, office.
The door of the stairwell opened and gave a perfect view down the hall, and into the glass doors revealing the reception desk. Candi breathed a sigh of relief, Serena wasn’t at work yet and then she saw the willowy blonde appear from under the desk. “Damn it,” Candi muttered under her breath.
Her paced slowed. She opened the glass door, smiled, and nodded.
“I see you have a new jacket, Candace. What did that cost you? A dollar fifty at the local food bank?” Serena smiled, her delicately arched and darkened brows lifting up and disappearing under heavily bleached hair. Her eyes were a yellow shade of green that reminded Candi of the feral cats that she fed on occasion and who would bite her for no reason.
“Seventy-five cents and they served lobster bisque! Isn’t it great?” Candi spun in a slow circle to highlight the hand-me-down jacket.
Serena’s pupils grew smaller and her lips tightened; she glanced at her nails.
Candi made a right turn and stared down the cubed corridor. She took a deep breath and stepped into the gauntlet. The “hall” was long, with twelve cubed “offices” on each side and she wished she were invisible. Luckily, she was early and most hadn’t come into the office with their chatter, noise, thoughts, and subtle threats.
“I thought you said the sales report would be on my desk this morning, Candace!” Laura barked before Candi had cleared the three-foot opening of her office.
“I left it there last night,” Candi said, leaning in and checking Laura’s inbox – it was empty.
“Well, it’s not there,” Laura said, leaning forward - all six foot of her - and pointed, with a sharpened nail painted deep red, at the empty box.
“I’ll have it for you in a second,” Candi said. She had prepared for this.
“I’m leaving in sixty, you better,” Laura said, standing to her full height and placing her hands on her thick waist.
Candi stepped into her cube, and pulled a set of keys from her pocket. She unlocked the filing cabinet and pulled the second report free. She walked back to Laura’s cube and dropped the report into the inbox. Laura looked up from the compact, as she applied more blood colored lipstick, and nodded.
Candi sat down at her desk, booted up the computer and turned, opening the blinds that looked down on the dark and polluted river below. The river hadn’t always been polluted, but in the last few years, as the mines shut down, it had grown darker and darker and more slow moving. At the very least, it made interesting designs in the ice as it froze every winter.
She heard him enter, somehow the well-greased door always clicked when he entered – it always clicked three times. Maybe a reminder of how much higher he was on the totem pole than she. The line of cubes were much like a totem pole, the executives sat in the front with real offices and big windows looking down at the city, and the lines of uncluttered squares, growing smaller, denoted those who hadn’t achieved the big prize. The executive turnover was high, but she remained at the bottom, never moving up, and tried to be content with her view of the polluted river. Her space was the smallest, the heat rarely seemed to work, and the sun never made direct contact – she’d almost considered watering the moss that grew on the brick of her windowsill.
Caleb had arrived and she was torn between her feelings. He was big, lumbering, gruff, and short when he spoke. He wasn’t attractive, and although he didn’t smell bad, she wondered how often he showered. He was unkempt, his hair longish and looked as though he had been pulling at it in frustration and anger. He always wore the same trench coat, his jackets looked as though they came from cheaper thrift stores than she shopped, and his t-shirts were ragged as if he had unearthed them from the beach after a wild party. In other words, Caleb was weirdly cute and totally terrifying.
Next came Crystal. She could always tell when Crystal entered a room, not because the building gave away a hint, like it did with Caleb, but because she was just loud. She laughed at everything; a hideously annoying, nervous laugh, and she did it at the end of every sentence. Candi could only discern the importance of the person Crystal was speaking with by the sheer loudness of her laugh.
Candi studied her workload, sighed, pulled an energy drink from her bag, and listened to the office waking up.
Miriam came in quietly. Miriam didn’t speak much and when engaged in conversation, she spoke of her angst, pain, and doctors. Although Miriam was quiet on the surface, Candi felt the scream of her entrance. When Miriam came in every morning, ever so softly, Candi felt it in her right shoulder.
Candi checked her email, realized she had to pee, and wished for something different.
Amy stepped into the office and the floor vibrated. Amy wasn’t a big girl, but she walked so heavily that the whole room vibrated when she entered. Amy was twenty-something, blond, built, and had the second cube from the boss. She worked out at the gym six nights a week, got more phone calls than anyone in the office and, Candi suspected, would be moving into the first cube by month’s end.
Samantha came in next and Candi could detect her by the scent of her cologne. Somehow her perfume made it through the doubled glass doors before Samantha did. Samantha sat across from Caleb and he often complained of her stench and it seemed the more he complained, the stronger the aroma became.
“Jesus,” he muttered as Samantha spoke to Serena.
Candi stifled a laugh.
The pit of her stomach churned, the air grew a little thicker, and she knew Troy had arrived. She heard the greeting Serena handed out, her voice purring sexily, and Candi cringed.
Troy had a big office, the ones with sunny windows and heat. Troy was the prize amongst most of the single women in the department looking for a man to take them from their troubles. Troy drove the right car, his facial hair was perpetually trimmed in the latest style, and his body reflected the time he put out to perfect it, but he made Candi’s skin crawl. His eyes were blue, and dead fish like, his brows and hair dark. On the surface he was an attractive, single, rich man, but underneath, Candi smelled a corpse.
Her phone rang and she picked it up slowly. “This is Candace, how may I help you?” she answered.
“Candi-Bunny, come to my office,” Troy said.
“Yes, sir,” she said, hanging up the phone and taking a big slug of chemicals that professed to give her energy.
She still had to pee, but she stood, picked up her notepad and walked through the gauntlet. Most didn’t pay attention to her, settling their workspaces for the day, but she felt Caleb’s eyes on her back.
Troy sat at his desk, his expensive suit jacket hanging next to his overcoat on the rack in the corner, and he studied the post-it notes on his desk. She rubbed her nose, she could discern the cologne and knew it was high-end, one-ounce cost more than she spent in groceries for a month, but it didn’t cover the odor of the decay. She knocked softly.
“Come in, Candi-Bunny,” he said and smiled, her skin crawled.
She stepped into the room and stood in the doorway.
“Sit, sit,” he said, waving his arm and indicating the leather chairs set before his desk.
Candi stepped forward slowly. She felt naked, and restrained herself from looking down to see whether or not she was truly dressed. She knew she had clothes on, but the desire, the feeling to check, was nearly overwhelming as the man with the dead eyes watched her. She sat down on the cold leather and faced him, wondering if it was only her imagination that one of his eyes seemed displaced.
“Laura said that her report wasn’t ready as she was told it would be,” he stated.
Candi glanced at her watch. “I told her she’d have it this morning. The workday doesn’t start until eight. She had it at seven forty five.” She pulled her eyes away from his because they made her dizzy.
He chuckled and his smile brought to mind a nature video she’d once seen of wolves tearing into the flesh of a helpless rabbit. “She was displeased.”
She nodded, her eyes on a bronze replica of scarab on his desk. Her bladder cramped, reminding her of the coffee she had consumed.
He stared and she grew sweaty and weak. The hair on her arms and neck stood at attention. “Next time she wants a report on her desk, you deliver it. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, keeping her eyes downturned. “May I go?”
He looked her up and down and she felt roaches crawling on her skin. She stopped herself from slapping at the ones she felt on her legs, right above her boots and below where her slacks grew tight, and looked into his fish eyes.
He smiled and she told herself that his canine teeth really weren’t as long as she perceived. “Yes, Bunny, you may go.”
She wanted to run. She really wanted to run, after all, she had trained with all the stair walking she had done, but she walked slowly, almost lady-like, out of his office. She went to the bathroom and walked back down the gauntlet, smelling the smells, hearing the overwhelmingly loud laughter, and feeling the eyes.
Caleb grabbed her. He rolled back in his chair, pulling her along, his grip firm on her wrist. “Everything all right?” he asked, looking her over as though she was a meal he wasn’t interested in eating.
“Yes,” she expelled on a breath. “I’m fine.”
He studied her for a moment, up and down, and she felt the roaches leave her skin. “Good,” he said, dropping her wrist and turning to the three different monitors displaying information.
Candi went back to her desk. She was just inputting the last day’s numbers when she heard Mika enter the asylum. Mika was never happy. Her desk was opposite of Amy’s, she received nearly as many calls a day, and Candi was unsure which one would achieve the golden cube right outside of the bosses’ offices first. Mika bitched. Mika bitched about everything and would tell the sandwich guy, the UPS man, and everyone below her how they could do their job better, but to the folks in the window-lined offices, she was milk and chocolate. Didn’t hurt that she was half Japanese, and those extra twenty pounds seemed to work in her favor, but Mika was all spoiled-American and thought all things should be done, as she said they should be done, and when she expected them.
Candi chuckled for a moment, grateful that she still could, and regretted that she had never started an office pool to see who would win that golden cube, Amy or Mika.
She cursed her moment of humor when Mika appeared in the doorway. “I heard what you did,” Mika said, her voice soft but somehow reverberating through the rafters of the old building. Her hand was on her waist and her black hair shined.
“What have I done?” Candi asked, focusing on the paperwork on her desk.
“You pissed off Laura!” Her voice grew louder.
Candi glanced at the mirrored 1970s clock on her desk and saw Mika toss the black mass of hair over one shoulder. She shrugged, alphabetizing the paperwork from the previous day’s sales.
“It is your job to give us our reports, that is all you have to do. How hard is it to pull up a file, print it, staple it, and put it on a desk? Are you stupid?” Mika stood taller than her few inches over five feet and seemed to fill the doorway.
Candi glanced at the mirrored clock again and decided it was only the angle of the mirror that made Mika look so large and bat-like. She felt chill bumps erupt on her skin. “She had it before the start of the workday,” she said softly.
“She’s a salesperson, Candace,” Mika spoke slowly as though explaining something to a deaf mute. “Her days begin before the start of the work day,” her voice carried on the ceiling like a wet, heavy blanket. “Do you know many people she talks to everyday? Do you know how many places she goes? She can’t wait until you come dragging in to get her reports! It’s a simple push of a button! You need to get with the program!” She turned sharply, walking away, and Candi could have sworn she saw the jagged points of wings through the warped glass of the old clock.
Billy stepped into her cube. “Where’s the daily?” he asked.
Billy was in his thirties, overweight, had never been married, and did everything by the book. He glanced at his watch. “The report,” he said again, digging his trousers from his crotch.
Candi pulled it out of her outbox and handed it to him. “It’s here, where it’s supposed to be,” she said, making a big show of glancing at the clock on the wall.
He stared at her chest. “I heard you pissed off Laura,” he chuckled and worked on pulling the generous pants from the crack of his ass. He took the papers and she told herself it was only her imagination that she saw the oily fingerprints he left on them.
She shrugged. “It happens.”
He snorted and continued down the hall.
Then Nathan stepped through the doors. He didn’t use just the one, he had to slam both of the glass doors open as though his girth was far wider than it was. Physically, Nathan was not a big man, but he had a way of intimidation about him that no one could help but feel small in his presence. He was mean, his eyes were sharp, and he had a challenged spot in the office – he was in one of the first cubes by the bosses. When Nathan entered the room she didn’t smell him, the door didn’t click, the room didn’t vibrate, and her shoulder didn’t scream in pain. When Nathan entered, the second hand on the clock stuttered and it stopped for a moment. When Nathan entered, time and sound stopped for a beat.
She heard Serena’s voice respond to his entrance, growing more slippery and slick, and Candi glanced at the big wall clock she’d bought for her cube and saw the little hand jut back, steady, and then proceed.
She shook her head.
Nathan was the reason she’d bought the big battery operated clock she kept on her cube wall, the only thing she displayed to her co-workers, and Nathan was also the reason she’d bought the circa 1970s electric clock on her desk. He was also why she purchased the watches, both the one on her wrist and the two others hidden away in her desk drawers.
“Candace?” She heard Richard whisper from the other side of the wall. “Where are my files?”
She sighed, stood up, and walked to the next cube. “Right there, Rich, where they always are.” She pointed at the pile beside his chair – the place he demanded she place his files.
“I told you yesterday I wanted them there.” He pointed at the top of the filing cabinet.
“No, you didn’t. If you had told me that, I wouldn’t have put them there.” She pointed again to the stack, wondering why it was a big deal. There were his files and in the same place she had put them since he had replaced Dawn.
“I told you yesterday,” he whispered. Richard never spoke above a whisper.
“You may have thought, considered, and pondered telling me, Rich, but you never actually told me. If you had, your files would be where you requested.” She smiled.
“I’m calling Troy,” he said and sneered, his front teeth calling up the memory of a gerbil she had as a child.
“You do that,” she said and walked back to her cube. She downed the energy drink and tossed the can in the trash. It’s only twenty after eight, she thought, it’s going to be a long day.
She went to work and the phone rang a bit before noon. “This is Candace, how may I help you?” she answered.
“We’re doing lunch,” Troy barked in the phone. “I’ve had lots of complaints about you today, Candi-Bunny, lots. Meet me at my office in five.” He hung up the phone.
She dropped the phone slowly and glanced down at her clothes. She’d worn her shit-kicking clothes, would this be the day? She straightened her desk as she straightened her house, as though she would never return, but there wasn’t a cat here to feed, so she watered the plants she’d set in the cold window.
She pulled on her new five-dollar jacket, shoved her gloves in the pockets, donned her scarf, and met him at his office. He towered over her, his dark brows in straight lines, his dead fish eyes looking both left and right at the same time. “Let’s go,” he snapped.
She followed him, glancing over her shoulder to see if anyone was concerned. Serena smirked and tended to her hair in the mirror she kept ready on her desk. He took the elevator and she wanted the stairs. Her breath grew short in the small box, his eyes were on her, and the roaches had returned. The numbers descended and she wondered if the small box held any oxygen and then she wondered if he even needed oxygen.
The doors finally opened, she took a deep breath, and followed him into the parking lot. “Laura, Billy, Mika and Richard all complained about you today,” he said, bypassing his car and heading to the street.
She expelled the air caught in her chest. “I know,” she said softly.
“You have it good here, why do you want to waste our time and your own?” he asked over his shoulder, the wind blowing most of his words away.
“I don’t, just trying to do my job.”
“Trying is the word here. Trying,” he laughed and turned into a diner.
They settled in a booth and the waitress brought the menu. He waved it away and ordered for both of them. “Rare steak, very rare, and some fries.”
Candi thought of the peanut butter sandwich with longing and a catch in her belly.
“Do you want to work here? There are many people who would like your cushy office.”
She held her tongue and was grateful when the waitress appeared with iced water.
“What do you make, twenty-five, thirty a year?”
She nodded her head and stared at the red plastic cup.
“Don’t you know how blessed you are?”
She wanted to laugh and dug her nails into her thighs, trying to waylay the sound and emotion. This is being blessed?
“Look at me!” he demanded, causing the people at the counter to turn their heads.
She looked up and couldn’t decide which eye to focus on. She was unsure if his eyes were actually off-center, or if that was only the way she perceived him.
“What do you want, Candi-Bunny? What do you want?” he asked, the roaches crawling on her skin.
“I want a job and I want peace,” she said honestly.
“You can’t have both. What? Do you think I have peace? I work eighty hours a week and my team has to work with me!” The patrons at the counter turned again.
She pulled her eyes away. “I don’t want the big office, I just want a job.”
“What are you willing to give?” he asked, reaching over the table for her hand.
She pulled her hand away. She lifted her gaze from the condensation beginning to drip down the exterior of the cup and focused on his sideway eyes. “Not that.”
He laughed louder this time, and two men, with hard hats sitting on the counter, ignored their half-eaten burgers to turn their stools and watch the interaction.
The waitress brought their bloody steaks and Candi’s stomach clenched as she remembered her sandwich. Troy waved the woman away rudely as she attempted to ask if they had all they needed and a third man turned to watch.
“Really?” he declared. “I think you’re lying! I think you’d give most anything to keep that wart hole you live in and feed that damned cat!”
A woman with tattoos on her face joined the onlookers.
Candi felt chill bumps rise on her skin. How did he know about Siddhartha? She didn’t put pictures of her cat as her screen saver or on her cube walls. How could he know? She focused on the water dripping down the cheap red cup.
“Answer me!” he said, cutting into the bloody meat.
“Yes, really,” she whispered, wishing she could disappear as the couple behind turned in their direction.
“You have to make a decision and make it now!” he said, his voice louder, and she was sure she saw those canine teeth lengthen. “Do you want to move forward or fall off the cart?”
She looked around the diner, saw the men at the counter ready to defend her, the couple behind her concerned, and she reviewed her bank balance in her mind. She’d been saving, she had a couple months worth stored back, and Siddhartha wouldn’t go hungry. “I guess I’m falling off the cart,” she whispered and pushed her bloody lunch away.
“Did you read what you signed when you came to work for us?” he growled under his breath, but the people at the counter still watched him as one would watch a snake.
She thought back. No, she hadn’t read all thirteen pages. She’d scored a job, a full time job, when most of her friends had at least two part time jobs and were still struggling to make ends meet. She shook her head.
“I own you. I own your fucking cat!” he laughed and the woman with the tatted face stepped off the barstool.
“So what are you saying?” Candi asked. He owned her? What the hell had she signed?
“You signed a contract. I own you,” he said, taking another bite of the bloody meat, unaware of the patrons watching him.
“That’s not legal. You can’t own another person. Slavery was abolished.” She still kept her eyes from his, taking turns watching the water beads slide down her glass and looking at the people in the restaurant.
“You signed the dotted line, serf! I could call animal control and have that cat in a gas chamber in under thirty minutes,” he laughed. And then, his teeth did grow. He pulled a phone from his pocket and hit a button.
“You’re going to kill my cat?” she asked, her voice rising, and focused on him.
His eyes straightened under the scrutiny. No longer fish-like, no longer looking two directions, but staring at her and turning a deep, un-human, shade of red. “You signed the dotted line.”
What the hell had she signed, she asked silently. She hadn’t received a copy.
As Troy spoke her address into the phone, the bell above the door jingled and Caleb stepped into the diner, nodding at the patrons. They stood; all of them, and Caleb grabbed the phone, tossing it to the waitress behind the counter who caught it as though she had grown up behind home plate.
Troy was startled and before he turned to confront Caleb his demeanor changed and was replaced by the normal countenance of any man, the red glow faded and the teeth slid back into their rightful position. “Caleb,” he said, standing. “What in the hell are you doing?”
“I see you, too,” Caleb said and motioned toward the waiting mass.
The patrons descended on Troy. Caleb pulled Candi out into the parking lot and, under the screams from the diner, he whispered in her ear, “Let’s go check on your cat.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and began leading her to his car. “Tomorrow Nathan will be the boss, and it seems we’re going to be busy this week.”
She stopped, glanced back at the blood smears on the glass of the diner windows and understood the high turnover of the executives.
He slowed and then reluctantly stopped, his eyes on the ground.
“Are you serious?” she asked.
He nodded his head slowly and sighed. “It’s a war. Do you want to play?” He turned and focused his gaze on hers.
Candi laughed and looked down at her shit-kicking clothes. “Seems so,” she said. She kissed him on the cheek, wrapped her arm around his waist, and said, “Do you think we can take Mika to lunch tomorrow?”