“Every sickness has an alien quality, a feeling of invasion and loss of control that is evident in the language we use about it.”
― Siri Hustvedt, The Shaking Woman, or A History of My Nerves
The pill bottle’s lid hadn’t been tightened properly, and when Bill finally twisted it open, capsules spilled all over his desk. Bright red, blue, and green circles bounced off his laptop and wiggled into crevices behind photo frames.
Sighing, he retrieved a blue one (since it was after lunch) and popped in his mouth, then tediously gathered up the others, moving aside the pictures of his wife and son to get some that had rolled into the far corners of the desk. He counted them as he dropped them back in the bottle, hoping there had been only twelve.
Something went ping! and Bill nearly dropped the capsules all over again. He peered at the laptop screen, pulling down his glasses that had been perched on his forehead. A little flag notification waved in the corner, signifying a new email.
“No rest for the weary,” he grunted. He put the pill bottle back in his briefcase and readjusted himself on the uncomfortable chair.
The email, to his dismay, was from his sister. She only ever emailed when it was something too sensitive to call about–and too important to wait until he got home. A feeling of dread crawled into his stomach as he read the subject line: “About Dad.”
The feeling worsened as Bill read the contents. It was another long, rambly email mostly consisting of Karen defending herself and woe-is-me as the only child actually helping out and c’mon, Bill, please do this, because you’re Dad’s only son, and what about poor Mom?
He skimmed down to the point: the projected medical costs. Leaning back in his chair, Bill let out a long, slow breath and fought the lump in his throat.
It was too much. Too much for his mother, too much for Karen (who was living with Bill’s family due to her own financial problems), too much for himself. Too much for Dad.
Bill briefly considered the notion of not paying and what that would mean. At-home care for awhile? Maybe. Worst case scenario, his father would die.
He rubbed his eyes both in weariness and to wipe away tears. Dad was eighty-nine, which was fairly respectable age for anyone to go. Bill rather hoped he himself wouldn’t live that long.
To take his father out of the hospital would emotionally destroy his mother, though, and Karen would never forgive him. But what about his own family? Veronica was being wonderfully patient and supportive, and so was Louis, but the boy was also a teenager, and Bill had seen him look longingly at the fancy gadgets and gizmos his peers could afford. With this new medical bill, things would only get tighter.
Attached to the email was the form requiring his signature of approval. Karen wanted him to print, sign, and scan it back as soon as possible, so she could then send it to the hospital. He thought of his bank account, and how much emptier it would be once he signed. Veronica had her own income, but it wasn’t enough for the entire household. Working together, they had had a comfortable living – until Dad had gotten sick. And then it had been one red bill after another.
Bill shook his head. He knew he had already made his decision; there was no need to consult his wife, either, he already knew she would agree with him. She loved Dad like the father she never had. Bill opened the file, skimmed through the fine print (same as last time), and clicked “print.”
The printers were on the other side of the office, near the break room. Bill left his cubicle and slowly walked past those of his co-workers, glancing at their desks as he passed. He always liked seeing how people decorated their limited space. He personally lacked that kind of creativity and had settled for as many family photos as could fit. This morning, Bill had noticed a cookie on someone’s desk and had wondered it was a gift or some sort of avant-garde art statement.
There was no one at the printers, thankfully; Bill didn’t want to have to explain why he was printing a personal document, even though he knew people did it all the time. He stopped at Printer #17 and froze.
The tray was empty.
He checked the little LED screen displaying the printer’s status. “READY,” it said in square lettering. “NO DOCUMENTS IN QUEUE.”
Trying not to panic, Bill yanked open the paper supply. Full.
Had he sent it to the wrong printer? He went around to the others. All empty.
Maybe he hadn’t actually selected “Print” or “OK” or whatever.
If he hadn’t been incredibly stressed out and still under fifty, Bill might’ve thrown up his hands to loudly curse newfangled technology.
He walked quickly back to his desk, trying not to look hurried. Not even bothering to sit down, he bent over his laptop and clicked around. There was no delayed status message, and nothing to indicate a printing error of any kind. Still, the command must’ve gotten lost somewhere. He reopened the file and went to print again, this time checking the name of the printer he was sending it to.
Bill thought he might have a heart attack, despite having just taken one of his pills. He had sent it to the wrong printer. Not to #15 or #16, but to “OFFICE MANAGER.”
That was it, he was fired. He felt as sure of it as if it had been a noose slipped over his neck. One simple mistake, and his life was ruined. And not just his; without a job, he would barely be able to support his own family, let alone Karen . . . or Dad.
Blind panic clouded his senses, and it wasn’t until he was about to bolt to the manager’s office to plead forgiveness that he noticed she was standing right outside his cubicle.
Ms. Anandhi Kumar, the office manager, was dressed in a clean dark blue suit that was perfectly cut. She had shiny black hair, smooth youthful skin, and an unreadable expression in her dark brown eyes. “Is everything alright, Mr. Thompson?” She had her arms behind her back and looked terribly imposing, despite only being Bill’s height and much more slender.
Bill’s throat went dry. “Y-yes, ma’am,” he rasped. He realized he was still standing, and slowly sank into his chair, his trembling knees grateful for the relief.
“Having computer troubles?” she pressed.
He still couldn’t read her face. Was he in trouble? Did she already know? Perhaps she hadn’t been to her office in awhile, and this was just a routine visit to the cubicle workers. Then he was worried for nothing, right?
Bill gestured at his laptop in what he hoped was an offhand way. “Just sent a document to the wrong printer. No big deal.” He didn’t see the point in lying, since the file was clearly open on the screen, though she luckily wasn’t in a position to read exactly what it was.
“Yes, I know.”
Between his stomach clenching and heart pounding, Bill could barely hear or breathe. “What?”
Ms. Kumar revealed the sheets of paper she had been holding behind her back. “These showed up from the printer in my office.”
“Ahh . . .”
“It’s company policy that no personal documents are to be printed at work. I’m sure you’re aware of that.”
Bill closed his eyes. “Yes. I am.” He waited for the blow to fall.
“How much is your salary, Bill?”
He opened his eyes to stare blankly at his boss. There was now a strangely tender look in the younger woman’s face as she glanced at one of the papers.
“M-my salary?” he stammered and then at her questioning look, he told her.
She frowned. “How long have you been with the company?”
“That’s an awfully low salary for someone who’s been here as long as you.”
Bill thought so, too, of course, but he hadn’t dared say anything for fear of being part of the recent recession-responsible downsizing, and their former boss had been widely considered a hard ass who only cared about his own reputation. When he had been replaced by Ms. Kumar, Bill had been too busy dealing with Karen and his father to try asking for a raise from their new stricter, yet more friendly manager.
And it didn’t seem like now was a good time to ask for one, though he was pretty sure he wasn’t in trouble. He said nothing, and reached out a cautious hand for the papers, but Ms. Kumar didn’t relinquish them.
“My mother had cancer,” she said quietly, still looking at one of the sheets. “I know how difficult it can be to have a family member in the hospital. Having to deal with that.”
Bill didn’t know what to think. He had been expecting a punishment, but it seemed instead he had found a kindred spirit.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could say. He knew from experience it was a horribly inadequate phrase to tell someone who had a loved one suffering, but there really weren’t any other words for it.
Ms. Kumar nodded in familiar acceptance of the sentiment and at last gave him the papers. He took them without looking away from her face.
“I apologize for reading them, by the way,” she said, sounding formal again. “I recognized them for what they were, and couldn’t help myself.”
“It’s alright,” Bill said, and it was. If anybody had to know about his father, at least it was someone who understood. “I apologize for not checking the right printer.”
She waved a hand slightly. “People do it all the time. I just have to keep telling them off to appear properly boss-like.”
Bill gave a tentative smile. She wasn’t exactly joking with him, their different statuses were still a firm barricade between them, but she was no longer the guarded, stern manager, either.
“Well, thank you. I’ll be more careful next time.”
“See that you do.” Ms. Kumar made as if to walk away. Bill had already turned back to his desk when he heard her say, “When you have a moment, Mr. Thompson, come see me in my office. We need to discuss your raise.”
He jerked his head around to stare at her. She quirked her eyebrow up at the expression on his face and then disappeared behind the walls of cubicles.
It was a pleased Bill who gathered his things together at five o’clock and went whistling down to the parking garage. What had started as a terrible day had ended on an optimistic note. Not quite happy, as his father was still sick, his sister still aimless, and the raise wasn’t quite as much as he had been hoping for, but Ms. Kumar had been very kind, and their discussion in her office had been quite illuminating about his position in the company and any possible prospects. She had been invited over for dinner next week, too; he had a feeling she and Veronica would get on like a house on fire.
The dread had coiled away from his heart, and now he felt something almost strange, it had been so long since he’d last had the feeling:
I’m super cheesy, what can I say?
This was a really hard prompt for me to do, hence why it’s been so long since I last posted anything for this challenge. I couldn’t figure out why anybody would print something sensitive at work, unless it was an accident or something really important. I made three attempts that went nowhere, and then I considered just making the guy stupid, but when I started writing, it turned into something else entirely, and I just went with it. I’m still not sure how believable it is, but at least it ends happy, which is all that matters. (For real, don’t print personal things anywhere but at home, it’s not worth the risk!)
Want to do the challenge yourself? Today’s prompt is: “You’re at work, and you print something personal (and sensitive). Unfortunately, you’ve sent it to the wrong printer, and by the time you realize it, somebody else has already scooped it up.”