By Any Other Clock

Amazing Rasputin by Russ Woods

Erin, wearing her headset and tethered to her phone, put a knee on her desk and pulled herself up to the top of the flimsy cubicle wall separating her from the rest of the office. She peered over it and across the call center floor. She’d found that if she stretched her back and tilted her head just right, she could catch a glimpse of the corner of her supervisor’s office window.

It was gorgeous outside.

“This has got to be illegal,” she said.

“Only four more hours,” replied Jorge, leaning back in his chair and speaking up into the ether, assuming Erin would know he was talking to her.

“Why?” asked Jessica, the co-worker on the opposite side of the cubicle wall Erin was currently staring over. “You guys leaving early or something?”

“Isn’t it one o’clock?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t we leave at five?” asked Erin.

“No.”

“You’re going to need to explain that one.”

“Rush started,” explained Jessica. “We’re all here ‘til six. Mandatory overtime.”

“That started today?” asked Jorge.

“Yup.”

“Son of a bitch.”

“Thank you for calling Parkman Publishing,” added Erin, climbing off her desk.

“Seriously, Rush started?” continued Jorge. “You’re not just messing with us?”

“I’m not messing with you,” said Jessica. “I don’t like it any more than you do.”

“Yes, but you hate it less.”

The conversation having reached its conclusion, Jorge and Jessica drifted back into the metaphorical islands of their cubicles, each staring at their clocks and absentmindedly daydreaming about the world beyond their squishy beige half-walls.

“Because we don’t own FedEx, ma’am.”

Erin, meanwhile, was starting to get loud.

“What do you want me to do, ma’am? If you want your books they have to be shipped to you and that means they’re going to need to be packaged and sent out on a truck or on a plane and that means you’re going to have to pay the shipping comp— Look, lady, until magic becomes a viable method of transportation, that’s your only option.”

Jorge couldn’t stop himself from cackling with delight.

“Did you just cackle?” asked Jessica.

“What’s wrong with cackling?”

It was then that Erin growled. It was adorable and kind of effeminate, but it was definitely a growl.

“Oh my God,” she said, “I hate everyone.”

Erin climbed up on her desk again and craned her neck toward the window once more.

“This job sucks.”

“Thank you for calling Parkman Publishing,” said Jessica.

“There’s no sugar.”

“I’m sorry?” replied Erin.

“There’s no more sugar in the kitchen,” said Jorge. “How am I supposed to drink my coffee?”

Erin’s phone rang. She promptly and professionally ignored it.

“Uh, black?”

“What am I, some kind of savage?”

Erin’s phone rang again.

“Isn’t there that fake sugar stuff?”

“There’s the blue ones and the pink ones.”

Erin’s phone rang a third time.

“So use one of those.”

“I really only like the green ones, though.”

Erin’s phone did not ring a fourth time.

“Huh,” said Erin. “That’s weird.”

It had been fifteen solid minutes since anyone’s phone had last rung. Even the guy Jorge had been keeping on hold had hung up. The entire customer service department was beginning to get worried. But, more than that, they were bored. Fifteen minutes in a call center is an eternity by any other clock. The muffled sound of ambient, idle chatter was growing in volume.

“Holy crap,” said Jorge, standing in his cubicle, “I can hear people other than you two.”

“I know,” said Erin, “it’s spooky, right?”

Jorge and Erin listened as the sound of distant, indistinct speech slowly began to change into discrete, defined voices and words and conversations.

Erin shuddered.

“That is so creepy.”

A short while later, Sheila, the department manager, began making her rounds, filling in the panicking employees with what little information she had.

That information was this: There appeared to have been some kind of calamity at Parkman Publishing’s corporate headquarters, consequently crippling the phone and internet capabilities of all their satellite offices, the call center included. However, this complete inability to actually do his or her job notwithstanding, no employee was allowed to leave early. Employees were, though, allowed to use their cell phones freely, a flagrant reversal of standard company policy.

Of course, given that the call center was situated in a former fallout shelter composed almost entirely of concrete, and located just to the left of the middle of nowhere, and just barely eked out crap cellular reception on a good day, the employees therein took this more as a taunt from corporate than a welcomed concession. Sheila herself only received the message when she went onto the roof to smoke.

“You smoke?” asked Erin.

“We have access to the roof?” asked Jorge excitedly. The prospect of the call center being comprised of anything besides the parking lot and a sea of cubicles was mind-blowing.

“Only when I’ve been drinking, and no, only managers,” replied Sheila, standing in the aisle, between the entrances to Erin and Jorge’s respective cubes.

“Can I be a manager?” asked Jorge.

“No.”

“Is everyone OK?” asked Jessica from beyond the wall behind Erin’s desk. “Did they say what was going on over there?”

“They seem to be handling whatever it is pretty well,” answered Sheila. “There was very little screaming in the background.”

There was no audible reaction from Jessica, but everyone assumed she was staring at her beige divider in shocked disbelief.

“It was a joke,” said Sheila.

“Oh,” replied Jessica. “I don’t really think we should be joking about this.”

“Probably not.”

“I mean, people could be hurt. We don’t know what happened, what if it was an earthquake? Or” – she lowered her voice – “terrorists.”

“I don’t —”

“I’m just not comfortable with you being so callous about this is all.”

“Seriously, Sheila. I don’t think you understand the gravity of this situation,” added Jorge. “We are all getting incredibly bored.”

“That,” said Erin, hopping up on her desk and ornamented with a highlighter-yellow, copy paper tiara, “is because you’re not trying hard enough.”

An hour had passed. There was still no more information about the mysterious catastrophe that had struck Parkman Publishing’s corporate office. Sheila was doing all she could, sitting patiently on the roof with a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of emergency bourbon, and holding her phone at all kinds of crazy angles, as suggested by the manufacturer’s instructions.

Her employees had likewise found ways to remain productive.

“Why are you still sitting at your desk?” asked Erin, still in her tiara and now adorned with a matching yellow Post-it note scarf. “Come over here. I’m teaching Jorge to dance.”

“Not very well,” said Jorge, wearing a paperclip tie and a crown made out of old invoices.

“Hey, I’m teaching just fine; your feet aren’t learning properly.”

“I don’t think it’s so much my feet as my hips.”

“You are remarkably rigid, yes.”

“Well, you’re holding me pretty close.”

“Hey. I’m engaged, mister.”

“Yeah, but you never talk about him…”

“Yeah…”

“Aren’t you two the least bit concerned about what’s going on over at corporate?” asked Jessica.

“Not really, no,” said Jorge.

“Well, I am,” she replied in a huff. “I don’t know how you can just ignore what happened. It’s selfish is what it is. I mean, what if it was really bad, what if they’re not OK? What if we lose our jobs? What if we’re next?!”

“Oh my fucking Christ,” muttered Erin.

“You really need to stop watching Fox News so much, Jessica,” added Jorge.

“I’m serious! It’s a very real possibility!” replied Jessica. “How many people did you two piss off this morning, huh?”

“I don’t know, at least —”

“Just one of them needs to be crazy. Just one! And how many hundreds of orders do we take a day, huh? The odds aren’t good!”

“I’m more than willing to crawl under your desk with you if you’re afraid of being exploded, Jessica,” replied Jorge. “That goes for you too, Erin.”

“That is remarkably chivalrous of you, Jorge,” said Erin, twirling away from him, “but I highly doubt that you or that desk is going to keep me from being all exploded. I appreciate the gesture, though. The thought that counts and all that.”

Jorge pulled Erin closer again.

“I like to think I’m indestructible. And that I can set things on fire with my brain.”

“You two are retarded,” said Jessica.

“I just don’t see how my getting worried and not doing anything is any more helpful than my not getting worried and not doing anything.”

“Seriously,” added Erin. “It’s not like we’re not going to not do anything anyway, regardless of how much we do or don’t worry.”
“Hold on, I gotta… I gotta write this down,” said Jessica.

Sheila ran out of bourbon much sooner than she had anticipated. She still had cigarettes, but, since she was no longer drinking, she was no longer interested in them. She was, however, still very, very drunk. As such, when she stumbled into Jorge’s cubicle and vomited, Sheila was not caught by surprise.

Jorge, Erin, and Jessica, however, were.

“Are you OK?” asked Jorge, still in Erin’s cubicle.

“Jush peachy,” sputtered Sheila.

“How much did you drink?”

“Everything.”

“That’s… not really an amount.”

“Your mom.”

“That’s not either.”

Sheila vomited again.

“That probably is, though,” said Erin.

At that moment, a phone rang.

“What the shit is that?” said Jorge.

“It’s… my phone,” said Jessica. “Personal line.”

“They… they fished the phones,” said Sheila. “I got the tesht… from the tech guysh here when… when I was up on the… the thing.”
Jessica put on her headset and hit the call button.

“Hello?”

“Did they get everything fixed then?” said Jorge.

“Yesh,” answered Sheila.

“To the internet!” exclaimed Erin, raising her index finger into the air.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m at — What?!” said Jessica.

Erin double-clicked the Internet Explorer icon on her desktop. A new window opened, defaulting to CNN.com.

“Holy shit,” she said.

“No fucking way…” said Jorge.

“Oh my God,” said Jessica. “Oh my God!”

“Yeah, I fucking know, right?” added Sheila before vomiting again. “I guesh we can go home now.”

A commotion began swirling around the four of them as every last one of the call center’s employees began packing up their belongings and making frantic phone calls to family members. A fair number skipped the formalities and simply ran screaming for the exits.

“I don’t believe it,” said Jessica, sobbing gently as she ended the call and pulled off her headset.

“It’s just crazy,” said Erin.

“It’s fucking awesome is what it is,” said Jorge.

“What?!” shouted Jessica. “How are you possibly excited about this?”

“How are you not?”

“Can… can I get a ride? With shomeone?” asked Sheila, falling hard against the cubicle divider. “I’m not… I’m not feeling so hot.”

“It is kind of awesome,” admitted Erin.

“What is wrong with the two of you?!” asked Jessica.

“What, you’re saying your heart isn’t racing?”

“You’ve never gotten that rush,” asked Jorge, “thinking about being a part of some spectacular catastrophe?”

“No,” said Jessica, “mostly I’ve just been thankful it wasn’t me.”

“Then you must’ve been doing something wrong,” said Erin.

“Besides,” said Jorge, “this time it is you.”

“And me!” added Erin. “And you, too, Jorge.”

“And me,” said Sheila, barely audible over the din of their coworkers. “And me… Will shomebody please fucking take me home now?”

“Yes,” answered Jessica. “Let’s go.”

“You’re leaving?” asked Erin.

“Quitters,” added Jorge.

“There are hundreds of meteors falling from the God damned sky, all over the planet!”

“Yeah, I know, I can read,” replied Erin, looking at her computer screen.

“And I’m pretty sure they’re called meteorites once they break the atmosphere,” said Jorge.

“We should probably look that up,” said Erin, turning to Jorge.

“I don’t want to die here!” shouted Jessica.

“Dying at home is better?” asked Jorge.

“You must have some really nice furniture,” added Erin.

“You guys… you two are speshal,” said Sheila, staggering toward Jessica’s desk. “Can we get the fuck out of here now, Jessica?”

“Yes.”

There was a colossal thudding sound, and then the entire call center shook. Cubicle walls fell and florescent lights snapped and swung.

“Yeah, good luck with that,” said Erin.

“Fuck you!” shouted Jessica as she and Sheila ran across the call center floor towards the building’s exit.

“You’re going to regret saying that if we die!”

There was another thud. The floor felt significantly less horizontal than a floor probably should have. There was another, louder thud. The call center’s lights – the ones still connected anyway – flickered.

“And if we die,” said Jorge, “you’re going to regret saying that.”

“Yeah, probably,” replied Erin. “But she was being a bitch.”

“Wanna see what we can see from the windows?”

“Sure.”

Erin and Jorge made their way to Sheila’s office. The commotion within the call center was down to a slight murmur now, most of the employees having fled or crawled under their desks to pray to a variety of gods. Jorge slid open the window. There were shouts coming from the parking lot. An air raid siren could faintly be heard in the distance.

“Why are you still here?” asked Jorge, staring absently out the window.

“Why are you?”

“Because my apartment is a shithole. I use a cardboard box as a coffee table. Don’t you have a fiancé to get home to?”

Erin shrugged.

“That seems like an inappropriate response to that question.”

“He’s kind of a dick,” said Erin. “He gets angry a lot. I was planning on dumping his ass before the wedding.”

“That’s pretty cold-blooded.”

“You’re the one who kept telling me to do it.”

“I kept telling you you could do it,” Jorge replied with a smirk.

“We did get some really nice engagement presents out of it, at least.”

Another thud rocked the call center, shattering a number of windows farther down the building. A thick cloud of brown dust drifted past Sheila’s office.

“I think I’m gonna call my parents,” said Erin.

“Yeah, me too.”

There was another, louder thud. This time the power cut out entirely.

“Well, so much for that,” said Jorge. He slumped against the wall, pulling a leg up onto the windowsill. Erin sat down on the sill, back against the window, and turned to face Jorge.

“We’re going to die here, aren’t we?”

“Most likely.”

“I knew this job was going to kill me,” she said with a sigh.

An explosion blossomed against the horizon.

“Fucking call centers,” said Jorge.

Erin shook her head and smiled at him. A slight tremor rolled through the office.

“So what now?” she asked.

“I guess we just wait,” said Jorge, “and see what happens.”

———————–

Eirik Gumeny is the author of Exponential Apocalypse, co-author of Screw the Universe, and a folder of origami cranes. He was the founding editor of Jersey Devil Press and his work has been published online a lot, in print occasionally, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize at least once. His internet address is egumeny.blogspot.com.