I had a big meeting in fifteen minutes, so very unfortunate that I noticed a smell. It came to me as I waited for the printer. The copy machine broke? Seconds later, the machine churns out freshly baked double-sided collated copies. I sense a change in the air. It was as if someone lit a candle called Low Tide but on the 33rd floor of the corporate building, people did not light candles, not even birthday candles. Birthdays were personal. Non-company reminders were sparse: post-it notes with personal errands, occasional family pictures, and co-workers secretly texting external contacts. Otherwise, colleagues consorted on online chats and email.
Thank goodness for my morning laps at the Olympic-sized pool. My lungs were able to hold in my breath, avoiding the stink, for the last two copies of a 6-page document. The company suggested length for research documents. I exhaled as soon as I left the copy room, glass windows on my left side and the large conference room at the end of the hallway. I re-read the first page, marveling at my own work. How could they not love my analysis of the company’s new foray into e-commerce?
Then it hit me, again. A fragrance of festering water conjures images of dark soupy liquid that pooled on the edges of subway platforms. I duck into the bathroom and inspect under my feet, finger every crevice of my body, and inspect my ass in the mirror. A weird reaction to stress? An odor radiating everywhere but nowhere at the same time. I continue down the hallway, noticing the warped bugged-out stares of employees at blue-light screens.
I recite the last sentence of the paper to myself: The evidence shows that for every twenty-five dollars lost in selling essential goods like toothpaste and toilet paper translates into a three-fold profit for the company the following year. If the company hooked a customer once then they would return to purchase much more. The long game worked; no wonder small businesses struggled to stay open. Cue the wicked laugh. Though being privy to a secret felt exhilarating.
Inside the clean and spotless meeting room, I pray to any god that I would not meet that horrible stench again, at least until the end of the meeting. I graze the back of my hand on my forehead. Not sick. In the bathroom mirror my face looked flush. Should have splashed cold water on my face. Too late. Focus, I tell myself. For months, I had pulled data, coded these algorithms, and positioned the output graphs with precision, thinking of nothing else. Please let my insight be enough.
Attendees enter the room for my meeting, then read in silence, as all meetings started here. I fidget with the zipper on my hoodie in a corner, gauging my coworker’s expressions as they read. These people laughed and joked at happy hours but facing off over the conference table seemed like warfare. Nothing but stoned faced killers. Ding. A whiff of decomposing vegetables emanated from the table. Did someone fart? SBD.
I almost fell backwards out of the chair when I see a wispy orb hovering over Mevis, the oldest tenured employee and always late to meetings. I rub my eyes. Specks of dust in my contacts? The lights dim.
Mevis mutters an apology, sucking the energy from the room.
Then, I taste something metallic and fishy. My stomach ripples and I wretch. Head turns, reacting to the sound, so I stand up. My question redirects my energy. “Does anyone need more time?” I position my fist over my mouth to suppress a gag.
Tom, my manager, clears his voice. “Ten minutes.” His face set in contemplation and mild irritation. It looks like he needs to take a shit. My mind goes there on account of the smell. Then, the floating tentacles reaches into Tom’s throat and pulls out a sloppy white mass. Tom does not react to this invasion into his body. No one does.
The apparition sloshes from one person to the next: collecting shadows, consuming their essence, and foraging on the essence of people.
Should I do something? I didn’t need compliments or praises. I want the director to tell me I still had a job. The requirements of my work visa said that I had to remain in this city and this same employer for at least 6 more months. Else, I would be sent away, back into a menial position that no longer suited me.
My existence didn’t matter to them.
“Lovely.” I sat down to review the charts and graphs. My team will ask about figure 3, a line fitted to scattered points. I wondered if I explained the outputs well enough. Ding! The thing wipes its filthy appendage across my lips, reminding me of a weirdly nostalgic game from childhood, smell-my-finger, where an unwilling participant had to sleuth the origins of an odor from a finger shoved into their face. I gasp and it recoils from my reaction. This is the source of the vile-drenched tang. Sickening things are happening.
The thing moves to and fro, slithering its stink. Part of my image is reflected inside the ghostly jellyfish’s shiny skin. I look haggard, aged many decades. Is this its imagination? As if looking through a magnifying glass, I glimpse the faces in this room: whiten hair, bloodshot eyes, and sunken cheeks. Or Is this what the being does to us?
“Time’s up,” I announce and sit in the empty seat at the table. Where is the bleach? Now the ghost pinches the skin on my arms and salivates as it peels off a layer. This is the pain of my soul ripping apart. Lights flickered. I hold my breath, concentrating on the visa and six-months. In my right mind I would run out of here screaming. But this option was better for my resume. My eyes begin to water when I ask the room, “Does anyone have feedback?”
Pauline Chow writes speculative fiction to explore history and systems with disgruntled people. She was an attorney and now works in tech. In upstate New York with her husband, toddler, and rescue pup, she is living her best life in the woods. Find her at www.paulinechowstories.com or @DataThinker on Twitter.