Secretary

To get her through the morning, Sophia hyperventilates in the supply cupboard. In the dark, amongst the rows of neatly labeled boxes, she squats down, gulps air greedily, much more than she needs—air in, air out. Quick, sharp breaths that sound like a machine. The tiny room spins about her like a box gyroscope.

She holds her breath and stands. It's that moment when she twitches awake in the middle of the night for no good reason, terrified that she's still at work, only it's in reverse. Uplifted, wavering on the edge of consciousness, Sophia stands and Sophia falls.

Sprawled on tumbled shelves and crushed boxes and broken stationary, she dreams vivid, noisy dreams. Her heart thuds dully a million miles away. Reality clouds back slowly like the patterns in spilled oil.

It's as good as any hallucinogen. If nothing else it helps her ignore what's happening in the office annexing hers. Boss's office.

His office. Him.

Later, after clearing up the cupboard as best she can, Sophia will be getting herself off in the toilets, or snorting binder glue until her vision goes all green and gaussy. She'll melt throat lozenges from the medicine box with a pocket lighter to make a glutinous kind of whiskey that leaves her reeling. She'll lick the charged terminals on her PC's adapter until her tongue goes dead as cardboard in her mouth.

On the twenty-first floor of this building, Sophia is like one of those caged tigers that can't stop pacing. She is Boss's secretary.

And nothing can ever fix that.

***

Boss wants the file cabinets sorted. Like browsers in a bookstore, everyone's just been taking stuff out, putting it back in the wrong place.

These little things, Boss told her, make a difference. These little things are what allow an office to function. Or not. As he said those words to her this morning, his hand was white knuckle tight on his coffee cup, his eyes narrow paper cuts in the lined geography of his face. Boss is a small man, watery eyed behind round glasses. Balding. The little hair he has is gelled over his shining scalp. Sophia stands a foot taller than him. To any outsider she would seem infinitely his superior, in stance or demeanor. Her skin is made tanned and confident by over-applied makeup.

Under that makeup, under the mask of dignity and courage that she wears every day, Sophia is falling apart. If Boss wants the filing cabinets sorted, then she will sort the filing cabinets.

Anything he wants.

***

Around lunchtime, Sophia sticks two fingers down her throat, just enough to make her dry retch over and over. She likes that moment when something seems to crawl in her throat—a hairy, slimy cockroach scrabbling and pulling up from her stomach. She balances on the edge right then, between losing it and taking control.

The best entertainments come from one's own body.

She breaks and gets something to eat at a Chinese restaurant across the street. It's a tiny place, squashed between the bigger, more important buildings on each side. Inside smells of oyster water and nut oil, and waiting at the counter Sophia can touch the walls on either side if she stretches out her hands.

The wizened, crumpled Chinese man in the kitchen sees her doing this, smiles.

When she gets back, Boss is talking to someone in his office. She hears him from the elevator and it's too late to turn around, and it's too late for this not to be happening.

Two voices. One of them is loud, diamond-cut. The other belongs to unidentifiable John or Steve. The same familiar pattern of conversation Sophia has heard so many times before. Anger and benevolence countered with fear. That snide twist, sarcasm, questioning: do you want this job? Are you proud of yourself? Trick question. Undermining everything. Whatever John or Steve says it will be wrong.

And, oh, but she'll never be able to live with this.

Like a dream walker she takes her place at her desk. Everything's gone cold and insubstantial with Boss in the background. Here, she can make out words.

Boss: "You think this is funny? You think we can afford mistakes like this?"

"Sir, I've said … "

"Excuses aren't good enough, Vincent."

Vincent. Spitting it out like a seed.

On her teeth is still the juicy tang of red pepper and roasted bamboo. She runs her tongue around her mouth, picking up the mottled aftertaste of a meal. Soy sauce and fried roots. Brown sugar. Grains of rice.

"Time and again, Vincent, it's always you who can't keep up."

Leave him alone. In her mind Sophia stands up and storms into Boss's office. There he'll stand, shock and awe frozen on his face as Sophia shouts and raves at him over all the injustices he's ever committed in this place.

But that will never happen.

Instead she grits her teeth. Sorts her papers. Tries to relive the pure, biological joy of food through saliva-diluted aftertastes. Anything to distract herself.

"And I know what you're thinking, Vincent. I know."

Here it comes. Sophia has been witness to this a hundred times before. In her stomach the Chinese food—the fried rice and the sweet and sour vegetables—churn together. A migraine erupts at the base of her skull.

"You think because you have the qualifications we need it means you don't have to work as hard. You think you're special."

He doesn't think he's special. He works just as hard as everyone else.

"Do you even want this job? Do you even care?"

Boss is speaking loud enough to be heard through half a dozen walls, but he's not shouting. This conversation could be personal, could be just between him and Vincent. Could be, but it's not.

To stop herself from listening to the words as they blister through the too-thin wall, Sophia holds her breath until she sees purple spots and hears the rushing of a tidal wave. Still she holds it until her eyes see more dark than light, and she feels the soft whoosh of noise as the world bounces away.

***

She wakes to someone stroking her cheek. It's Boss; she knows without opening her eyes. He's always taking any opportunity he has to touch her—not wrongly, not sexually, but it's unwelcome. Sometimes he'll crouch down behind her under the pretense of checking her computer screen, one hand resting loosely on her shoulder, the other on her back and his breath breaking hotly against her neck. Too close. On this occasion Sophia feigns sleep, until his hand slips down to the back of her neck. She twitches involuntarily and tries to make it look like she's just waking up. At once, Boss's hand is gone.

"I'm not paying you to sleep," he snaps, his voice acid.

Sophia's vision is muzzy from recent unconsciousness, and there's an intense, dry burning at the back of her throat. Before she can focus or think to reply, Boss is gone, slamming the door. She slumps in her chair again, all at once more exhausted than she's been in ages. Her cheek and neck feel smeared where Boss has touched.

It's a few minutes before she realizes that there's someone else in the room. A man she should recognize but doesn't, standing by the photocopier. It's the only copier in the building, so there's nothing odd about someone being in there to use it, but the man is just standing there—hands braced against the machine, head lowered.

"Can I … " She has to clear her throat and start again. "Can I help you?"

The man jerks around, as though surprised. He's young and pale, and he's clearly just been crying. Sophia knows at once that this must be Vincent—and now that she has a face to connect with the name, she recalls him as one of the many cubicle-bound workers from the office floor. He's always drinking coffee, and he brings his lunch squashed up in a Tupperware box.

Vincent wipes his face hurriedly, not quite meeting Sophia's eyes. He nods quickly to show he's all right, then leans back against the photocopier. Holding onto it like it's the only real thing in the world.

"What happened?" asks Sophia, tipping her head towards the office door. At once she regrets her question, because she knows what happened only too well.

Vincent shrugs, color rising in his pale face.

"I lost some files," he says quietly. That's explanation enough.

For a while they stand, with the few meters of beige carpet as a gulf between them. Vincent stares down at his feet and Sophia shuffles some papers absently. After a minute Vincent says:

"I hate him." He pauses, still looking down. "I really do."

There's another few seconds of awkward silence before Vincent moves quickly for the door. Sophia watches him go, headache intensifying and nausea swirling in her stomach. Somehow, right at this moment is the least OK things have ever felt to her.

She sits down again, buries her head against her arms against the desk. Hides in the dark behind her eyes.

Later she will burn the dust up in her computer and inhale the toxic smoke. She'll crack open her watch battery and swallow the juice inside. Sweating in a toilet cubicle, she'll masturbate until she no longer feels or cares. She'll sniff liquid paper and chew the inside of a marker pen until she pukes up all that Chinese food.

And it won't be enough. It never, ever will be.

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