I am just taking the first sip of my tea when I hear them planning to fire me. My heart is yellow and dark in my chest. My fingers on the keyboard go tap-tap, like bullets discharging at an unsteady pace.
I used to work in the lab that sits like a beast under the floor of the cubicle where I now type. In the lab I would mix chemicals and smear bacteria, and slice the tendons of living mice. The mice's tendons would heal or not heal, depending on the amount of placebo or chemical they were fed. When the mice were through healing or not healing, I would scoop them one by one into a cyanide-filled container and shut the lid.
Inside the container the mice would run little circles, going blind and bumping into one another for about a minute. I used this minute to wash the mouse-scent off my hands and to share a quick joke with whatever teenage lab-attendant stood ready with a trash bag to collect the bodies.
When the mice had completely stopped twitching I would suction out the cyanide with a special tool, and then pour the bodies into the trash bag. They were so light and furry that they barely made a sound. It was like pouring peaches out of a basket.
One day I picked up a mouse and noticed for the first time the strange way that its stomach heaved in and out with its quick breaths. With each breath the hair on the mouse's side puffed out a little to show the pink skin underneath. It's skin was the same color as the skin of a human baby. With each breath, the mouse's eyes grew wide and then narrowed again. I put it down gently, and left the lab.
“No more mice,” I told my boss Tony.
“I'm sorry,” he said, “but that's impossible. Harriet, you know how it is.” The walls of Tony's office were covered in photos of his naturally blond wife and their two naturally blond sons. In different photos the boys wore soccer jerseys and suits and super hero Halloween costumes. They bounced across the walls like golden puppies.
“But you don't understand,” I said, “It's not that I don't want to kill them. I know it's the only way.”
“Yes?” Tony raised one eyebrow and looked.
“My hand freezes up.” Shuffling my brown shoes, which looked fat and coarse on the fine wool of Tony's carpet.
“Can you type?” asked Tony.
“Sure,” I said, and that was that. Unlike Tony's, my sons wear dark t-shirts and think dark thoughts beneath mops of jet-black hair. The dark t-shirts they get from local concerts featuring police-blotter escapades that I read about in the paper the next day. But the dark hair and the dark thoughts they get from me.
So I moved to a cubicle that had dark walls and dark carpet and lots of skinny data-entry women sitting across the hall. I typed and typed, tap-tap-tap, and the darkness grew till it pushed in from all the corners of my vision.
I began wearing bright-colored clothes, in an effort I guess to push back the darkness. In an effort to breath in some of the happiness of the puppy-boys bouncing golden across Tony's wall.
I began with socks: lime socks, fuchsia socks, socks with glued-on flower appliqué. I started wearing skirts, something I hadn't done since high school. Poodle skirts, hippy floral skirts, whatever was drenched in color and pattern and life. I shopped at thrift stores and flea markets to support my growing addiction. I bought ruffled blouses and huge red platform shoes, yellow lace shawls and blue mascara. In the mirror I could barely recognize myself; in place of the dark little creature was a bird of paradise. Only my hair was still black, and that barely-invisible place behind my eyes.
The data-entry women became resentful because my breasts were full and pink, and theirs were as colorless and empty as the dry udders of cows.
Amanda, an especially thin and colorless woman, approached me from behind one day as I sat typing. “Could you try to keep it down,” she asked me gently, “the sound of you banging on that keyboard carries all the way across the hall.” She had tied a tasteful gray dress around her body, with a thickly knotted belt at the waist. The bones protruded from her shoulders, hips, and knees so that her whole body had the appearance of a half-collapsed tent.
“Why of course,” I said, “Just because you live on a strict diet of instant oatmeal which you loudly stir and stir in your cup for eternity doesn't mean that you should have to hear me tap all day long.” I smiled kindly, and she saw my teeth. She retreated, oatmeal cup in hand. I sat, and rearranged my newly-streaked pink curls.
“Just a minute,” said Tony one day, as I teetered by his office in blue velvet boots and a magenta sweater-dress. “I just wanted to give you a copy of our updated dress code. It's been revised to include jeans in Fridays.”
“Thank you!” I said. My heels made a dangerous sound on the carpet as I wove unsteadily down the hallway.
I did less and less work. There was no point, really. I didn't mind being yelled at, and I certainly didn't miss my long cold hours in the lab. I didn't miss the cyanide or the mice; in fact, if I ever see another mouse again, which is doubtful, I will feed it cheese from my refrigerator and then vomit right away in the toilet. I am certain of this.
Entirely useless now, I sit in my cubicle and I listen, surrounded by five full amendments to the dress code made just for me. I cannot work in the lab because I cannot move my hand to kill the mice. I cannot work in the cubicle because without my new clothes the office is a wasteland of gray and blond and black. Meanwhile, they sit in Tony's office and outline their plans to remove me with the full weight of the law in their favor. On my shoes are the heads of two fake crocodiles. In my chest is the dark beat of my heart.
About the author:
Lia Mastropolo is a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut. This is her first literary publication.