A short story.
After a year working at home—alone save for three cats, two dogs, and my spouse—I had a bad case of cabin fever. I’d always talked to the cats, but I had moved on to holding long conversations with my household appliances. The sweeper robot wasn’t really glitching; it was sulking because I hadn’t cleaned it properly in three months and its brushes hadn’t been replaced in, I dunno, two years?
When my spouse caught me trying to cajole the squeaking dishwasher into silence, he put his hands on my shoulders, leaned in close and said, “You need to get out of the house. See people. Interact with other humans.”
I frowned. “Humans are scary. I see them at the grocery store. I go to 7-11 every couple of days for a coffee. That counts, right?”
I found a part-time job.
I applied to be a comics grader at Kingsport Comics, but when the department head saw that I had experience in building and managing databases and archives, she mentioned a part-time position that seemed like a perfect fit. After my interview, she invited me to do a three-day paid training in the Special Collections department.
An Imaging Tech prepares rare, high-value comics for online auctions. This includes inspecting the books, scanning their front and back covers, then uploading the scans to a database. I add the glamour spell just to help it sell. After that, the books are sealed in protective packaging and stored in a formidable vault with three kinds of security: a vault door that takes two people to open, a biometric hand scanner, and something big, grumpy, and incorporeal lurking in the shadows.
One of the essential tools of the trade is a multi-roll tape dispenser, commonly known as a taper. On the first day of training, Miranda, my trainer, loaned me her taper and a warning.
“Be careful, it bites.”
She pointed to a box on her desk containing no-name bandages, anti-bacterial wipes, and Ibuprofen. She also informed me that cursing and foul language was forbidden by the owners, so I should practice my best non-blasphemous, non-profane expletives and do everything possible to keep blood off both the comics and the bags.
Miranda wasn’t kidding. The fu— er, fracking taper was out for blood.
By the end of my training, I had perforations on the knuckles of my middle and ring finger, a slice across my index finger, and a paper cut just underneath my left thumbnail. Martina congratulated me on surviving and told me I had the job. I wore my bandages with pride.
Over the next few days, I wandered around the various departments carved out of the vast warehouse space by walls of metal racks stuffed with boxes of comic books. I also took keen notice of their first-aid boxes. The Special Collections group was not alone in our struggle. I also noticed a lot of “Safety First” signs taped to the endcaps of the shelving. Apparently, this was an ongoing problem.
Accidents are Avoidable!
We have worked
Without an injury!
I received a hand-me-down taper from Carrie, who was moving up to the Consignments group. Her old taper had a sticky note taped to the front that read, “Jr.” I introduced myself.
“Hi, Junior. I’m Kay, and I’m glad to be working with you.”
It replied, sullen, My name is J.R.
As a practitioner of the esoteric arts, I recognize the subtle agency of the things I interact with every day and talking to inanimate objects is not as crazy as it sounds. I talked to my home appliances all the time, so when my taper got chatty, it didn’t surprise me at all.
J.R. wasn’t particularly happy because it liked Carrie, but she didn’t take J.R. with her, and it felt slighted. I told it that I understood. Being passed up for a promotion would ruin anyone’s day. I did my best to convince it that I was easy to work with, but J.R.’s determination to get back to its favorite human quickly became evident.
It managed to gleefully jam its teeth into my flesh several times a day, testing both my patience and my creative use of mild vulgarities.
At lunch, I usually sit with the thirty-to-forty-somethings to avoid the hormonal miasma of the teen-to-twenty-something crowd. There’s Jim, the smartass from Grading; Trisha from my group; Alice and Carrie from Consignments, and Wayne, a lanky kid from Shipping & Receiving who has a mad, yet unrequited, crush on Alice.
The break room is an oasis of calm, surrounded by a wall of reasonably-priced vending machines, five microwaves, four refrigerators, enough counter space to let everyone assemble their lunch, and a water fountain so cold it makes my teeth hurt. An atmosphere of protection and comfort prevails here, warded by life-sized devotional totems of gods and superheroes permanently affixed to the cinderblock walls.
Wayne showed up for lunch with a bandaged hand.
“Hey, what happened?” Alice asked.
“War wound, man. Caught the edge of a cardboard box and it sliced right into me.” He turned his hand to show his palm, still red around the bandages.
“That’s brutal,” Jim said. “What’d you do to piss it off?”
“Nothing! Just unloading it.”
Carrie reached across the table with her middle finger held out at Wayne, showing off the bandage on her knuckle, as well as her opinion of him. “Be glad you don’t have to bag the books. Our tapers are brutal.”
I joined her in solidarity, showing off the scabbed-over wounds on my own middle finger. “I’m growing my own armor.”
“I think it’s a conspiracy,” Alice said, waving a carrot stick for emphasis. “Everything in this place is out for blood. One of these days, that big paper cutter is gonna take off someone’s hand. Blood everywhere! Screaming!”
Jim snorted. “Oh my God, our office equipment is trying to kill us.”
“They might be possessed,” Trisha added, her tone serious. “Haven’t you ever seen those ghost-hunter TV shows? Demons can get into anything.”
“We need to do an exorcism!” Alice sounded a little too excited about that prospect. I knew I liked her for a reason.
Tricia placed one hand on the cross pendant dangling near her heart, the other in the air. “Lord, we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers—”
“Hold up, hold up. It’s not demons.” I waved my hands for silence. Tricia glared, but I kept talking. “Trust me, I’d know if it was demonic. I think Jim has it right, though. Our tools are pis— er, hacked off at us.”
“Attack of the killer staplers!” Wayne blurted, too late, earning a glare from Carrie.
“No, seriously. Haven’t you ever heard me say good morning to my scanner? We’re friends.” I said.
“Yes, and I also saw you sniffing a copy of Swamp Thing,” Jim said.
“I was not sniffing it, my eyesight sucks, and I was trying to read the cover to see if it was an Alan Moore—”
“Totally sniffing it.”
“Fine. I was trying to inhale if the essence of his amazing talent, but it was just acid hydrolysis. But my point is, we know our tools are out to get us, but why?”
“Blood for the blood god. Skulls for the skull throne.” Alice offered, nodding.
Our table fell silent for a brief moment. Most of us burst out laughing. Tricia scowled. Wayne gazed at Alice with utter devotion. Apparently, he’s a gamer too.
“I don’t want nothin’ to do with this,” Tricia said. She picked up her lunch box and walked away, shaking her head. “You’re talking nonsense. I’m going outside.”
After I had recovered my breath, I continued.
“Okay, okay, look at it this way. We’re all co-workers, right? And we mostly get along, but when someone gets their short-hairs singed, they either talk it out and resolve their shi— uh, crap, or they get fired, right?”
“We can’t fire the shrink wrapper,” Jim said. “Burn it, sure, but not fire it.”
“But we can talk to it. Ask it why it left blisters on you, or why it keeps jamming, then take a minute to listen and maybe it will tell you,” I said.
Alice raised an eyebrow at me. “Let me get this straight, you think, like, asking my desk lamp why it keeps burning out will help?”
“Couldn’t hurt, could it?”
“You’re nuts, but I’ll play along,” Carrie said, nodding as if to confirm my insanity.
“We’re all nuts,” Jim said, “but we’ve gotta be, to work here.”
By Wednesday, our printer had slowed to a zombie lurch, taking nearly ninety seconds to print a single page. Exclamation points flashed, and toner warnings blinked on the status screen. Since the printer sits next to Jim’s desk behind my scanning station, we got to hear everyone complain.
Carrie loomed over the printer, muttering, “C’mon…c’mon. What is wrong with this frickin’ thing?”
I swear, I saw the glare of the light bulb when it flashed above her head.
Carrie addressed the printer. “Why are you so slow today, anyway?” She stood silent for a few moments and watched the status screen blink. After it had spit the next print into the tray, she said, “Ayuh. I got it. You’re tired. You don’t get a lunch break like we do.”
Carrie turned to the work tables and raised her voice, half-shouting, “Hey, nobody print. The printer needs a break.” She powered it down, waited a minute or two, then flipped the switch. The printer whirred through its initialization routine, then beeped to announce itself ready to return to work. The next print job emerged in an orderly fashion, and the warnings vanished from the screen.
At lunch, Wayne announced that he’d held a conversation with a shipping box, and it turned out his injury was due to a simple misunderstanding.
The box was just doing its job to protect its cargo from harm during shipment. When Wayne cut into it, the box hadn’t yet realized that it had been delivered and was still trying to keep its cargo safe. He came up with an incantation for incoming shipments: Welcome to Kingsport Comics! You’ve arrived safely, please prepare to have your cargo unloaded in an orderly fashion.
I congratulated him on his first spell, and Alice took him to Sonic for lunch the next day. Maybe the kid has a shot, after all.
A few days later, I heard Tricia sweet-talking the giant Swingline trimmer—the one with a blade as wicked as a bat’leth—as she cut acid-free mat boards for a custom package.
A big part of my job is to precisely match each comic book with a bar-coded label, tape the bag closed, apply the label to the bag, and then order the books by group type and item number. I can’t do this without J.R.’s full cooperation. The past two weeks had gone well, with only an occasional knuckle-graze.
I should have known better. When I got distracted by the cover of a Frank Frazetta Fantasy Illustrated magazine, J.R. saw its chance. As I pulled the tape down to the cutting blade, J.R. snapped its sharp, serrated teeth into the undamaged knuckle of my right index finger. Pain shot through my hand. Blood welled up across my knuckle.
“I am Groot!” I cursed, clamping my left hand over my right, trying to contain the blood.
“Gotcha, didn’t it,” Jim called out from behind me.
“Smartass.” I turned around and glared at him, sucked the blood from my finger, then took a quick peek. A flap of skin had been peeled away, and the blood resumed its journey down my hand. I applied pressure and stalked toward the first-aid kit.
When I returned, I pointed my accusing, bandaged finger at J.R.
“We need to talk,” I said. I hoped my voice carried some kind of authority. “I thought we had a deal. You haven’t bitten me in weeks.”
J.R. remained silent. I took a deep breath.
“We’re supposed to be partners, here. What can I do to make this better for you?”
I heard it grumble. It’s your fault. I’m not the one with the problem.
I stared at J.R., waiting for it to say more. The tape had snapped back from the cutting blade, snarling itself in a sticky wad on the guide bar. It whimpered that it just wanted to be unrolled and didn’t want to be caught in the middle of this spat.
I focused on the blade for a long minute, then finally noticed that several teeth had broken off, and a buildup of tape, glue, and—eeew, skin—was jammed in the tiny spaces between the serrations.
My chin dropped to my chest as I realized my error. “Oh, da—darn it, J.R., I’m sorry. I should have taken better care of you.” I gingerly wiggled the cutting blade out of its slot. “Let me clean this up, and I’ll go look for a replacement blade when we’re done with this box, okay?”
J.R. didn’t reply.
After securing some solvent and paper towels, I got the blade cleaned up and re-seated.
“Ready?” I asked.
I pulled and cut a piece of tape as a test. It came away easily, the cut edge crisp and even.
“Nice,” I said, “So are we friends now?” My hand went in for the usual one-two grab for the tape. As soon as my index finger cleared the blade, the tape recoiled in fear, tangling itself against the guide bar.
At least J.R. hadn’t bitten me again.
“I’ll take that as a maybe.” I cleared the tape jam. “What if I got you one of those non-skid pads to sit on?”
J.R. remained silent for a moment, then I heard a begrudging: Fine.
“Give it time,” Jim muttered from behind me, “But don’t ever take your eye off that paper cutter.”
Accidents are avoidable!
We have worked
Without an injury!
To Be Continued…