In an overlooked basement a woman finds an old letter and the secret to happiness.
|“You’d think after working here five years, she could at least afford a brush.” The whispered comment, loud enough for Mirna to overhear was met with a flurry of tittering giggles. Mirna lifted her hooded eyes from the shuffling progress of her loafers and spotted Jessica, Emily and two other call takers at their usual seats near the front door.
“Or those shoes,” came the hushed reply. “They’re even out of style at Goodwill.”
Mirna reached her desk and pulled out the chair before unpacking her purse, laying out her kitten lunchbox, her thermos of iced tea and three Hershey kisses. She didn’t worry about Jessica’s snide comments or the red heat she felt blaze across her cheeks on mornings like this. It was always worse on Mondays. Mirna figured the strain of their failed relationships simmered over the weekend and they felt a need to build themselves up at her expense.
She’d grown used to the other’s hurtful comments. After all, hadn’t she withstood the same ugly words all her life. The same Jessicas and Emilys sitting on the steps of Washington High, or in the bleachers at Scott Middle School?
Mirna took out her gum and stuck it to her keyboard before slipping on her headset. It was almost ten o’clock and the orders would be coming in soon, filling the day with activity. As the phones began to buzz, the other women drifted to their seats, the hum of voices and the ring of phones a comforting background to Mirna’s day. Then a shriek knifed through the bullpen, sending a jolt of surprise jitterbugging up Mirna’s spine.
Next to her, Jessica tumbled to the floor kicking away from her desk. She screamed again, whipping off her headset and flinging it into the shadows beneath her desk.
“What is it?” Emily asked taking a tentative step closer.
“It’s a mouse!” Jessica huffed. She pushed to her feet and grabbed a water bottle and flung it into the darkness beneath her desk.
“Stop, You’ll hurt it,” Mirna shouted. She grabbed the cup off her thermos and dropped to her knees in front of Jessica’s workstation. She spotted the gleam of two tiny black eyes cowering in the corner. “It’s okay, baby, we’ll get you out of there,” she cooed.
Mirna moved slowly, navigating the cup over the top of the mouse, then snapping it down over the tiny animals head. “I’ve got it,” she called proudly. Now pass me a magazine and I’ll get it out of here.”
From somewhere above, a magazine flopped down beside her. Mirna slid it beneath the cup then lifted magazine, cup, and mouse into the light. Instead of looks of gratitude, Mirna was surprised to find Jessica, Emily and several other girls considering her with expressions of disgust.
“Why don’t you just kill that thing?” Jessica asked.
“Or flush it down the toilet?” Emily added.
“What did it ever do to you?” Mirna spat, shocked at her outrage towards Jessica. Then she turned and made for the exit.
When she returned, she found Dan, the floor manager, standing beside Jessica’s desk. He had a hand on her shoulder as she dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
“So was it a mouse?” Dan asked.
Mirna dropped the magazine on Jessica’s desk and nodded.
“Just a little one,” she said. “Poor thing was scared half to death.”
“It’s vermin,” Jessica hissed. With index finger and thumb she snatched the corner of the magazine. Then holding it out like some filth covered rag, she stepped to Mirna’s trashcan and dumped it in.“They’re coming from that disgusting basement.” Jessica turned and considered, Dan, her hands planted firmly on her hips. “You should have it fumigated before someone gets bit.”
Later that day, as Mirna sat by herself in the lunchroom, Dan stepped in and dropped two grocery sacks and a metal rod on the table. Mirna glanced up, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich grasped in her hands.
“I’ve got a little job for you,” he said. He spilled the bag’s contents on the table. They were filled with mouse traps and little triangular boxes of rat poison.
“I want you to go down to the basement and set out all these traps and baits. Then every day remove the dead ones and reset the traps.” He picked up the metal rod running a finger down its length. “And if you find any of the little buggers, smash in their heads with this.”
“Why me?” Mirna asked. “Can’t the janitor do it?” Despite the other women’s attitude, despite the sometimes condescending way Dan treated her, she enjoyed her job. She relished the opportunity to talk to people. She never had a chance to speak with anyone once she got home. She’d scurry up the apartment steps and lock herself in, afraid of the shouts and occasion gunfire she’d hear in the streets outside. At work, she actually got to help people. Sure, she was only taking orders for restaurant supplies but people she spoke with were kind. Often times they thanked her and took the time to chitchat about the most wonderful things; their children or the weather in their hometown or maybe even a little about themselves. Mirna felt like she became a small part of their lives when this happened.
“No, I pay the janitor to clean toilets and empty the trash, not kill mice,” Dan said. “Besides, it looks like you’ve got a knack for dealing with those little bastards.”
He swung open the breakroom door and stepped out. “Once you’re done with lunch, get started on that, will you? And let me know Friday, how many of the little suckers you get.”
After lunch, Mirna made her way downstairs and flicked on the lights. The basement was a single open space separated into rows by three lines of dusty black file cabinets. Above the concrete floor, pairs of halogen lights buzzed from their thin metal chains. The room had a musty smell and a not unpleasant aroma of old papers. It reminded her of trips to the library when she was growing up.
She set the metal rod atop one of the shelves and fingered the bag of traps unsure where to start. She really didn’t want to hurt the little creatures but she didn’t see she had a choice. If she didn’t do as she was told, Dan would surely fire her.
Mirna began at the first row, setting the traps and sliding them between the cabinets. As she worked, she read the scribbled labels on the drawers. Some labels had been typed but most were written in faded pencil, the paper slipped into square metal brackets.
Tax Statement 2001
Customer Complaints 1997
Employment applications 1994
Further and further back they went until on the last row a label caught her eye:
Crank letters 1983
What could that be? Crank letters? With a quick glance towards the stairs, Mirna undid the latch. The drawer rumble open and locked into place with a hollow metallic snick. Inside she found a folder with several yellowed sheets of paper. Most were letters addressed to the nebulous “Dear Sirs,” and filled with angry words towards the company.
Then she flipped to a page with an old sticky note attached:
A CURE FOR LONELINESS
Was scrawled across the top
The edges of the note were browned and brittle, the paper it was clipped to a simple three hole punched sheet of notebook paper like the blue lined pages she’d used so often in school.
Written in red ink, the neat cursive lines read:
Cure For Loneliness
Follow these steps and you too can be happy.
Step 1) Read these words aloud.
Zabulon, te rogamus vos meas conteram solitudo.
Liberate me ex vincula desperandum.
In vobismetipsis caritatem continuam crescere me.
Step 2) Kiss the spot below.
A crude outline of lips was drawn in the center of the page.
Step 3) Believe in your happiness.
Mirna glanced up feeling suddenly foolish. Her heart raced as she read the words again. A cure for loneliness. Surely no one was more lonely than she was. She glanced down at the page, squinted at the script. She could almost imagine the faded smudge of lipstick on the poorly drawn lips.
What did she have to lose? Mirna glanced over her shoulder at the stairs. She was all alone. Wasn’t this like the emails promising good luck if she forwarded them, bad luck if she didn’t? She always forwarded those emails and what harm did it do. She cleared her throat and squinted at the words. They looked a little like Spanish, but different. She read them aloud, the sounds unfamiliar and clumsy on her tongue.
“Zabulon, te rogamus vos meas conteram solitude.” There was a scratching noise to her left. She glanced up but it was gone. “Liberate me ex vincula desperandum. In vobismetipsis caritatem continuam crescere me.”
She lowered the paper and looked around. Well, nothing so far. She read the next line:
Step 2. Kiss the spot below.
Mirna leaned down, placed the paper to her lips. She closed her eyes and felt. Warmth. She imagined kissing her boss, Dan. Only he wasn’t Dan, he was Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice and she was Elizabeth Bennet. His lips were velvet soft, the tip of his tongue ever so warm. A soft moan escaped her when…
“What the hell are you doing?”
Mirna looked up to find Jessica standing at the top of the stairs.
“Oh, my God. Were you making out with that piece of paper?” She laughed, the sound scornful and sharp. “What a loser.” She spun and marched back up the stairs, the metal door slamming shut with a hollow bang.
Mirna glanced down, a fat tear landing with a tic on the final line.
Step 3) Believe in your happiness.
When she’d finished setting all the traps and laying out the bait, Mirna clomped upstairs. She paused for a long moment, her hand hovering over the handle before she opened the door and stepped out. As she expected, the women glanced at her from the corner of their eyes, Jessica and Emily sharing a whispered exchange.
When she took her seat and slipped on her headset, someone made an exaggerated smooching noise. The floor erupted in laughter.
Dan poked his head out of his office and looked around. “Come on people. Less horseplay, more work.” His eyes alighted on Mirna. “You get all those traps set?”
He gave her a thumbs up and disappeared inside his office.
The rest of the afternoon, Mirna couldn’t get her mind off the kiss. It seemed so real. She could almost smell Dan’s cologne, could taste the slight bite of cigarettes on his breath.
When it came time to leave, Mirna excused herself and hid in the bathroom. She wanted just one more kiss. Wanted to see if it was all in her imagination or maybe…maybe something more.
She waited some time before creeping out of the bathroom. Mirna found the office dark, the only illumination a bright rectangle of light streaming from Dan’s office and casting the bullpen in a dim yellow glow. Quietly, she crept across the hall and eased open the basement door.
Mirna hadn’t remembered leaving the lights on, but she guessed she had. She slid down the stairs and around the corner, halting in surprise at the sight before her.
Lying on a thick pallet of blankets was Dan, his shirt and pants folded in a pile next to him. Straddling his hips and wearing nothing but pink lace panties was Jessica. Both started and glared when Mirna rounded the corner.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” Jessica sneered. She pushed off Dan her eyes darting about the room. They landed on the metal rod Mirna had left behind earlier. Jessica scooped it up, an evil grin tugging at the corners of her lips.
“You were spying on me, weren’t you?” Jessica took a step forward, slapping the pipe into her palm. “You nosey little bitch. You think you’re gonna tell my husband about this, don’t you?”
Mirna stumbled back, the shadows on the floor seeming to sway and flow around her. “No, no. I didn’t know you were down here.” Her eyes darted from Jessica to Dan. “Please, I won’t tell anyone, no one has to know.”
“You’re damn right no one will know,” Jessica hissed. “Because I’m going to give you a little sample of what will happen if you talk.”
Mirna stumbled back her arm raised against the blow. Jessica’s eyes, pinched in an expression of rage, flew suddenly wide with surprise. Glancing down, she screamed. Shadows swirled around her naked feet, flowed up her thighs, her hips.
Mirna gasped in horror at the realization that the dark shapes she mistook for shadow were, in fact, hundreds of tiny bodies. The tiny furry bodies of mice.
Jessica stumbled sideways sending a cabinet crashing to the floor. She batted at the swarm as it engulfed her breasts, crawled in a living shroud across her face, her arms, choking off her cries. In moments she tumbled to her knees in a convulsing mass, then to the floor, her legs kicking feebly for several moments before going still.
The flowing horde pulsed and bulged growing smaller and smaller until the last few animals scurried into shadow. The only thing left behind were four small bodies and a pair of tattered pink panties.
“What the fuck…what the fuck?” Dan sprang to his feet not bothering to cover his nakedness.
Once again the shadows flowed across the ground toward them. As Dan dashed for the stairs, Mirna covered her eyes and dropped to her knees. She tried to shut out the screams, Dan’s muffled cries and the whispering sounds of scurrying feet in the silence that followed.
I’m next, she thought. I’m going to be eaten alive.
“Don’t be afraid,” a voice whispered.
Mirna dropped her hands from her eyes, searched for the source of the voice. The shadow of swarming mice swirled across the floor and entered Dan’s empty clothes. The pants and shirt filled like a Macy’s day balloon, rising slowly from the floor. From the shirt’s neck, a brown glob formed, taking the shape of a head. Tiny bodies and whipping tails smoothing to form nose, eyes, lips.
“We’re here for you, Mirna,” the voice said. “I’m here for you.”
The thing took a halting step forward, held out its arms.
“All you have to do is believe. Believe in your happiness.”
Mirna squinched her eyes closed. Her heart hammered in her ears. Soft hands cupped her cheeks, the warm exhale of a thousand mouths on her lips. She cracked open her eyes. For a moment the face before her quivered in a mass of shiny black eyes and squirming bodies. I deserve to be happy, she repeated. I have a right to be happy.
She realized suddenly she was gazing into Dan's deep brown eyes. “As long as you believe, we'll be happy,” he said. He leaned in and kissed her neck, his lips like a dozen tiny tongues probing her flesh. He pulled back and smiled. “Can you do that, my love? Can you believe?”
“For you?” Mirna sighed. “Anything.”