Other People’s Things
Susan took her lunch late. She would slip into the lunchroom after making sure that it wasn’t occupied. She would smooth down her purple or blue or red twin-set and matching skirt. Then she would stalk up to the refrigerator and grip the handle. With one last look around she would pull open the door and decide whose lunch she would eat that day. There were rarely days when there wasn’t something good to eat. People would bring lunch in then decide to eat out or there would be leftovers from that days lunch waiting to be taken home.
Susan would check her coral pink make-up and smartly styled bob in the reflection of the napkin dispenser while she waited for Martha’s or Tim’s or Vance’s meatloaf to finish warming up. She did this every day. Susan hadn’t paid for lunch in months. She was even able to buy that pair of high-heeled, silver Jimmy Choo sandals that she’d been eyeing. She was wearing them today with her teal sweater and black, pleated, knee-length skirt. They were the kind of sandal that had a swath of leather across the ball of your foot with open toe and open back. They made her feel very sophisticated. This was something that she had yearned to be seen as for the past 36 years. Like Jackie O.
The microwave dinged and Susan took her out pilfered food. She was convinced that mashed-potatoes tasted better when they were stolen. She was just settling down to eat and read the latest issue of People when she heard the lunchroom door open. Hunkering down over her plate she prayed that it wasn’t Jeff, whose lasagna she was about to eat. She heard steps approaching and knew that it was Pete, her boss. Even his walk was cocky. Tool.
“Oh, Susan.” He flashed her a fake smile full of fake teeth. “Hey, are you almost done eating? I have some stuff that I need you to get done before the end of the day.”
“Actually, I just sat down.” She avoided eye contact and flipped through her magazine. Maybe he would get the picture and go away. “I’ll be done in about forty-five minutes. Why don’t you leave the stuff on my chair and I will take care of it when I get back to my desk.”
“Forty-five minutes? But it’ll be 3:30 by then. I don’t think that you’ll be able to get these spreadsheets done in time.” He had his hands on his hips and was shaking his head. Susan noticed that it made his pompadour bounce. His hair shone golden in the fluorescent lights. It looked like a field of wheat swaying in the wind. Susan was so distracted by it that she missed what Pete had been saying.
“Why don’t you ask one of the other assistants to take care it for you? Ask Marla, Steve’s gal. I’m sure that she would be happy to help.”
“I’d really prefer that you take care of this, Susan. You know that you’re the most accurate. I don’t know about Marla. I don’t want to know about Marla. Besides, you’re my assistant and I need you to assist me. Why don’t you just eat at your desk?”
Susan resisted the urge to yell. Pete didn’t understand how ridiculous he was being. VP’s were incapable of knowing anything about themselves. It was as if Italian-made loafers cut-off circulation to the brain.
“Pete, I am not going to do that. You know what time I take my lunch. If you had gotten the work to me before that time I would have gladly postponed eating and taken care of whatever you needed. Since you didn’t…” she shrugged and gestured to her food with her fork.
Pete scowled but his tone was less resolute, more whiny. “Why do you take lunch so late? Why can’t you just take it at noon like everyone else? I can set that schedule.”
There had been similar arguments in the past. “We talked about this, Pete. Remember? One of the things that we agreed on was that I could set my own hours. How many assistants have you had since you were promoted to VP, Pete? I would hate to tell Jack that this isn’t working out.”
“Fine! I’ll ask Marla to do it. If it’s wrong, though, I’m blaming you!”
“He stomped off like a petulant three year-old who was told that it was time to go to bed.
Susan felt particularly smug. Not only had she managed to successfully steal another lunch, she had also gotten rid of he afternoon work. Let Marla worry about getting Pete’s precious spreadsheets.
She finished eating and carried the empty container and bag with Jeff’s name on it back to her desk with her. She would throw it away in someone else garbage can later, just in case. She sat down and qued up Outlook to see what messages came in. There were the normal ones from operations, which she deleted without reading. There was one that piqued her interest, though. It was title “Stolen Lunches.” She clicked it open and read the following: Attention! All personal on floors 15-23. It has come to my attention that over the past couple of months numerous people have had their lunches go missing from the lunchroom. For some people it has happened on multiple occasions. This has happened even when the lunch has been CLEARLY LABELED WITH THE OWNER’S NAME! We are unaware, at this time, of who the culprit or culprits might be but be assured that the matter is being investigated. If anyone has any information regarding this problem or any suggestions on how we can deter it please forward them to me. Thank you, Lorena Burton, Senior Administrative Assistant.
This sent Susan’s heart racing not with fear but with excitement. She was getting away with it. There was no way that she would be a suspect. She had been working for the company for 15 years. It was the first and only job that she had ever had. She was on good terms with all of the other assistance and knew most of the upper management by first name. Hell, she had been there to help train some of those people on the computer systems. It made her feel necessary. In a couple of hours everyone else will have gone home and she would be able to unload her contraband trash. Maybe she would even email Lorena a couple of suggestions about how to catch the thief.
Susan had stepped up her thievery. In the past few of months she had began taking not only other people’s lunches but their staplers and tape dispensers as well. Whenever she walked by a desk that happened to be unoccupied she would pick up whatever happened to be lying about and move it to someone else’s cube. She delighted in seeing someone notice their favorite pair of scissors in someone else’s cup holder. It was even better when the item had a name on it. Desks had never looked so clean. Everyone had taken to locking up their belongings anytime they left their desk, even if they were only going down the hall to get water.
Susan did this herself. She kept nothing on her desk but what was absolutely necessary for whatever project that she was working on. She had given Lorena a number of false leads regarding the food thief. There was a brief discussion at the administrative staff meeting about locking the refrigerator and electing someone to be in charge of the keys. Late one Thursday afternoon Marla stopped by Susan’s desk looking for her purple sharpie. She was just the kind of woman that Susan liked. Short and plump with a lacking sense of style and no makeup. The kind of woman that made Susan feel beautiful.
“I haven’t seen your sharpie, Marla. Did you check Rita’s desk? I think that she was working on a new labeling system.”
“You know damn well that she isn’t working on a new labeling system. Now have you seen my pen or not?” It was unlike Marla to snap; her voice sounded wrong for it. Like a cheerleader with a bad case of PMS.
Susan blinked in surprise and was silent for a moment before speaking to indicate that she didn’t appreciate Rita’s tone. “I have not. I am sure that there is a logical explanation about why it’s not on your desk.”
Marla harrumphed and plodded off towards Rita’s desk in search of her pen. Susan realized that she would need to start moving her own stuff and interrogating people about its whereabouts if she didn’t want to draw suspicion to herself.
She tried this out the next day with great results. She stomped up to Patrick’s desk, he was one of the only male assistance, and demanded her ruler back.
“I don’t have it.” Mark sulked behind his extra weight and over-sized glasses.
“I saw you with it! You had it in the copy room, what did you do with it?” She stood over him with her arms crossed, her brow furrowed.
“I swear to god, Susan. I don’t have your ruler.”
“Don’t fucking lie to me, Patrick.” She paused to let curse take its affect. Patrick stared up at her in disbelief. She had always been pleasant and professional. This was the first time that Susan had ever raised her voice in the office. She was shocked by how good it felt. Patrick didn’t even fight back. He just sat there and stared at her. She walked away with a smug smile definitely meeting the eyes of everyone who had popped their heads around cubical walls. A few days later she saw Marla actually hit him. It was only a punch to the arm but it was enough to bruise. Susan couldn’t have been more thrilled then if she had hit Patrick herself.
People called in sick. It was too stressful to come into the office. Whole floors were operating on skeletal crews. Susan was ecstatic. She was able to get a lot more work done without other people around to bother her and she had made it all happen.. It was like a war zone. Everyone left hunkered over their desks for a full eight hours a day. No one ate. No one went to the bathroom. Then Marla came in one Monday wearing pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt.
“What are you wearing Marla?” Susan asked, leaning against the edge of Marla’s desk.
Marla glared up at her. “I’ve gained 10 pounds in the past month. None of my work clothes fit me right now. I never see the public so I don’t see the harm in wanting to be comfortable. With as much as we’re working, do you want to spend 14 hours a day in nylons?”
“I can see you’re point but you could have at least brushed your hair.”
Soon everyone was dressing for comfort, the women no longer wore heels and the men didn’t wear button down shirts let alone ties. Not wanting to seem out of place, Susan had stopped wearing makeup or stockings and had stopped styling her hair every morning. The resulting plainness disgusted her but she figured that it would only be temporary. The office wasn’t going to be able to function like this much longer.
It was becoming harder and harder for her to cover her tracks. False accusations circle the cubicles like tornadoes. Susan was, of course, accused of things herself but she was able to deflect most suspicion by being the loudest. She even accused Pete of taking things from her desk.
On one particularly dreary Thursday afternoon, Susan emailed Marla, from Jackie’s desk, Jackie hadn’t been in for three days, that she would need help with some copying, then took the elevator to the lunchroom to find something to eat. She chuckled to herself on the ride down. Marla was holding on by the thinnest of threads. Susan had taken it upon herself to push her over the edge. The pickings had been slim the past couple of weeks but she still managed to find herself lunch every day. Sometimes it was only celery and peanut butter, but Susan didn’t care. She knew that a few less calories a day wouldn’t kill her. As luck would have it there was leftover spaghetti from someone named Clara’s lunch. Susan didn’t know who Clara was but the spaghetti would taste just as good. She was probably a one of the dozen or so temps that corporate had brought in to try to wade through the workflow. She ate the unknown Clara’s food with zeal, while reading an old issue of Us Weekly. Currently magazines had become a scarce commodity. Feeling lazy, she tossed the empty food container in the kitchen trash.
She had been on lunch for two hours, no one would notice and she had given Marla her afternoon’s work, but it was probably time to get back to her desk. Susan loved how quickly the elevator came to get her now that there were only a handful of people left in the building. She almost always got to ride alone. It was wonderful to not have to make the clipped, cutoff small talk that joint rides caused. The elevator dinged on her floor and Susan stepped off; it was unusually quiet. There were only seven people left on her floor, including herself, but there should have been at least some noise. Even Mark’s radio was silent.
She went around to Marla’s desk but she wasn’t there. There had to be something wrong. Dashing toward Patrick’s cube, Susan was only momentarily comforted to see that he was in his chair, slumped over his keyboard. The comfort fled when she realized that he wasn’t moving at all. In fact, he hadn’t been moving for so long that his computer screen had gone past its screensaver to blackness.
“Patrick? Patty? Are you okay?” It was possible that he had fallen asleep. She was past the barriers of his cube when she noticed the blood. His entire left side was drenched in blood. Susan leaned in for a closer look. Marla’s favorite compass was jammed into his jugular. Blood still seeped lazily from the wound. “Shit.”
She turned from the site and went to investigate the rest of the floor. There were Rita’s legs sticking out from under the copier. April lay next to her, either dead or unconscious. The pool of blood under her head suggested the former. A heavy-duty stapler lay on the floor not far from her. There were bits of matted hair stuck to the handle. Pete, the only person of management level left in the whole building, was sprawled out across the hallway in front of the men’s room.
Susan was unfazed. At least she would be able to leave early today. There wasn’t anyone around to say that she had. People rarely left their own floors anymore. It could be days before the bodies were discovered. The thought of having to deal with police questioning was unpleasant and Susan wondered if she should call them herself. It seemed like a tedious waste of time, though. The sun was out and, if Susan left soon, she could spend an hour or two sunning her legs. She took out Marla’s purple sharpie from where it had been taped to the bottom of her chair and wrote “Cabo!” across her calendar for the past two weeks. She went into Pete’s office and wrote “Susan vacation” neatly across the bottom of each day on his calendar that she had mapped out for herself. She changed her voicemail to indicate that she would be gone and anyone need immediate assistance should contact Marla.
This could work out beautifully. Susan had been thinking about moving to the coast. She was humming to herself as she walked toward the elevator bank. She pressed the button to go down thinking about all the things that can result in something as small as taking someone else’s lunch. Maybe she would have a little shopping spree to celebrate. There was a Prada bag that she had been eyeing. Susan wasn’t paying much attention when the elevator dinged and the door slide open to take her down to the lobby. She certainly wasn’t expecting Marla to be waiting for her, crouched in the corner of the claustrophobic space, a broken ruler clutched in her fist.
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Portland Fiction Project
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