This story was written for the June/July Monthly SimLit Short Story Challenge, coordinated by the lovely LisaBee. The prompt for June/July is a word challenge, with the instructions to “use the word at least once with proper usage. If you wish to challenge yourself further then use one of the meanings of the word as the theme of your story.”
The word is TORTUOUS.
In early August, head over to LisaBee’s blog to find the list of all entries. You can vote for your three reader’s choices in the veteran and novice categories.
Trigger warning: This story includes sustained, forced eye contact; unclear expectations; painful sensory overstimulation; social exclusion. If you’re neurodivergent and you’ve experienced trauma related to these types of situations and conditions, read with care, or skip entirely. I’ll be writing more about this type of experience–and healthy alternatives–in Spectrum, and you may find it healthier to just wait for that.
“You’re late,” your supervisor says.
“Yes, I mentioned yesterday that I’d be staying late today to make up for coming in late this morning, because I had to take care of something.”
“I must have forgotten. It’s gotten hectic, while we’ve been waiting for you. Something urgent has come up. We need you to deal with it right away.”
You breathe. You feel the soles of your feet. You try to filter out the hum of the air conditioning and the buzz of the fluorescent lights.
“This is important,” your supervisor says. “I need to look at me so that I know you are listening.”
You want to say that you process information best when you can look in the corner, or off in the distance, so you can visualize the information.
But the words don’t come, and you couldn’t get them out, even if they did.
“I’m over here.”
You can tell she’s talking, because there’s this shrill sound over the humming, buzzing, and clicking of air conditioners, computer fans, fluorescent lights, and someone’s fingernails on a keyboard in the room next door. But you can’t make out her words.
All you notice are eyes.
She looks really sad.
Or maybe she’s tired and stressed, because now the clarinet blare of her voice has gotten more shrill. Certain patterns of sound repeat.
Her eyes are really beautiful, if you look at them long enough. She has nice cheek bones.
What is it that causes light to shine from someone’s eyes? And how is it that someone’s able to talk when staring into yours?
At last, she breaks the tortuous eye contact, glancing with a scowl at her computer screen.
“So we’ll need this posted live on the website by 4:00 p.m.”
And your stomach drops to your socks. You have no idea what is needed by 4:00 p.m., but if it has to go live on the website, you know that you are the person responsible for it. You’d better get busy.
As you head into the team workspace, you realize you can ask a coworker.
But Sarah has a deer-in-headlights look on her face, and Stacy is giving her the evil eye. Office drama–no help there.
When you check your email, you’re in luck. There’s a message from Karen, the graphic designer. “Here are the graphics you need for the announcement to post today. Please let me know if you have any questions!”
You open the attachments to find banner graphics and a PDF flier for summer enrollment. It’s that time of year. This makes sense now, and the flier contains all the information you need.
This puts a jab into your day–you’d meant to mention to your supervisor that your hours were already filled with an urgent project for the Governing Board–but you figure you can handle it. Buckle down. Get the new webpage set up, the short URL created, everything ready by 3:45, then the last few hours should be enough for the other work that needs to be done before you go home.
You put on your noise-cancelling headphones and zip into the zone. All that exists is code.
When at last you reach a stopping point and look up, you see your coworkers gathered around the conference table, diving into burritos. They must have ordered from Carlos’s.
“We called out we were ordering,” Juanita says, “and you didn’t reply.”
You had your noise-cancelling headphones on.
“That’s OK,” you say. “I brought my own lunch, and it will be nice to sit outside.” It’s your favorite lunch, that you bring every day, veggie wraps packed in a stainless steel bento box, with stainless steel chopsticks for the sauteed onions and carrots that escape the wrap.
You have some luck that day–your bench is empty, and so is the one next to you, and the sky is blue, and finches are singing from the meadow, and for twenty whole minutes, you feel space, air, and peace.
You can hear their voices from the hall when you return.
“–the same lunch every day!”
“In that little stainless tin!”
They break into laughter and fall suddenly silent when you enter the room.
“Anyway,” Sarah says, “anyone else catch ‘The Bachelor’ last night?”
You settle back into your work station. There’s really not time even to feel bad, and besides, your little office plant greets you cheerful as ever.
You put on your headphones, bring up your work, and dive back in.
You beat your boss’s deadline of 4:00 p.m. and meet your own of 3:45. At 3:55, just as you’re about to push “Publish,” your supervisor calls. She’s on her cellphone, so her voice sounds like cellophane.
“We’ve had a change of direction,” you can barely make out her saying, “so we won’t need that page posted today.”
After she hangs up, you repeat her words a few times, until you’re sure that’s what she’s said, and what it means. Don’t post.
All right, then. You’ve still got two hours to finish the project that Governing Board needs done.
Halfway through, you hear a commotion near the door.
“I’m gonna order the biggest Margarita!”
“Mine will be bigger!”
The coworkers are heading out to Carlos’s for Happy Hour.
They chatter as they file out, and then the door closes. Silence.
You turn off the lights. You can take off your headphones now. The computer fan buzz feels friendly and companionable.
You finish your work. You check your email. The day is over at last.
Soon, you’ll shut off your computer, lock the office door, and head out through the lobby into the wide world under a sky still bright from a not-yet-setting sun. You’ll drive home. You’ll rest. You’ll do your best to recuperate, because tomorrow, you’ll be right back to face the daily torture once more.