Inquire Within by Christopher S. Bell

I took the job at Hook Innovations when Laresa thought she was pregnant. It was one of those early-twenties we-can-make-this-work moments where both of us felt like adults if only for a second. A week later, I started my cubicle stint, and she got her period. We never held much against each other, often basking in a lingering anxiety that one of us would ultimately upset the other. She had pills for her nerves, while I’d grown up on a steady diet of self-doubt. No matter the situation, I could usually convince myself it was meant to serve some purpose.

“You’re just not getting it, are you? I need a few minutes to compose my thoughts, then I’ll let ya know what’s next.” Jack’s voice had never sounded so disheveled.

“Okay then –” I stuttered, shutting his office door on my way out.

I wanted to like my boss after the interview; Jack presenting like he had his shit together. We were heading towards the big leagues, just waiting for a few key players to sort out the glitches. Brock and I were pretty competitive in the beginning, before time and indifference made us realize how little we needed to accomplish each day. He had a wall of old software discs stacked in his cubicle, browsing Indeed when I peeked in.

“Anything worth a damn?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he replied.

“Well I just got chewed out for asking a simple question.”

“And now you want someone to validate why you bothered in the first place,” Brock spoke without blinking.

“Is it wrong that I need something to do? Any task to keep me sane, but we can’t test the beta until he runs it by the investors, and then any changes need to be cleared by God knows how many douchebags, but –”

“I’m gonna stop ya right there,” Brock minimized the window and swiveled his chair toward me. “Just be glad you have the privilege of coming to work every day with so many unique individuals.”

“I’m gonna go take a shit.” Why had I even bothered stopping? Brock was never the type of guy I’d get a drink with after work, while talk of our weekends usually consisted of three to five word sentences.

It seemed like one of those days where every shred of human contact pricked before breaking the skin. Both stalls were occupied on the first floor; my knees snapping into place with each step up. Release barely offered solace as a stranger entered, urinated then exited without washing his hands. I wondered how these men went about their lives at home. Were their wives or children constantly coughing?

Exiting the restroom, I took the long way around towards the opposite stairwell only to stop as a door I’d never noticed opened. There she stood like a discarded piece of furniture, long legs in a grey pantsuit bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Oh sorry,” she said, as we startled each other. I glanced past shaggy brunette bangs into a blank white space, a few aloof chairs tangled in Ethernet cables from the wall. “Don’t go getting any ideas now.” She fixed her glare on my poor posture.

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“I found it first.”

“Found it?”

“Look, I don’t think this is what you’re looking for.” She sighed.

“Nothing’s really here anyway.”

“I wouldn’t expect a perfect stranger to see much potential.”

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“Grail LTD,” she sighed. “But I don’t think they’re expecting me back anytime soon.”

“They’ll put something in here in a few days, maybe a week.”

“Which is exactly why we need to take advantage while we can.”

“We?” I suggested. “I’m just passing through.”

“Then pass, or maybe I’ll see ya around these parts tomorrow, cowboy.” She sauntered past me and strutted off down the hall, making sure to shut the door. It seemed like the first time in a long while where a moment mattered, so much so that each subsequent one that day dragged endlessly. Staring at code until my eyes weren’t sure if they were open or closed then sputtering from one exit to the next, hoping a pop song would snap me back into place.

“You’re unreasonably quiet tonight,” Laresa and I forked leftover pasta in front of the television; another episode we’d already seen.

“I am?” I posed with a mouthful.

“Yeah, I feel like you usually have a lot more to say about everything.”

“It’s just another Wednesday. No use overthinking it.”

“So I told you they’re cutting our insurance at work, right?”

“Yeah, we talked about it yesterday.”

“I just don’t know what I’m gonna do,” she pined. “If they don’t cover my visits to Dr. Schirmer, then shit’s gonna get a lot harder to handle.”

“Have you ever considered cold turkey?”

“You’re impossible sometimes.”

I let Laresa say all the things she needed to, digesting her fears best I could. Lying in bed that night, I pictured another life with a perfect stranger, somebody outgoing enough to completely disregard my cynicism. We rocked natural, unforced smiles in tagged photographs and were fully-embraced by all sects and creeds. People complimented our dynamic from a distance, and when we spotted them talking, we knew it was about how appropriately we fit together.

Every morning, Laresa woke up with me, but she’d gotten better at simply rolling over and pretending to sleep through my routine. That had to count for something; long lines of equally-unconscious commuters making me somehow appreciate the routine. Maybe I was working towards something, even if each point and click seemed less significant than the last.

“Can you come to my office for a second?” Jack never used messenger; my subsequent walk down the corridor riffled with discomfort. “So how’s it going?” he asked, shutting the door.

“Good.” I nodded. “Just working out the kinks.”

“Look, I don’t know the best way to say this, but –”

I’d seen enough movies to know how it all went from there. Friday would be my last day at Hook Industries despite valiant efforts from upper management to keep the application afloat. I didn’t feel bad for Jack or anyone else that day; taking my time upstairs, then down the hall towards another little corner of the world. The door was wide open; a few handymen assembling cubicle walls out of sync. They didn’t even notice my disappointed stance in the threshold. I pictured myself running up another flight of stairs and searching for her desk, if only to freeze frame as we both realized how little an empty room meant in the grand scheme of things.

In there we would’ve made the mistake of getting to know each other, but it was better that it all happened as I expected. Through the doors one day, back out another. I had no plans for the rest of my life, but knew there would be other moments worth keeping track of as all subsequent decisions carried more weight. Some called it adulting, but I preferred the alternative. Refraining from growth until it became absolutely necessary; transitioning blindly, dreaming with eyes wide open.

“Real drag, isn’t it?” I was already at the stairwell when her voice registered.

“You’re not hiring, are you?” I asked into the thin air, and waited impatiently for her response.

Christopher S. Bell has been releasing literary work since 2008.  His sound projects include Emmett and Mary, Technological Epidemic, C. Scott and the Beltones and Fine Wives. Christopher’s work has recently been published in Drunken Monkeys, Hobart, Porridge Magazine, New Pop Lit, Queen’s Mob Teahouse, and Entropy among others.

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