By Irene Justice
Prompt: You walk into your job and find a secret, coded note pinned to your desk. What do you do next?
Another Monday, another day of my life down the drain. Bland beige walls lined the outer office where my 6x6 cubicle sat, no pictures, no windows, just beige. The same computer that an innumerable amount of people who have gone and left this Hellhole over the years have used, still in the same spot, outlined by years of dust. I surely wasn’t going to clean it. My anonymous plant grew to the side of the pot, yearning, dying for sunlight that it would never reach; only the bright incandescent LED lights feed it enough energy to sustain its also meaningless life.
I reach for my phone, because the red blazing light tells me there are voicemails. None that I care about of course, but my boss cares enough about these voicemails that if I don’t check them, my paycheck will be yanked back so hard that my head will spin; he said this to me himself. I always see this red light. It haunts my dreams and screams to me that I am nothing but a message taker, an appointment setter, a blob of a human girl with no real life goals.
I type in my access code and then my password, one hard plastic button at a time and listen to the one new voicemail message that I have. A broadcast message from the school, wishing everyone a great holiday weekend and remember to turn off all systems to save energy. Part of me wants to take my phone receiver and smash it as hard as I can into my computer monitor and watch as I create my own fireworks of broken pieces and electric currents that fight for survival as I bring complete and utter death to it. The other part of me, the sensible part of me that knows I need this pitiful job, deletes the message by pressing seven and pound and lightly hang up my phone. I rest my head into my hands, my dry elbows pressing down into this cheaply made desk. I push my hair behind me and my bangs from my face, and only then do I notice the half-folded sheet of paper pinned to my desk, nothing written on the outside of the folded page, and no ink bleeding through the white paper either.
A red plastic thumbtack stuck out. My first thought is it’s from my boss. I don’t know why the shmuck would just stick it to my desk with a thumbtack, but I didn’t know why he did half the stuff that he did. My second thought is that it could be my suicide note, waiting for me to just fill it out, sign it, and die.
I have to use more than just my thumb and index finger to pull out the thumb tack, though. It was in there more than it looked, like a splinter that you think you have every time you pinch, only to pull away and see you never had it all. I pick up the paper with both hands and hold my breath as I open the folded sheet and begin to read. It’s a list of numbers. Well, that’s just wonderful. Who the Hell leaves a folded piece of paper tacked to someone’s desk with a list of numbers in it and doesn’t tell the person what it’s for? The list was horizontal, with dots and dashes in addition to the numbers. I stare at the numbers and try to think, try to make sense of them. 35.2258-80.8528-59.2631-158.5578. Then I see in the top right hand corner a stamp. Not a stamp with ink but just an indented stamp of some symbol with a twist and lines. Like a curvy rose stem with spikes on the side. Well, what I did next is what I thought anyone in my position would do - I Googled it.
The search brought up a calculator. Great, Google thought I needed help with math. I usually do, so I don’t want to be too angry at the soulless software. Why couldn’t I think better about this? Years of mind numbing office work, plugging in useless data that meant absolutely nothing to me has eaten away at my brain cells, leaving dust and cobwebs and neurons that cease to fire any longer. I grab my Life Water bottle with one of my hands; I’ve reused this bottle more times than I can count now. I can’t justify constantly spending more than $2.00 on one bottle of water when you can get a 24 pack from the grocery store for $4.00, or for that matter if you live in a clean enough place, which I don’t, you can get water for free from the nearest river or spring. Twisting off the black cap, I slowly raise the bottle to my lips and take a swig of the lukewarm water that’s been stagnant now for the 30 minutes I’ve been here. I can taste the metal in the water from our so called filtered water fountain in the hall.
I break up the numbers into pairs and enter them into Google again. I don’t type my normal 70 wpm; I don’t want to accidentally get a number wrong. One by one, I type in the numbers, decimal points, and then the following numbers. Google brings me to a page for a bank’s location. Latitude and longitude coordinates? My freshman geography professor would be very disappointed that I didn’t recognize these to be coordinates right off the bat, but the man was in his 70’s back then, and long in the grave by now, rotting and giving his life back to the Earth, so what did I care about his opinions?
I type in the second set of numbers and an airport’s location is on the screen. A bank and an airport. Was this for real? Someone found my desk, Ly Matthews’ desk, and pinned coordinates to a bank and an airport without any explanation at all. I call bullshit.
Not bothering to ask my boss if it was his note, I double click my outlook and I type my boss a quick email -
I vomited in the bathroom. I’m going to go back home and lay down.
I haven’t called out of work in a while, today seemed like as good a day if any to play hooky. After jotting down the addresses with my blue Z-Grip pen, I quickly shut down my computer, grab my used water bottle and purse and head out into the sweltering heat of Maryland’s stagnant and humid summer. My black Chevrolet sizzled as I came up along the side and a wave of heat spewed out as I opened the driver door. Wasting no time at all, I sat down on the black cloth seats and winced as my bare, pasty legs brushed the black imitation leather on the edges of my seat; not a great day to wear a pencil skirt, though it looked so good with my new white blouse, and I needed something to make me happy today.
I yank down the sun visor that did absolutely nothing in the efforts of keeping my car cool and shove it through the two front seats into the abyss that is the back seat. After plugging in the address to the bank in my GPS, I head out of the campus and speed through every stoplight until I reach my destination. A plain Bank of America sat alongside 6th street. I must be nuts for leaving work to come to a bank with nothing in my hands and even still something draws me out of my car. The black security guard opens the door and holds it for me.
“Here you are ma’am.” he said so politely.
“Thank you” I said and smiled as best I could. There I stood in the lobby while customers waited in multiple lines, to reach the number of different tellers at the long counter-like desk that spanned the length of the room. Men and women of all ages and even a few young children that looked too young to be in school, stood patiently, waiting for the magic word, “Next”, to be called aloud. I stood in the back of the lobby just right of the door and wondered why the Hell I acted on such a random impulse. Maybe I hate my life so much, that I just don’t care about the repercussions of my actions any longer. And though part of that was true, I knew I couldn’t afford to act this insane every day or my bills wouldn’t be paid. My cat would have nowhere to live and would wind up back in the shelter and this time on death’s door, because she was 4 years old and hissed at anyone that wasn’t me. Little bitch, no one would want her. I loved her of course and she loved me, and she was all I had but that wouldn’t save her from the deadly injection that awaited her if I were to become homeless.
I held my keys by my pinky and grabbed ahold of the edges of the paper with both hands, scanning the endless white that seemed to hold nothing. Another security officer, this time a Hispanic man, with a golden nametag that read “Gomez” in bold, walked up to me. He was an older man; no less than in his 60’s with a greying mustache and a light brown hand that reached up to my arm. A welcoming smile was on his face.
“Can I help you, Miss?” He asked curiously and pleasantly enough.
“I, um, I’m not sure.” I stuttered, showing him my paper. “I got to work today and this note was pinned to my desk. I typed the numbers into Google and nothing. There’s also this seal or stamp-” The guard took the paper and led me to the side of the room, cutting me off mid-sentence. He seemed to be searching and feeling for the stamp.
“Don’t you worry ma’am, I’ll have the safe deposit box ready for you in a moment. Would you like any water while you wait?” He asked as he backed up into another security guard, who immediately nodded and swiftly turned on his heels to head to the back of the bank lobby. A safe deposit box? How would he know that by a list of numbers and stamp?
“What’s going on?” I demanded. The guard ignored me and stared at the back entrance until the other officer poked his head back around and nodded.
“If you’ll come with me ma’am, the deposit box is ready for you now.” He rested his fingers just slightly on my forearm to guide me to the back doorway. As soon as the door closed behind me, I felt something hard hit me right behind the ear, and then darkness devoured me whole.
My head throbbed and my eyelids felt like they each had weights hanging off of them, making it seem impossible to open them. The last thing I remembered was walking into the back room at the bank. Where was I now? I reached back to the source of the pain and pulled two fingers away, wet with crimson blood. I was hit and brought here. Though, where was here, exactly? I slowly lifted my body to see that I was lying down across 4 small bucket seats. In front of me were more of the same seats, and to the side of me also. I was on a plane. We weren’t flying, though. The other coordinates, I thought to myself, were to an airport, but why knock me out and bring me here? What the Hell did I get myself into? I peered over the rows of seats and saw no one; maybe I could make my way to the door before anyone caught me.
Then a man walked backwards into the plane, pulling and locking the door in front of him. He turned and headed in my direction. I ducked my head down and slowly slid onto the narrow patch of floor in between the seats. Pursing my lips and breathing in and out as quietly as I could without any noise. As soon as I saw his feet a few seats in front of me, I pushed myself up and threw my entire body onto him, throwing us both into the bucket seats on the right side of the plane. I dug and scratched and screamed and cried.
I wasn’t going down without a fight. I got off of him and ran for the door. Once the man collected himself, he got up, came after me and then stopped just short of where I was at the door, making me freeze in my tracks. His eye lids had a deep slant that highlighted the golden brown in his eyes, making his intense stare impossible to look away from. I couldn’t move. He didn’t even try to stop me and I had to know why.
“You are Ly, yes?”
I stayed quiet and regarded my captor.
“I know you’re scared but you don’t have to be. I know everything about you, Ly Mathews. I knew your dad.”
He took a few steps back and leaned against the seats behind him.
“When you were about 11 years old, your father came home from a business trip. He brought home with him, an artifact. It was small and made out of wood. It fit in the palm of his hand. Did he give this to you? Do you remember this piece at all, Ly?”
I stared in bewilderment. I’ve been hit and kidnapped, and I’m being asked about a toy that my father brought home from a business trip? How did he know my dad? Judging from his appearance, he had to have been a kid when my dad died, just like I was. The plane’s engine started then, stopping my thoughts short. It was loud and thundering, like a roar rumbling in a lion’s belly, fighting to be released, to scare off an enemy, and it made me jump. I stood stunned, the noise in the air deafened me, and my body felt numb. The whites in my knuckles regained color as I loosened my grip on the door handle. My heart beat steadied and I was finally able to take a breath and stare my captor straight in the eye.
“Why would I tell you anything? You knocked me out and kidnapped me. I don’t usually cooperate with criminals.”
“No, I got you away from the men who hurt you. I’ve been in their shadows. I knew they’d get to you before me; they have more resources, but they want that artifact, and they want you dead after they get it.”
“Why me? I didn’t do anything but find a stupid note on my desk when I got to work today. I don’t know anything about any artifact. My father brought home toys for me whenever he came home. Just toys.”
He studied me for a moment, deciphering my story, picking it apart and analyzing it for truth, or fragments of it.
“Ly, that note was put there by the guys at the bank, their organization, to draw you out and collect the artifact. They sell things on the Black Market and will do whatever it takes to retrieve that item. Your father brought home a piece of history that holds a lot of power and if it winds up in the wrong hands…” He ran his fingers through his dark hair and cursed under his breath. He was so young to be mixed up in this mess. I was so young. He was only a few years older than me, if that. Did my dad steal something from him? Could it have been worth that much money? How was I certain he didn’t want it to sell on the Black Market? I didn’t know what the Hell this guy really wanted but what I did know was this - This man saved me from someone who wanted me dead, and now I owed him my life.
I stepped towards him, obviously startling him, as I watched him shift uneasily. I didn’t know if I still had this thing or not. I didn’t know if he was telling the truth and he was a good guy but I had to make a choice here and now. I could lie and maybe go back to my boring desk job and forget this day ever happened, forget that I ever found that note. Or I could try and help this man find what he’s looking for. I had a choice to make. It could end my life or it could save it. I could be making a horrible mistake or become the heroine of this story. I bit my bottom lip, thinking of exactly what I wanted to say next. My breath coming short and shallow, my heart beat quickening. I looked this mystery man up and down as he regarded me, waiting to hear my next words. His body tense, standing straight, and shoulders back. His posture spoke complete discipline and I liked it.
There was warmth rising through me, up from my stomach and spreading through my chest still. The excitement and fear of all of this was too much. I wanted it to stop; at least I thought I did. This sensation, this adrenaline had its own mind, its own energy. With a deep inhale and a shaky breath out, I gave in to my heart’s desire, to the thrill of not knowing what would happen next.
“This artifact, what exactly does it look like?”