By Ella Ananeva
This Story Was an Honorable Mention in Our Contest
Stanley’s head throbbed after twelve hours of being a stapler, and no amount of coffee could wash the taste of paper from under his tongue. He gargled with espresso as he strode across the corridor to Mr. Cranston’s office and took a deep breath before knocking.
“Come in,” a high-pitched male voice prompted.
Mr. Cranston lolled in a chair, but his charcoal suit was crisp and tight. Angela, Mr.Cranston’s assistant and Stanley’s girlfriend, was present too, but it took a while to find her in the room. The System had turned her to a USA Gold pencil, and Mr. Cranston was poking her into his yellowing teeth. Angela must have been late for work. She never managed time well, not even for their dates.
“Stanley.” Mr. Cranston stretched his lips. “Welcome back. I heard you had a busy, productive Tuesday.”
Stanley nodded, curling his hands in his pockets.
“Your colleagues couldn’t praise you enough,” his boss went on. “Evans said you did a superb job stapling his quarterly report. If only you were as good an event manager as you are a stapler.” He tossed the pencil on his desk by snapping his fingers. Angela rolled across the wooden surface and stopped by a pile of documents. “Many people are better off as stationary than as humans. And much more…manageable. This is the beauty of the System.”
“Indeed,” said Stanley.
“Unfortunately, we’re humans most of the time. Up there…” Mr. Cranston raised his finger, pointing at the ceiling, “they think we focus too much on negative motivation and don’t get enough…fun. Therefore, you must throw a party.”
“Yes.” Mr. Cranston picked up Angela and spun her in his fingers. “She’ll look gorgeous in scarlet, don’t you think? All-hands. Tomorrow, at eleven. Let everyone dress in red.”
“But, it’s too soon. I need to find catering, to clear up the schedule, to send notifications…”
“I’ve already filed the issue.” Mr. Cranston nodded at his computer. “The System has accepted. You know what will happen if you refuse, right?”
The taste of paper in Stanley’s mouth became overwhelming. “I’d better start right away.” He whipped around.
The System’s cameras rotated to catch his movements as he jogged to his cluttered office. Inside, he locked the door and dove into work.
Half of the email got lost since the local provider started facing troubles with their IMAP server, but even without the tinkling of the Inbox, Stanley felt distracted. Every half an hour someone knocked at his door: Some had urgent questions, while others merely wanted to cheer up a coworker who’d spent the last workday stapling their documents. A young programmer brought him a home-made rice bowl, which he accepted through the door gap and gobbled even though the lunch box resembled the new office manager.
Angela was the only one who didn’t show up. Stanley hated to think about what was going on behind Mr. Cranston’s closed door.
It was midnight when he left his office, his every muscle sore and his neck aching after hours in the question-mark posture. He trudged past the glass doors of the conference room, which was still occupied despite the late hour. Mr. Cranston paced at the whiteboard, pointing at the graphs with an orange highlighter. Six of Stanley’s colleagues loomed around an oval desk, while Angela, a human again, switched the slides. Her usually straight spine sagged, and she tucked her head into her shoulders; she blushed so brightly Stanley could spot red even through her makeup. Their eyes met. She turned away.
That night at home, Stanley skipped both dinner and Netflix. He set the alarm on his phone and stretched out on the sofa. Sleep didn’t come for hours.
A sunbeam sliding through the blinds and not the nasty beeping awakened Stanley. He leaped to his feet, his temples throbbing, and eyeballed the black screen of his phone. The last time he forgot to charge the gadget was years ago, when his first date with Angela left him intoxicated with happiness.
Stanley swore and swept out of the room, teeth unbrushed, shirt crumpled, and body smelly. His colleagues would wince, and Mr. Cranston would accuse him of ruining the first office party in years, but better that than becoming a stapler again.
It was 11:00 a.m. when he finally made it to work, sweaty and panting, but smiling and speech ready. The office met him with delicious smells of food and the buzz of catering copters leaving the conference room.
Stanley froze on the threshold. His smile crept down his face. The clock showed 11:01 a.m., but the conference room was empty. No one had come.
He rushed to his office. His fingers trembled as he unlocked the laptop. The Inbox was still blissfully empty. He launched the calendar. The event was registered all right and with all nineteen participants. His knees buckled.
“The email.” Stanley slid down in his chair. “The IMAP server was down again, so no one got a notification. The System thought they skipped.”
He scrambled to his feet and out of the room. First, he found the new office manager: the lunch box. He checked the programmers’ cubicles next: They were multi-colored keyboards. The project and product managers lay on their tables as paper calendars, and the designers had turned into highlighters and rulers.
Last, Stanley came to Mr. Cranston’s door. He didn’t knock this time.
Angela had cleaned the boss’s desk before the System’s punishment and now poked out of a pencil box. Stanley barely glanced at her; his attention focused on a thick quarterly report in a charcoal binder in the middle of his boss’s desk titled, Mr. Cranston.
He picked up the document and put it into the shredder.