Read by Alex Mann
Earlier this afternoon at 3pm, the head of my Assistant Director of Communications exploded. The incident shut down production for at least 45 minutes, while the rest of the Communications Department waited for the Cleaning Crew to remove the biological matter and sterilize the office to working standards. Total collateral damage was calculated at one computer terminal, three computer monitors, the all-in-one printer machine, two blazers, two blouses, and one pair of trousers (the two managers seated nearest to him). It was an exceptionally messy episode.
After the Cleaning Crew leaves and my team returns to work, I close my door and sit at my desk, staring down at my hands. I have to find a new Assistant Director of Communications now, a task which is not easy. The now-former Assistant Director of Communications, the exploded one, was excellent at his job. No one else in the Communications Department has the same amount of experience or expertise. I will have to interview external candidates.
But worst of all, I have to reset our DAYS WITHOUT EXPLOSION! counter back to zero, which puts my department in last place, and gives the lead to the Sales division, with 52. I step back and look at the row of DAYS WITHOUT EXPLOSION! counters on the wall in the staff kitchen and sigh. Even Finance is ahead of us now.
At home over dinner, my wife asks me about my day at work.
“My Assistant Director of Communications exploded today,” I sigh, stabbing a stalk of buttered asparagus.
“Oh, that’s too bad!” She clicks her tongue. “We had one last week too.”
“Hm,” I mumble, and stab another asparagus. They are slightly overcooked. The bloated spear hangs limply as I lift my fork into the air.
“Honey?” I look up and realize she’s staring at me, brow furrowed. “What’s the matter?”
A drop of oil slides to the tip of the stalk and falls, plinking against the plate in a pale yellow pool. “It just really caught me off-guard,” I finally say. “I thought … I thought he was happy.”
“Oh honey, you can’t blame yourself. These things are so individualized.” She reaches across the table and pats my hand. “There’s nothing you could have done. Even if you tried to help, he still might have exploded anyway. Some people are just prone to it. Pow!” She flicks her fingers open next to her head, miming the burst. “You know?”
“I know,” I say, and look back to the asparagus wilting on my fork.
She goes back to eating. “Don’t worry. I’m sure it will take you no time at all to find a new Assistant Director. Everything will be back to normal before you know it.”
I put the drooping stalk in my mouth. “These are great.” I try to smile.
The following day, the office is quieter than usual. Voices are more hushed, papers shuffle more quietly. Even the morning announcements seem more muted. The Assistant Director’s empty chair looks strange, a blank spot in the sea of occupied desks. The Cleaning Crew did a good job; everything has been wiped down and disinfected, ready for the next Assistant Director of Communications, and all of the re-useable property has been lined up at the top. They even managed to save his paperclips, painstakingly cleaning each one. You can’t tell at all that just yesterday they were covered in blood and grey brain meat.
I work my way through the stack of reports I have to approve, carefully examining each one and stamping the upper right corner with my red PROCESSED stamp. This is normally the Assistant Director of Communications’ job, but until I’m able to find a new one, someone has to do it. I flip through the pages of each one, scanning the text, and then flip back to the first page and press firmly down, to make sure the ink doesn’t smear. Flip, scan, flip, stamp. Flip, scan, flip, stamp.
After finishing 25 reports, I stand up and stretch, clicking the box on my desk. The light comes on, and a 15-minute timer and calming music begins. I stroll back and forth in front of the window, rolling my head in a circle and shrugging my shoulders as I stare out at the city. Normally I don’t take one of my fifteen-minute breaks so early, but for a week after an incident, everyone’s account is automatically credited with one extra per day. I continue stretching, following the routine I learned during orientation, specially designed by scientists to decrease the chances of explosion. I close my eyes, trying to feel the stress ‘melt out of me’, as she put it. “Breathe deeply,” the New Hire trainer’s voice says soothingly, “And feel the stress melt out of you.” I feel nothing though.
The box beeps quietly to let me know I have only 5 minutes left. I finish the stretching and relaxation routine and look out the window again. The sky is overcast, a whitish-grey vacuum above the landscape of steel and glass skyscrapers. My eyes drift across the buildings, looking into the million tiny windows that dot their faces. I wonder how many other people in them are exploding right now, splattering their brains across their computers and covering their desks in pieces of head.
I try not to think about it, but I can’t help it. I wonder what it was that sent my Assistant Director over the edge. You always hope it’s a big thing, something really worth it, like losing a major contract or getting passed over for a promotion, but I heard about one guy who exploded after coming back from a three-day weekend and turning on his computer to find he had 500 emails. He took one look at the screen and detonated. Or about this other woman who set the staff kitchen microwave too high, and burned her lunch. Melted the plastic container lid right down onto her low-fat pasta. She opened the door and saw the smouldering mess and just blew.
My box beeps again, and the music cuts off abruptly. I sit back down and reach for the 26th report.
Between report 41 and 42, I visit Human Resources to close out the paperwork for my exploded Assistant Director, and submit an advertisement for his newly available position. I have modified the package slightly, adding an additional hour of flex-time per week and increasing the daily lunch break allotment by 5 minutes. The Head of Human Resources raises her eyebrow at the changes, but enters them into her records without saying anything.
“A shame,” she sighs when she has finished, her chair squeaking as she turns towards me. “He was such a productive employee.”
I nod, watching the blubber in her neck quiver as she talks, rippling like waves through an ocean.
“Well, luckily we have a birthday today.” She clicks her red pen and gives me an even smile. “A thirty minute break and free cake should do wonders for morale!” She turns back to her computer. “I’ll make the announcement just after lunch.”
I take the elevator back to my floor and return to my desk. Everyone looks up as I enter the room. I smile pleasantly at them, trying to exude friendliness and calm. They all lower their heads and go back to typing.
I work diligently for the rest of the morning, trying to clear the pile on my desk. Flip, scan, flip, stamp. Flip, scan, flip, stamp. When the lunch bell rings, I wait in line at the microwave, holding my plastic food container. Inside is leftover steak and slightly overcooked asparagus from last night. I put my container in the microwave and turn the dial. They are probably nearly gelatinous by now.
I return to my desk with the steaming container and continue working, my red PROCESSED stamp in one hand and my silver fork from home in the other. Flip, scan, flip, stamp, bite. Flip, scan, flip, stamp, bite. The asparagus squishes between my teeth as I chew, soft like pudding.
Midway through my 84th report, the intercom clicks on and a scratchy recording of the birthday song blares through the office. The Head of Human Resources cuts in over the music, announcing that there is a birthday celebration in the staff cafeteria for a Mr. Harrison Wheeler, from Sales. I come out of my office and watch everyone’s face as they listen. Some look happy enough, but I can tell that others are disappointed, probably expecting the rest of the afternoon off, or one of the other typically offered perks that HR doles out after an explosion, to try to prevent further occurrences.
When the intercom clicks off, we all get up from our desks and shuffle into the elevator to go down to the staff cafeteria. Everyone faces front, staring up at the ticking red number above the doors. No one speaks.
The elevator dings, and the doors slide open to reveal the cafeteria. Several other departments are already there, lined up near the centre table for a piece of cake. My team joins the wait, lining up in almost the same order as their desks upstairs. “I hope I get an end piece,” one of them says.
I look around, trying to figure out who Mr. Harrison Wheeler is. Then I see him, at the far end of the room, near the cake. He is slumped awkwardly in the stiff-backed chair at the head of the table, a paper cone birthday hat affixed to his balding head and a long cake knife in one hand. His face is blank, a limp mask of skin and hair.
“Happy birthday, Harrison!” the Head of Human Resources sings merrily, chin wobbling, and sets something shiny down on the table in front of him, nearly knocking the red bow off the top with her thick fingers. “It’s a special stress reliever, engraved with your name on it! The CEO had it moulded especially for you, so it fits to your palm perfectly. You just hold it in one hand and squeeze! Isn’t that great?”
Harrison looks down at the engraved stress reliever, his face still blank. His eyes drift up to the party, to the crowd of employees milling aimlessly around the staff cafeteria, eating cake and sipping powdered fruit punch out of flimsy paper cups. Our eyes meet across the room.
“Harrison?” The Head of Human Resources leans closer, eyebrows furrowing across her bulbous forehead. “Is everything okay?”
For just a moment, his expression changes. Oh no, I think.
Then his head explodes.
The birthday party is over. Half of the Cleaning Crew is upstairs with us, clearing the newly vacant Sales desk, and the other half is still in the cafeteria, mopping up the remains and bathing the Head of Human Resources, who was completely covered from head to toe in bits of Mr. Harrison Wheeler.
I sit at my desk again, staring down at my hands.
Suddenly one of the Cleaning Crew trudges through my door. He bends over slowly, looking down at my desk through the tiny plastic viewing window of his hazmat helmet, and slides a piece of cake on a paper plate next to my keyboard. “Free cake,” he says, his voice muffled through the full-body suit.
I stare down at the dessert, surprised. It’s chocolate, with chocolate frosting, and not a single speck of brains on top.
“Fork?” He holds a white plastic utensil out to me with one rubber-gloved arm.
I take it from him. “Uh. Thanks,” I finally say.
“Enjoy.” He nods once, giant helmet bobbing, and plods awkwardly off towards the other desks, cradling three more paper plates in his hands.
I watch him go, and look back to my cake. It looks fresh and moist. I have to admit, the Head of Human Resources did a remarkable job of blocking Harrison’s explosion with her gigantic body. The sweetness of the chocolate reaches my nostrils.
I don’t know what else to do. I sigh and stick my fork in.
Free Cake by Peng Shepherd was read by Alex Mann at the Liars' League Hired & Fired event on Tuesday 13th March at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Peng Shepherd was born in Phoenix, but has lived in Los Angeles, Beijing, Washington DC, and London. Her work has appeared in Litro, .Cent Magazine, and now Liars' League. She interns at Narrative Magazine, and has just been accepted as an MFA fellow in fiction at New York University.