Shelly Dotte took the first job they gave her. Not her life’s work. But food, heat, and lights were helpful, so she stayed. Shelly pushed paper with the best of them. Forms filed. Reports reported. Meetings met. All that school and here she was. Masters of Criminal Philosophy turned out not to be a thing worthy of income.
It was the damned letter opened that intrigued her. The stainless steel treat sat in her pencil cup. Unused. Today, at least. It nagged her for a purpose. Shelly didn’t get letters at work. The opener was a gift from the previous inmate. Left with a few rubber bands, some old gum, and three paperclips. Shelly found the gift fascinating. Pulled it from the drawer a couple times a day. She twirled the letter opener in her fingers and looked at her distorted reflection in the blade.
Cubicles are a funny thing. We call them ours. We personalize and give them our brand. Kids’ drawings, low-light plants, and mini-fridges. It’s human nature to retain a shred of individuality when you feel less than individual. A number on a time card and a cog in some quarterly presentation. In the end we’re renters. The lease comes due. The evictions are swift and cold.
Today the Ableston report was due. Twelve o’clock sharp. Shelly’s boss was an asshole. No reason the Ableston report couldn’t come out at two o’clock. Shelly had to skip lunch so her boss could toss the report on his desk and ignore it for a week—then yell and ask for a second copy in a panic. An endless cycle of haste and rejection.
Shelly walked the forty-three paces to the copier. There was always a line. Didn’t matter what time. The temperamental machine attracted the crazies like a box of donuts in the break room. She couldn’t wait to return to the comfort of her cave. Shelly felt exposed in the copy room. She hated the small-talk and banal chatter. Weekends on the lake. Fresh hair and nails. Rumors of who’s sleeping with what. Compliments on that new necklace you wore once a week for the past seven years. Complaints over who works the hardest and least.
Shelly took a deep breath as she turned the corner. She hoped for the unicorn—a vacant room.
Today was different. Shelly came prepared. Stack of forms—the last of the Ableston report. Mug half-filled with black tar coffee. And a new passenger in her shirt. She did her best to find the perfect window of opportunity. At first look the copy room was empty.
Today was not Shelly’s lucky day.
Deanna was in there. Deanna was a garbage person. Spent the day talking, hovering, and soul-sucking. People worked around her. When she spoke, the vile words that dropped from her mouth were enough to make a sailor run to church. Donna had a naive opinion of everyone. They were wrong. Deanna was right. Anyone but Deanna could have been in the copy room and Shelly would’ve braved through it. But Deanna—the woman was like hugging a chainsaw. If you’re forced to do it and you come out shredded to hamburger.
Deanna started in with her soliloquy as soon as the curtain rose. A one person audience. The cue to start the show.
“I don’t know why you waste your time copying those forms for him. Don’t you value your worth? I wouldn’t do it. No way. They could fire me before I did what you do.”
“I don’t mind.”
“Oh honey. Don’t you lie to old Deanna.”
“Really, it’s OK.”
Deanna smacked her gum like an old cow, too lazy to close her mouth.
“Honey… Oh what’s your face—Mary? Look, Mary, your work is demeaning. I would tell old-what’s-his-name to shove it up his ass if I were you.”
“It’s Shelly. My name is Shelly. I’ve worked here seven years”
“Whatever. Look, Miss Thing, if you want to get somewhere in this company you better stand up for yourself. You want to stay dressed like that your whole life?”
“I like my job… And my clothes. Nothing wrong with my clothes.”
“Sure, Honey. That’s what all the girls say when they can’t afford something tasteful—and fitting. I mean, just look at you. A damn shame if I ever saw one. That cardigan looks like something that bum on the corner would wear.”
Shelly boiled under her skin. Deanna rambled on about the corporate ladder and how Shelly should make something of herself. Deanna turned her back to Shelly, but kept the monologue going. Deanna opened the top of the copier and centered her document. Something for personal use. She made a big deal about announcing her personal use of the copier on the company dime. Theft made Deanna feel powerful.
The moment was too perfect. For Shelly, there was one possible outcome.
The chrome passenger stayed hidden. Tucked neat inside Shelly’s shirtsleeve. Something came over her. Shelly’s mind switched to autopilot. The letter opener slid into her palm. In one smooth motion Shelly plunged the dull letter opener into the back of Deanna’s neck. Like it was meant to be.
Deanna’s body folded neatly over the top of her personal copies. Her blood drained right away. Ruined what chance the poor copy guy had to salvage the old machine. Deanna made a couple of breathy, exhaust sounds and then relaxed into her mess.
Shelly shrugged her shoulders. The Ableston report waited for no one. Shelly wiped the blade on the back of Deanna’s dress. She slid the letter opener up her sleeve and walked to the next available copier. The work must get done—after all.
The second copy room was empty. Perfection. Shelly found her unicorn.
She collated, stacked, stapled, and alphabetized. There was something mesmerizing about the warm smell of fresh copies. Not cookies from the oven, mind you, but comforting when you stop to enjoy them.
Shelly returned to her desk. Calm and polished. Cold, determined look on her face. Shelly organized the fresh sections in one neat pile. The Ableston report was done for another week.
Shelly took a relaxing breath. Stretched her arms and drummed her fingers. She spun her chair to the wall behind her. Shelly reached in her drawer and grabbed a sheet of red dot stickers. Shelly stuck a sticker on the wall next to the others.
-Written by August Birch