"You'd think after working here five years, she could at least afford a brush."
The whispered comment, loud enough for Mirna to overhear, was met with a flurry of tittering giggles. Lifting her hooded eyes from the shuffling progress of her loafers, Mirna spotted Jessica, Emily and two other call-takers at their usual seats near the front door.
"Or those shoes," came the hushed reply. "They're even out of style at Goodwill."
Mirna reached her desk and pulled out the chair before unpacking her purse, laying out her kitten lunchbox, her thermos of iced tea, and three Hershey kisses. She didn't worry about Jessica's snide comments or the red heat which blazed across her cheeks on mornings like this. It was always worse on Mondays. Mirna figured the strain of their failed relationships simmered over the weekend and they felt the need to build themselves up at her expense.
She'd grown used to the others' hurtful comments. After all, hadn't she withstood the same ugly words all her life? The same Jessicas and Emilys sitting on the steps of Washington High, or in the bleachers at Scott Middle School?
Mirna fingered the gum from her mouth and stuck it to her keyboard before slipping on her headset. It was almost ten o'clock and the orders would soon be coming in, filling her day with activity. As phones began to buzz and the others drifted to their seats, the hum of voices and jingle of phones created a comforting background to Mirna's day. Then a shriek knifed through the bullpen, sending a jolt of surprise jittering up Mirna's spine.
Next to her, Jessica tumbled to the floor before kicking away from her desk. She screamed again, whipping off her headset and flinging into the shadows beneath the desk.
"What is it?" Emily asked as she took a tentative step closer.
"A mouse!" Jessica huffed. She pushed to her feet and grabbed a water bottle, flinging it after the headset.
"Stop, You'll hurt it," Mirna shouted. She grabbed the cup off her thermos and dropped to her knees in front of Jessica's workstation. She spotted the gleam of tiny black eyes cowering in the corner. "It's okay, baby, we'll get you out of there," she cooed.
Mirna moved slowly, navigating the cup above the mouse before snapping it down over the tiny animal's head. "I've got it," she called proudly. "Now pass me a magazine and I'll get it out of here."
From somewhere above, a magazine flopped down beside her. Mirna slid it beneath the cup then lifted magazine, cup, and mouse into the light. Instead of gratitude, she was surprised to find Jessica and Emily considering her with looks of disgust.
"Why don't you just kill that thing?" Jessica asked.
"Or flush it down the toilet?" Emily added.
"What did it ever do to you?" Mirna spat, shocked at her outrage. Then she turned and made for the front door.
When she returned, she found Dan, the floor manager, standing beside Jessica's desk. He had a hand on her shoulder as she dabbed at her eyes.
"So was it a mouse?" Dan asked.
Mirna dropped the magazine on Jessica's desk and nodded.
"Just a little one," she said. "Poor thing was scared half to death."
"It's vermin," Jessica hissed. With index finger and thumb she snatched the magazine by the corner then holding it out like some filth covered rag, she stepped to Mirna's trashcan and dropped it in.
"They're coming from that disgusting basement." Jessica turned and considered Dan, her hands planted firmly on her hips. "You should have it fumigated before someone gets bit."
Later that day, as Mirna sat by herself in the lunchroom, Dan stepped in and dropped two grocery sacks and a metal rod on the table. Mirna glanced up from her peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
"I've got a little job for you," he said. He spilled the bag's contents onto the table. They were filled with mousetraps and little triangular boxes of rat poison.
"I want you to go down to the basement and set all these traps and baits. Then every day remove the dead ones and reset the traps."
He picked up the metal rod and ran a finger down its length. "And if you find any of the little buggers, smash in their heads with this."
"Why me?" Mirna asked. "Can't the janitor do it?"
Despite the other women's attitudes, despite the condescending way Dan treated her, Mirna enjoyed her work. She relished the opportunity to talk to people. She never had much chance to speak with anyone once she got home. She'd scurry up the apartment steps and lock herself in, afraid of the shouts and occasional distant gunfire from the streets outside.
At work, she actually got to help people. Sure, she was only taking orders for restaurant supplies, but the people she spoke with were kind. Often times, they thanked her and took the time to chitchat about the most wonderful things; their children, or the weather, or maybe even a little about themselves. Mirna felt like a small part of their lives whenever this happened.
"No, I pay the janitor to clean toilets and empty the trash, not kill mice," Dan said. "Besides, it looks like you've got a knack for dealing with the little bastards."
He swung open the breakroom door and stepped out. "Once you're done with lunch, get started on that, will you? And let me know how many of the little suckers you get."
Mirna finished her sandwich and made her way to the basement and flicked on the lights. It was a wide, open space separated into rows by three lines of dusty black file cabinets. Above the concrete floor, pairs of halogen lights buzzed from their thin metal chains. The room had a musty smell and a not unpleasant aroma of old papers. It reminded Mirna of trips to the library as a girl.
She set the metal rod atop one of the shelves and fingered the bag of traps, unsure where to start. She didn't want to hurt the little creatures, but didn't have much choice. If she didn't do as Dan said, he'd surely fire her.
Mirna began at the first row, setting the traps and sliding them between the cabinets. As she worked, she read the scribbled labels on the drawers. Some had been typed but most were written in faded pencil with the paper slipped into square metal brackets.
Tax Statement 2011
Customer Complaints 2001
Employment applications 1998
Further and further back they went until on the last row a label caught her eye:
Crank letters 1986
Crank letters? And from so long ago. With a quick glance towards the stairs, Mirna undid the latch. With a squeal of dusty wheels, the drawer rumble open and locked into place with a metallic snick. Inside, she found a folder with several yellowed sheets of paper. Most were letters addressed to the nebulous "Dear Sirs," and filled with angry words.
Then she flipped to a page with an old sticky note attached:
A CURE FOR LONELINESS
Was scrawled across the top
The edges of the note were browned and brittle, the sticky note clipped to a simple three-hole punched sheet of notebook paper like the kind she'd used so often in school. Written in red ink, the neat cursive read:
A Cure For Loneliness
Follow these steps and you too can be happy.
Step 1) Read these words aloud.
Zabulon, ego rogamus vos meas conteram solitudo.
Liberate me ex vincula desperandum.
Intus crescunt mihi magna caritate.
Step 2) Kiss the spot below.
A crude outline of lips was sketched at the page's center. On it, a hint of red as if kissed it long, long ago.
Step 3) Believe in your happiness.
Mirna glanced up feeling suddenly foolish. Her heart raced as she scanned the words. A cure for loneliness? Surely no one was lonelier than she. Mirna squinted at the script wondering if the smudge left on the poorly drawn lips had eased the heartache of the woman who'd left it.
What did she have to lose? Mirna glanced over her shoulder at the stairs. She was alone. Wasn't this like the emails promising good luck if she forwarded them, bad luck if she didn't? She always forwarded those emails and what harm had it done? She cleared her throat and squinted at the words. They looked a little like Spanish, but different.
She read them aloud, the sounds unfamiliar and clumsy on her tongue.
"Zabulon, te rogamus vos meas conteram solitude." There was a noise of scratching to her left. She glanced up, but it was gone. "Liberate me ex vincula desperandum. In vobismetipsis caritatem continuam crescere me."
She lowered the paper and looked around. Well, nothing so far. She read the next line: Step 2. Kiss the spot below.
Mirna leaned down, placed the paper to her lips. She closed her eyes and felt. Warmth. She imagined kissing her boss, Dan. Only he wasn't Dan, he was Mr. Darcy and she was Elizabeth Bennet. His lips were velvet soft, the tip of his tongue ever so warm. A soft moan escaped her when ...
"What the hell are you doing?"
Mirna looked up to find Jessica standing at the top of the stairs.
"Oh, my God. Were you making out with that piece of paper?" Her laugh was scornful and sharp. "What a loser." She spun and marched up the stairs. The metal door slammed shut with a hollow bang.
Mirna glanced down, a fat tear landing with a tic on the final line.
Step 3) Believe in your happiness.
When she'd finished setting all the traps and laying out the bait, Mirna clomped upstairs. She paused for a long moment, her hand hovering over the handle before she opened the door and stepped out. As she expected, the women glanced at her from the corner of their eyes, Jessica and Emily sharing a whispered exchange.
When she took her seat and slipped on her headset, someone made an exaggerated smooching noise. The floor erupted in laughter.
Dan poked his head out of his office and looked around. "Come on, people. Less horseplay, more work." His eyes alighted on Mirna. "You get all those traps set?"
He gave her a thumbs up and disappeared inside his office.
The rest of the afternoon, Mirna couldn't get her mind off the kiss. It seemed so ... so real. She could almost smell Dan's cologne, could taste the acrid bite of cigarettes on his breath.
When it came time to leave, Mirna excused herself and hid in the bathroom. She wanted just one more kiss. Wanted to see if it was all in her imagination or maybe something more.
After some time, she crept out the office dark except for a bright rectangle of light streaming from Dan's office and casting the bullpen in a dim buttery glow. Quietly, she crept across the hall and eased open the basement door.
Mirna hadn't remembered leaving the lights on, but she guessed she had. She slipped down the stairs and stepped around the cabinets, halting in surprise at the sight before her.
Lying on a thick pallet of blankets was Dan, his shirt and pants folded beside it in a pile. Straddling his hips and wearing nothing but a lacy pink camisole was Jessica. They glared, wide-eyed, when Mirna rounded the corner.
"What the hell are you doing?" Jessica sneered. She pushed off Dan, her eyes darting about the room. They landed on the metal rod Mirna had left behind earlier. Jessica scooped it up, an evil grin tugging at the corners of her lips.
"You were spying, weren't you?" Jessica took a step forward, slapping the pipe into her palm. "You nosey little bitch. You think you're gonna tell my husband, don't you?"
Mirna stumbled back, the shadows on the floor seeming to sway and flow around her. "No, no. I didn't know you were down here." Her eyes darted from Jessica to Dan. "Please, I won't tell. No one has to know."
"You're damn right no one will know," Jessica hissed. "Because I'm going to give you a little sample of what will happen if you talk."
Mirna stumbled back her arm raised against the blow. Jessica's eyes, pinched in an expression of rage, flew suddenly wide as, glancing down, she screamed. Shadows swirled around her naked feet and flowed up her thighs and clung to her hips.
Mirna gasped at the realization the dark shapes she mistook for shadow were, in fact, hundreds of tiny bodies. The tiny furry bodies of mice.
Jessica stumbled sideways, sending a cabinet crashing to the floor. She batted at the swarm as it engulfed her breasts, crawled in a living shroud across her face and her arms before choking off her cries. She tumbled to her knees in a convulsing mass, then to the floor, her legs kicking feebly for several moments before going still.
The flowing horde pulsed and bulged growing smaller and smaller until the last animals scurried into shadow. The only thing left were four small bodies and a tattered pink cami.
"What the hell?" Dan sprang to his feet, not bothering to cover his nakedness.
Once again, the shadows flowed across the ground toward them. As Dan dashed for the stairs, Mirna covered her eyes and dropped to her knees. She tried to shut out the screams, Dan's muffled cries for help, the whispering sounds of scurrying feet followed by silence.
I'm next, she thought. I'm going to be eaten alive.
"Don't be afraid," a voice said.
Mirna dropped her hands and searched for the source. From the shadows, the mice swirled across the floor and entered Dan's empty clothes. The pants and shirt swelled like Macy's day balloons as they rose slowly from the floor. From the shirt's neck, a glob of tiny bodies emerged and took the shape of a head. Furry bodies and whipping tails smoothing to form nose, and eyes, and lips.
"We're here for you, Mirna," the voice said. "I'm here for you."
The thing took a halting step and held out its arms.
"All you have to do is believe. Believe in your happiness."
Mirna squinched her eyes shut. Her heart hammered in her ears as soft hands cupped her cheeks. The warm exhalation of a thousand mouths brushed her lips. She cracked open an eye, and for a moment, the face before her quivered in a mass of shiny black eyes and squirming brown bodies. "I deserve to be happy," she said aloud. "I have a right to be happy."
She realized suddenly she was gazing into Dan's deep brown eyes. "As long as you believe, we'll be happy," he said. He leaned in and kissed her neck, his lips like a dozen tiny tongues probing her flesh. He pulled back and smiled. "Can you do that, my love? Can you believe?"
"For you?" Mirna sighed. "Anything."