flamesJulie Thorn is a secretary at a big corporation with an annoying boss and a boring routine, until one day she gets a telemarketing call that changes her life forever.

Author’s Note

This story was written for a fiction writing workshop two years ago as part of a final short story project. Based on existing comments, I am considering transforming this short story into a much more balanced and non-rushed novella, where I can flush out the characters and solidify the idea.

This piece is marked as “Working Draft” because while it’s technically finished, I think it has potential to be a whole lot better. There are several issues I would like to improve and rewrite so I can deliver the message a bit more clearly, and produce more well rounded characters. The story sat in my drawer for two years, and I finally thought it might be time to send it out to the world and get some feedback on it.

Please feel free to comment, make suggestions, and tell me what worked for you and what didn’t. Hopefully this will let me rewrite and reorganize this short story into a much better and less rushed piece that you can all enjoy!

Thanks in advance and enjoy the reading!

Moriel Schottlender
November 2013

** This story is absolute fiction, including the characters’ names and any situation they find themselves in.

“Did you try turning it off and on again?”

“Yes, thank you. First thing I did. It’s connected to the socket, and the power button is on. Now, can you just send someone to fix it? I need to print important documents and I–”

“Ma’am, I’m only trying to help,” the voice interrupted, “now, do you see the red button with an ‘x’ in it? It’s at the top right corner of your screen.”

Julie grunted and slammed the phone down. Freaking amateurs. She sighed, about to get up from her desk when the phone barked at her.

“Julie, I need the financial documents from the Master Core deal,” the voice boomed from the intercom piece. Randall never bothered to call her, he just repeatedly stroked the intercom button like it was part of his genitalia.

“And bring me a new cup of coffee. The Jamaican brew, not that shit you brought in earlier. I had to throw it away.”

“Yes, Mr Randall,” she growled through clenched jaw and got up from her desk. It was just another day at the office, she told herself. Just another day with him, and the IT people, and his damned Jamaican brew, and the intercom. Every time it barked at her Julie wanted to toss it out the window and watch it fall the whole distance, the full 28 floors, hearing Randall’s voice screeching “and don’t forget the coffeeeeeeeeeeee….” before it crashed on the pavement near the homeless guy with the guitar.

But that was a dream. Instead, she got up like she always did. She dragged herself to the kitchenette to prepare Mr Randall his Jamaican – with two spoons of sugar and half a cup of milk. She would then deliver it to his office, trying her best to pretend not to notice his greedy, shifty, little eyes crawling all over her chest. Then, she would leave, walk to her desk and wait for the coffee to grow cold so he could molest the intercom button all over again.

Ten minutes later, she was carrying her own steaming cup back to her desk. She didn’t drink as much as Randall, but she drank just enough of it a day to make her jumpy. Just enough to make her spill some of the boiling liquid onto her shirt when the phone rang.

“Hello,” she held the phone handle awkwardly against her ear, scrambling to grab a handful of tissues and dab her steaming chest. “Norman Randall’s Office, Julie Thorn speaking.”

“Did you have your cup of bitter yet?” The voice on the other side sounded energetic and cheerful – too cheerful for Julie’s current mood. She smiled nonetheless.

“Dan,” Julie shook her head, “stop calling it cup of bitter. It’s just coffee, and right now it’s poaching my breasts.” Great. Now she has a stain.

“Ah, an amusing visual, I’m sure. Are you coming to the thing tonight or not? I have the most amazing— ”

“Dan, you’re a good friend, but I told you I can’t. Randall is leaving for his big South American meeting tomorrow morning. The entire office is staying late.”

“Oh, right, his flight to… where is it again? Chihuahua?”

“Changuinola. It’s in Panama.”

“Right, whatever. Jules, seriously, you need to quit this crappy job.”

“And do what?”

Dan snickered. “Work for me.”

Julie scoffed, about to offer a retort; something witty about how he makes a business of people’s spirituality. Perhaps take a jab at the bright pink mats that covered every corner of his New Age ‘Quantum Spirituality’ office, a la Deepak Chopra. Heaven must have saved a spot on their list for him, right after Glenn Beck.

A quick bleep interrupted her thought.

“Dan, hang on, I have a call on the other line.” She didn’t wait for him to respond and hit the switch button.

“Hello, Norman Randall’s Office, Julie Thorn speaking.”

“Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m calling to offer you an amazing opportunity. Do you have a moment?”

Ah, Julie realized with an inward grunt. A telemarketer.

“Thank you, I’m not interested.”

“Oh, but it’s a very unique–”

She hit the release button without another thought. Dan, however, was not the voice that came out of the speaker.

“Julie, I need to switch seats on my flight, I hate the window seat, make it an aisle. No, wait, make it emergency exit.”

“Yes, Mr Randall.”

“And reschedule the investor meeting for next week. I want that meeting as first priority when I come back.”

“Of course, Mr Randall.”

One day, that phone will learn to fly. Maybe while it’s still attached to Mr Randall.

* * *
“Hello, Ms Thorn, I called earlier, I have an offer for you, one you simply cannot resist, I promise, if you will only give me five minu–” Beep. Julie pressed the ‘end call’ button and tossed her cellphone onto the table. It slid past her salad bowl and came to a stop.

“Goddamnit, every time I sign up for the ‘national no call list’ I just get more telemarketing calls,” she sighed, staring at her phone as if it was all its fault.

Dan cut a piece of beef on his plate, “Those things are just bait and switch, everyone knows that. You tell them you don’t want them to call you, and they take it as a sign you actually exist and that your number is correct.”

Julie leaned back, dropped her fork onto her bowl and picked up her juice glass. The coffee shop was unusually packed for a Tuesday night. The waitress ran around frantically, bumping into chairs and nodding impatiently at customers in adjacent tables. At this rate, Julie estimated they’d have her attention in a couple of hours.

“I would switch numbers, but Mr Randall would have a heart attack. Last time he called while I was in the bathroom. He left me five messages and called the office to ask if I died.”

“Something’s wrong with that guy. He spends way too much time with his phone.”

Julie stabbed a mushroom with her fork, “He’s coming back tomorrow night. Patty is planning an office party for him, celebrating the new deal they signed. She wants me to bring a cake.”

Dan almost choked on his tea. “You? Baking? Since when?”

“She never said I should bake it. I’m going to get something from the bakery around the corner.”

“Brilliant. You always had the talent for misdirection,” Dan smiled widely.

“I don’t misdirect, I just don’t argue with assumptions.”

“That’s part of the problem, you know,” Dan nodded sagely, “you don’t ever argue. You’re wasting your life because you always delay thinking about who you really are and what you want to do with yourself.”

“Deep, Dan.” Julie grunted, “but I don’t need to sit on a pink cushion and ponder my existence to figure out who I am. Some people are just not all that complex.” She was about to continue when her phone rang again. Her shoulders slumped when she saw the name on the screen.

“It’s him. Hello Mr Randall, how is Pana–”

Incredible noise came out of the ear piece, and Julie instinctively jerked away from it, holding the phone half a foot from her ear.

“I’m ta– an earli– fligh–” Randall’s voice was chopped, but he still managed to make her phone bark, “I’ll be in– brigh– early tomor– at.. –orning. Send an emai– investo– ah– gah– bah–” The line went dead. Julie stared at her phone.

“Good news?” Dan joked. Her face was plain enough to read the answer.

“I gotta go,” she muttered and got up, “I have to get back to the office.”

“What? Now?”

She threw a 20-dollar bill on the table and smirked. “Don’t worry, Dan, I’ll try to find time to contemplate my quantum existence while I bake a cake. I promise.”

Dan snorted at her.

* * *
Everyone was at the office that evening, even the cleaning crew. The news about Randall’s earlier return – as choppy as it was – spread like wildfire. Employees ran around the cubicles like headless chickens, preparing briefs, printing reports, cleaning the windows and setting up the surprise party that would likely not even be a surprise.

“Jules,” Patty Kilpatrick stopped near Julie’s desk with a patronizing smile. She was the firm’s PR manager and Randall’s self appointed personal assistant. Her chest was puffed so proudly, Julie thought she might explode. “Do you think you can bring cookies instead of the cake? We’re expecting the investors to stop by and cookies are much more convenient.”

Patty was the official office suck-up; her lips were so deeply embedded in Randall’s ass, Julie was quite sure Patty’s breath contained Jamaican brew.

“Sure,” she pretended a smile, “I’ll bring cookies. I’ll make sure they go well with Mr Randall’s usual coffee.” How thoughtful.

“Good, because there’s another thing I wanted to discuss with you,” Patty crouched carefully near the desk, her legs curled so that her dress wouldn’t crumple. “You know, even though we were all called back to the office, there is still a dress code that everyone is–”

The phone rang. Which was a good thing, because Julie was about to lose her patience. She raised a finger at Patty and picked up the phone with her other hand. It was the first time she was actually happy to hear the damn thing ring.

“Hello, Norman Randall’s Office, this is Julie Thorn.”

“Hello, Ms Thorn, how are you this evening?”

Julie blinked in surprise. It was the telemarketing guy again. Again!

Patty looked at her carefully, waiting for the call to end. Julie’s mind raced, let out a mental whine, and eventually relented. Telemarketing guy was much preferable to Pucker-Lip-Patty.

“Wonderful, thank you,” she looked for a way to make this sound official, “and you, sir?”

The telemarketing guy’s smile was audible. “Absolutely great!” he cheered, “I have quite the amazing offer for you, Ms Thorn, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not many have such a privilege, you know. It was worth the extra effort.”

Julie grunted and gestured at Patty. ‘This is going to be long,’ the gesture said. Patty seemed to consider sticking around for a bit, but when Julie grabbed a pad and pretended to jot down important information, she gave up. For now.

“You’re quite persistent for a telemarketing agent,” Julie finally muttered into the phone, “What do you want?”

“We are not quite the usual telemarketing company, Ms Thorn. We’re more of a.. a recruitment company. We’d like to buy your soul.”

Julie blinked. “Excuse me?”

“We’re very impressed with the potential of your soul. We have a wide variety of opportunities to offer you if you are interested.”

“I’m…wait, did you say you want to…” She looked around her, searching for laughing faces, finding none, “…want to ‘buy my soul’?”

“Well, more like recruit. ‘Buy’ is such a cheap term. Think of it as a job offer.”

Julie was confused, but found herself unable to let go. Curiosity gnawed at her mind. Besides, Patty was still around, stalking her desk. Julie knew that the moment she hung up, the puffy vulture would return with vengeance.

“What kind of job offer,” she finally whispered into the phone, looking around to make sure no one heard her.

“I represent a company that deals with the alternate nature of existence. Souls, to be precise, though that is not their sole interest.” He paused a moment, seeming to find it amusing, “Get it? Sole, soul.”

“Yes, you’re very amusing. Is this a joke? Dan put you up to it, didn’t he?”

“Dan Greenberg? No, no. He belongs to our competitor. We can’t approach him, it’s a breach of ethics. All kinds of legal trouble…”

“Ah,” Julie muttered, confused. “So you buy souls. Why would I want to sell you mine?”

“Excellent question, Ms Thorn!” the agent replied cheerfully, “for one, you should think of it more like a long-term contract. The company will only own your soul for a billion years. You will be considered a full time employee with full benefits. Insurance, vacation days, the works. We even supply long-term relocation assistance.”

The chair creaked, absorbing Julie’s full weight as she leaned back on it.

“Right. So why me?” This had to be a joke, she thought. Had to be. It was either Dan or one of his silly friends, yanking her chain, pulling her leg, trying to make her sound like an idiot.

“You’re not really using it.” He commented.

She froze a moment. “Excuse me?”

“Well, no offense, Ms Thorn, but you seem to completely waste a perfectly good soul. You’re not spiritual, you don’t sing or play music, and you’re not much of an artist, either, no offense. Last time you took a vacation you ended up with severe sunburn and had to stay home for three days. Quite frankly, I’m offering you a bargain.”

That’s it, that did it. This whole thing was one big joke on her expense. She was going to kill him. “You tell Dan I’ll deal with him when I get home,” she hissed into the receiver and slammed the phone into the cradle.

Dan always had weird sense of humor; usually, it made her smirk. Sometimes, maybe even smile. This time, though… ohh… this time he was going to pay. Thoughts of revenge started filling her mind, plans and schemes and–

“So about those cookies.”

Julie’s head snapped up. Patty stood over her, smiling. Damnit. Her mind rushed to find excuses and get rid of the woman. She smiled nicely, kicking herself for hanging up the phone, and considered faking a cell phone call on vibrate. She was about to resort to that, really, when the phone rang again.

Patty glared at it hatefully. Julie had to fight her facial muscles to prevent the huge grin from showing.

On the other side was Mr Brandston, the head of the Accounts Payable department. They were missing a few documents and would require them immediately, before the big boss returned. “Of course, Mr Brandston,” Julie’s smile was finally a genuine one, and the more it expanded, the more Patty’s face reddened, which made Julie’s smile grow even wider and enhance the effect. “Yes, I’ll print those out and bring them downstairs.” She will even organize them alphabetically, maybe even color code them and add sticky notes.

This will take all evening.

She grinned.

* * *
It was almost midnight when Julie entered her apartment, dropped her bag on the kitchen table and toddled off to the living room, plopping onto the plush sofa. She wasn’t just tired, she was exhausted; the efforts of the day had drained her entire body of any form of useful energy. Even her brain was exhausted, paying the price for the game of wits she had engaged in throughout the evening with Patty. The woman was relentless, jumping on its prey like a hungry toothless shark, snapping jaws just to tire it out.

When Mr Randall comes back, Patty will likely be the first in line to his office, congratulating him personally with her lips puckered like the end of an electrical cord ready to be connected to their usual socket.

She rolled to her side and flipped the TV on, staring blankly at some random woman giving some random man a shallow kiss, randomly walking away in a random street. It was one of those romantic comedy movies that required little to no brain activity to watch. Julie was pleased to comply.

A while later, when the random woman — who turned out to be married to another random guy who, of course, turned out to be cheating on her — leaned in to whisper “I do” to the man next to her, Julie was all but snoring. The sofa was comfortable, surrounding her aching body with peaceful blissful warmth, swallowing her annoyances.

She dreamed of Mr Randall dancing in the street through a torrential rain of coffee beans that sang with thick Jamaican accents. He jumped and turned, splashing around the brown puddles until his nose started singing in a chirpy tone.

Wait. That wasn’t Randall’s nose. That was her cellphone. Julie’s eyes opened. She reached for the phone and hit the ‘speaker’ button, not bothering to sit up.

“Hello?”

She expected to hear Dan’s voice, or Patty’s. Dan would likely be just checking up on her, and she had an earful to give him in return. Patty, though, might call to check up on the cookies. Instead, the voice on the other side of the phone was the telemarketing agent.

“Good evening, Ms Thorn. I hope this isn’t too late of an hour.”

Julie propped herself up, annoyed. “Oh, no, I usually expect unwanted marketing calls at two in the morning. Do you want some tea? Please wait while I dunk my phone into a cup.”

“I’m calling to let you know we decided to give you a sample,” he remarked, unfazed.

“A sample of what?” she was so frustrated, the only viable course of action seemed to be cooperation. In her mind she could still see Randall puckering his lips and kissing his coffee with loud smooching sounds.

“We will give you a no-obligation, no-contract, money-back-guaranteed full day sample. We trust you will like our offer so much, we want to give you a free sample for one whole day.”

“So no ‘soul selling?'” Julie muttered sleepily. This made as much sense as her Jamaican coffee dream, she decided to just roll with it.

“Not at this time! I hope you enjoy the sample,” he exclaimed in excitement, “we’ll talk tomorrow, Ms Thorn,” and hung up.

Julie sighed deeply and reconnected her phone to the charger, tossing it onto the coffee table. She figured she had just enough energy to walk to the bathroom, take a quick shower, and make it to her bed. She would have to speak to Dan about his little phone games tomorrow.

* * *
She arrived at the office early, but Patty was already there. The woman walked around the office as if she owned it; arranging chairs, organizing tables, closing and opening doors. The huge mahogany table in the conference room was packed with food. Julie’s cookies were promptly added to the packaged goods, Patty neatly organizing them as if they were precious pieces of gold.

Julie left her to it and walked to her desk, dreading the rest of the day. This wasn’t just the typical Randall and Patty, this was going to involve Randall, Patty, a pompous group of investors and an entire office full of anxious employees. This was a recipe for the crappiest day yet.

She reached her desk and slumped into the chair. There was an envelope on her desk. It was tucked neatly under her keyboard, only a piece of it showing. Julie’s eyebrows furrowed. She tore the flap open with a pencil and spilled the contents in front of her.

Two tickets popped out, marked “Anywhere” with her name on the back and the perforated end intact. There was also a card.

Dear Ms. Thorn,

Please accept this sample as a token of our appreciation for your business. We value your time and hope you enjoy our product. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for great opportunities in the beyond.

Sincerely,

Souls-R-Us Procurement Inc.

Julie stared at the card. At the bottom of the printed message she saw a squiggly hand-written note.

“I hope you enjoy your day!” The signature was illegible.

Julie bit her lip and looked at the Conference Room across the hall. Patty was in the middle of rearranging the cookies and pies for what seemed to be the billionth time. She twisted her arms awkwardly to reach the end of the table, the fabric of her shirt catching on the rim of the desk, stretching the line of her cleavage to dangerous levels.

It had to be Patty, Julie thought to herself, there was no one else in the office that would go to such lengths to make her feel foolish. And yet, this wasn’t the woman’s style. Patty Kilpatrick was the type to quickly throw her leg under your feet when you walk down the hall, and then laugh the loudest as you fall face-first into your lunch. To Randall she might have been a suckup, but behind his back she was nothing but a big-breasted bully. Quite frankly, Julie didn’t think she was sophisticated enough to orchestrate this.

This had Dan’s scheming little paws all over it, but Julie didn’t really believe even he would get up at the crack of dawn to sneak this into her office. Something was just not right.

On the other side of the window, Patty jolted suddenly, her expression instantly serious. She tilted her head and began muttering to herself, putting a hand on her mouth in a shocked expression. For a moment Julie thought the woman had gone certifiably insane, but the small blinking blue light just below her ear changed her mind. A bluetooth earpiece. Of course.

Patty paced nervously, her hand gestures becoming more and more animated. Julie blinked as the woman tapped her ear so quickly that two strands of hair broke off her perfect do and flung onto her face. She slammed the door open and stomped over to Julie’s desk.

Julie shoved the entire content of the envelope into her purse quickly, pretending to stare at her screen and type. Her computer was still off. Patty didn’t even notice.

“Julie, cancel the investor meeting immediately!” the woman barked. It wasn’t like Randall’s confident condescending growls, it was more of a high pitch chirp. The sound small dogs make when they try to convince you they’re not at all terrified of your feet.

“What? Why?”

“Randall’s flight just landed. He wasn’t on it,” Patty continued frantically, the two strands of hair bouncing off her makeup-covered nose. “Whatever happened,” she leaned forward with big bright panicky eyes, “no one can know about this, you hear me? The investors have to think Mr Randall is just fine, he was just.. he was just.. he probably just missed his flight. You know, slept too long. Make an excuse that will sound professional.”

“A wild party-night in Panama?” Julie joked. Patty was not amused.

“Tell them he caught a cold.”

“Right, a cold, of course, I’ll make the calls now. Did you try reaching him on his cell?”

Patty drew an angry breath, “I am going to do that now. You deal with the investors. This is just a minor delay.” She sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than anyone else.

Julie nodded and picked up the phone. The contents of the envelope in her purse completely forgotten.

* * *
By lunch time, Julie had no patience for long lines or busy restaurants; she elected for the hot dog stand around the corner. The vendor was courteous and her hot dog was bland. She ordered a second one, careful not to let the ketchup drip on her shirt.

When Patty couldn’t reach Randall on his cellphone, she had started frantically calling authorities, including the US Embassy in Panama and the local authorities. Julie thought she heard her make monetary offers to the locals, but mostly she tried to ignore the woman. Randall would turn up, she hoped. Or not. The past few months in the office were so frustratingly exhausting that she didn’t have patience to formulate a proper opinion on which option she preferred. That made her feel guilty, but only a little.

The ice cream cone she purchased after the double-dose of street hot dog made her feel better. The day was sunny and warm, and it didn’t take long for her fingers to be covered with sweet melted cream. She leaned against he wall of an office building across the street from her office and licked the tips of her fingers.

“Julie?” A voice startled her, and she turned awkwardly, half the cone leaning dangerously towards her nose.

“Julie Thorn? Is that you? Oh! It is!” The man, tall, well dressed and holding a black business suitcase smiled broadly at her. She recognized him immediately and blushed.

“Eric? Uh, hi, hello,” she smirked, embarrassed, looking at her hands to pick the cleanest one to shake his hand. He laughed and leaned in for a quick hug. She complied, keeping the cone steadily away from his expensive suit.

It’s been a long time. Since College, really, a few years ago. They were involved briefly but passionately, the last true moments of pure uncaring passion she knew. When they graduated, he got a job three states away, and she stayed behind, resolving to save some money and move after him. It didn’t take long for the long distance relationship to fade, for them both to grow out of it and to find themselves in quite different places in their lives.

She hadn’t heard from him in six years. And yet, here he was, and it felt like he had never left.

He was working for a large financial company on Wall Street, just across the corner from her office. She embellished her job description, but he knew her better. They laughed it off, and she relaxed. They continued as if nothing has ever come between them, as if they were back in college, newly graduated, without the jadedness of the corporate world. He muttered cynical comments under his breath, she laughed awkwardly with a dripping ice cream cone. He teased, she responded in kind.

Eventually, he asked her for her number. They’d do dinner, he offered, tomorrow night. She accepted eagerly. He seemed to be as excited.

She came back to the office refreshed, rejuvenated, and completely unaffected by Patty’s hysteria. Norman Randall be damned.

* * *
By the time the day ended, Julie managed to clear her inbox and clean her incoming action box. She stole a cookie from the pile in the Conference Room and left thinking about Eric, a stupid smile plastered across her face.

Her phone rang just as she entered the grocery store across from her apartment building. She held it against her ear and picked a shopping cart.

“Julie, did you see the news?” Dan’s voice was rushed and excited. Julie wanted to tell him about Eric, but his tone was too urgent. She paused with her cart near the dairy section.

“No, is it about Randall?”

“What? No, why would it be… Okay, you remember the class action suit you were involved in three years ago? The apartment building in Astoria?”

“The creep landlord with the asbestos problem? Yeah, what about it?”

“You just won! It’s all over the news, Jules, the management company agreed to settle, they’re talking about 50 thousand dollars per resident per year of residency!”

Julie picked up a gallon of milk and continued to the frozen isle. “Really?”

“Didn’t you live there for like five years? Julie, that’s 250,000 dollars.”

It was. And now it started to sink in; in fact, the realization rushed into her brain like a tsunami, so fast and intense she had to lean against the freezer for balance. “That’s crazy.”

She was in line for the third cashier when she finally hung up the phone, promising Dan she would call him back when she got home. Dan told her he’d stop by. She’s rich now, she can afford to pay for dinner. She didn’t argue. A party tonight, a hot date tomorrow. So far the day has been pretty damn aweso–

“Congratulations!” confetti flew around her face, sticking to her hair and getting into her nose. “You are our 10,000th customer!” The cashier grinned and blew a tootoo whistle in her face. Julie thought her ears might explode. The other cashiers turned to cheer, and customers hooted. Julie’s shock grew when the well dressed floor manager came over. A photographer followed him, snapping shots.

She won a thousand dollars and a lifetime supply of the store’s generic chewing gum. The crowd cheered politely as she posed for an awkward picture with a huge cardboard check. Julie tried to hold herself together.

* * *
She met Dan for an incredible dinner they ended up not paying for, due to a mysterious computer error with their receipt. The manager apologized personally. Julie was already seeing the pattern. Her conscious brain, however, was still fighting the incredibly surreal chain of events.

It lost the fight not too much later, when Julie’s keys dropped into a shallow ditch on the road, and Dan fished them out along with a pearl gold necklace. He thought it was the luckiest evening ever. She thought that was an understatement.

When her phone rang around 9pm that evening, Julie knew exactly who it was.

“Did you kill my boss?” She skipped the hello. The telemarketing guy chuckled.

“Why, hello Ms Thorn. I see you’ve enjoyed your sample day?”

“Did you?” she repeated, looking at the papers on her coffee table. She had a note from the class action suit lawyer, a letter from the IRS with an unexpected refund, and a notice she won a free cruise to Alaska from her credit card reward program.

“Oh no, no, nothing so crude,” the telemarketer snickered, “no, it’s called ‘Monetzuma’s Revenge’. He’ll be fine in a few days, though we can’t vouch for the lavatories in his hotel room.” He sounded amused.

“That’s horrible,” she commented, but couldn’t help a smile. She had to admit that was brilliant. She relaxed, slumping into her sofa. “So this whole day was your doing? Eric, Randall, Patty’s hysteria, the grocery store thing… all of it?”

“Yes. Well, to be fair, we had nothing to do with Patty, that woman is unpredictable. But the rest was all part of the deal. Did you like it?”

“I.. uhm.. yes.”

“Good. If you sign the contract, this is what you will get as long as you are still in this state of existence. That is ‘alive’ in laymen terms of course, the legal department has all these weird definitions.”

“Right, right,” she muttered, sifting through the envelopes aimlessly, thinking. “And I’ll have to die?”

“Well, eventually. Everyone dies.”

He had a point.

“Let me make this easier, Ms Thorn. I will send you the contract, and you can have the next 12 hours to sign it. Read it carefully and make up your mind. What’s your email address?”

Great. They changed her entire day, followed her karmic existence, but didn’t know her email address. She gave it to him.

“Just send it back to me with your decision, Ms Thorn. Oh, and thank you for choosing Souls-R-Us. We are here for your alternate existence! Please follow us on Facebook and Twitter.” He hung up.

She stared at her phone for a while.

She signed the contract the following morning.

* * *
It was the best week she’s ever had in her life. The date with Eric turned out to be more than just dinner; they had a lovely meal and rekindled the fire, so much so that it became a burning blaze that consumed them both in a night of fiery passion.

She went to the office to pack up her desk and submit her two weeks notice, and announced she’s taking her unused vacation days. She used the “Anywhere” tickets for a flight to Panama with Eric. They planned to spend a weekend relaxing on the beach. Julie thought it was deliciously ironic, and planned to pack a box of Jamaican coffee.

She came back home that day to thirteen messages on her voicemail; five from the class action lawyer, asking for her bank details. Three others were from Dan in various states of excitement, in one he offered her a job again. She chuckled and saved it for later. The rest were recruitment offers. “Office manager” in the top Wall Street brokerage agency in town, starting salary of 120,000 a year. Not bad. Another offered 110,000 but added a company car and a traveling expense account. Julie would have been surprised, but she wasn’t really. She signed the contract. This was her bonus.

She floated, glided, swam around in murky happiness. Around every corner she found a penny, every road signal – a quarter. Pigeons pooped on the shoulders of the person before her, or the one behind her, but never on her. Cars magically stopped to let her cross the street the moment she made the slightest intention to pass.

Julie Thorn had spent the whole week dancing between racks of money and piles discarded clothes, between relaxing conversations with Dan to exquisitely dirty passionate sex with Eric. Between ‘happy’ to quite-incredibly-unworldly-joyous, thank-you-very-much.

And now, as her first week was at an end, she was in ecstasy. Pure and raw, clutching at reality, swimming through sweaty passionate hot motions, into and out of her mind, crazed and dazed and happy. Euphoria was her constant companion; she didn’t care reality was obviously skewed – very skewed – that events were twisted and shifted to her benefit. She deserved it.

That night, she reached to Eric, twisting and stretching, clasping his hand in hers. He followed her movements, adjusting, accommodating, merging with her. She reached her limit; a deep raw moan erupted from her like a raging animal, exploding into shards of blissful delirium.

She collapsed on top of him with an enormously satisfied smile frozen on her face. It would be that smile that would make people blush through their tears during the wake. Eric would never recover. Neither would Dan.

But everyone thought the funeral was respectful.

* * *
She woke up and found herself sitting on a cushioned seat of a lecture hall. She blinked a few times, trying to shake off the disorientation clouding her mind. The hall was large but almost empty, only a handful of people sat, dispersed, across from the well-lit stage.

“The good part is coming up,” The man next to her spoke, startling her. He was in his fifties, wearing a dark brown suit with a crooked tie. He held his hands across his wide belly and twiddled his thumbs, smiling.

“They’re waiting until the entire class shows up before they go on,” he explained.

“Go on? Go on to what?”

“Orientation, of course. Here, it’s all in the welcome package,” he gestured and she looked down at her lap, where a large red folder, rimmed with drawings of flames, exclaimed “WELCOME TO HELL!” in bold bright letters. She opened it carefully with mechanic motion.

“I… I’m dead?”

“Oh very much so, yes. Sorry.” The man smiled sympathetically. “So am I, if that helps. We all are. It’s orientation day.” he motioned, as if that explained everything.

“But..” she started, her brows furrowed, the bitter feeling of betrayal creeping up her bowels, “but I only signed a week ago.”

“Ah,” he examined her, “you’re one of those.”

She snapped her head at him, “One of what those?”

“You didn’t read the contract, did you?”

“Of course I read it, it said I will be paid for the future use of my soul by–”

“By receiving worldly compensation equivalent to the value of your soul,” he interrupted her with a cynical knowing smile. “How much was your soul worth?”

She stared at him angrily.

“That’s on page two,” he continued, reaching to the package on her lap. He extracted a piece of paper full of 10pt font in tight typeset. “You weren’t much of a spiritual person, were you?”

Her shoulders slumped. She should have seen it coming.

“So this is hell?” she looked around at the lecture hall. The chairs, carpet and stage were all a hideous dark red. Other than that and the somewhat disturbing sense of impending doom, it seemed perfectly corporate. “A little anti climactic.”

“Oh,” he chuckled, “What did you expect? Boiling oil? Flaming demons with pitchforks? You only see those on the accounting floor. It’s on page four,” he pointed, “after the bit about demonic vacations.”

“Demons on vacation?” Julie was confused, but she didn’t think there was anything that could be unbelievable anymore. She was, after all, sitting in a lecture hall waiting for recruitment to end so she could start her orientation to hell. When this happens to you, the definition of “weird” is the least of your troubles.

“Sure, it’s part of the employee benefits. We also get to choose our own day off every week. Anything other than Saturday or Sunday, it’s tradition to work double-hours those days.”

“Of course… right, tradition,” Julie muttered, sifting through the welcome packet.

“Even we newbies get annual vacations,” he smiled and pointed at a pamphlet at the bottom of the folder. Julie pulled it out and examined it.

“We get to walk up on Earth for one week a year,” he pointed at the pictures, “your choice of bankers, oil moguls or lawyers. See?” he pointed at a picture of a young handsome man in a lavish suit looking down at them through the picture.

“They file your horns down before you go,” he mentioned, as if it was a huge perk. Julie’s eyes snapped up to his head instinctively. Yup, there they were, barely visible through his thick grey hair: a pair of reddish curved horns. She reached her hand up to her head, moving her fingers around. They were there alright, right on the top of her head.

“They suit you,” he smiled at her, obviously trying a compliment.

She considered her situation for a moment, her hand still moving across her scalp, when a voice boomed through the speakers.

“Welcome to orientation day!” A small blond woman spoke cheerfully into the microphone in the center of the stage. Julie’s eyes narrowed. She could have sworn she saw a tail.

“In the name of the company and its employees, I welcome you to hell.” The blond continued cheerfully, her head bobbing up and down and her face covered with an obnoxiously welcoming smile.

And so it started.

* * *
“Technical Support, what can I do for you?”

Julie leaned back in her chair and let the person on the other side of her earpiece ramble on. She pressed the ‘mute’ button, sighed audibly, slurped loudly from her cup of coffee and pressed ‘mute’ again, moving her computer mouse to reveal the half finished game of solitaire.

The voice on the other side of the line stopped ranting. Julie assumed he was done with whatever complaint she wasn’t really listening to. She had one of the highest productivity rating in the call center, and she intended to keep that record.

Dan was right; she was wasting her life without even realizing it. He was more right than he’d ever know, really. Well, at least until his orientation day comes. Only he wasn’t recruited to hell, he was marked for employment in “Cloudy Sky Heaven Incorporated and Sons,” on the 1300th’s floor. When that happens, Julie would go up to the 1300th floor to greet him and his new white robe and silly little aura. It was just a marketing ploy, those auras were the first to go once you realized their only purpose is to draw dust and get caught in your hat.

She really disliked that company, up in their literal ivory tower and the windows facing endless clouds. The employees were all snobbish, overbearing and generally boring, and the management had this obnoxious ‘holier than thou’ attitude. She usually avoided interacting with them, but she would make that exception for Dan.

She made her voice sound as cheerfully helpful as possible and leaned backwards in her fluffy red seat. “Sir, I’m only trying to help. Did you try turning it off and on again?”

She could hear the phone handle slamming onto its cradle.

She smiled.

Photo Credit: Edson Martins, Flickr

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