Zora pictured herself putting her head down on her desk and closing her eyes. The office was quiet today. Probably no one would notice if she slept for a few moments.
She glanced at the clock. 2:12 p.m. She couldn’t go home for another 3 hours and 13 minutes. She’d never make it that long. She’d been fighting the downward drift of her eyelids for an hour.
Finally giving in, she put her throbbing head in her hands and closed her eyes.
“Zora,” called a voice behind her. She jerked awake and turned to look at Craig, a co-worker who stood in the doorway of her cubicle. 2:15 p.m. Three minutes of sleep. “Tired today?” he asked.
“I just can’t sleep at night lately,” she said. “I toss and turn the whole night.”
“Yeah, I’ve been having trouble sleeping, too,” he said. “Here.” He set an extra large black coffee on her desk. “Sugar, no cream, right? I grabbed you one when I went to refill mine. You look like you could use it.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I need it.” She took a big gulp of the coffee and tried to shake off the mental haze that hung over her. There was a hint of orange in it. “Did I hear a dog barking in here earlier?”
“Yeah, the new boss lady brought her Chihuahua in to work,” Craig said.
“When did they start letting animals in the building?” Zora asked.
“They didn’t, but I’m not going to be the one to tell her that,” Craig replied. “She says it’s sick, so she can’t leave it at home alone right now.”
“Good to be the manager,” Zora said, thinking of her own Labrador, Daisy, stuck at home alone while Zora went to work.
“I know, right? Catch ya later.” Craig walked back towards his end of the floor. Zora drank some more coffee. She sat in her cubicle for three more hours, reading reports and trying to look busy.
5:30 finally came. Time to leave. This was the tricky part of the day.
Have to focus, she thought. Can’t take any chances. Step one. Gather her purse and anything else that was bringing home with her. Step two. Turn off the computer. Step three. Walk down the hallway to the elevator and get into her car without making any side trips. That was the hard step.
She started walking down the hallway and noticed a big platter with a lone donut on it from earlier that day. Someone had brought in pastries to celebrate another worker who was getting married next week. Zora threw the remaining donut in the trash and picked up the crumb-filled platter. She glanced around to see if anyone was watching her. She knew this would look odd.
She started walking down the hallway toward the door again, sprinkling the crumbs from the platter behind her as she went. They made a visible trail against the brown carpet.
“What are you doing?” Craig asked, coming up behind her as she reached the elevator.
“Oh, the custodian will be here to vacuum in an hour anyway,” Zora said.
“So … you just decided to give him more work to do?” Craig raised his eyebrows. Zora laughed.
“Yeah,” she said. “He must get bored with nothing worth vacuuming.”
“Ok,” said Craig. Zora looked back down the hallway toward her cubicle. A straight line of crumbs, no deviations. She’d made it. She took out her phone and took a picture of the hallway as the elevator arrived.
Craig just smiled. That’s what she liked about him. He never worried about what other people were doing. He just went with the flow.
“Have a good night,” he said as they parted in the parking lot.
“You, too,” Zora replied. She got into her car and double checked the picture on her phone. The crumbs still made a straight line down the hallway. Safe.
Despite the heavy amounts of caffeine in her system, her eyes felt heavier and heavier as she drove home. Thank god, she thought. Tonight I’ll sleep hard. She calculated that if she went to bed as soon as she got home, she could sleep 11 solid hours before she had to get up in the morning. She’d feel so much better tomorrow if she slept tonight.
But she didn’t.
She lay awake in bed all night, staring in the dark at the ceiling, counting sheep, counting pelicans, teddy bears, everything she could think of. She tried meditating. She counted as high as she could in German, then Spanish. She turned on a CD that played ocean waves on repeat all night long. She drank hot milk. Then she drank wine. The last time she remembered looking at the clock, it was 4:45 a.m. Her alarm woke her up at 5:30.
45 minutes of sleep.
“What is wrong with me?” she asked Daisy, who lay curled up next to her in bed. Groaning, she got out of bed and stumbled bleary-eyed into the restroom.
She looked a mess. There were dark circles under her eyes. Her skin looked blotchy and pale. Her hair was matted and chunky.
There’s a reason they call it “Beauty Sleep,” she thought, and stepped under the shower. The hot spray felt amazing against her skin. She drifted off for a moment in the shower, head pressed against the wall of the shower stall, eyes closing against the sight of streamers of red blood mixing with the water as it swirled down the shower drain.
Blood, she thought after a few moments of half-consciousness. I’m not on my period. Why is there blood? She opened her eyes again and ran her fingers through her long, brunette hair.
“Aaaaahhhh” she half screamed as she felt soft bits of gore in her hair. She raked them out and looked at them as closely as she could through the steamy air. They looked like meat, but rare meat, bloody rare meat.
“Goddamnit, goddamnit, goddamnit.”
She dumped more shampoo into her hair and scrubbed, rinsed, and repeated until her scalp felt raw and she’d used half of a bottle of shampoo.
The water ran clearly through the drain now, but she knew she wasn’t finished.
“Goddamnit, I’m already running late,” she said to Daisy, who still lay dozing on the bed as Zora emerged from the bathroom.
She couldn’t leave the mess in her apartment. She gathered up the pillows and sheets, which she now saw had streaks of blood on them. She threw them with yesterday’s clothes into the washing machine, threw yesterday’s shoes into the sink with hot water and soap, and squatted down to scrub some suspicious looking stains on the carpet.
“Goddamnit,” she said again as she finished up. She was 45 minutes late now, and she’d already received several citations from her boss for appearing late or missing too many days from work.
She had to go in.
Besides, she needed know what had happened. With dread hot in her throat and stomach, she drove to work. No police cars. No ambulance. She went into her cubicle and sat down, staring at her blank computer screen, until Craig showed up with her morning cup of Joe.
“Hey, Linda came by earlier asking about you – I told her you had come in already but went out for coffee,” he said in a lowered voice.
“Thanks,” Zora said, but couldn’t work up her usual friendly smile. “Craig, did anything strange happen today?”
“Well, Linda’s letting the Chihuahua roam the office now. She says it doesn’t like being cooped up, so it’s begging people for scraps in the lunchroom.”
“Well, hopefully it’s housebroken,” Zora said. “Anything else though? I thought people seemed a little odd today.” Her voice sounded high pitched and strange to her own ears.
“Nope,” Craig said. “Same shit, different day. Catch ya later, Zora.”
Zora went to the nurse’s office.
“I feel terrible,” she told the woman on duty.
“Can I just lie down for a few minutes? If I could just close my eyes . . .”
“Of course,” she replied, and settled Zora down with an aspirin and water.
But Zora, who’d barely kept her eyes open on the drive into work, and who’d managed to sleep while standing in the shower, couldn’t doze off now. After 30 minutes of lying with her eyes closed and her mind churning, she got up and went back to her cubicle.
“That’s odd,” she said to Craig, while walking past his office. “Is Belinda here today?”
“I haven’t seen her,” he said.
“She’s supposed to participate in a conference call with me this morning but she’s not in her office. I texted and called her cell, but no response.”
“Well, maybe she’s sick,” Craig replied. Maybe she’s dead, Zora thought.
“She was here late last night preparing for it. She would have let me know if she was going to miss it.”
“I’ll look into it,” Craig said. “She probably just went out for a late lunch.”
“Ok,” Zora said. She went back to her cubicle and in a tired haze, called the other parties to postpone the conference call till next week, then tried to make sense of the ever-growing pile of paperwork on her desk.
By 3:00 pm, she had her head on the pile of papers and her eyes closed. She felt the blissful twilight of sleep closing in on her. Craig woke her up.
“Zora, heads up,” he said. “Linda’s coming down this way.” Grateful, she lifted her head, took a gulp of the coffee Craig proffered, and tried to look alert and hard working as she waited for her boss to walk by.
After a moment, she looked around the side of her cubicle for her boss. “She still coming down here?”
“She was headed this way a minute ago,” Craig said. “Probably looking for the dog. Get out of here,” Craig said, lightly kicking the Chihuahua, small yapping dog who’d planted himself on the carpet, silent for once because he had a bloody bone in his mouth.
“What’s in her mouth?” Zora said. “It’s dripping all over the carpet.”
“I don’t know,” Craig said. “This dog needs to be locked up, though.” He picked it up and headed down to take it toward Linda’s office, fighting to get the bone out of the dog’s mouth on the way. Zora touched a finger to the stains left by the dog’s pawprints on the carpet.
Oh, God, Belinda, she thought. She wondered where the dog had found the bone.
It could only roam around Zora’s floor, so somewhere on this floor, undiscovered, Belinda lay in pieces. Zora started moving through the floor checking the empty cubicles and offices. She made her way around the entire office twice before giving up and heading back to her cubicle.
She felt exhaustion overtaking her.
It doesn’t matter if I get fired, she thought. This has to stop. She put her head down on her stack of papers, closed her eyes, and screamed inside for about 20 minutes as her stubborn mind refused to shut down into sleep.
She spent the rest of the day contemplating going to the police station instead of home. There’s no body, though, she thought. They won’t lock me up if I can’t convince them it’s real.
The end of the day arrived. The crumbs hadn’t worked. Zora thought about tying a string to her ankle and making a path back to her car that way. Then she could see exactly where she blacked out and went off course. Maybe then she would find Belinda’s body. But she didn’t have any string in her cubicle. She could try it tomorrow.
“Wait up, Craig,” Zora called to Craig as she saw him preparing to leave. “Walk with me to my car, would you please?” Usually she avoided leaving the building with other people. After all, if she blacked out in between her cubicle and her car, she might kill the very person escorting her out. But he’d walked out with her yesterday. She had to ask him some questions.
“Craig, you saw me at the elevator yesterday, remember?” she asked.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“We rode down together, right?”
“Yeah,” he agreed.
“Did I seem messy? I mean, when I got home, my clothes had stains all over them. Did you
notice anything like that?’
“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “What kind of stains?”
“Red stains,” she said. “Did you see me get in my car and drive away?”
“Well, I wasn’t watching the whole time,” he said. “Did you run into the wet paint?” They were coming out of the building now.
“What wet paint?” she asked.
“They repainted that fire hydrant near your parking spot,” he said. “Maybe you brushed against that. Were the stains red?” Zora stopped and stared at the fire hydrant. Could it be that simple? Had it been paint, not blood?
But paint wouldn’t just wash out with water.
And Belinda was still missing.
“No, no, no,” she said. “It was in my hair.” They were at Zora’s car now. “Craig, wait here till I drive away, ok? Promise that you’ll watch me leave?”
“Ok,” he said, asking no questions as usual.
Grateful, Zora got in her car and backed out into the street. Craig waved at her then headed to his own car. Zora drove home, closed the curtains, fed the dog, and stripped off everything she was wearing. She lay down without bothering to find nightclothes. Daisy curled up on the bed next to her, licking her hand.
Zora closed her eyes and tried to sleep. Her mind wandered in dizzy circles until finally something clicked. The blood. She’d had blood in her hair and clothes and sheets when she woke up this morning. She turned the lamp by her bed back on and looked at herself. Red streaks. Her hands and arms were streaked with blood, though Daisy licked her left hand clean.
Somewhere between her office and her house, she’d spattered blood in her hair and clothes and arms but she didn’t remember where or how it had happened.
“Bad girl,” she told Daisy. “Don’t lick the blood. Goddamnit.” She got up and took a shower then went back and lay down on the bed. I’m not going to work tomorrow, she thought, unplugging her alarm clock. I’m sleeping until I wake up. However long that takes. She lay in bed staring at the ceiling until after the first rays of dawn peeked around the edges of the curtains and lightened the room. She finally felt herself drifting off to sleep.
The phone rang at 8:15 a.m.
Zora cursed herself for leaving her purse out of reach of her bed. She got up and fumbled with her phone, briefly noted it was Craig calling, and shut it off before tumbling back into bed. She’d slept for 2.5 hours. Maybe she could squeeze more in.
But she couldn’t go back to sleep. She kept wondering whose blood she’d found streaked up and down her arms last night. Maybe Craig had seen something yesterday. Maybe he was calling to tell her whose body they’d found this morning packed neatly into a trash can or chopped into little pieces and spread throughout the office, one piece on each person’s desk like a welcome card. Who knows how the body would be presented this time.
She drove into work. Three hours of sleep wasn’t enough; her bleary vision and slow reaction time nearly caused at least one accident on the way in. This time, there was a lone police car and yellow tape outside the building. Craig stood at the doorway smoking a cigarette. The way he waved her over made Zora think he’d been waiting for her.
“What’s going on?” she asked him.
“That homeless woman who’s been sleeping in the parking lot at night,” Craig replied. “She died last night.”
“Oh no! How was she killed?”
“Exposure, they think,” Craig replied. “She was pretty old. Probably sleeping out here in the cold did it.”
“Exposure?” Zora remembered the blood all over her clothes and hands. “She wasn’t injured or anything when they found her?”
“No, it looks like she just fell asleep and didn’t wake up. Sad, right?”
Zora nodded in agreement.
“Hey, you’re really late today,” Craig said. “Linda’s on the warpath now.”
“I wasn’t going to come in at all,” Zora replied. “Maybe I should just go back home.”
“What? Why? You planning on leaving us?”
“Maybe,” Zora replied. “I can’t seem to handle this job.”
“Don’t be crazy. Just go tell her you had a doctor’s appointment or a flat tire or something and it’ll be fine. Tell her how cute that demon dog is. She’ll love you for that.”
“Craig,” Zora said. “I think something bad is happening here. Belinda disappeared and I keep blacking out and when I get home, I always have blood all over me.”
“What are you talking about?” Craig said. “Belinda came back into work today. She’s upstairs. She just had a bug.”
Zora stared in shock at him. Here she’d tried to confess what she was but maybe she didn’t need to after all. “So Belinda is ok and that homeless woman died naturally.”
“Zora, I’m starting to worry about you. Go make your apologies to Linda and I’ll take you out for lunch later, ok?”
“Ok,” Zora sighed, heading inside. What else could she do? Maybe the blood hadn’t been human blood. Maybe it had been from an animal, a squirrel or a cat. Or maybe it had been wet paint after all.
She stopped by the nurse’s office on the way upstairs.
“Not feeling so good again today?” the nurse asked.
“Can lack of sleep make you hallucinate?” Zora asked.
“Probably,” the nurse said. “But only after a long, long time without sleep.” The nurse looked over Zora’s unkempt hair and clothes, and stared at her feet. Zora looked down and realized that her shoes didn’t match; the left shoe was black with a 1 inch heel and the other was purple and flat in a Mary Jane style. Her cheeks flamed. “How long has it been since you’ve had a full night’s rest?”
“Three weeks, maybe,” Zora said. “I’m worried that I’m killing people and don’t even know it.”
The nurse laughed.
“You just need to catch up on your rest,” she said. “Do you drink coffee?”
“Every day,” Zora said. “I can’t make it through the day without it.”
“Leave it off today,” the nurse replied. “Maybe you’ll be able to sleep tonight.”
“Ok,” Zora said, and went to her cubicle without stopping to appease Linda. Craig had left a cup of coffee for her. She pushed it away, put her head down on her desk, and closed her eyes. She didn’t care if they did fire her. She went to sleep.
“Zora,” someone said close to her ear. “Zora, wake up.” She ignored the person shaking her shoulder for quite some time but after a while she floated back to the surface of consciousness. “Zora, wake up.” Craig hissed at her.
“Why?” she asked. “What’s going on?”
“The police are coming,” he said. “The ambulance is already here.”
“Ambulance? What happened?”
“It’s Linda,” he said. “She’s dead in her office. Belinda found her there a few minutes ago with her throat ripped out and blood all over the room.”
“Oh my god.” Zora thought about that for a moment then drifted back to sleep.
“Zora,” Craig said. “Look at yourself.” Half asleep, Zora tried to imagine what Craig could mean. Eyes still closed, she rubbed her fingers together and felt the sticky wetness between them. She opened her eyes again and saw the blood streaked all over her clothes and her cubicle. Craig stared at her grimly. There was part of a bloody footprint on the floor near where Craig stood.
“What happened, Zora?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t remember anything happening. I was asleep.”
“This looks bad.” Zora tried to remember what had happened since she came into the office.
“I spoke to the nurse,” Zora said. “Then I came straight here and fell asleep on my desk. That’s it, I swear.”
“Didn’t you go talk to Linda about coming in late?” Craig asked. “Maybe you had an argument about it. Maybe she threatened to fire you.”
“No,” Zora said. “I couldn’t face her, not like this. I just came to my desk and put my head down and slept.”
“Zora,” Craig said. “You know you’re one of my favorite people here. But I’ve heard the rumors about your last job.” Zora cringed inside.
She’d never been linked to anything at her last office, but 2 people had been killed during one sleepless summer week when her air conditioning had been out at home and she’d barely slept for several days. The police thought a wild animal had snuck into the building and done it; the bodies were ripped apart too savagely for a human being to have done it. Zora had burned all her clothes and quietly switched jobs.
“I don’t remember anything,” Zora said. “I didn’t do anything.”
“Okay,” Craig said. “But the police are going to want to talk to you. Look at yourself.” The blood was everywhere. Zora knew he was right. “Maybe you should just get out of here.”
“No,” she said. “I can’t take it anymore. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep in jail,” she said, and closed her eyes again.
He kept talking but she zoned him out and thought through all the weird things that had been happening.
Something struck her as odd about the blood and her clothes and all of it. She tried to think of what it was. Opening her eyes, she went into the restroom and splashed water on her face. She looked herself over in the mirror. There was blood splattered up and down her clothes but something was strange.
Her shoes. She had mismatching shoes on. They should have made funny looking, mismatching bloody footprints. She’d cleaned up bloody footprints in her apartment and car many times; she knew what they looked like.
She looked back toward the bathroom door and saw that there were no footprints. Lifting her feet up, she wiped the bottom of her shoes with a wet tissue but they came off clean. No blood. If she’d been walking through a blood soaked office, she should be making bloody footprints, the way Craig had on his way to her cubicle. She ran back toward her cubicle, but he wasn’t there. The bloody footprint was still there, masculine in shape.
Craig was nowhere around. She went to his desk and began rifling through his things, not sure what she was looking for. There was no blood anywhere in his cubicle. Only one thing seemed odd; a Ziploc bag filled with orange powder. Craig came up behind her as she opened it and smelled the contents. Orange.
“Zora, the police are arriving now,” he said. “Get out of here while you can. I’ll keep them busy for a while.”
“No,” she said, though her mind flashed through the layers and layers of blood she’d had in her car and apartment. Something would be connected to her, no doubt.
But she couldn’t live this way and she wanted to figure out what was going on. She could see police officers talking to the security officer at the front desk; that’s when she remembered the cameras. Cameras didn’t cover the whole office, but they at least showed the elevators and hallways. Clutching the baggie of orange powder, she headed toward the front desk. Craig tried to snatch the powder from her as she went, but she clung to it and ran up to the police, smearing blood on the front counter as she gripped it for support. “I need to see the videos,” she said. “There might be something on the videos.”
The guard at the security desk just stared at her. Her clothes were still covered in blood. She saw his eyes flash toward the doorway, where several police officers were charging at her. She put her hands up in surrender.
The police grilled her for hours. They wouldn’t answer her questions and they wouldn’t let her sleep until they got what they wanted. So she dictated and signed a confession just to make them stop.
“Can I sleep now?” she asked, and they let her. She closed her eyes and didn’t open them again for 24 hours.
A few weeks later, firmly ensconced in an institutional facility where no one would give her any information about where she was or how long she’d be there, she saw Craig walking with two of her wardens down a hallway. “Did they arrest him, too?” she asked her trainer when he came in after breakfast. “He didn’t have anything to do with it. You can’t just arrest him.”
“Craig murdered your former boss, Linda Dileen. We have all the evidence we need to prove that. He tried to frame you for it but he did a sloppy job; it looks like he got into an argument with her and did it himself since he hadn’t been able to get you to do it.”
“Craig did it? Then why am I here?”
“Craig figured out how to trigger you,” Bob said. “He triggered you again and again to try to get you to kill the person he wanted dead, but he couldn’t control you and you kept killing the wrong people.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look at this video from the week before Linda died.” Bob turned on the 48” inch TV in the wall and slipped in a DVD. Zora saw Craig in the video chatting and smiling with a clawed, fanged Zora. Blood streaked all up and down her arms and face. Craig escorted her out of the elevator and toward her car. She’d been in that state without even realizing it and he’d pretended everything was all right. According to Bob, he’d put her in that state.
“How did he trigger it?” she asked.
“Powerful prescription stimulants. He’d been slipping them in your coffee for weeks to keep you awake. He knew that exhaustion was the trigger. After you left on that day, he came back and cleaned the mess. We found Belinda Lewis’ body in a park several miles away.”
“Belinda….He told me she was fine.” A heavy lump formed in Zora’s stomach. She could have prevented it. She should have found a way to end all this long ago. “How could he have known about the exhaustion? I wasn’t even sure what was happening.”
“We’re asking him about that. He also seemed to know how to keep you calm so that you never attacked him, so he must have some knowledge of the phenomenon. Maybe he knew someone in the past with a similar condition. He’s agreed to cooperate by providing as much information as he can. He has no choice, really.” Zora wondered if Craig would be stuck in this facility indefinitely, like she was.
She was afraid to ask the next question.
“And now that you know the trigger?”
“We won’t push you that far often, Zora. But we can’t understand what you become unless we see it for ourselves.”
“No, I don’t want that again. I want to sleep at night.”
“This shouldn’t take more than a few days,” Bob said, and Zora suddenly realized what had tasted familiar but odd in her breakfast that morning: that orange flavor in her coffee.