The Liquid Innovations, Inc. call center was, at her core, a jealous place. So jealous, in fact, she switched her last two letters to read CENTRE, all caps, to steal some attention from that pompous tart, THEATRE, with her cheap velour seats and ratty curtains and obscene ticket prices. For years, THEATRE got all the phone calls, while dippy Call CENTRE listened to the echo of a dozen agents dying of boredom.
Because, as it turned out, Liquid Innovations, Inc. didn’t have a phone number.
Well, Call CENTRE wasn’t about to let a little thing like that stop her, so she wriggled and clawed and snatched and coerced and bribed and fluttered her blinds until she had a nice collection of numbers. Just wait, Call CENTRE thought, until THEATRE hears about this.
But THEATRE had heard and wasn’t ruffled in the slightest because she knew something that Call CENTRE didn’t – when the phone rings, someone has to pick up.
“Liquid Innovations, please hold.”
“Liquid Innovations, please hold.”
“Liquid Innovations, please—no, I can’t… hold please.”
Chloe leaned back in her lumbar supported rolling chair and admired the festive lights on her switchboard. They changed colors according to how long the caller had been on hold, but no one knew exactly how many colors they would cycle through before starting over at bright, two-seconds-on-hold, red. There was an office pool meant to go to the first person to get purple on their switchboard. Chloe had gotten a pale blue once, but so far purple remained elusive.
The game was especially difficult because a series of whistles blew in the boss’s office whenever a call had been on hold for longer than ten minutes. (Ten minutes was goldenrod, with glitter.) If someone was caught with a full switchboard and nobody on the line, they were sent Upstairs. Chloe had been Upstairs once, during her first week on the job. She didn’t remember exactly what went on, but she hadn’t been able to feel anything in her two pinky fingers since.
When it sounded like the boss’s office had been replaced with a tiny train station, Chloe donned her headset and jabbed the first button.
“Liquid Innovations, thank you for holding.”
A timid voice came on the line. “Uh, sorry, I was trying to get the Kitty Corral?”
Dammit. Chloe scrambled for the folder studiously labeled “KC” before he had a chance to hang up. She was way over her monthly limit on hang ups and if she lost this one… Aha!
“Yes, sir. Um.” She flipped through the script, choosing a topic at random. “If possible, induce vomiting using a long plastic or wooden rod. Avoid metal, as it can puncture the esophagus.”
“I just wanted to know if—”
“All Calico cats are female.”
“But that’s not—”
“If you can’t get your iguana to eat his usual food, try deli turkey. Not the cheap stuff, though. Too many fillers. Thank you for calling. Have a great day.”
She checked the automatic timer on her computer screen. One minute, fifty-seven seconds. Shit.
Two minutes. Bingo.
Chloe smiled. Callers can always hear a smile. “I meant have a really great day.”
The line disconnected.
Almost instantly, lights on her panel flickered to life.
Hi, is this Rituals Spa?
“Do not, under any circumstances, ingest the lemon bath salts.”
Julie? Julie Edelson?
“Julie isn’t home right now, but I’d be happy to take a message.”
Can you tell me the difference between grey with an ‘e’ and gray with an ‘a’?
“One is the color of storm clouds. The other is the color of existential dread as it creeps slowly up your spine before finally devouring your mind like that alien from Alien.”
I need movie times.
“Twelve-thirty. Also, probably eleven. Or seven-fifteen.”
The next time Chloe looked up there were five minutes until her lunch break. Her stomach growled thinking of the leftover pizza sitting in the breakroom refrigerator (all congealed cheese and greasy pepperoni. Yum.). One last call. She punched the pick-up button.
“Liquid Innovations, Inc. How can I help you?”
The voice that came through the receiver was so loud it made Chloe flinch. “Oh thank gawd. I tell ya, I been callin’ and callin’ and all the robots were givin’ me the go around. You know how it is. Press one for English, Press two if you got a question about the collapse of the Amazonian ecological system. Blah, blah. Can’t tell you how good it is to hear a human voice.”
Chloe paused, one finger hovering above the disconnect button. Thirty seconds.
“Anyway.” The woman paused to take a breath. “I got this box on my patio. Says Liquid Innovations on it, but I didn’t order nothin’. Hopin’ you can tell me what’s what.”
“Yup, yup. Like, for starters, what do y’all do over there anyway? How does a person innovate liquid?”
An alarm went off in her head. She knew without looking there wouldn’t be a script for this call. During the thirty-minute training session she’d had on her first day, her supervisors made it terrifying clear that there was zero information regarding the actual day to day workings of Liquid Innovations, Inc. on the premises of Liquid Innovations, or probably anywhere so far as they could tell.
“Don’t worry,” they’d said. “No one ever calls for that.”
“Ma’am, can I—”
She coughed once, loud, and it took a minute for Chloe to realize it was a laugh.
“None of this ma’am business. I’m only a hair past a calf’s dawn. Name’s Caroline. Not Carol. Caroline. Mama took the time to write out the full name, s’only right people make the effort.”
Chloe fought the urge to frantically wave for her boss’s attention. She was still six and a half years away from the end of her official probation—the last thing she needed was for him to think she couldn’t do her job. She had to deal with this on her own.
Damn. Chloe was hoping to buy some time with another long-winded response.
“What does the box look like?”
She could almost hear the woman roll her eyes. “Brown. Boxy. Taped up real good, too. Broke one of my good steak knives.”
Oh! She knew this one! “Liquid Innovations is not responsible for any damage caused adjacent to, in relation to, on top of, inside of, or in the general vicinity of Liquid Innovations properties, employees, products, namesake, etc…”
“Oh relax, doll. All I want to know is what’s in the box. I don’t particularly like surprises. Once, my daughter-in-law, bless’er, threw a surprise party for my birthday. She’s always been heavy on good intentions but a bit light in the smarts. She rigged up some kind of lights display—bulbs shaped like artichokes or some other nonsense—set to go off the minute I walked in the door. Well, they went off all right. Exploded right above my head. I was near bald when they’d finally put the fire out.”
While the woman spoke, Chloe panicked. She’d said Liquid Innovations, clear enough for even their shitty recordings to pick up. There was no way she could hang up now, even though the call was pushing five minutes. Another few seconds and the boss would come over anyway. Some of the other agents figured out how to call each other, though it should’ve been impossible. Their direct lines changed every hour. They’d spend all day playing Guess The Fruit without having taken a single call. Now, anything over five and a half minutes was flagged.
“—and it’s got nothing to do with the quality of her apple crumble. It’s in the name, isn’t it? Crumble should crumble, not turn to wallpaper paste on the tongue. Poor girl takes everything to heart—”
Chloe stood just enough to see the boss’s office, a triangular glass room in the corner of the main floor. A blue light flashed silently on his desk.
“—that was when the dog died. Well, not right then. But, hand to heart, it started with that smell—”
The boss stood.
Chloe did the only thing she could think of; she relayed the call from the stationary dock to a mobile, clipped it to her belt, adjusted the headset and left her desk.
“Ma’am?” Chloe tested.
“None of this ma’am business. I told you, the name’s Caroline. Anyway, when we looked at the fine print on the coupon, it was her that decided a twenty percent discount was worth shopping in a mesh onesie—”
Eyes followed her as she tore through the maze of desks toward the breakroom. The boss never step foot in there, claiming a deathly allergy to the smell of burnt popcorn, so it was a safe place to hide until she could figure something else out, though she didn’t hold out much hope. She couldn’t stay in the breakroom forever. The call would have to end eventually, and with it, her job.
She rounded the eighth cluster of desks and hit a solid wall.
The breakroom had moved.
“—so I told him that if he thought he was keeping a llama in the spare bathroom, he’d soon find himself without his left—”
But it couldn’t have moved. That was impossible. Except this was where the door ought to have been. The Mysterious Brown Stain all of the second-shifters toe-tapped for luck on the way in to see if their lunch had somehow survived the first four hours in the company fridge was right there. She tapped it. It squished just like always.
There had to be an explanation. If not a good one, then at least something to convince her that she hadn’t lost her mind. She touched the place the knob should have been—
—and fell forward into a room blacker than black. The door that wasn’t there slammed behind her.
Caroline stopped her barrage long enough to ask, “You okay, darlin’? I heard a noise.”
Chloe peeled herself off a cold, hard floor and adjusted the headset. “Fine. What was it your sister said about yard gnomes?”
Caroline scoffed. “As if they had anything to do with when the package was delivered. How was I supposed to know the delivery man was skittish? It’s not as if I talk to them, invite them in for lemonade and a drink, if you catch my—”
Having bought herself some time, Chloe stared into the darkness, willing her eyes to adjust. It was like trying to see through ink. She stuck her arms out, nerves itching to feel something, anything, other than cold nothingness. She couldn’t see her breath, but knew it was coming out in clouds.
She clicked mute. “Hello?”
She expected an echo, but her voice was swallowed.
A single violet spotlight clicked on above her head, revealing a blackboard on shaky wooden stilts. A piece of chalk floated up from the sill, twitched and struck the board with quick, stabby movements.
“—cat videos, not that I watch of course, but—”
Chloe barely heard Caroline’s voice as the chalk smacked the board, clouding the room in white dust. It took ages to clear and when it did, the message on the board read: So you want to know about Liquid Innovations, Inc? Below it, two boxes had been drawn—Yes and No.
There were stories, of course, because for as long as there had been Things that People Shouldn’t Do there were stories of people who’d done them anyway. These stories rarely had happy endings.
For the stories involving Liquid Innovations employees who’d decided they really needed to know what it was that Liquid Innovations did, there were less than unhappy endings. There were no endings. People were there, asked a few questions, and then they weren’t. Any suggestions that these people had simply been fired or quit were met with ugly grimaces and the classic spin-and-spit warding off of curses. There was the odd rumor, obviously. Chloe’s favorite involved a man who’d been tricked into becoming a fish in the company fountain because of a sandwich, but even she knew it was all nonsense.
There were certain questions that just shouldn’t be answered. Surely the boss could understand why she had to hang up on Caroline and walk directly out of there having forgotten completely about the wandering breakroom and the chalkboard and mysterious boxes that stood up to really good steak knives.
But when her finger grazed the disconnect button, she hesitated. Just for a second. A millisecond.
“Not tryin’ to be rude here, darlin’, but the box is, um…”
“Yes?” Chloe prodded, though every cell in her body lit up like Bad Idea sirens.
She snatched up the chalk before she could change her mind and drew a furious circle around Yes.
“Totally normal,” Chloe said, not even bothering to try to sound convincing.
“If you say so. Only I’ll just leave it on the porch for now because it’s making a real racket and my orchid is a light sleeper. My daughter-in-law thinks I’m off my nut, but you don’t see her orchids bringing home blue ribbons, do you? The thing to remember is—”
The edges of the chalkboard began to weep at the sides, melting into a kind of black soup. Chloe jumped back as the puddle reached her shoes.
She covered the headset’s mouthpiece. “I changed my mind! I don’t want to know anything!”
The walls shook, like the room was laughing at her.
Rude, she thought.
The puddle sizzled at the edges, eating away at the floor until giant chunks of it crumbled inside itself. The hole widened faster than she could stumble away and with one misplaced step, she
—until it wasn’t so much a fall as a gentle drift down. The line crackled in her ear.
The darkness was so thick it was like swimming through a black lake, with shiny black ripples issuing away from her as she flailed her arms, looking for purchase. Soon a light appeared below, soft yellow. It let her see the walls of the tunnel, white ceramic tile with marker scribblings she could only read the first or last halves of.
—and I never said it.
Touch the red—
—don’t listen to him.
“Whoa.” Her voice echoed down the length of the tunnel.
Caroline’s horrified voice came through the receiver. “Are you in a bathroom?”
“No! No. I just—the line is wonky.”
“Because germs can travel in ways we will never understand. I read that they can leap over a hundred feet if given the proper motivation.”
Chloe wondered out loud what the proper motivation might be, setting Caroline off. It gave her time to panic.
Though not for very long. Like a tape on fast-forward, the light rushed at her and she finally hit the bottom hard enough to knock the wind out of her.
“—and just because they don’t have proper brains doesn’t mean that don’t want revenge for—”
She groaned into her shoulder. Nothing felt broken, but her lungs ached with the effort of breathing in. After testing first her legs and then her arms and finally the mobility of her neck, she gathered herself together enough to stand.
The room was a larger version of the tunnel, with white tiled walls and a chilled linoleum floor. The light she’d seen while falling came from a sign near the ceiling. Brighter than neon, it hurt to look at, but she forced herself to make out the words the twisty bulbs spelled out.
A crooked arrow in black paint pointed from the words to a table that, if pressed, she would swear hadn’t been there a second ago. A plate of stale donuts sat at the center of the table. The iced ones looked like someone had swiped a finger through the frosting.
Her thoughts went back to that leftover pizza she never got to eat and her stomach snarled. A donut would go a long way to stanching the pain in her middle, but eating office food—even ancient, awful-looking office food—was like eating from the hands of a fairy. One bite and she would be enslaved for life.
But she was so hungry.
And glazed with sprinkles were her favorite.
And it wasn’t like her employers were actually fairies. Devious, twisted, and occasionally seen at the bedsides of infants, yes, but not pointy-eared, iron-fearing, revel-dancing fairies.
At least, she didn’t think so.
As she pressed the chewy, sticky pastry between her lips, she struggled to remember a time she’d heard anything about her employers, normal, round ears or otherwise.
“—and so I says to her, ‘Sweetie you can’t sit on that porch forever. You’re liable to get a blister in your backside before too long now get in this car or so help me Lord—”
Too right, Chloe thought and bit into the doughnut. Saliva flooded her mouth and she moaned in sugary ecstasy.
The line went deadly quiet and for a frightening second she thought she’d been disconnected.
“Are you… eating? Now?” Caroline asked, incredulous.
No sooner had she swallowed in order to answer than her arms and legs shot out from her trunk like they were cartoon limbs, stretching and widening with, not exactly pain, but adjacent to pain. She wasn’t comfortable, that’s for sure. The headset snapped and the phone base clattered to the floor, which was getting steadily further and further away, though she could still see her feet (albeit barely) still planted on the ground.
When the growth finally stopped, with her head pressing against the ceiling and her neck bent at an odd angle, she bit down on her tongue to gain a little focus. The room felt like it was spinning and each time she reached out to touch the walls her body moved with such exaggerated slowness that she nearly toppled over, disoriented.
Caroline’s voice came from somewhere below, tinny and squeaky as a mouse.
“I’m still here!” Chloe bellowed in a voice much deeper than her own.
She didn’t know what kind of hallucinogen they’d slipped into those doughnuts, but she was damn sure they’d be paying for the therapy it was going to take to get this nightmare out of her mind.
She was the kind of dizzy that settled on her after a night of drinking, when she knew closing her eyes was a bad idea, but she couldn’t look anywhere without a wave of vertigo knocking her off-balance. It made her edgy and anxious. Worst of all, it made her cry.
Chloe hated crying.
She squashed the sniffles beneath her giant hand—God, what if it stayed that way? How was she going to get back into her apartment?—and bit back the worst of the sobs. But still the tears came; fat globs of wet that streamed down her face before puddling at her feet. And the more the puddle grew, the more she cried, an awful damp cycle that didn’t show any signs of stopping until she got a grip or drowned.
Drowning was looking more and more likely and she probably would’ve resigned herself to it if a bottle hadn’t fallen from the ceiling, bonking her directly between the eyes. She gasped in surprise, her mouth opened just enough, and the bottle fell in. A tag reading DRINK ME fluttered by, as small as her fingernail.
Against her better judgement, she swallowed.
Her insides felt like they were on a rip-cord, springing back with a ferocity that sent her reeling. She hit the water—SMACK—and, arms wrapped around her stinging middle, it was lights out.
The last thing she heard before darkness took her was Caroline’s incessant hello-ing as it turned to gurgles under the waves.
“Hello? Hel-LO?” Caroline pulled the phone away from her ear to check the connection. She frowned, wondering how it’d gotten so damp. She wasn’t usually a big sweater, but this heat and Lord how she’d gotten herself all worked up over a little ol’ box…
She waited on the line until it clicked off of its own accord. She knew how these companies worked. If she hung up, they’d have no qualms with making her go through the whole rigmarole of robots and things before telling her there was nothing they could do. They’d hung up on her, which meant she was owed something. And no one had ever wriggled out of settling debts with Mrs. Caroline Dollaker.
She dumped her phone in a bag of rice (because those phone company yuppies weren’t any better; one hint of water damage and they’d take her for all she was worth over replacing it) and fixed herself a cup of coffee, stirring in a bit of extra cream. She deserved it, what with the afternoon she’d had.
Once the caffeine buzzed kicked in, she decided to take another stab at the box, this time with her Pioneer Woman cleaver, specially ordered last Christmas when George got all excited about some bird-monster thing he’d wanted her to cook up. Turducken, it was called. Devil’s work, more like, but she’d made the damned thing and they all ate it up like they were the ark oOne’s own. But they were happy, that’s what had mattered.
The box jumped a little as she approached, but she whispered to it, she wasn’t going to hurt it, this big knife wasn’t for it, then when it’d just about reached a point of complete calm, Caroline jabbed the tip of the cleaver into the tape and dragged down, tearing the lid completely apart. A whimpering sound came from somewhere nearby, but she figured it was only the neighbor kicking his dog again. Heathens, everywhere she looked. It was unseemly.
She folded the flaps aside and reached in. Part of her already guessed what she’d find, but she didn’t like to presume.
The figure was about the length of her forearm, with an expression painted on its face somewhere between pain and awe. This one was a girl, with hair carved into the shape of a long ponytail. There was a plastic headset glued on her head, with a moveable mouthpiece. It didn’t look as nice as the others, but was just as lifelike. Caroline smiled, content, as she stood the figure on the mantle with the others. That made seven, now. She’d amassed quite the collection.