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Beth was going to South Korea to teach ESL and Sandra who pronounced it Sohndrah was pregnant. This was the news that was waiting for office slave Patric Zulli on his first day back from vacation. As a result, his first coffee of the day was one tinged with bitterness, although it might just have been that he had lost some of his tolerance for the extra burnt flavour of the office’s Brew Rite 5000 coffee maker.
It felt like Beth was just finishing her training and finally getting her work done in a timely fashion and now it was going to begin all over again with someone new. Sandra had a belly time-bomb shelf life of five and a half months, so maybe the new Beth would be hired and trained just as they had to cover for Sandra’s mat leave as well. That would last a year. Their team would be down one person for a year and a half. How was your vacation, Patric?
Patric felt in his pocket for the small wooden box of Guatemalan worry dolls he had bought as a souvenir on his trip to the old country. Fitting two of the dozen into a large paper clip, then pinning them to the side of his cubicle wall, he took a sip of coffee while thinking up an appropriate voodoo incantation. With these trombone clips I thee restrain; attempts to leave me shall be in vain. This brought a smile to his face as he replaced the paperclip box under the pen tray in the top drawer of his desk.
He closed the drawer on his supplies for the time being, switching on his computer and casting a look in the direction of the boss lady Catherine’s cubicle. The megacube. It looked out over their department, which was in a rectangular grid with four cubicles on each side and a common area in the middle around a table and four chairs for impromptu brainstorming sessions that never happened. The only thing that ever went on that table was the mail and a box of donuts every treat day. Patric shared a wall with Sandra, his cube buddy, oh bliss. The octuplets, as he called the members of his department, faced the forbidding wall of Fortress Catherine. She would occasionally emerge with bad news or new corporate procedures, which were also bad news.
One hundred and twelve e-mails were what he figured between his personal inbox and the one from the website. But seventeen of them were in the junk mail folder, some might say. That was only helpful if you didn’t have to look at all of them to make sure they weren’t customer or vendor correspondence. One, one and two. Beth plus Sandra equals double misery to come. He sighed.
“You have reached the voice mailbox of Patric Zulli,” he said. “I am unable to take your pho-phone call right now, but if you leave a message, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks and have a… great day.” Good enough, said his finger to the pound key as he replaced the receiver. He had most of it right. Their Customer Care Standard was to re-record the message every day and say the date, noting any times he would be away from his desk in a meeting that day, but Patric was too tired to think about it right now. The coffee was bitter and the news was bad. He had eighteen months of additional servitude added to his sentence, not to mention five point five months of pregnancy hormone moodiness from Sandra to look forward to. He would remember to summon the energy to fix his voice mail by Wednesday. At the latest.
“Fifty-fifty for breast cancer?”
Oh, what fresh hell was this? Patric turned from his computer to face two bright and shiny faces from the Staff Committee. Tia Something and he couldn’t remember. Were they suggesting those were the odds of survival or did they think that his two dollars or three for five would make a difference to the cell doubling rate of the metastasis?
He opened his top drawer and fished around in the compartment under his pen tray for a couple dollars in change, keeping his eye open for the perfect worry dolls for these two with their pink t-shirts featuring reminder ribbons. A single strip of Ruban invisible tape would cover the both of them and their hopeful mouths so he wouldn’t have to listen to their shrill voices anymore. Because they went away when he gave them the money, he decided not to bother. Maybe another day.
It was nine-oh-eight by the clock on his computer, although the clock on his cell phone displayed a more optimistic nine-ten. This all went back to Grade Twelve: tension between Patric and his father, one useless guidance counsellor and a decision to pursue a Liberal Arts education. He could be making real money now if he’d followed his father’s advice of apprenticing in one of the trades. But because his father had suggested it, Patric chose the opposite. The opposite of plumber is historian. The opposite of Bachelor is husband. The opposite of Arts is crafts. Or sciences, business, etc. There wasn’t much that was Artistic about this job or his seven co-workers. But for Beth, it would soon be history.
Beth didn’t show up for work the next day and neither did Sandra. Great, thought Patric. Now he’d have to pick up the error report e-mails from all the portal users as well as his own work. What else could go wrong? One thing he had done right was get himself a Starbucks extra bold on the way in to work. The stuff was literally tweaking his brain as he logged onto the network. Screw Brew Rite Coffee… this was the level of alertness he needed in this place.
He looked up from his keyboard to see a dark-haired man in a neat grey suit standing beside his desk. Where did he come from? “Yes?” said Patric.
“Come with me,” said the man.
“Sorry, you are?”
Must be some goon from the corporate side. Maybe they were finally going to follow up on his complaint about Catherine and her bullshit promotion policies. He shrugged.
“Okay,” said Patric, picking up his coffee and following Sanchez out of the department to… who knew? They walked down the back corridor, waited wordlessly for the elevator to arrive and then they got on and the doors closed behind them. They started ascending even though there were no buttons pressed. Patric looked at him. “Which floor do you want?”
“I’ve come about the spells,” said Sanchez.
Patric blinked several times while processing this. Finally, he said, “Sorry again, what?”
“The two voodoo proxies and the binding incantations you uttered with intent. The fixing has already begun and I’ve just come about the cost.”
Sanchez stood squarely facing him with his hands clasped in front of him. Patric looked above the elevator doors at the floor indicators, which weren’t lighting up although they were still moving. He pressed the button for the seventh floor, home of the megacube, which he was wishing he had never left.
“The two voodoo,” said Patric. “What, you mean the little dolls in the paper clips?”
“That you purchased on your first trip to the home of your maternal grandmother.”
Patric took a sip of coffee and cocked his head like a dog. “My Guatemala trip?”
“Yes. Your grandmother was a voodoo practitioner and she passed on this art to her daughter, who passed it on to you.
“Mom? She never cast any spells on anyone,” he said.
Sanchez smiled. “The blood bond is unbroken or I wouldn’t be here.”
“Huh,” said Patric, wondering what dark arts his mother had gotten up to before joining the… wait, what the fuck? There was no such thing as voodoo magic.
“You’re probably thinking there’s no such thing as magic,” said Sanchez. “But there is. And voodoo magic comes at a cost to those who can wield it. This will take the form of physically weakening you each time you perform a rite—unless you can capture some talisman with personal significance to the object of your spell to function as your power source.”
“Okay,” said Patric. “Never mind. I take them back. I don’t want anything bad to happen to Beth or Sandra, as annoying as they may be.”
“Something bad is already happening,” said Sanchez. “And undoing a spell has its own costs.”
The elevator stopped suddenly and the doors opened on the seventh floor. Patric stepped out immediately and Sanchez turned, but didn’t follow him out.
“You think about it and let me know,” said Sanchez as the doors were closing. “I’ll come again tomorrow.”
Patric looked at the sealed doors and then up and down the empty corridor. What the hell just happened?
Patric woke up in his small one bedroom apartment with a dump truck parked on his chest. Jesus, how did that pull in here and how did he sleep through it? He rolled over onto his side and coughed, trying to get some air in. He could barely stand up, but he managed to stagger to the kitchen for some toast, which stuck in his throat. He put the rest of it in the garbage. His eyelids were like window blinds and someone was tugging on the cords. All he wanted was to go back to bed, but he had to make it in to work to see what was going on and monitor the Sanchez situation. Was this the cost he’d spoken of? If so, Patric couldn’t afford it.
He skipped the shower, bought two high speed turbo coffees for himself at Starbucks and shuffled and groaned his way into the office by quarter past nine. He stopped in at the megacube to consult with Catherine before entering the pen. She looked up when he leaned on her door frame, spilling coffee on his hand.
“Ouch,” he said.
“Oh,” said Catherine. “Good morning, Patric. You don’t look well. Should you be here?”
“Yeah, fine,” he said, which was a complete lie, vis–à–vis the dump truck he was now carrying on his shoulders, the toast lump which was still travelling down his esophageal tube in slow motion and the old man legs he was arthritically hobbling around on, but what the hell. “How are Beth and Sandra today? I mean, have you heard from them?”
“Yes,” she said. She looked at him strangely and then continued. “Beth called in sick again and Sandra was taken to hospital with pregnancy complications and is now in Intensive Care on bed rest.”
“So we’re two short?” he said. He tried not to gulp audibly.
“Yes, so if you could—”
“Monitor the portal e-mails, sure.”
She watched him leave with what could have been described as a suspicious look on her face. Did he look like a petty and vindictive voodoo practitioner who could have caused all this? Come on, Catherine. Get your head in the game! To believe that, you’d have to believe in… magical powers or something. He fell into his chair, exhausted. This situation was out of control. While he was gulping down some fairly hot coffee, he looked up at the ugly ceramic pig made for Sandra by her four-year-old which now sat atop a pile of binders on the top shelf of her cubicle, beaming at her all day long with its cockeyed pink beneficence. An object of great personal significance to her, one that made her heart swell up with pride and her eyes water like a windy day on top of a roller coaster.
He took a look around the department to make sure all eyes were on work, and then he grabbed the pig from the top of the wall and set it on the desk in front of him. He searched his mind for a suitable incantation, eyes resting on the worry doll in the paper clip which represented Sandra. Taking the pig in hand, he focused on the little doll and spoke aloud in a whisper: When this breaks, so breaks my spell; thus will you and your baby be well. He smashed the pig in the bottom of his garbage can and pulled Sandra off the wall and out of the paper clip, dropping her back into his pen tray, free as a Guatemalan worry bird.
“Sorry,” he said to the wondering glances he was getting from the rest of the department. “Broke my mug.”
“Doesn’t it feel better with that dump truck off your shoulders?”
Patric startled and spun his chair around to find Mr. Sanchez in his immaculate suit, leaning against the cubicle opposite his. His heart jumped out of neutral right into high gear. It smelled like someone had lit a match.
“Where did you come from?” said Patric.
“Same place as yesterday,” said Mr. Sanchez. He stood up and began walking towards the exit corridor. “Walk with me, Patric.”
What options did he have here? The appearance of Mr. Sanchez wasn’t exactly good news, but he was Patric’s only source of information at the moment. Oh, luckless lapse in judgement that ever let him buy those stinkin’ voodoo miniatures from that market stall in Villa Nueva! He got up and followed Sanchez out and through the grid, a hopeless feeling settling in his guts with the coffee. When they were back on the elevator that went up, up, up to nowhere, Sanchez began.
“So,” he said. “You learn fast.”
“Well, since my own mother doesn’t seem to have taught me anything, necessity played mommy to my invention today.”
“Good man. So you have settled one account, but that still leaves one other. Unpaid debts don’t go away on their own.”
“Give me time. I’ll figure something out, now that I have some idea what I’m doing. And, okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but let’s say I try this again in the future—not that I will, but let’s just say. If I can figure out the, um, payment, before I say the spell, will that mean I don’t ever have to see your smiling face again?”
“Hurtful!” Sanchez grabbed his heart in mock surprise. “What, you don’t like talking to me? Haven’t I given you good advice?”
“I wouldn’t say that you have, no.”
“Come on. You would’ve woken up this morning under that weight with no idea what was going on.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that. So, is that what you do? Is this your job?”
“Yes,” said Sanchez. He adjusted the cuff of his jacket and brushed a speck of something off his lapel. “I’m in charge of maintaining balance in the magical community.”
“Wow,” said Patric. “You must travel a lot.”
“Well, not in the conventional sense, but I do get around.”
“But are you a real person, too?”
“Of course, just like you.”
“You have a family and all that?”
“Sure. Two kids and a wife.”
“Oh. Got any pictures?”
Sanchez nodded proudly and pulled a wallet out of his back pocket. He removed a folding section and passed it over to Patric. He looked closely at two dark-haired, dark-eyed smiling lads wearing sports team shirts. So… ordinary. Patrick shook his head in wonder and folded it back up, passing it to Sanchez. “Nice,” he said.
“Thanks,” said Sanchez. He replaced that section of his wallet and put it back into his pocket. “So, be efficient with your spells and you won’t need to worry about me. But if you start casting without keeping things in balance, I’ll be in touch.”
Sanchez looked neither threatening nor friendly as he said this. It was just a frank, matter-of-fact kind of look he was giving Patric as the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened behind him. Patric didn’t like the look one bit.
Beth was back at work again and Sandra was out of the hospital and recovering at home. Patric was glad to see Beth. Not happy, but relieved. He had managed to scoop Beth’s Korean bride and groom figurines during a quiet moment during lunch and break the spell on her, so everything was back to normal. Normal as in the usual misery—no more, no less.
When it came time for Beth’s goodbye lunch, Patric tried to get a seat beside her. Maybe some of her good vibes might penetrate his cells. He ended up one seat away because Catherine muscled him aside with her bossiness, but Beth’s bubbly excitement had no trouble reaching him. She talked so much during lunch that her chicken quesadilla went half uneaten. It might also have been that it was a bit heavy on the cilantro as it so often was.
He had taken his turn signing the goodbye card and given his five dollars towards a travel money belt for her. Carefully, he taped the Beth worry doll into the card next to his signature, leaving her head free so she could breathe. Put this under your pillow, he wrote in the card, and all your worries will be absorbed by the doll. Good luck on your adventures. Your co-worker, Patric.
Maybe a better person would have written friend. But his good feelings only stretched so far. Anyway, he was only half concentrating on the conversation around him, preferring to think about Catherine’s locket and the picture of Sanchez’s sons that he had hidden away in his desk. The first was the key to his soon-to-be career advancement and the second an insurance policy against interference from Mr. Sanchez. This time, he was going to do things right. Magic was a powerful weapon; you just had to use it carefully.