One hour after quitting time the warehouse manager re-enters the building. Punches in the six digit security code so the alarm won’t go off. Breathes in the absolute quiet of the foyer, so vastly different from the noisy hustle of working hours, and walks quickly past the offices through the double doors leading to her domain.
She has grown accustomed to the silence, the stillness of being the sole person present. The first night had been slightly unnerving, but now she moves through the darkness easily, unafraid, because the only ghost haunting this warehouse is herself. The great steel racks painted blue are lined with boxes, crates and fiber drums. The warehouse manager imagines the thousands of stacks of stationary, envelopes, and reams of lined paper that she is responsible for, resting there in a sort of purgatory. Waiting to be shipped to stores, where strangers will purchase them, people who will press ink into their pristine smoothness, fill them with words or images, fold them into shapes, stash them in drawers.
She doesn’t have an office, but against the east wall beside the shipping airlock sits her desk with its computer, telephone, and spinning chair. From 7:30 am to 4:00 pm, Monday to Friday, this is her post. In the soft, luminous glow from the digital display on the phone, she can see reports and receipts she’ll have to sign, but they can wait until daytime. She heads toward the back corner, an area where she knows the surveillance cameras do not record.
In the old days the company used to run three shifts, but the recession coupled with the advent of technology forced upper management to restructure. No more midnights, luckily for the warehouse manager. The first time she snuck in she worried about the external surveillance cameras that might catch her entering and exiting at odd hours, but after a few leading questions to the right people, found out that no one ever watches the tapes, because nothing ever happens. Who, after all, would want to break into a warehouse full of blank paper? This secured her confidence that no one could possibly find out, as long as she didn’t accidentally start a fire and burn the place down.
The position of warehouse manager entails shipping and receiving, locating and relocating items from their position in the racks. An intimate knowledge of every spot, every nook in the entire place, what it holds, and where it’s going. It requires organization, planning, a mind as spotless as the pieces of paper the company supplies to the world.
She carefully slides an empty wooden pallet from the stack at the end of the aisle, uses the hand jack to shift it expertly to her corner, then repeats the same process once more, so that the two pallets are side by side creating a rectangle shape. In the third aisle, in the last space on the bottom rack, is a pallet with two boxes identical to many others in the warehouse, labelled, in the warehouse manager’s own handwriting, “Rejected.” With her yellow plastic safety knife she slits through the packing tape on the first one, moves the cardboard flaps aside and retrieves a rolled up piece of foam. The second box contains a sleeping bag and pillow. She unrolls the foam, arranges it into a makeshift mattress, unzips the sleeping bag and spreads it out. Fluffs her pillow. Gets comfortable.
A sharp clanking rings out from above and she jerks upright, but realizes it’s only the sound of rain drops hitting the metal roof. Amy must be frantically closing all the windows at their apartment across town while Jeff watches her, amused, from his spot on the couch. The two of them will snuggle up under a blanket, watch Netflix and eat all the potato chips that the warehouse manager paid for. She could practically hear Jeff asking, “Where’s your roommate tonight?” He never did remember her name. Amy would shrug, “with her new boyfriend, I guess. She’s so secretive lately, I don’t know anything about him.” The warehouse manager has heard Amy say this before, to someone on the phone.
What Amy doesn’t know is that the warehouse manager has fabricated a pretend boyfriend. She didn’t want to be stuck starving in her bedroom while Amy and Jeff did it loudly on the living room couch, wondering after fifteen minutes of muted music and whispers, if it could be safe to emerge, to tiptoe down the tiny hall to the kitchen for a snack. Didn’t want to run into a shirtless Jeff smoking a cigarette and wiping the sex sweat from his brow. So whenever Jeff came over she told Amy she had a date. If Jeff slept over, she drove to her parents’ house under some pretence or another, and slept in her childhood bedroom.
This back-up plan worked perfectly until one Saturday the warehouse manager’s mother appeared at the apartment in the afternoon with a cake. Amy, in jeans and a pink bra, hair half curled and makeup half applied, mentioned the imaginary boyfriend. Spoke suggestive sentences like “spending so much time together” and “out all night.” The expression of sheer joy on the face of the warehouse manager’s mother, at the prospect of her shy, introverted daughter finding love, propelled a vortex of lies into motion that quickly spiraled out of control. Now the warehouse manager couldn’t stay at the apartment or her parents’ house, because both Amy and her mother assumed she was out romancing it up with “Damion”, and the story had stretched and twisted into an existence of its own that would not be denied.
The temperature in the warehouse is quite cool, automatically lowering after hours to economize on heating bills. The warehouse manager congratulates herself for the foresight she exhibited last night, hiding an extra comforter in an empty drum on the reject skid. Tucking it around herself tightly, she thinks about Damion. Where did she come up with the name? It must be from a paperback vampire novel she read as a teenager, a long buried adolescent fantasy. In fact, she recalls writing about this dark Damion in her diary, in slanted looping cursive, black ink flowering across the virginal pages.
The warehouse manager laughs and nibbles on a rice cake. It’s no surprise that she manages a warehouse full of stationary and note paper, that she’d been lured into the world of lined loose-leaf and envelopes. The blank pages are just as seductive, more so perhaps, than the mythical Damion. And the letters! She rolls over inside the lumpy sleeping bag, shuts her eyes tight, considers the potential for love letters, hate letters, revenge plots and even suicide notes. Show the warehouse manager a lover who embodies the mystique of a flawless sheet of paper and she will get down on her knees.
Above the din of the pelting rain, a loud crack that sounds a bit like thunder claps through the warehouse. Immediately, the shrill scream of the alarm rips through the aisles, darts among the rows of racking. Paralyzed for a few moments, the warehouse manager decides to assess the situation. Clutching her blankets tightly around herself, she runs to the doors that lead to the hall. Peers through the glass windows to see smoke filling the foyer. And firemen, entering one after the other, all dirty yellow suits and reflective stripes. Holy fuck, she thinks, panic stricken. Runs back through the darkness, bangs her knee several times on the corners of racking, consumed with a feverish desire to erase all traces of her absurd night time hideaway.
There is no time to dismantle her sleeping quarters because the firemen are already pushing through the doors, so the warehouse manager grabs her sleeping bag, her pillow, and hides herself in the supply closet. There’s barely enough room to stand, surrounded by shelves of cleaning products, mop heads, brooms and buckets.
She can hear their voices echoing as though amplified, spreading out in different directions. One, quite near, bellows to the others, “No need to search the place, all clear back here.” The warehouse manager relaxes slightly, but continues to hold her breath.
“Fucking kids,” someone answers from afar, “What would possess them to do that?”
“Oh, they get bored, they break windows and the like. On a dare, or whatever.”
“Yeah, but a firecracker? This place is a paper supplier, it could go up like a tinderbox under the right conditions.”
Inside the closet her heart cinches at the thought of the warehouse set ablaze, all that glorious potential gone, burned to ash. She knows that a spark, once ignited, can set off a chain reaction, can alter a course of events, can change everything. “Hey Joe, you might want to take a look at this. Looks like we got a squatter.”
The warehouse manager’s relief collapses and explodes as fear in her gut. She balls up the blankets, stuffs them inside a bucket, adjusts her sweatshirt and smooths her hair. Ear cocked against the closet door she listens as the firemen exclaim over the pallets, the way the foam is arranged just like a mattress. “Oh, lookee what we have here,” one mutters, and the warehouse manager curses internally, remembering the box of granola bars sitting next to her phone and charger on the makeshift nightstand she had rigged up with a cardboard shipper.
Through the thin crack at the base of the closet door the warehouse manager sees a beam of light sweeping the area. “What’s this door for?” she hears a deep voice ask. And then it opens. She finds herself face to face with a man who, remarkably, resembles Damion, or at least what she imagines Damion to look like. A brief vision of a surprised Amy encountering the shirtless fireman in their kitchen flickers in her mind. Blood rushes all through her, and with her cheeks on fire she looks the fireman right in the eyes.
“Who are you?” he asks.
After a split second of hesitation, she raises her eyebrow as if the answer is obvious. “I’m the warehouse manager, who are you?”
Sara Dobbie is a fiction writer living in Southern Ontario, Canada. Her work has appeared in Mooky Chick, Trampset, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, Crab Fat Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, (Mac)ro(Mic), Re-Side, The Spadina Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Fiction Kitchen Berlin, Change Seven Magazine, and Read More. Follow her on Twitter @sbdobbie.