Xerox (Presence, pt. iii)
It wasn’t part of Hazel’s job description to make copies, but she volunteered because the noise of the graphic design department, with its high ceilings and open floor plan, was starting to give her a headache. The copy room was quiet and had a door with a lock. Once the xerox machine was whirring productively away she turned off the lights, locked herself in, and sat on the floor with her back against the door.
For the past few days, everything had felt slightly off. It wasn’t just the news that her ex was dead, that was… Well, it hadn’t come as a surprise, exactly, but that fact carried its own reflexive guilt. It was more than that, and more than impulsively kissing a friend who still relentlessly believed she was a good person. Things moved around the apartment when she wasn’t looking. Furniture moved back to the positions it had been in over a year ago. Dirty clothes on the floor ended up kicked into drifts and piles against the wall, and the whole place felt colder than usual.
She wished she could get in touch with Jo, but her friend wasn't at work today and didn't seem to have her cell phone on. Jo would tell her to stop imagining things and get a grip, and that would be reassuring. Without that reassurance… she was starting to think the apartment was haunted, and that was just crazy.
The xerox machine beeped that it was done. With a heavy sigh, Hazel stood, grabbed the originals and the copies out of their respective trays, and left the copy room. Her boss was on the phone when she popped into his office, so she gave a little wave of hello and left them on the desk before heading back to her cubicle.
Twenty minutes later, he emerged frowning from his office. “Hazel, can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Sure.” She trailed after him, and was surprised when he waited by the office door and closed it behind her. Sergej’s door was never closed. He was a big, booming-voiced man whose resting expression was a grin, but he wasn’t grinning now. As he walked around and sat behind his desk he fiddled with his new wedding band, turning it around his finger as though trying to get the right words wound up and ready to spring out.
“Hazel.” He sighed, and made a visible effort to stop fiddling. “Look. I know it’s been a rough year for you… and I heard about Ariel.” Seeing she was about to ask who had told him, he added, “Jo Anderson from HR, after she finished grilling me about exactly how many days you’d called out sick.”
Hazel closed her mouth and sat back in the chair. For one thing, she’d never actually called in anything. She hadn’t even thought about it, she just hadn’t shown up. Sergej was being a nice guy and covering for her. She also hadn’t realized that Jo, who disliked Sergej’s consistent good mood and boisterous sense of humor, would actually have come here to check on her. The two didn’t exactly hate each other, but they got on each others’ nerves whenever required to work in close contact, especially one on one.
“You and Jo,” she said weakly. “Sounds like a party.”
Sergej snorted a laugh, and for a moment his mask of seriousness broke. “Oh yeah, it was a real blast,” he said dryly. Then his expression clouded over again. “Look… You’ve been a little out of it for the past couple of days, which is understandable, but I think you should take some more time off. Get your head back on straight.”
“But it is,” Hazel protested. “I’m fine, really. I just haven’t been sleeping well, but—”
“I’m not asking,” Sergej interrupted, his voice kind but firm. “I’m worried about you.” He picked up the stack of copies she’d dropped on his desk a little while ago as if to illustrate his point. “If you’d given these to anyone besides me I don’t know if there’d be anything I could do. But you did, so I’m putting you down for administrative leave. I’m doing you a favor, Hazel.”
“What?” Bewildered, she reached out and took the papers, really looking at them for the first time.
They weren’t copies. At least, they weren’t copies of the originals she’d fed into the xerox machine. Instead, each page was a dark, grainy image of a face, so badly out of focus that the features were just gray smears on a black background. They were all the same except for the mouth, a black gash that formed a different shape in each picture as though the figure was trying to speak. Its eyes were so deeply sunken that they were just pools of shadows, or possibly holes straight through to more of the surrounding blackness.
Hazel looked up, feeling sickeningly hot and cold all over and all at once. Had this been what she’d picked up from the copy tray? “I… I don’t understand. I didn’t do this, Serj. The machine must have been… printing out an old job or something.”
He met her gaze with a look full of sympathy. “You’re right. It could be someone’s messed up idea of a practical joke. But are you saying you just brought those papers in here without noticing what was on them?”
“I…” Hazel’s mind raced to remember whether the copies had been right when she’d picked them up from the tray. But she’d had the lights off, and she couldn't even remember whether or not she’d really looked. Right on cue her headache reared up again and she put her hands to her temples to try and massage it away.
“Go home,” Sergej told her gently. “Get some sleep.”
Unable to think of anything to say, Hazel nodded dumbly. She tore her eyes away from the horrible images and put the papers face down on the desk.
“I'll call you a cab,” Sergej offered, reaching for his phone.
Hazel's mind was spinning. Was administrative leave an easing-in period that came before being fired? No, if that's what was happening he would tell her. Who had made those pictures? Or… should she be wondering what? The uneasy suspicion of being haunted returned and her head began to throb harder in time with her quickening pulse. The list of odd occurrences was becoming too much to ignore.
She had kissed Jo, and out of nowhere a water glass had shattered against the wall. Maybe a draft of air had knocked it over and sheer surprise had added some embellishments to the memory…
She kept finding the furniture in different places. Where they'd used to be, before...
She had gone to make copies, and they'd come out so wrong that she still felt uneasy for having looked at them, for even knowing they were still there face down against Sergej’s desk. Had they gone wrong in the machine or after, and which said more about her own mental state?
If. If it was a ghost. Her stomach dropped sickeningly and her heart lurched with mixed feelings at the thought, because...
If it was a ghost it had to be Ariel.
Before leaving the office Hazel grabbed the papers after all while Sergei was still occupied with calling a cab, hastily folding and shoving them into one pocket. In the cab she studied them more closely, pushing back on the instinctive revulsion they inspired. She inspected one after another in rapid succession, then gripped the stack of papers and flipped through them as quickly as she could. Viewed that way, she could make out what the words formed by that dark gash of a mouth.
I miss you baby. Come home.
It was what Ariel had always texted whenever she'd stayed late at the office to work on a project.
When the cab pulled to a stop, Hazel got out and ran. There were no elevators in her building and she took the stairs two at a time until the exertion caught up with her after a flight or two. She slowed reluctantly and kept climbing, panting, distantly embarrassed by how out of shape she was but more troubled by the extra time it gave her to think. When Ariel had first left, she'd spent months wrestling with a horrible range of emotions, from fury to guilt and heartbreak to resignation. Shouldn't all of that been finally put to rest now that the woman had died? Yet the crazy, desperate idea that a few strange occurrences were all connected, that Ariel had somehow made her way back, was already putting her heart through the wringer.
Hazel reached her door, almost falling against it as she fumbled the keys out of her pocket. It was made more difficult by the fact that her hands were shaking. But when she finally got the door open and rushed inside, all her nerves fell away. In fact, everything seemed to fall away.
Ariel didn't seem to mind that Hazel was standing there staring at her, dumbfounded. She just leaned forward and kissed her cheek, the way she'd always used to. “Hey baby.” She took her hand in a cool grip and smiled sweetly, and Hazel was lost. “How was work?”