By 10:15 a. m., Samantha was hunched over her desk, fighting the wave of mild nausea that came from her gurgling, empty stomach. The sticky notes near her monitor had started to look like slices of American cheese. She wouldn’t take her break until 10:30, she said, but already she was picturing crunchy rye bread and honey-Dijon mustard; the steak she’d gotten up at 5:30 to cook and so tenderly placed between crisp lettuce leaves in the darkness of her studio apartment.
It would have to wait. Soon, she could take breaks whenever she wanted, but for now it was important to seem like a productive worker, instead of the freewheeling insomniac she would be exposed as. But the thoughts wouldn’t go away. Instead of sheets, she saw layers of lettuce; cells turned into scattered cheese; she stopped when she felt she could smell that medium-rare aroma wafting through her cubicle.
Except, she actually could. Donna, the next cubicle over, was unwrapping something that smelled incredible. Maybe she’d realized a diet consisting entirely of kettle chips and diet coke was a mistake. She was lucky the office was food-friendly. Samantha sprung up and hurried toward the kitchen.
It was Matthew that found her staring into the blue-white of the refrigerator.
“Hungry?” he asked. She could smell the burnt-chocolate of coffee on his breath from across the room. She said nothing, staring at the empty shelves.
“You could grab some nachos, but I think those are Donna’s,” he said. She looked at the saran-wrapped ceramic bowl then closed the door. Donna. Black sharpie everywhere, don’t-touch-my-stuff Donna; I’ve-been-trying-a-vegan-diet Donna; I-eat-seven-pounds-of-kettle-chips-a-day Donna.
“Sam?” he asked, “you okay? You do know what today is, right?”
“I’m doing just fine,” she said, “I thought Donna would like to try some of my cooking is all. I might take an early break.”
Matthew started to speak, but Sam was already out the door.
She burst into her apartment, her door handle smashing another hole in her drywall. It was too perfect. She looked through her kitchen. A dried smear of mustard on her counter from the morning; greasy frying pans piled up wet in the sink; baking powder sprinkled on the grey slip-mat. She found what she needed in the cabinet, three jars and a few fresh vegetables from her fridge.
She set to slicing things. She could make a salsa in her sleep. In went glistening tomatoes, hearty diced onions, cloves of garlic, tart lime juice, cilantro, jalapeno peppers, seeds and all, salt and pepper to taste and finally, reaching deep into her fridge for the double-wrapped jar, she took out one miniscule, unassuming, Carolina Reaper.
She hurried back to the office. This would count as her lunch break, but to Sam, it was worth it.
She arrived back at her cubicle, having deposited the salsa, and worked until lunch. Every now and then, she would stop and shake silently with laughter, like she was in school again. But as she worked, she felt uneasy. Something wasn’t quite right. Where was everyone?
She forgot all about it when she heard Donna padding up to her cubicle at 11:40. She heard Donna take the first crunch and swallow. The sound reverberated across the cubicle tops. Everyone would hear this. Then a small cough. Another bite. Then the opening of a pop can and drinking. More coughing. Sam listened as she tried to fight it down with more chips, but it was too late; the Reaper had come for Donna.
Oh, how she wished she had popcorn for this. In fact, maybe she did. She rummaged through her purse for the quarter-bag she’d bought yesterday, but didn’t finish. Instead, her hand settled on a big Ziploc bag, still warm from the juicy steak-sandwich leaking steak within.
That’s when she heard another cough, this time from the cubicle to her right. Then another, from two cubicles up. Soon, the whole office was filled with wheezing, racking coughs. Sam’s body froze as she her eyes wandered over to the crumpled sticky note on the side of her monitor.
“Office Potluck. July 15th. Bring all your homemade favourites.”