What I wouldn’t give for a working ‘n’ key. This garbage keyboard looks like it’s from ‘93, filled with Cheeto crumbs from every sad sap who has ever wasted away in this cubicle. My wishes are small now, I guess. Maybe if I squeeze my branded stress ball 3 times, a genie will emerge from my boxed lunch and grant me the professional ping pong career I’ve always wanted. I know — ping pong is only for drunk 20-somethings. But ever since I was 10 years old, failing at school and knee deep in ADHD, this has been the thing I’m good at. The only thing I’m good at. So, I play every free second I have. And now it’s Friday afternoon and I’m staring at my computer’s half completed spreadsheet — 2 hours away from my WICKEDSPIN TABLE 9000 PERFORMANCE PRO with premium paddles.
“Levi, how are we doing over here?” my supervisor, Sonny, says as he pops around the corner of my cubicle. He’s 6 feet tall and his ragged nails dig into the cloth walls, shaking the sides with his indelicate grip.
This is how our conversation should have gone:
“I need you to stay late and enter data for the input metrics,” he says, taking a microfiber cloth from his pocket and cleaning his glasses.
“Good one,” I say while I lean back in my chair and throw my stress ball from hand to hand.
He puts his glasses back on his face and blinks slowly, staring at my ease.
“I need you to do this. The Monday morning leadership meeting needs this data to inform our decisions.”
“Sonny, I’m saying a hard no. There’s no way I’ll finish tonight. I’ll have to come in on Saturday. And maybe Sunday.”
“I appreciate your dedication to your position.” He says, monotoned.
“But I work hard during the week. I’m the most productive member of the team.”
“That’s why I picked you to complete this task.” he says, grabbing a stack of papers from the neighboring cubicle and moving them to my desk.
“This seems like a punishment.”
“This seems like an ‘other duties as assigned.’”
“But I have my.... niece's… uh, birthday party” I say. Obviously, I don’t have a niece.
“Great motivation for you to work efficiently and finish early.”
“So, what is my incentive to take on this task?” I say, my frustration rising.
“You’ll keep your job.” He says, keeping his monotone while emphasizing each word.
“You could have given me this data earlier in the week, but you aren’t considerate enough to do that. So consider this notification that I’m resigning.” I say, storming off to the vending machines.
This is how our conversation actually went:
He says, “I need you to stay late and enter data for the input metrics.” Of course he does. This sucks.
“Ok, I guess.”
“And be sure to avoid formulas as best you can,” he says, “hard-typing is your friend and we don’t want the disaster that your formulas caused last time.”
“Ok.” No formulas, this will take even longer. I grab my squeeze ball and hold it with both hands.
“Ok, good. I’m leaving early to go camping. See you Monday.” He turns around to leave.
“A good boss would stay and help,” I reply.
He can’t hear me. He’s already gone.
I’m too frustrated to leave my chair. Stress ball in one hand, I use the other to flick the thumb tacks stuck on my wall. Stupid Sonny and his stupid metrics. Stupid work, stupid desk, stupid job. Flick, flick, flick. I bounce the ball. Might as well waste time since I have to be here anyway. If I use my palm to bat the ball against the wall, this can be like ping pong. Bounce, bounce. See, the weekend is saved.
Who am I kidding? It’s not even close. I catch the ball this time. Putting both my hands on it, I squeeze and close my eyes. I’m dreaming of ping pong. Of passing the time with Mae. Just me, her, and our paddles. I squeeze again. I’m envisioning cold drinks from the fridge, loud music, and the steady knocking of a ping pong ball in play. I squeeze one last time. I need to open my eyes and get started. Opening my eyes slowly, the spreadsheet comes into soft focus. It’s clear. Then too clear. The chain of cells pulses brightly. My head hurts. In my hand I feel the weight of the stress ball disappearing. My sense of sitting upright tilts. I’m leaning to the left. I can’t control it. I lean further and further. Right before I fall out of my chair, I start to spin. I’m spinning and moving forward. The colors around me fade. I’m surrounded by bright white light. I feel like I’m falling. Bold lines are following me on the way down. I see a rectangle at the bottom. It grows larger until I land with a thud. Well, not a thud really. But a noise I recognize. I brush myself off and stand up to look around. I’m in this… grid? Full of white rectangles with black outlines. Each one touches the next and each one looks exactly the same. Am I having a stroke? It feels like I’ve found my way to math incarnate. I touch one of the outlines. I can hold and drag it. It changes the dimensions of the rectangle. In front of me, “C11” pops up in red text.
I pause. The drag to resize. The letter-number combination. The thud, that was an error noise. I know where I am. I’m in a spreadsheet. It’s not possible. I must be having a stroke. That’s the only way this makes sense. Please let someone see my body and dial 9-1-1. I know it’s Friday afternoon and everyone’s already left. But please let someone have forgotten their keys and see me when they come back to search for them.
That won’t happen. Shit, I’m gonna die. And my last memory will be of me trapped inside a spreadsheet. Great. I hear a noise behind me and turn around. In front of me is a 2D purple thumbtack with eyes. Now, instead of a spreadsheet, my last memory will be of a thumbtack. Not an improvement.
“Hi, I’m Tacky.” it says. “I can help you navigate your LivingSheet 3D. Would you like some assistance today? If so, say ‘yes’ then ‘search’.”
“Tacky, what is going on? Can you tell me where I am?” I move closer. I need some help. But as I move, it moves. Always remaining at least 6 feet away.
“Hi, I’m Tacky. I can help you navigate your LivingSheet 3D. Would you like some assistance—” it says with the same speed and intonation as before. A recorded greeting.
“Zero! Help! I want to speak to a representative. A human.”
“Hi, I’m Tacky—” it begins again. It doesn’t have a mouth, where is this voice coming from?
“FINE. ‘Yes’. ‘Search’.” Fucking shit, man.
“Here are some topics I can help with. Tutorial for beginners. Tips for better performance. Problem solving common issues. Please select which topic best fits your needs, then say ‘search’. Otherwise, say ‘other’ if you’re needing help with something else.”
“‘Other’. ‘Search’.” I want to flick the eyes off this thumbtack.
“In under 200 words, let me know how I can best help you. Once you say ‘search’, I will use key words from your response to best direct you.”
“What fresh hell is this, Tacky? Is this inside my head? How do I get medical help? How do I get out of here?”
“I see you’re asking about ‘how to get help’. I would suggest, ‘tutorial for beginners’.”
“This is an emergency, Tacky. I am in serious trouble and you’re not helping me. You’re a fucking 2D thumbtack. But you’re my best and only hope, so I need you to step up. Get me help.”
“I see you’re asking about ‘how to get help’. I would—”
“— Fine. ‘Tutorial for beginners’. ‘Search’.”
“LivingSheet 3D is a program designed for personal, professional, and collaborative needs. You can use LivingSheet 3D to enter data and perform financial, mathematical — ” By the time Tacky finishes this introduction, I’m going to be dead. And no closer to finding out how to fix this. FINE. Time for a new strategy. I crouch slightly and spring my body forward. I grunt, low and long, as I run. If I tackle Tacky, maybe I’ll get out of here. Or at least I’ll let the damn thing know how annoying it is. I’ve never been particularly muscular, but I have speed on my side. I can make it before Tacky moves.
I don’t make it before Tacky moves. I can’t knock the damn thing down. To add to this failure, I haven’t thought through how I’m going to stop. I don’t have time for a slow descent. But I do have time to throw myself against the ground. Tumbling inside a cell hurts, but I have to remain close enough to this thumbtack to try another tactic.
Picking myself up, I shout. “1.31,” then jump to a nearby cell, “3.89”, jumping again, “9.02”. On each leapfrogged cell, I see the number appear. Now, it’s time to leapfrog in reverse. I bet I can hold these decimal points. You know, the same way I held a line earlier when I resized a cell. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. But I don’t plan on holding each collected point for long. As soon as I have it in my hand, I’m gonna launch it at Tacky.
“LISTEN,” throw. “TO” throw. “ME” throw. “TACKY!”
Each projectile hits its mark, but passes right through; missing its goal of injuring this demon from IT hell. Still, launching a nonsense decimal in this nonsense place from my nonsense hand feels good. So why stop?
“6.54” jump. “3.77” jump. “2.18” jump.
Launch, launch, launch.
It has its own rhythm to it. Each release from my hand lets me forget about my probable stroke. I could do this until my body gives out.
The sound, the release, this thumbtack with a face holds my full attention. So I don’t see the decimal points flying back in my direction. I do feel them smart my cheek as they whiz by, landing in the original cell that I swiped them from.
So Tacky can’t be hit but I can. Cool. And now all the shit I threw is going to boomerang back at me. Fantastic. I stand tall, on guard to dodge the incoming decimals.
They’re moving so quickly they don’t look like decimals. They look like streaks of black marker. With the end nearest me as the marker’s inky tip. Sometimes the streaks fly far enough away from me that I don’t need to move. But most of them are coming for me dead on.
I don’t see the next one coming for my shin. It bounces off bone, lands nearby. I feel the sting from where it hit. The kind of pain that commands your full attention. Which I can’t help but give.
Now I don’t notice the rest of the streaks. Still coming. Pings on my chest. My thigh. My knee. My neck. Ping. Ping. Ping.
That’s it — pings. Ping pong.
I give up standing tall, trying to narrow my body to be invisible. Nah, fuck that. I bend my knees and plant my feet further apart.
“With a solid stance, you have a chance,” I tell myself. It’s the same thing I’ve been telling myself since I was 10.
Shoulders forward, weight on my toes. Hands straight as blades in front of me. It’s ping pong time. I pick a streak to my right and forehand it back to where it came from. This feels even better than launching them in the first place. Wiping sweat from my brow, I backhand a streak on the left.
I always thought about playing a game like this. While being tiny. That’s what happens when you’re 10 and discover ping pong and Honey I Shrunk the Kids around the same time. If this is a stroke. If I’m dying — at least I can do this until I go. Much better than yelling at Tacky. I can play one last ping pong match.
If only Mae were here. That’s who I’d want in my real last match. To play against her. Each of us all in. We’d be pure competitive spirit. Since we’re the only ones who can challenge each other anyway. Everyone else is just amateur hour.
I keep swatting left and right. Decimals flying. The rhythm gives me focus.
I focus on Mae. Her quick steps. Her wrist flicks. I want to see her so badly. But this is all I’ve got, this game without Mae. I’ve already played my last game with her and I didn’t even know it. My heart wasn’t in that one. We promised each other a rematch this weekend. I prepared — cleared my schedule. Bought snacks. Made a playlist.
“Now it’s all gone to shit,” I say, dropping my hands to my sides. Fingers heavy with how sad it all is. I want one more game with her. That isn’t so much to ask.
My thoughts are interrupted when a decimal hits my elbow. I feel the skin welt and use my other hand to apply pressure. I’d fallen out of a proper stance. Why won’t these things stop coming and let me have a minute? To grieve or think or feel or whatever is going on here? They need to quit. Show some respect.
They keep coming. Of course, they keep coming. I’m being an idiot. Yes, I’m hurt. Yes, I’m wrapped up in my own pity party. But I’ve only got seconds left. I can’t lose stamina and I can’t roll over. This game is what matters. I flick the oncoming decimal; my elbow is too sore to swing. Mae, she’s what matters — focus. Flick. Playing with her — that’s all I care about. Flick. Each oncoming decimal is getting larger. But they don’t matter. Flick. None of this matters. Flick. Not Tacky, not feeling tired, not my shit job. Flick, flick, flick.
“All of them can go shove it” I mutter to myself as I flick a giant one.
Then I see a truly massive decimal heading my way. It’s slower, dragging with the weight of its size.
“I see you, you piece of shit,” I know it can’t hear me and I don’t care. “Going all slow, giving me time to stress. You think you’re intimidating me. That I’ll stay quiet. Think again, you burnt meatball. I’ll tell you and I’ll tell my job whatever I damn well think.”
I take a deep breath and crouch. “With a solid stance, you have a chance.” The decimal is close enough to me for me to see that it’s over six feet tall. Finally, it’s within shouting distance and picking up speed.
“I’m not staying quiet. You all can go shove it!” I yell, swinging the back of my right hand into its side. The impact makes a noise loud enough to make me think I’ve broken my hand. Or my elbow. But it works. I send the decimal away from me. I achieve my goal, to get it out of my way. But with chefs kiss perfection I see it head towards Tacky. Tacky, still staring at the cell I stood in when we last spoke. Tacky, vacantly waiting for my next command. Tacky, small enough to fit inside the juggernaut’s shadow. Now is blindsided by the force of my volley. I hear a boom on impact. Tacky shatters into a million pixels, littering the ground. The decimal’s mass attracts Tacky’s remnants like a magnet, sucking them up to grow its size. Then, the other decimals, resting in their cell homes. The mass sucks them up too. Continuing to grow. Then the grid lines out from around me. Then from under me. As they slip out from below my feet, I fall over. Except I don’t land. I spin.
I’m spinning and moving forward. The colors around me brighten. I’m surrounded by a laundry machine tumble. I feel like I’m falling. This must be death. All the signals in my brain firing for one last time before it’s game over. The movement sharpens, becomes a lollipop swirl. It grows brighter and clearer with me falling in the center. I hold my breath, ready for the end.
Everything is black. Perfectly, crisply black. I can still breathe, I didn’t expect that. I hear a thud. Well, not a thud really. But a noise I recognize. A squish. A stress ball squish. That noise, it opens my eyes. To see neon roller rink carpet?
Is this… heaven? This is what’s been waiting for me — a cosmic Skate Zone? No, that’s not it. Okay, if I give my eyes a second to adjust to the light, then the colors aren’t so bright.
Wait… I know this carpet.
It’s work carpet. Beige and grey blocks broken up by a circle of red. My red stress ball. I’m alive. Holy shit, I have to be alive. This can’t be an afterlife. No way I’m spending eternity in this office. No way I’m spending another second in this office.
I mean, I’m alive so I need to pay rent and get healthcare and eat. I’ll come back to this office Monday. But not on weekends. And not right now. And when I do, I’m going to let Levi know exactly why the input metrics aren’t, well, input.
I stand up, making sure I’m steady on my feet. As I leave, I say to myself,
“Time for a game with Mae. Let’s see who wins.”