Cube contagion: A short story, not nearly fictional enough, about office life, illness and nose-wrinkling amounts of irony. I super-rarely write fiction.
Originally published March 11, 2007, as an entry in a Worth1000 short-story contest on the theme of “illness.”
“I think I’m coming down with something.”
As my boss leaned over the cubicle wall separating us to deliver this urgent news update, I leaned back instinctively.
“Well, keep it to yourself,” I mumbled, reaching for my container of sanitizing wipes so I could swipe my phone, my stapler and anything else he might have touched recently. Behind me, one of the typists sneezed, while one of my fellow department heads rasped her way hoarsely through dictation.
Our project deadline was only a week away, and we still had three full presentations to get ready for the client. And that wasn’t going to happen until my assistant cleared them with me, so I could get them in front of my boss, so he could take them to his boss and on up the rest of the corporate food chain.
And in case it wasn’t clear, sick days weren’t part of the plan.
“Oh, no.” I said. “There’s no way you’re going home today and leaving me with all this. Not hardly.”
He tried giving me a sad look, but I was already reaching for my wallet and making a break for the vending machines. Orange juice to ward off colds, I thought. All the Vitamin C. Or is that E? And which one is supposed to help your memory?
It looked like everyone else had the same idea, because the closest thing left was a can of off-brand orange soda that looked like it had been there since last cold season. Desperate, I pulled out a five and punched the buttons, paying a dollar for about 10 cents worth of drink.
As I slid the change into my wallet, I thought about whose germy fingers had been all over those four dollars and made a quick detour by the restroom to wash my hands.
On the way back to my desk, I caught myself just before I popped the tab, made my way back to the restroom, and spent the next three or four minutes scrubbing the can top as hard as I could. Germs are everywhere, you know, and I wasn’t taking any chances.
Back at work, I thought about taking another swipe over the keyboard with my sanitizing wipes, but my hand was starting to burn from all those chemicals, so I decided against it.
I leaned toward my assistant, who’d been off the week before on vacation. “How was it?” I asked, expecting to hear all about her trip to Florida.
“Not that great,” she answered. “In fact, I think I’m coming down with something.”
I glared at her. “We’ve got a lot to do this week,” I said. “A lot. A ton.” I felt trapped — if either of them left, I’d be avalanched with work, but with both of them there, it was my immune system on the line.
I got the disinfectant wipes out again and sat them on the wall between us like some protective amulet. “Here, use these,” I offered gruffly, turning back to my computer screen.
At the end of the week, my cell phone rang, and I answered to find my boss in a panic. “The presentation starts in 10 minutes!” he hissed. “Where are you?”
As I sat in my hospital gown, waiting for the nurse to administer my tetanus shot, I managed a crooked smile. I hadn’t even noticed the cut on my hand — which was already raw from the disinfectant wipes — that I’d gotten when I scrubbed so hard on the soda can tab. But the doctor noticed it right away after I told him about my incredibly stiff neck, aching arms, fever and racing heartbeat. “You’ll be out of commission for a week or more,” he said. “You really should be more careful. Germs are everywhere, you know.”
I’d smiled at that one, too. I’m sure he thought the bacteria had invaded my brain.
Returning my attention to my boss, I replied as calmly as possible, “I think I’ve come down with something.”