The Rites of the Fourteneers
By M.L. Robinson
Two weeks of constant rain had finally fallen to a thin drizzle, but there was little silence before the Building started to scream. The scream built from a whine, to a wail, and up to a hideous screech that pierced through all of Floor Fourteen. Nowhere was safe from it and nobody could shut their ears from it—that would only make the Building scream louder.
All the unhappy people—trapped these past two months inside a Building that refused to let them out, who called themselves the Fourteneers—scrambled to stop the Building’s screeching. Thin cubicle walls, hiding makeshift nests of towel-bedding, toppled over like tossed playing cards. Disoriented, half-delirious, the Fourteeners covered their ears as best they could or if the Building could noticed anyone trying to keep their ears closed, its cries became deafening.
Ashwon was the first to realize it—the sunlight was their culprit. When the rain first came down, and then didn’t stop, the Building had screamed too. It screamed until someone—maybe it was Bill—was able to get every Fourteneer to put their lights on; every ceiling light, wall-panel, monitor, and desk lamp.
At the time, that worked.
For three days, every light on Floor Fourteen stayed on, for the Building screamed if the lights went off even in the daytime. Those lights stayed on until the Building could tolerate the darkness, for the rain would not stop. Slowly the Building became used to the gloom, and for a week the Fourteneers lived in near constant darkness.
Now, the Building couldn’t tolerate light at all.
A blast of terrified computer-noise ripped through Floor Fourteen. Ruthree, once a sales consultant, collapsed to the ground clenching her ears until they nearly bled.
<Shut the windows!> signed Ashwon, gritting his teeth and squeezing his shoulders as much as he could to shut out the Building’s wails.
<Who?> signed Greg, the office manager for Floor Fourteen.
<Windows! Everyone! Tell everyone shut the windows!>
Like town criers, Ashwon and Greg spread the command to all of Floor Fourteen. They scrambled, signing wild and wrong, knocking over chairs and smacking into cubicle desks as the Building’s cries crescendoed into a deafening wail.
When all the windows were darkened, the cries stopped—too late for Ruthree who had been too close to one of the Building’s speakers. Now all she could hear now was a steady, flat whine that did not stop even in sleep; the echoes of the Building’s screams would ring in her ears for the rest of her life.
That night, Greg asked to meet.
They met in the middle of the early morning, quietly filtering into the break-room while the Building ‘slept’. Nobody dared to turn on a light any larger than a desk lamp, which they kept on the center table. Refrigerators once stocked with pack lunches now held carefully portioned reserves of communal food. Gone were the sales list and absentee policies. Now the Fourteneers huddled around the desk lamp. In bold print, a single sheet of paper had been printed as big and bold as they could spare:
DON’T WAKE THE BUILDING!!
Greg sat down across from Ashwon, with two steaming paper cups of tea. Chai tea. Ashwon’s favorite tea. Tea of any kind came so rarely through the building these days that each box was carefully rationed down to the dust.
“You did good today,” said Greg as he set down a cup in front of Ashwon.
Ashwon picked up his cup. A real cup. He would not have thought twice about a cup of tea just a few months ago. Now, the gentle vapor wafting from his cup was nearly a reward in itself. “It is not necessary,” said Ashwon, “I simply was doing what any of us would have done.”
Greg nodded thoughtfully.
“But you did it faster than anyone. And it was a bit of an odd problem this time.”
“It is not so difficult,” said Ashwon, “it is simply a matter of understanding the nature of the Building. By now, it should be obvious to everyone that the Building does not like change or disorder of any kind. With this in mind, a reasonable person can extrapolate—”
“Ashwon—” Greg held up a hand as if to speak, but changed his mind. “Yes. Yes, you’re right. But that’s not why I asked to meet with you.”
Ashwon looked down and saw no tea bag in Greg’s cup, only hot water and smattering of dust. His own cup was nearly all tea-bag, practically swirling with the rich smell of chai. What reasons could the Group-Head be bribing?
“Am I being let go?”
Greg’s face froze, then broke into quiet laughter.
“Let go. It could look like that, can it? No, Ashwon, you’re not being let go. I think we’re all past the point of being ‘let go’ here.”
It was a logical statement, and true. But Ashwon took no comfort in it.
“Actually,” said Greg after the moment of upset passed, “with the way things are going, we need all the help we can get. That…does bring me to why I asked you here.
Greg’s hands tightened around his cup.
“How well did you know Bill?”
Ashwon paused. Tall-ish, going grey a bit early for his age, with gap in between his two front teeth that could make a rather irritating whistle on any word with an ’s’. in it. Yes, he did know Bill.
“We aren’t in the same work group,” began Ashwon, “Although to be frank, “Bill can be a bit inappropriate at times, given our current situation.”
“I see. Ashwon—”
“ In fact, now that you mention it, I think it is prudent to tell you that Bill has a habit of calling me ‘Ash’ that I really would prefer if something could be done about it.
“I should not have to tell Bill that this is simple courtesy. My name is not ‘Ash’. I am not looking to Catch-Them-All or what-have-you. We are not even in the same working group, that level of familiarity is not appropriate. My name is Ashwon and I would like that to be respected. Really, I don’t think this is a very big ask.”
Ashwon sat back, satisfied. It felt good to get that out. Now that he had the ear of the Group Leader, perhaps—
“Ashwon, Bill passed away last night.”
“Oh,” he said.
In the silence that followed, the steam rising from their cups seemed deafening. Ashwon almost wished that the Building would scream again. He scratched at the cardboard heat-ring of his cup. It was only a few moments, but much can be thought in a few moments of silence. A question was building inside Ashwon. If the Building didn’t wake up and start its screaming again soon, then Ashwon was going to ask that question. He didn’t even care that much about Bill—but what Bill could be to the rest of the Fourteeners. As much as Bill got on his nerves, his jokes and his infectious cheers seemed to make everyone else happy. A cornerstone, perhaps, though Ashwon chafed at the thought. Still, nobody wants to see the corners of their house start to crack. Perhaps the weight that cornerstone bore had become too much—and the weight had become so heavy.
Before the logical part of him could hold it back, that forbidden question slipped.
Greg stiffened. Ashwon yanked the rest of the question back.
“He didn’t,” said Greg curtly. “Felice looked at him, and she thinks he died in his sleep.”
“I see,” said Ashwon.
“Mmm,” said Greg.
Cool sweat pooled under Ashwon’s collar.
“The fact is,” said Greg,“this is the first…passing that we’ve had to deal with since the Building locked us all in. I don’t know if it’ll be the last. But we can’t just keep him here.”
“Of course,”nodded Ashwon, eager to agree, “it would be quite unsanitary,”
Greg’s neck tightened. For a brief moment, Greg looked ready to scream. But, with a mighty effort, he swallowed it down. The sweat on Ashwon’s neck was like sticky ice.
“Yes,” continued Greg, “Yes it would. But to be honest, I’m worried about the others—especially Elise.”
“I could imagine. They always seemed to work well together. Even though they weren’t in my work group, I did notice—“
“But in the Handbook it says—!“
“They were a couple, Ashwon” Greg rubbed at his face. “And before you tell me that its against the Employee Handbook, I’m going to tell you right now that I don’t care. You know why? We’re being kept here like rats in a cage. Right? There’s no telephone, no Internet. Someone is still sending food and water to the building, but whose paying for it and whose delivering it I have not the slightest clue. We haven’t done any work in months, and all we seem to do is run around getting the building to stop screaming at us. I can handle that. We can handle that. I just don’t know how to handle…remains. But I do know that if we keep Bill here, it’s only going to make problems.”
“Well we know the windows open far enough, maybe—”
Greg’s eyes flashed. “Don’t even say it.”
Ashwon didn’t say it. Still, a part of him wanted to insist. It was true! The windows opened wide enough if you pushed them, just far enough for a person to fit through. A few people had fit through already. But another part of him, a quieter part, helpfully pointed out that steam was ready to pour from Greg’s ears.
Both parts agreed that would not be a positive development.
“I’m sorry,” said Ashwon. “I didn’t mean to imply—”
“I know you didn’t. Look. The fact is, Bill is dead. And with the Building keeping us all here for months…well, life’s gotta go on. If we’re gonna survive here, we need to deal with death. But we’re gonna deal with it with as much respect and dignity as we can manage in this hell-hole. Like goddamn human beings. Not by tossing people out of the windows like garbage. ”
Ashwon winced. He hadn’t meant it like that.
“There’s only one thing that I’ve been able to think of,” Greg continued, “Down in the basement, there’s an incinerator. At least it should still be working—we’ve been sending out garbage down the disposal chutes for months now, and if it turns out it’s broken, we’re gonna have bigger problems. What I need from you, is to go down to the basement and see if we can use the incinerator to give Bill the send-off he deserves.”
“I’m sorry, but I just do not see how this is possible,” cried Ashwon.“I understand your concerns, but the fact is that nobody has been able to leave the Building for two months. You even said it yourself! In that time, none of us have left this floor of the Building!”
As far as Ashwon knew, there was nothing Greg could say. It was the truth. Well-meaning as this might be, there was no way to leave their floor without the Building screaming at them to say. It had kept them prisoner for two months, with no contact of the outside world, and as far as Ashwon knew, that is how it would be forever.
Greg could not even look at him. A leader, even when wrong, should always be able to look their subordinates in the eye. Ashwon’s father had said that, one of the few gems of wisdom his father had been kind enough to leave him. Eyes are the windows of trust, after all.
How else could Greg ever hope to lead the Fourteneers if he could not look reality in the face?
At that moment, truth sounded silently in that little room, louder than the Building could ever hope to scream. Ashwon’s eyes bulged with it. Greg—trustworthy, principled, well-liked Greg—bowed his head from its weight; the weight of a lie that no honest man could dare to lift alone.
“It’s not impossible,” said Greg. “There is a way out.”