“KB Marketing Janine speaking, how can I assist you?”
A man on the other end of the phone spoke lightly as if in a whisper. “There is a delivery coming for you. Don’t hesitate to open it.”
“Um, you want to send a package?”
The phone clicked, and then the Delivery man came in.
“Oh, hello, Todd,” Janine said, smiling brightly, forgetting the man on the phone hanging up.
“This is a delivery for the office of Kenneth Brightman. No return.”
“Oh, he’s out on vacation till the end of the month. His mother is sick.” Janine loved gossip, and her delivery man acquaintance was the perfect person to tell anything she knew. She was also a terrible flirt, making the delivery man feel important even though he was middle-aged, had a bit of a belly, and had an unkempt salt-and-pepper beard.
They continued their daily conversation as the package Todd had begun to leak.
Emma, a petite blonde who always acted as if she were granted permission to act on Mr. Brightman’s behalf when he was away, came to the front desk.
“Sorry to interrupt your conversation, but is this for Me? Brightman? If so, I can take it and put it on his desk.”
Janine looked at Emma, slightly annoyed, and nodded.
Emma picked up the square box and noticed it seemed to be leaking. Emma placed the box on Mr. Brightman’s desk and looked at her hand. There was a slimy substance; when she smelled it, it had no scent. All of a sudden, there was a loud commotion.
“Oh my gosh, I am so sorry.” Janine was saying to the delivery man.
Her coffee had spilled on the man due to her clumsiness.
Emma stood in the doorway, looking at Janine. “Really, Janine? Classy,” she muttered under her breath.
Emma felt her hand growing hot from whatever the substance was still on her hands. She went to the restroom to wash her hands. Emma stood in the bathroom scrubbing the black goo or whatever was on her hands. The heat began to burn her hands even as it seemed the substance was now gone. Emma wondered bitterly as she stood scrubbing until it hurt what it was that Mr. Brightman could have delivered. Was it toxic? Finally, Emma got the rest of the goo off her hands and stood holding her hands together as if comforting herself. The bathroom lights flickered, and she returned to her desk to ensure nothing else was going wrong while Mr. Brightman was out of town.
Charlie, one of the office accountants, was in a deep conversation with Maria, the actual assistant to Mr. Brightman. Emma pretended she couldn’t hear the conversation, but she wished that Maria had half the work ethic she did when it came to Mr. Brightman.
“So unprofessional,” she muttered to herself.
“Charlie, you said that I meant more to you than anything. Now you are telling me you just want to be friends? What did I do?”
“Maria, not here, look I told you. I just think we need to take a break for now. Things have changed in my life, and I shouldn’t have to justify that to you or anyone,” Charlie looked annoyed now.
“You have no heart!” Maria snapped, walking away from him. Maria returned to her desk, opening up an email. There was a strange email address she didn’t recognize. When she opened it, her computer screen went black. It returned to normal after a few seconds. Then she read the message. She looked at Charlie and then back at her screen. Typing something angrily and then took a sip of her coffee.
Kareem walked by Maria and looked over at what she was typing. It looked as if she were online shopping. Kareem went over to Charlie’s desk and began a conversation after he noticed Maria’s mood.
Emma pretended to type an email, but she was all ears. Stop begging him, you dummy. She was saying to herself. Have some self-respect. He doesn’t want to date you. He got what he wants now it’s over.
Charlie had spent the better part of a year pursuing Maria. After Maria finally allowed herself to enjoy a bit of Charlie’s company, it was over for him. Challenge fulfilled.
Towards the back of the office was Gary. Gary was an older man in his late fifties, a bit on the heavier side, who spent most of his days typing numbers in the computer for quality control analysis. Gary was the type of man who seemed to have no secrets. He ate his lunch at the same time every day, took all his breaks promptly, and did little socializing. Sitting next to Gary was Kareem. He always seemed to be texting someone, usually a guy or a girl he was dating. He jokingly referred to himself as the Bi-Jiggilo in jest.
Gary tolerated Kareem, but as long as things in the office were balanced, there was not much conflict between the two. Kareem often bought Gary lunch when he went on sales calls.
Emma watched Kareem chatting on his cell phone and rolled her eyes. Everyone here was a joke. She knew for a fact that Gary was sneaking in naps during his so-called bathroom breaks. Stealing company time should be a crime. She sighed, returning to her emails and messages she had to send for the day. As head of sales, she took great pride in getting her work done promptly before everyone else. After her last review, Mr. Brightman said there could be a place in the Michigan office, which was more money. So she had to do a little bargaining. She looked at Kareem’s sales numbers, punching them into the computer. It would save the company a lot of money if there were one fewer salesperson in the office. She could fudge the numbers, and it would be easy given her access, which Mr. Brightman granted. He had called her unique; that was all it took for the disease inside her to take hold.
Her hand still burned, reminding her that the box was still sitting on Mr. Brightman’s desk. She remembered it had been leaking. She should probably grab a towel and place it under the box.
Emma went to the office break room, searching the cupboards for a towel. She found one, returned to Mr. Brightman’s office, and stopped in her tracks. Janine had opened the box and was standing there reading the enclosed letter.
“What are you doing?” Emma snapped.
“It looks like it is a gift box for all of us. There was a letter that said ENJOY IN MY ABSENCE. It must be from Mr. Brightman since he is gone. Look, there are bags here with all our names on them.
“Close that!” Emma walked towards Janine and took the box from her. It was no longer leaking. How odd, she thought as she lifted it, and still, no wet goo was coming from it. Maybe it was on the outside of the box.”
“What are you two arguing about now?” It was Charlie with a smirk on his face.
“This box is for Mr. Brightman, and this idiot opened it up.”
“It is from Mr. Brightman for us! Look at this note.”
Charlie looked at it and then at Emma. “She is right; it has all our names on each one.” He pulled a bag out with his name on it. There was one for everyone in the office except for Maria.
“Looks like everyone got a grab bag from Mr. Brightman except you, Maria.”
Maria shrugged, “So what? I’m sure it was an accident. Mr. Brightman gave me a stellar review last month. Or you took mine.” Maria teased Charlie.
He moved from her awkwardly. “No, I wouldn’t do anything of the kind,” his smile faded in her presence.
Maria scowled at Charlie, moving away from her coworkers. Gary sauntered over to see what the commotion was.
“We have a box of grab bags from Mr. Brightman. Says a gift in his absence. Look and see if your name is on one of them.”
A few extra pieces of foam were covering the bags, and he grabbed one out of the box with his name on it. His bag had a clown sticker on the outside next to his name. Gary gulped, unsure how Mr. Brightman could know his thing with clowns. Sweat began to drip from his forehead, and he felt hot. He sat in one of the chairs in the corner of Mr. Brightman’s office.
“We should go into the board room and open them together,” Janine said.
“NO, I think we should maybe do one at a time,” Maria said.
“Yes, that could be fun,” Janine said, holding her bag with a pretty kiss mark on the front of hers.
Each bag came decorated in the manner of something that each person would like.
Kareem pulled out his bag, which had a bow tie sticker and another of two naked men.
“Oh, come on now!” he began to laugh. “Mr. Brightman must be following my Twitter. I love a good sense of humor.”
Emma rolled her eyes, looked inside the box, and pulled hers out. Hers simply had her name on it, and it appeared to have more of the black goo leaking from it.
“Looks like Mr. Brightman got his favorite brown noser, something quite fitting. A bag of shit.” Kareem said, laughing at her. Charlie high-fived him.
The six of them went into the board room and sat down. Each coworker had their bags in front of them, and all were laughing a bit as if it were a good game. Kareem decided he would open his up first.
They looked at him as he unsealed the sticker keeping the bag closed. Once he opened the bag, the lights in the office all went out. “Great timing, eh?” Kareem laughed.
Charlie went to see what the matter was. All the office equipment was off, so he went to open the front door of the office, but it was locked.
“Um, does anybody know why this door is locked?”
“Security,” Kareem said. “Mr. Brightman installed it in case of an angry customer. You know, with all these crazy people out there now. I am sure it is because of the electricity outage. No worries. Come back,” he placed a calming hand on Charlie’s shoulder. Charlie smiled knowingly at him as if they shared some secret.
Maria watched them from her seat in the boardroom.
Janine got up from the table. “I have a set of matches and a couple of old birthday candles I can light, so it isn’t so dark in here.”
Janine returned to the table, and Kareem had forgotten what he was doing.
“I think after that introduction, I will save mine for last,” he chuckled.
Everyone in the room laughed except Maria.
“I’ll go!” Janine chuckled. She excitedly opened her bag, and inside she noticed three runes. “What is this? Some odd-looking dice if you ask me!”
“Those are Runes, I believe,” Charlie said.
“Runes? Whatever would I do with these?” she giggled again. Emma rolled her eyes.
“Maybe there is something else in the bag?” Maria said.
Janine reached into the bag, and suddenly her hand began to get stuck. “Some trick; how come I can’t pull my hand out?” she grinned, looking around the room.
“Funny,” Emma said, rolling her eyes.
“I’m serious! I can’t pull my hand out!”
A steady stream of tears was now falling from her face. Everyone was staring at her now as if she had gone crazy.
“This isn’t funny,” Emma said.
Kareem got up and walked around to where Janine was sitting. He grabbed her arm, attempting to pull her hand from the bag. The runes on the table moved to the center of the boardroom table. They formed a triangle as a blue electric light emitted from it. Everyone in the room felt the vibration of the earth beneath them. Janine was crying hysterically now.
“Please get my hand out of this thing!” Kareem began to pull, but each pull caused whatever was keeping her hand inside to pull back harder.
A strip of skin covered in blood began to crawl out of the bag as if it were a vine. The flesh of her hand was now being stripped from Janine inch by inch. It wrapped like a wire around her arm, and as it inched its way up her arm, it began to wrap itself around her mouth. Kareem backed away in fear that it would come for him next.
The bloody mess ate away at her hand. Now her arm flesh began to unravel. Flesh, bone, and blood as if someone was slicing each centimeter of skin and turning it into a rope of flesh to tighten around Janine.
Janine’s screams were no longer audible as the flesh rope suffocated her. It strangulated and stuffed itself down her throat, continuing its assault inch by inch. Her eyes bulged from her head as she struggled to gasp one last time for air. Air that would no longer come.
Janine was dead in minutes. The others looked at the flesh, and bone continued to cover her and spread throughout the room. The flesh rope spread through the room, blocking out all the sun and enabling them to open the door or see out of the office windows.
When it stopped, there was nothing left of Janine except her head and ponytail. Everything else had been stripped from her body, leaving everyone in the room afraid to touch their bags.
The air was stagnant as fear now encompassed their every movement. Trust was gone from all the others. A loud bang made them jump.
The flesh rope made from Janine’s skin and bones had now caused an electric wire to explode above them.
“We need to get out of here!” Charlie ran to open the door, but as he touched it, the flesh rope began to wrap around his wrist, squeezing. It cut off his circulation, and as Charlie cried out, Kareem moved in, pulling out a pocket knife and cutting it from Charlie’s wrist.
“You okay?” he asked him.
Charlie nodded, moving slowly from Kareem and sitting at the table. The only place he could sit that wasn’t covered in Janine’s flesh.
Everyone looked around the room. Maria looked at the box on the table and searched for a bag that might have her name on it. Beneath all the styrofoam in the box, there was only a set of instructions. It was as if they appeared from a portal. Maria took the box, emptying it on the table. She searched for something else, but there was only a set of instructions.
How had she missed this part? How had any of them missed this?
“Look, it is a set of instructions.” she finally uttered frantically.
“What does it say?” Gary growled.
“It says, it says,” Charlie grabbed the instructions from Maria, who was shaking.
“It says each gift must be given.”
“Then what?” Kareem asked.
“That is all it says,” Charlie said.
They all sat in silence for a long while. With each move, the fleshy vines seemed to follow them, locking them inside the room.
Nobody could say a word. The fear of what could be said or done weighed on each survivor significantly.
“I’ll go next,” Emma finally said.
“No, Emma, don’t,” Charlie said.
“If it is the only way, then one of us must go next and another until all of us have received our gifts.”
“Who wants their gifts?” Kareem growled.
“Just let me go,” Emma said.
“No, I’ll go instead,” Gary said.
“Why?” Emma asked.
“I have nothing to live for now. Soon you will all know what I have done.”
“What could you have possibly done?”
“I killed someone,” Gary said.
“What?” Emma asked.
“When I was in junior high. This kid always bullied me. He used to torture animals, and he used to put their remains of them in my locker. One day, there was this Carnival at our school to raise money for charity. There was a clown there. He was blowing balloons, doing tricks, you know, the type. But there was something off about the guy. He was creepy. Not because he was a clown, but you could tell he was a really fucked up guy. So I saw him looking at me the way a predator does. I told him I would meet him later. I knew what he wanted from us. A fourteen-year-old boy? You know, a real creep. I gave him the location of the kid that was bullying me. I told him I’d be waiting by my locker in my costume, describing the kid’s costume that bullied me. That day he disappeared, and they found his body parts scattered at a park. I never told a soul what I did. I know now, as an adult, he didn’t deserve it. I have to live with that for the rest of my life. So let me open my damn bag.”
Emma looked at Gary, and as he opened the bag, she saw the light illuminating from inside the bag. Gary smiled for a second as he watched what looked like a picture display on the wall. He got very sick then as he continued to watch. Everyone in the room could hear what Gary was seeing.
“Please, no, mister, no! Please stop!”
Gary watched as he was now viewing the murder of the boy and the mutilation of his body. The sounds of cutting flesh and police sirens. Gary closed the bag and white-faced through up on the table.
Emma looked at him, and then Gary held his chest. He coughed once and fell into the table where he had just thrown up. He was dead. His eyes were still open, looking at Emma. Emma stood up now, and she shook.
“I can’t do this. Please, God!” She stood closer to the others.
“Emma,” Charlie said, grabbing and hugging her close to his chest.
Emma broke away. “No, I have been just as awful to you all. I was told I would get that job in Michigan if I kept our numbers high and our costs down. I was going to get you fired, Kareem. Please forgive me. I know you didn’t deserve it. I see that now.”
“Kareem, stop it,” Charlie said
“No, screw you, Emma. You have had it out for me since I came here. Do you think you are so perfect? Not everyone can be like you. Open your bag!”
“Stop it, Kareem! Hurting Emma isn’t going to help! You see what happens to us when we do.”
“I don’t care. She is a racist bitch. She deserves everything she has coming to her.”
“Please, Kareem, I’m sorry,” Emma begged.
Kareem looked at her; still, anger fueled his every response. He had dealt with people like her his entire life. He was now taking out his revenge. It felt good to watch her squirm knowing that something evil awaited her inside that bag. Her eyes were red, and the sincerity on her face told him she was sorry.
Emma opened up the bag pulling out her gift.
“Emma, wait,” Kareem, now having a change of heart. He didn’t want to be a person as evil as those who had been to him.
“I’m sorry, Kareem, it’s too late. I’m going to get what I deserve.”
She began to choke, and she bellied over now. Kareem ran over to her. “Emma, tell me what I can do. Please. I forgive you. I forgive you.”
Emma looked at Kareem, caressing his smooth skin and smiling momentarily. Then black goo, the same thing from that box earlier, began to pour from her eyes. The goo ran down her face. It came from inside her ears, running down her pale neck and dark blue blazer. She was coughing and choking as her body shook. Then the goo began to flow rivers from her mouth, burning her insides as it did. Her mouth was a black open sore as it tried to keep up with the flow of the black disgust. She fell back against the window and finally fell to the ground. It was as if all the nastiness she had inside of her was finally falling from her body. Every dirty deed she had done was coming out of her.
Maria looked at Charlie and Kareem.
“Fuck!” Kareem screamed.
“We are all going to die,” Charlie said, looking at Kareem and Maria.
“No, there has to be another way!” Maria was now petrified to look away from the carnage.
Kareem looked at Maria.
“What do you guys have in mind?”
“It is too late,” Charlie said, holding an empty bag.
Charlie laughed now uncontrollably. “I just want it over with,” Charlie said.
Charlie’s chest began to heave in and out. His dress shirt began to pop buttons off and onto the floor. The shirt started to rip open, exposing his chest. It was as if some unseen force was cutting into his chest. Blood escaped, and a gap began to open up in his chest. Charlie screamed as his chest opened up wider. His ribs cracked and snapped in half as he screamed in pain. He was being held in place and couldn’t run, nor could he cry anymore. The thing that held him now pulled out each one of his ribs. One of them flew past Kareem’s head, hitting Maria in the shoulder. They could only watch as his heart appeared and ripped out of his chest. It flew out, and Kareem caught it in his hands as if it were a football. Charlie was dead, and Kareem dropped the heart, barely able to move. His body was in shock as he could only look at the man that was dead now. He fell to the ground looking up at the ceiling.
“I knew it. It was you he cheated on me with.”
“What?” Kareem looked at Maria, unable to understand what she was saying.
“You stole him from me! You foul monster!”
“Maria? What?” Kareem was confused now. He was trying to make out what Maria was accusing him of and the fact he had just witnessed a brutal act of carnage. He could only sit, unable to move.
“You and Charlie,” she said, flatly.
“Maria, it isn’t what you think. I cared about Charlie, and he cared about me. It wasn’t a fling. You have to understand.” he stumbled a bit, getting up from the ground.
“Oh, I understand,”
“Wait for a second,” Kareem was beginning to get his bearings now. “You didn’t have a bag with your name on it. We all did. What did we all do to you to deserve this?”
“You all knew what Charlie was doing to me. It wouldn’t have worked if none of you had any guilt. The magic only works against you if you have something you did to deserve it. This wasn’t exactly part of the plan.”
“People are dead, Maria! Tell me, what is in my bag?”
“I can’t, but you will deserve whatever they serve you,” she said.
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“I don’t know how they will punish you.”
Maria choked a bit on her tears, realizing that Kareem was the only one left and he knew her secret.
“It was only supposed to be Charlie that suffered. I didn’t mean for him to die or any of the others. I had no idea what they had in mind when I reached out to them.”
“Reached out? What did you do, Maria?”
“I was offered the perfect revenge for my broken heart. I took it.”
“Why would you do this?”
“I was hurt and jealous. I knew Emma was doing things to get rid of us. Janine loved to gossip about me, and my feelings were hurt. But you were the worst of all. So you will get the worst of them all.”
Kareem looked at the candle on the table and picked up his bag. Maria attacked him with the knife Kareem had used earlier to save Charlie. Kareem pushed her to the ground and through his bag on the fire of the candle on the table.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Maria said, looking at him.
“I stopped it! I stopped your stupid magic bullshit. Look!”
The room went dark. The flame now burned the bag until it was only ash. The fire had now begun to spread across the rest of the office.
The building began to shake, and Kareem fell over onto the floor. Maria stood over Kareem. “Look what you have done!” Maria struggled to find a way to put out the fire, but it was too late.
The building stopped shaking, and the door to the boardroom finally opened. The flesh rope created from Janine’s body was now falling away among the fire and smoke. The office had a ray of sun shining into the building. Maria stood from the board room, watching as Kareem walked towards the front of the office to leave. The fire seemed to be all around her. She stood there, unable to escape. She tried to run after Kareem, but it was to no avail. The fire caught her. Kareem looked back at her, and there was nothing he could do.
“There is no escaping!” Maria screamed as the fire took her.
A few weeks later, Kareem was sitting in Mr. Brightman’s new Michigan office.
“Kareem, after the tragedy in Illinois, I’m happy to offer you my head of sales here in Detroit. I hope that even after everything, you will still consider it.”
“I have, sir,” Kareem said, adjusting his tie. The room suddenly seemed very hot, and he chalked it up to his nerves. It was always nerve-wracking sitting in the presence of Mr. Brightman.
“Well, do you finally have an answer for me?”
“I hope you have given this a great deal of thought.”
“I have, and I would like to accept your offer. I think that I would be a great asset to your company. I have always felt as if I was made for bigger things.” Kareem smiled.
“That is what I like to hear, Kareem,”
Kareem shook Mr. Brighman’s hand and walked out of the office. He was ecstatic that he was still standing after everything that had happened. He almost died that afternoon in the office. Maria had called on some outside forces to avenge her jealousy and hurt.
It almost didn’t happen had he not intercepted the final grab bag. The one with his name on it. He was sorry for everything that happened that day. He was not sad Maria had perished in the fire. Kareem missed Charlie, but there would be others that he could have fun with after all. He had only gone after Charlie because he hated Maria; she had refused a date with him some months before, and he never forgave her. Some things were indeed more fun. The day she cried to Charlie was one of the best things he had ever seen. Like his mama always said, everything happens for a reason. He did, after all, survive when everyone else had not.
Kareem was excited to start his big day. He woke up early, exercised, showered, and shaved till his skin was perfect and smooth. Kareem grabbed an apple and arrived at the office early. He checked in with the receptionist, who informed Kareem his new office was on the thirteenth floor. He looked at the key card and ensured he put it in a safe place to avoid losing it.
He had this strange excitement and fear when he got into the elevator. This was the first time he would be in a high-power position. Kareem got to his office door, and when he keyed in, the office was dark. He found a light and turned it on. The office was beautiful and spacious.
Kareem took out some of his personal items and sat them on the desk and shelves behind the big desk. He opened the big curtains and looked out at the city before him. It was a beautiful day, and the building overlooked the lake. What a scene he would get to see each day. He chuckled to himself.
Sitting down at his desk finally, he noticed a package on his desk. It was a black box with a silver bow and his name written. Kareem smiled as he undid the silver ribbon. He opened the box, and inside was a tiny envelope. Kareem opened the envelope and pulled out a card. His hands shook as he read it.
I TOLD YOU THAT YOU CAN NEVER ESCAPE!
The room became dark as Kareem tried to run from the office.
Screams filled the office, but because it was so early in the morning, nobody could hear them.