The Grinding Machine
CW: Depression, Suicide
It was a horrifyingly ordinary Monday morning at the office when Desiree D’Sanders received the news that one of her coworkers had killed himself. She had heard from Floreen, who had heard from Vincent, who had heard from one of the security guys, that Steve had leapt into the Grinder early this morning.
Desiree worked at Bekenn and Sons Afterlife Liquidation, which, if it wasn’t obvious from the name, was in the post-mortem business. Specifically, Bekenn and Sons managed the selling or transfer of ownership of the assets of deceased peoples. Desiree herself worked in the pulp department, which was famous for its massive mulching machine, internally known as ”the Grinder”. The primary purpose of this machine—for which it was Desiree’s responsibility to operate—was to dispose of all the unclaimed belongings of any deceased individuals who were brought to the company.
While most deceased people’s items were claimed via inheritance or declaration in the will, there was always the occasional person whose belongings, for whatever reason, remained unclaimed. All unclaimed goods of substantial value were forfeited to debtors or the government, but everything else became the property of Bekenn and Sons. These so-called “undesirable assets” were often the personal items of the deceased, and had little financial worth. As such, it wasn’t worth the company’s time to try to sell the leftover belongings. It was easier to simply destroy them. And that’s what the Grinder was used for, to dispose of the items of forgotten people. However, as Desiree had just learned, it had apparently also been used this morning by Steve to dispose of himself.
There were three Steve’s at Desiree’s office: Steve Chen, who was oddly enthusiastic about oranges, Steve Stevenson from Steveston, and “Steve” whose last name Desiree could never seem to remember. As a result, Desiree simply resorted to calling him “Steve”, which was horribly confusing for everyone else in the office, especially when one or both of the other Steves were present. “Steve” was the one who had taken the big leap that morning.
Desiree didn’t spend a lot of time around “Steve”—which probably contributed to her inability to remember his last name—but still, it surprised her how little she was affected by the news of his death. All she could think about was how relieved she was that, with all the kerfuffle going on in the office this morning, no one seemed to notice that she had shown up for work almost twenty minutes late. Desiree pondered for a moment if her emotionless response to the loss of life made her a bad person, but she didn’t linger long on the thought, as her attention was quickly drawn to the small crowd that was beginning to form in the main room of the office. Curious, Desiree crept towards the group, and as she did so, she couldn’t help but overhear the faint whispers of gossip.
“I heard he was going through a big divorce,” whispered Henry to Floreen.
“I heard he lost custody of his kids,” hushed Floreen back to Henry.
“Oranges are an important part of a balanced diet,” said Steve Chen to no one in particular.
Not wanting to engage with anyone this early in the morning, Desiree found a place at the outskirts of the crowd, just as her boss, Mr. O’Dooley, emerged from his office.
Mr. O’Dooley was a slightly above middle aged, balding white man. He was a scrawny fellow, and not the cute kind of scrawny either. He was the kind of scrawny that made you wonder if, when he went to the doctor, the doctor would say to him: “Gee Mr. O’Dooley, you sure are scrawny.” Mr. O’Dooley always wore the same lean, slightly too small, dark brown suit, which only sought to further accentuate his lankiness. Mr. O’Dooley was also abnormally tall. He was so tall that, despite his significant slouch, he stood a good head taller than Jamie Bates, who herself was already noticeably tall.
“Attention everyone, attention,” said Mr. O’Dooley in his usual cold and condescending tone. “I’m sure you’ve all heard the news by now about this morning’s incident. It’s true, I’m afraid. Steve Holinger has fallen into the Grinder and died.”
A wave of murmurs rushed over the crowd.
Oh yes, Holinger! That’s it, thought Desiree to herself.
“Tis a sad day for us all, here at B and S,” continued Mr. O’Dooley in an apathetic tone that made Desiree wonder if he was actually all that sad about it. “Steve Holinger was a great asset to this team, and as such his death is a terrible loss for the company. We will all miss him dearly.”
Mr. O’Dooley paused, awkwardly bowing his head in an attempted moment of silence. After a few uncomfortable seconds, he cleared his throat and straightened his back, which gave him an additional half foot over Jamie Bates.
“Now,” Mr. O’Dooley said, “we are of course aware that the Grinder is currently jammed with, well, Steve, but our engineering A-team has been hard at work dealing with the mess, and so things should be back to normal shortly.” He nodded, as if acknowledging his own statement. “Anyway, good day everyone.”
With that, Mr. O’Dooley drifted back into his office, quickly shutting the door behind him.
The crowd lingered for a moment, unsure what to do with themselves, before eventually dispersing back to their desks.
It was then that Desiree found herself in quite a foul mood. This was primarily due to the fact that she was part of the aforementioned “engineering A-team” that was responsible for cleaning up the also aforementioned “mess”.
Desiree sighed heavily before heading to the break room for what would no doubt be the first of many coffees she’d drink that day.
The back room that housed the Grinder was easily the ugliest room in the office as far as Desiree was concerned. It was a dimly lit, unsettlingly square room, and its twenty foot high walls were coated in a faded, greenish-grey paint that had long since begun to peel, revealing the plain, yellow stained base behind it. The garish walls, along with the dim lighting that refracted off the heavy layer of dust that lingered in the air—no doubt caused by back-spew from the Grinder—left the room suffocatingly dry and gloomy. Still, Desiree preferred this to the aggressively soul stealing, blue, fluorescent lights that snaked across the ceiling of every other room in the building.
The room was mostly empty, aside from a few large garbage hampers and dollies that lay strewn about, but the sheer size of the Grinder, which sat menacingly in the centre of the room, left the place feeling desperately claustrophobic. The metal hull of the machine stretched upwards, about two thirds of the way to the ceiling, and similarly outwards towards the walls, forcing everything else to cling to the edges of the room.
Despite its hulking size, the Grinder itself was quite a simple machine. To work it, an operator stood on a narrow catwalk above the machine from which they could drop items into. These items fell into a medley of intertwining, helical blades that would shred and crush them down into an unrecognisable pulp by the time they reached the encased belly of the machine. The grounds would then be carted out for proper disposal. The machine also doubled as a paper shredder for the employees, and Desiree had caught Steve Chen on multiple occasions using it as a compost for his orange peels.
The machine made this dreadful clanging noise whenever it was fed anything, something akin to an old, struggling washing machine that had a brick thrown in it. Desiree wondered how many years the thing had left. She liked to imagine that one day the machine would go out in a blaze of glory, little pieces of metal blasting off of it like popcorn in a cacophony of self destructive splendour, but that day never came. It simply chugged along, gobbling up everything thrown into it with a twisted pleasure. Well, everything except fabric.
It was almost amusing to Desiree that the Grinder could handle just about anything you threw at it, wood chests, plastic chairs, and even certain metals, but toss in a cloth shirt or towel and it’d jam those gears up like nobody’s business.
“Gotcha!” said Desiree triumphantly to herself as she scooped out a piece of shirt from the machine with a long metal hook. Carefully, she retracted the hook, making sure to stabilise herself as she laid precariously over the edge of the catwalk that dangled over the open maw of the machine. Desiree nearly gagged at the smell as she dropped the shirt, coated in Steve bits, into a nearby bin.
Why did she have to be the one to clean up the mess? Surely this was beyond the scope of her contract. Desiree paused, trying to recollect whether or not she had even signed a contract when she joined the company. She could not remember.
Desiree glanced up at the clock hanging from the wall as she wiped the sweat from her brow. It had only been forty-two minutes since she had started work, which meant she had another seven hours left in the day.
Desiree sighed. She had hoped that this morning’s events would warrant an office closure to allow everyone to recuperate, but it was becoming more and more evident that this would not be the case.
There was a metallic clang from on the other side of the machine followed by a faint, frustrated grumble. The only other member of the “engineering A-team”, Grayson, had already been working on the Grinder when Desiree arrived this morning. He had said nothing about her being twenty minutes late, though she did feel guilty for making him work alone.
Grayson was handsome, almost generically so, with wavy, dirty blonde hair, a pointed jaw, and a short stubbly beard. Unlike most of her other coworkers, Grayson was at least tolerable to be around, in that he mostly kept to himself and didn’t try to set her up on five step self improvement programs. Still, she found him off putting in the way that he seemed to be perfectly content where he was in life. He’d walk into work everyday with a smile, and walk out just as chipper as he arrived. Desiree wasn’t upset that he was happy, obviously, but more so at the fact that it was a constant reminder that she herself was not. In fact, she was exactly where she did not want to be, which was cleaning up the scrambled remains of a man from in between the blades of a giant pulping machine.
“How’s it looking on your end?” shouted Grayson from the underside of the machine.
“You tell me,” replied Desiree in exasperation.
Grayson walked around and up the stairs to the catwalk above the machine where Desiree was working. He leaned carefully over the edge of the pit, looking down into the grinding blades before shrugging his shoulders. “Looks clean enough to me.” He smiled at Desiree playfully. “Let’s give it a whirl then, shall we?”
Grayson moved to the control panel at the edge of the machine. He twisted the key to the left, pressed the blue button, then the two grey buttons, twisted the key back to the right, and pulled the big red lever.
With a sudden revving of the engine, the great machine roared to life, its gears turning and its grinders grinding. The machine seemed quite happy to be running again, and didn’t appear to have any concern over the fact that it had just recently garbled a human being.
Grayson threw his arms up in celebration and said something to Desiree, which she couldn’t hear on account of all the racket coming from the machine. Still, the sight of Grayson’s smile and soft, green eyes was enough to make her smile in return.
The Grinder was a loud beast. It was so loud that it drowned out all other noise in the room, so loud that you couldn’t even hear your own thoughts. Many workers found this to be an annoying feature of the machine, but not Desiree. She welcomed the noise. It kept her mind empty, which was nice, because it meant she couldn’t think about all the horrible things she didn’t want to think about.
It was cold in Desiree’s apartment and the next door neighbours were having sex again. The walls in her building were thin and flimsy, which meant that Desiree was often forced to listen to the goings on in all of the adjacent suites. Of course she tried not to listen, but this was a futile exercise. The more she tried to unhear, the more she heard every little detail.
A familiar scratching noise on Desiree’s window captured her attention, and she rushed over to her patio door to let in the neighbour's cat, Charlie. The neighbours often put Charlie outside when they were having sex because they didn’t want him in the room and he would always meow at their door if they kept it closed. Desiree knew all this because she had overheard, in excruciating detail, the conversation that the neighbours had had about it. Desiree’s patio was connected to theirs, and Charlie had figured out that instead of sitting out in the cold, waiting to be let back in, he could come to Desiree for free pets and a warm place to stay.
Charlie was a chubby, all black, little hellion of a cat. He often galloped around Desiree’s apartment, knocking things off her tables, and shredding her couch with his untrimmed nails.
None of this truly bothered Desiree. More than anything she welcomed the distraction of watching that dumb little cat crawl all over her furniture, meowing at nothing in particular. It made her nights slightly more bearable.
Desiree was unsure if the neighbours knew that Charlie was cheating on them, but she suspected they were too busy to care.
After a few minutes of watching Charlie prance about, Desiree found herself in bed.
Desiree was terrible at falling asleep. She spent minutes, sometimes hours, rolling back and forth, trapped in her own thoughts. Sometimes she’d think of happy things, like the funny TV show she was watching, or green-eyed Grayson, but most of the time she ended up thinking about things she really didn’t want to think about, like how disappointing the ending to Lost was, or how pitifully lonely she was.
It wasn’t like Desiree wanted to think about all those dreadful things, but that didn’t stop them from showing up and craving attention. She’d be quietly lying there in the dark, when all of a sudden an innocent, little thought would wiggle its way into her ear.
Your ex-husband is screwing his co-worker, the thought would say, and before Desiree could do away with it, the thought would clamber up on top of her brain, do that little circle dance thing dogs do, then nest itself firmly into the space between her frontal and parietal lobes. Your life is wasting away and you’re just watching it happen, it would exclaim triumphantly, and Desiree would be sad.
Desiree tried a number of things to help fix her sleep problem. She took a couple prescription and over the counter drugs, which helped her for a time, but she had to keep upping her doses, and found it harder and harder to fall asleep without them, so she stopped.
She also experimented with sleep meditation but was never any good at it. The narrators all spoke of the importance of having an empty mind. One in particular always said silly things like “Acknowledge the thoughts you may be having, then let your warm ball of happiness wash them all away.” He made it seem so easy, but when Desiree tried to follow the voice’s instructions, she was never able to do it. Whenever her warm ball of happiness cleared out a thought, another would arrive to fill the void. She tried time and time again, but she could never quite empty her mind completely. There was always that lingering thought, that little dark splotch that wouldn’t fade away. This made Desiree wonder if her warm ball of happiness was somehow defective. She wished she could go and exchange it for one that shone bright and hot. She wanted to march her way up into heaven and say “God, I know you’re probably busy with all your important God business but my happy ball isn’t working so if you could grab me a new one that would be great.” But she knew that wasn’t an option.
Desiree often envied those who could simply shut their brains off at night. She wondered how they did it. Did they not have things to think about? No worries or anxieties? Desiree couldn’t imagine what that felt like. To be at peace with yourself, to be happy about life, to not be afraid of your own thoughts.
In an effort to distract herself from her extreme negativity, Desiree tried to focus on the positive aspects of her day, of which there were few. First she thought about the smile she exchanged with Grayson in the Grinder room, but that thought was quickly overshadowed by the unsettling reminder that it was in the context of cleaning up the goop of a dead man. Having Charlie over was always nice, but it did mean that she had to listen to the neighbours bang it out. The only truly non-depressing moment Desiree could think of was the sixty minutes of relief she felt during her lunch break. Sure, the moment would have been improved if Nathan hadn’t sat next to her the whole time talking about his strong dislike of Lynn from accounting, but beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. Desiree spent many of her lunch breaks listening to Nathan ranting on about one thing or another. This didn’t upset Desiree per se, she appreciated the mental distraction at least, but Nathan definitely could be quite the Chatty Cathy.
That’s such a strange phrase. Chatty Cathy.
For a moment Desiree pondered how a phrase like that started. She imagined a fairytale about a shy woman named Cathy who was horribly introverted. She was so quiet that she couldn’t uphold a conversation with anyone, not even her family. Lonely and desperate, she went to the witch on the hill to ask for help. She begged the witch to grant her the wit and charisma to be able to woo the prince who was coming to town the next day. The witch agreed but, being a witch, she twisted Cathy’s request. From that moment on, Cathy was as outspoken as ever, but to her dismay, she discovered that she was never able to stop talking. She’d talk and talk and talk until her throat burned, until there was no one left to listen. The people would pass her in the street, pointing and whispering to each other “there goes chatty Cathy”. In the end Cathy found herself just as lonely as she was at the start, and the story would end with some convoluted metaphor about love, or the dangers of Communism or something.
Desiree rolled over to her bedside table. She fumbled around for her phone, knowing that she would not be able to sleep without knowing the true answer to the phrase’s origin. She grabbed the phone and turned it on, squinting as her eyes adjusted to the light of the screen. She opened up her internet browser, typed in “chatty Cathy etymology”, and clicked on the first result. It was a Wikipedia article which read:
Chatty Cathy was a pull string "talking" doll manufactured by the Mattel toy company from 1959 to 1965. The doll was first released in stores and appeared in television commercials beginning in 1960, with a suggested retail price of $18.00, but catalog advertisements usually priced the doll under $10.00.
After the success of Chatty Cathy, Mattel introduced Chatty Baby in 1962 and Tiny Chatty Baby, Tiny Chatty Brother and Charmin' Chatty in 1963. The last doll to have the word "chatty" in its name in the 1960s was Singin' Chatty in 1965.
Desiree stopped reading. She couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Not only in the origin of the phrase, but also the terrible laziness in the naming of Chatty Cathy’s follow up models.
She closed the internet browser, and was about to shut off the phone when she noticed a notification from her todo app: “Remember to do the thing” it said.
Desiree groaned because she had in fact forgotten to “do the thing”. She rolled back over to her bedside table and by the light of her phone, groggily opened her notebook.
The “thing” as Desiree put it, had begun after a conversation she had had with Nathan during one of their lunch breaks. Nathan was telling her about his experiences with his new therapist, Karen, whom he had taken a liking to.
“Karen’s got me on this brand new ‘five step power program’,” Nathan had said. “Apparently it has a 89% success rate at improving overall mental health.”
Desiree raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?”
“Yeah!” Nathan replied excitedly, not detecting her scepticism. “It’s easy stuff, too! All I gotta do is journal about my thoughts and keep track of how I feel that day out of ten. Then, at the end of the week, I report back to Karen with my results. That’s just step one, of course, but apparently I’m making fantastic progress already.” Nathan gave a smug smile. “I went from a six out of ten on average to an eight in just five weeks! Apparently it’s all about expressing myself in a healthy way. Becoming more aware of my emotions or something by writing out what’s going on in my head.”
It seemed strange to Desiree that fixing one’s mental health issues would be so simple. After all, if it were that easy, one would think society would have figured it out a long time ago. Still, the program had been working for Nathan, so there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t work for her as well.
Desiree flipped to the back of her notebook, past all the random doodles and scribbles of half thought out ideas for personal projects that never seemed to pan out, and straight to a page titled “My Day Out Of Ten”. On the page were small monthly calendars, each with their day’s boxes filled entirely by a single number out of ten. Desiree examined the data she’d collected over the past two and a half months. There were an upsetting amount of “1”s and “2”s, a steady amount of “3”s, a multitude of “4”s, a handful of “5”s and even the rare, but welcome, “6”. “7”s were nowhere to be found, and the other numbers didn't even exist, as far as Desiree was concerned.
Desiree thought carefully for a moment, then scribbled out a “2” in the space for that day’s date before closing the book, shutting off her phone, and rolling back over to bed.
At least the day is over, she thought to herself.
Desiree exhaled deeply as she closed her eyes. It took her forty eight minutes to fall asleep.
Desiree woke up twenty-seven minutes before her alarm. Still groggy, she concluded that this was not because she had gotten enough sleep—she hadn’t—but was because her body hated her. Whenever she woke up early, which was frequently, Desiree would lay there silently in bed, poking around on her phone until her alarm went off. She sometimes tried forcing herself back to sleep, but the looming threat of her alarm startling her awake always prevented her from doing so. This morning she decided to not even try.
She had been scrolling through her Twitter feed for six minutes when her alarm finally went off. Her alarm was loud, and it jolted her even though she was already awake. She quickly flicked it off before reluctantly dragging herself out of the warmth of her bed.
Here we go again, Desiree thought to herself with great displeasure.
Most people seemed to have a distaste for Mondays, but for Desiree, Tuesdays were easily the worst day of the week. Mondays were bad, sure, but at least you had a full weekend to rest beforehand. Tuesdays—or Hell Days as Desiree preferred to call them—tossed you right into the thick of it, and you were already tired from all the work you had to catch up on the day before. Plus, and this is the worst part of it all, you were forced to wake up with the terrifying thought that you weren’t even halfway through the week yet, not even halfway to being half way, and such a thought left Desiree with so much dread that she had to double her dose of coffee that morning just to persuade herself to get out of the house.
The ride to work was uneventful. Desiree wasn’t late this time at least, but she almost wished she was, just so that she could experience that rush of adrenaline she had felt yesterday morning, the butterflies you get when you’re in a panic to get somewhere. It’s not a pleasant sensation, but even that would be better than the complete vacancy of emotion that Desiree felt on this particular morning.
Desiree stared out the bus window, watching the cars drift by. A podcast was blabbing in her ear about the psychology of human attraction in relation to the last episode of the Bachelor. She was only half paying attention.
Desiree leaned her head against the glass window of the bus, feeling the chill it gave off on her forehead. It was as if she was a machine, she realised, a robot, devoid of all feelings. As if she was simply going through the motions of being a person without actually feeling like one. Wake up, eat breakfast, bus to work, survive the day, bus home, try to sleep, repeat the next day. There was nothing more to it. It was a road that travelled in a circle, and she walked it willingly every day. The concept frightened Desiree, but instead of putting it out of her mind, she clung onto that fear tightly, as if it were her only remaining link to this world, as if she let go of it, she would slowly drift away entirely. This fear brought Desiree the slightest bit of comfort along her journey to work, and when it’s a Hell Day, you can’t hope for anything more than that.
“Morning,” said Vincent groggily as Desiree slowly approached the front desk at the office. “O’Dooley wanted you to know that a few crates came in for disposal last night. They’re waiting for you in the Grinder room.”
Desiree, too drained from her uneventful bus ride, simply replied “Thanks,” before lazily dragging herself down to the break room.
The office coffee was truly terrible. In fact, it was quite possibly the worst coffee that Desiree had ever had. It’s hard to describe just how bad it was. It was as if someone had bought the coffee from Richard’s Smoke Shop—and when you’re buying coffee from Richard’s, you know you’ve hit rock bottom—watered it down heavily, added a couple flakes of soap in for garnish, then let it ferment for three days before microwaving it back up to temperature. Desiree always had to add three scoops of sugar just to make her not gag when she drank it. She shivered at the thought. Still, bad coffee was better than no coffee at all, and Desiree definitely needed another coffee.
There was no one in the break room when Desiree arrived, which was to her liking because she wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. She opened the cabinet and looked for her favourite coffee mug. The mug was hot pink and in black across the side read “Tuesday? I hardly knew her!” Desiree didn’t know why it was her favourite mug. First off, the phrase didn’t make any sense, and secondly, the out of place innuendo felt both inappropriate and underwhelming. Still, she felt some kind of connection to it on account of it addressing the horrors that were Tuesdays. Desiree used to take the mug out of irony at first, an enjoyment of the absurdity of it, a wink to her coworkers that showed off her playful side, but after a time the irony faded, and it simply became the mug she looked for every morning. She became so attached to the mug that when she saw someone else using it she thought “hey, that’s my mug,” which of course it wasn’t, but that didn’t stop Desiree from getting upset when someone else used it. Desiree thought about switching to another one, but by then she had been using the mug for so long that it would be weird to stop.
This was all beside the point however, as the mug was not in the cabinet this morning, forcing Desiree to resort to one of the many generic black ones that all the boring people in the office used. She approached the coffee machine with her very unspecial mug, but stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the note that was taped to the front of the machine. It was hastily scrawled out on a small piece of printer paper in black permanent marker.
“Out of order,” the note read, a little frowny face drawn after the text.
Desiree was too tired to feel angry, so she simply closed her eyes and exhaled deeply.
Hell Days, she thought to herself.
Defeated, and increasingly disoriented, Desiree slowly made her way back up to the grinding room, the thick metal door opening with a deep ca-chunk noise. Inside, Desiree found, as promised, three wooden pallets, each stacked over five feet high with various knickknacks, thingdings and doodads.
Desiree sighed for the third time this morning. She had only been in the office for about four minutes and it was already shaping up to be an exceptionally hellish Tuesday.
Desiree grabbed the exacto knife she kept on a nearby table and approached the first pallet. The small, white label on the side read “Janet Fuller”.
Okay Janet, thought Desiree, time to see what you look like on the inside.
Desiree reached forward with the blade and began dissecting the pallet. She cut into the side of the plastic wrapping, careful not to knick any of the boxes underneath, then pulled out one of the boxes and cut it open too. Flipping the sides up, Desiree peered into the box. Inside was a pleasant variety of things: There were some old art supplies, mostly pencils and brushes, a few cook books, an aged ukulele, the frets worn down from use, and an old Polaroid camera that was paired with an album containing various photos of trees, plants, and wildlife.
Desiree inspected each item in the box carefully. She turned them around in her hands, felt the weight, the loose threads, the scratched wood. Desiree liked to look through all the knickknacks and thingdings and doodads that were assigned to her. To Desiree, these objects were a window into someone else’s life, a brief snapshot of who they were. After all, there was a lot you could tell about a person by the things they kept around. For example, based on all the supplies and photos she had, Janet was probably an artist, a multi faceted one. Janet also seemed to have a love for nature and the outdoors, and Desiree imagined how the two aspects must have overlapped. How Janet most likely loved to go out on hikes exploring the woods. She’d find a quiet place, far away from civilization, so far that you wouldn’t come across another human being for hours at a time, and she’d simply sit, and she’d listen. She was alone, but she wasn’t lonely. She found herself at peace listening to the trees, to the birds, to the nothingness. And in that vast void of humanity, she’d find the world went on just fine without us, and she’d be at peace. She’d play her ukulele from the mountaintops, harmonising with the birds, then when she felt satisfied with that, she would draw, and she’d photograph. She did all this so that when she was back home in her tiny one bedroom apartment, a place where being alone really did make her lonely, she’d have something to carry her through it. A memory of a better place, where she was truly happy.
Desiree opened another box. This one was full of documents from a “Syntech Industries”. Desiree hadn’t heard of them. The box contained event proposals, quarterly budget info, business cards with Janet’s name on them, and other boring things. It seemed that Janet had been an event coordinator at the company for a good number of years.
Desiree wondered if Janet enjoyed her job at Syntech Industries, if it brought her the same satisfaction that her art did. She wondered if she found a balance between work and life, or if her art slowly fell to the wayside. She wondered if Janet often sat at her desk, dreaming of being back in the mountainside, of being happy. Desiree liked to think she made her way back there eventually, before the end.
Desiree put down the box. Of course, this was a far more poetic end to Janet’s story than what probably actually occurred. In reality, Janet probably died alone in her bedroom, decomposing there for a few days or a week before one of the neighbours noticed the newspapers that were beginning to build up at her door. Desiree suspected that loneliness was a common theme amongst those whose belongings ended up here. Afterall, these were the people who had no one show up when they died. No friends, no family, at least none interested enough to come see them, not even to claim their inheritance. They were truly and completely alone. Ghosts drifting through life, invisible to the world.
Desiree looked over at the second pallet. She imagined “Laurel Rahemtulla” had a similarly sad story to share.
Tired of feeling sad, Desiree headed for the control panel of the Grinder. She turned the key to the left, pressed the blue button, and was about to press the first of the two grey buttons needed to start the machine when she noticed the note that had been placed on the side of the panel. This note appeared to be more permanent than the one on the coffee machine, as it was nicely typed out, printed, and encased in a plastic cover that had been properly glued to the side of the control panel. The note read as follows:
In consideration of others, please refrain from jumping into the grinding machine. It causes quite a mess and leads to unnecessary delays in production.
However, if you're dead set on killing yourself, please be considerate of others and remove your clothes before jumping into the Grinder.
Desiree stood there for a moment, processing what she had just read. She wondered what the HR person was thinking when they wrote that note. She wondered if their use of the phrase “dead set” was intentional, if it was a little joke they had come up with. She wondered if they were proud of themselves for writing it, so proud that they shared it with the rest of their team. She wondered if their teammates chuckled when they saw it, and if that chuckle was enough validation to get them through the rest of the day without feeling miserable about themselves. Personally, Desiree did not find the joke funny. She wasn’t quite sure what triggered her most about the note. Maybe it was the horrible pun, or maybe it was the note’s total nonchalant attitude, or maybe it was because it was a Hell Day and everything sucked on Hell Days. Whatever it was, Desiree found herself astoundingly mad at it.
But Desiree had not the time nor the desire to dwell on her anger. She had three pallets to dispose of, and an unknown amount more to come in after lunch.
Desiree walked back to the control box, pressed the two grey buttons, twisted the key back to the right, and pulled the big red lever.
Once again the machine came to life with a thunderous roar. It seemed that the Grinder was just as angry as Desiree was. It was hungry, and eager to consume. Without another thought, Desiree strolled over to the pallets and began emptying them into the Grinder. Desiree started small, not wanting to overexert the machine on its first job after the repair. But the Grinder didn’t hesitate, and the pencils and brushes were swallowed by the machine with ease, a simple appetiser to wet the pallet for what was to come. After that came the cook books, the pages ripping and tearing as they fell into the blackness below. The stacks of documents came next, then the photo album, then the camera. Last was the ukulele, the warped twangs of the snapping strings quickly drowned out by the turning of gears and gnashing of teeth. Desiree opened another box, repeating the process again, and again, until everything on Janet Fuller’s pallet was destroyed. Then she turned to Laura Rahemtulla’s pallet and destroyed that too. A variety of loose cords and cables, destroyed. A copper chess set, destroyed. An old rotary phone, destroyed. A box full of shirts, that went into the cart labelled “to be incinerated”.
Desiree was making good progress, finishing the first two pallets in just over twenty minutes, but when she turned to the final pallet, she hesitated, staring at the name on the label, written out in thick black ink.
Desiree leapt over to the control panel and turned off the machine.
For a moment Desiree simply stood there, gawking at the pallet in disbelief as the Grinder’s engine slowly died down. She was shocked. She didn’t expect Steve to have ended up here of all places. After all, this room was a place for the lonely, the eccentric, the forgotten. Steve, though forgettable, seemed perfectly… normal. He must have had someone in his life who loved him. Maybe not his ex-wife, but certainly his kids, or at least some friends. Surely there was someone who cared!
Desiree took a deep breath to recollect herself. She was a professional, she reminded herself. This was a job just like any other. There was no sense overthinking it. And besides, she didn't really know Steve. Before yesterday she couldn’t even remember his last name.
Calmly, Desiree reached into her pocket and pulled out the exacto knife, hovering the blade over one of the boxes. She hesitated only for a moment before dissecting it at the seam. Her cut was clean and quick. She was a mortician and the boxes her cadaver. Silently Desiree peeled back the flaps of the box and peered inside.
One by one Desiree pulled out the box’s contents: A scuffed up baseball, a deck of cards, a small chest full of bottle caps, a letter from someone named Alvin—which she had the courtesy not to read—a cheap tee-ball trophy dated 1983, and a small cat bobble head which Desiree recognized from Steve’s desk.
Desiree studied each item carefully, especially the cat, which was a tabby. She rolled it around in her palm, felt the smooth texture, the curvature of the ears. It looked cheap and mass produced, but she couldn’t help but like it, with its green eyes and silly, oversized head that bounced up and down as she twisted it around.
Desiree didn’t imagine a story for each of these items like she did for everyone else. It felt too intrusive to prescribe a false history upon someone that she had actually known. Well, she didn’t know, know him, but still, she decided it would be best to let Steve’s story be. Despite this, Desiree felt like she had learned more about Steve in these past few minutes of looking through his belongings than she had in all her years of working with him. She had seen a side of him that few ever had, and standing here, at the mouth of the Grinder, ready to destroy it all, she would be the last person that would ever see it.
Desiree was confronted with a sudden and unexpected pang of sadness. It felt strange to only become connected to someone after their death, despite knowing them in life. It was a sort of retroactive sadness, the loss of something that she had never really gotten to know.
Desiree realised that she had been zoning out, staring at the cat bobblehead for over a minute.
Desiree’s eyes darted anxiously around the room, making sure she was alone. There was only one rule when it came to working the Grinder: Employees were, under no circumstance, to take home any items that were designated to be destroyed. Still, there weren’t technically any rules about looking at them.
What are you doing? Thought Desiree to herself. You don’t have time for this!
She put the cat back into the box in front of her, then rushed over to the machine, turning it back on. The Grinder revved up once again, and Desiree immediately found herself lost in the comfort of its deafening noise.
Into the maw of the machine went the baseball, and the deck of cards, and all the bottle caps, and the cheap trophy, and the letter, and everything else that had once belonged to Steve Holinger.
Desiree looked down at the bobble head cat, the only thing remaining in the box before her. She knew that the Grinder hungered for it, and she imagined how easily it would be torn to bits by the machine, how the wood would twist and snap in its jaws until it became an unrecognisable pile of painted pulp, how quickly it would be destroyed forever.
Without thinking—because when the Grinder was on, one couldn’t think, even if they wanted to—Desiree took the cat from the box, and shoved it into her pocket.
The best part of Desiree’s day was always the fifteen minutes she got to spend in the shower. The warmth slowly filling the room, the sounds of the rushing water slamming into the floor of the tub. It was like an escape. Desiree would have spent all day in the shower if it weren’t for the threat of skyrocketing water bills.
Desiree had recently begun a trend of sitting on the floor while she showered. She liked how the water pelted harder against her back when she was sitting down. She also knew that this undoubtedly meant that she was depressed, because every movie she had ever seen that had a depressed person in it had a scene where the depressed person sat down in the shower and cried.
Desiree didn’t have many friends, or any friends, really. Over the years, the friends that she thought she would have forever all eventually went their separate ways. Some got jobs across the country, some got married and had kids, some just found better friends to spend their time with. She still messaged some of them occasionally, and they met up as a group a couple times a year, but it wasn’t the same. Desiree tried to make new friends, but she was in her thirties, which made that hard to do. Dating apps were too draining for her, and she didn’t really like putting herself out there anyways. She had almost found a new group when she joined a rec soccer team, but that eventually fell apart. All she had these days were the people she saw at work, none of whom she had more than surface level conversations with, well, except for Nathan. Nathan was nice enough to Desiree, but she never saw him outside of the office, and if she was being honest, she preferred it that way. Nathan could be a little much sometimes. Still, having one friend or a partner would have been nice. Desiree appreciated her independence, but that didn’t mean she didn’t get lonely.
Desiree decided that she had wasted enough water and pulled herself up from the shower floor.
After drying off, Desiree made her way to her room where she found her notebook open to the “My Day Out Of Ten” page. She picked up her pen and filled in a “2” for that day’s date. Only the warm shower had saved her day from being another “1”.
Desiree looked back at her previous scores. She couldn’t help but notice the increasing trend of lower numbers. Was there something wrong with her, she wondered. Surely the numbers were supposed to go up over time, not down.
Desiree put the pen down softly next to the book. This activity was clearly not helping her like Nathan had promised. All it was good for was making her realise that her resting state was a below average level of happiness.
Stupid Nathan and his stupid therapist and her stupid five step program.
Desiree heard the scratching sound of Charlie pawing at her window again.
Oh no, thought Desiree.
Not a second later the moans started.
Grumbling quietly to herself, Desiree marched over to the patio door and slid it open. Charlie dashed into the room, hopping straight onto the bed.
Desiree smiled softly. At least I have you, she thought. You may not actually care about me— in fact I’m pretty sure you’re just here for the pets—but at least it makes me feel a bit better.
For the next fifteen or so minutes Desiree sat with Charlie, bouncing her hand up and down above his face, dodging as he swiped lazily at it from his back. Charlie purred loudly, pausing his swiping occasionally to yawn, his mouth opening wide to reveal his sharp little fangs.
In the tranquillity of the moment, Desiree found herself dwelling once again on Steve. She couldn’t deny the obvious symbolism in the way he decided to go out. It was poetic in a way, not that Desiree knew much of anything about poetry. Still, the more she thought about it, the more interested she became. She began to see it as a means of protest. The others at the office might have been too dense to get the message, but she understood. After all, what could be more powerful than choosing to die? It was about taking control of your life in the purest way possible, the ultimate rejection of society. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Steve was just a really lonely man looking to end the pain of existence and he knew that the grinding machine would do the job. Either way, she found some comfort in the thought that there was someone out there just as lonely as she was. Well, there would have been if that someone wasn’t dead.
A knock on the door snapped Desiree out of her thoughts.
Charlie sat up, his ears perked up at the noise.
Desiree wondered who could possibly be coming by this late at night. Her landlord usually messaged before coming by, and she wasn’t expecting any deliveries. Desiree picked herself up from the floor and made her way out of her room. Charlie followed close behind her.
Desiree waddled down the dark hallway. She thought about fixing her hair before answering the door but was too lazy to really care so she simply reached out and pulled it open.
Standing in the hallway, wearing nothing but an oversized t-shirt that came down to her mid thigh, was Desiree’s next door neighbour, Lauren. Lauren was a young white girl, pretty, with freckles and curly brown hair. Desiree was quite sure Lauren was a college student, but her soft face and the freckles made her look like she could have still been in highschool.
“Is Charlie here?” Lauren asked.
Desiree looked back over her shoulder at Charlie who was sitting patiently on the ground behind her, his tail slowly sweeping back and forth as he looked up at her.
“Yeah.” Desiree replied.
Lauren hesitated. “Can I have him back?”
Desiree turned around, picked up Charlie by the armpits, and handed him over to Lauren.
Charlie didn’t resist as he flopped into Lauren’s arms.
“Thanks,” Lauren said, pausing only for a moment before heading back to her apartment.
“Yup,” Desiree replied, too quiet for Lauren to hear.
Desiree slowly pressed closed the door to her apartment, letting the latch click as it slid into place. She stood there in silence for a moment, too exhausted to sigh.
Oh hi, Desiree! She imagined Lauren saying to her. How are you doing?
Why thanks for asking, Lauren! She would have replied. I’m doing really bad!
Shuffling back to her bedroom, Desiree reached into her work bag and pulled out the little wooden cat. She placed it carefully on the edge of her bedside table, stared at it for a moment, moved it to the other side of the table, shook her head, and moved it back to the original spot.
The cat smiled up at her softly. She forced a smile back, booping the cat on its nose, causing its head to bounce up and down periodically. Desiree watched for a while, following its rhythmic movement with her eyes. Desiree’s fake smile quickly faded. She didn’t really know what she was hoping to find in this cat. A revelation, maybe, some kind of spark, a message hidden between the head bobs, one that would grant her the inspiration to finally rebound her out of her depression. It didn’t. The cat simply bobbed up and down, again and again and again, its face frozen in eternal content. What a foolish thing to hope for, Desiree realised. It was just a little wooden cat.
Silently Desiree made her way back over to her journal, scratched out the “2” and changed it to a “1”.
It was at this moment that Desiree decided she was going to kill herself. This wasn’t some grand revelation or anything. It was far from the first time that she’d had such thoughts, but this time felt different, more absolute, and the more she thought about it, the more appealing the idea became. No more having to see her stupid coworker’s faces, no more Hell Days, no more dragging herself out of bed into the cold, no more bundling up just to have to ride the crowded bus where the stupid driver blasted the heat so intensly that she would sweat all the way through her multiple layers of sweaters and onto her winter coat. She would never have to worry about any of that ever again! Plus now it came with the added benefit of being able to stick it to her boss and that dumb HR person for writing such a stupid note.
When would she do it though, Desiree wondered. Was tomorrow too soon? Surely not. Afterall, there was no point in her working the rest of the week if she was going to be dead by the end of it.
Great, Desiree thought. Tomorrow it would be.
Desiree was oddly inspired by the idea. She finally had a purpose, a goal! Sure, that goal was killing herself, but screw it, at least it was something!
Still, Desiree hesitated. Death was quite a permanent thing, and what if she would have changed her mind? Desiree decided she would sleep on it. If she still wanted to off herself when she woke up in the morning, she would go ahead and do it.
The decision gave Desiree a strange peace of mind, and after an hour of rolling around, thinking random and equally dark thoughts, Desiree fell asleep.
Desiree woke up a full forty-seven minutes before her alarm. Quickly deciding that she did in fact still want to off herself, Desiree headed straight to work, skipping breakfast and her morning coffee.
Traffic was light this early in the morning, and Desiree made it to the office in record time. She slipped silently past a sleepy Vincent at the front desk and made her way to the back room that housed the Grinder.
Desiree felt an unexpected excitement as she ducked past cubicles, slowly infiltrating deeper into the office. It was unlikely that anyone would question her presence here, but she still felt the rush of adrenaline that one feels when doing something they’re not supposed to be doing. In that moment, as she slid down the cold blue hallways, carefully avoiding the few early risers that roamed the floors, Desiree never felt so alive. This was ironic of course, given the fact that she would soon be quite dead.
The thrill of the moment faded quickly as the door to the grinding room shut behind her with a painful screech, and she found herself standing there alone, staring in silence at the machine. Desiree felt a pang of dread as the Grinder stared back at her. Its massive twisted metallic form was as intimidating as ever, and for a moment she was frozen in place with fear.
Desiree wondered what the others at the office would think of her demise. Likely her death would be nothing more than an inconvenience for them. Nathan might be a little sad at least. Would Grayson? Unlikely, she realised.
It would be a strange funeral too. Afterall, there’d be no body to bury. Would they even bother having a funeral at that point? Would they have an empty casket? Would they put a photo of her up on a pedestal for everyone to gawk at? Her mother would have to say some kind of speech. She might even cry. No doubt the whole affair would be dreadfully uncomfortable. Desiree was happy that she wouldn’t be around to witness it.
Desiree glanced over at the still closed door to the room, and when she was confident no one was watching, she approached the console at the edge of the machine. She twisted the key to the left, pressed the blue button, then the two grey buttons, twisted the key to the right, and pulled the big red lever.
The machine roared to life, and Desiree knew she wouldn’t have long before someone grew suspicious of the noise and came in to check on her.
Quickly, Desiree removed all her clothes and placed them on the ground beside her. It was the least she could do for her fellow coworkers. With no clothes to clog up the gears, she’d be pulped up just fine. No engineering A-team required. In fact, she’d go down so smoothly that people might not even notice. They’d carry on with their day, piling more trash on top of her, their only thought being their frustration with her for not showing up to work that day.
Desiree began to think about Steve Holinger. About how he would be forever remembered as “the Steve who jumped in the Grinder”. Still, she remembered his name now.
Desiree began to second guess herself. Was that how she wanted to be remembered? Was it better to simply not be remembered at all? But why should she care what other people thought of her? She’d be dead. And besides, it felt appropriate to end it this way. Her job had been grinding her down figuratively for years, now it could do it literally.
Desiree stepped up onto the platform that looked down into the opening at the top of the machine. She curled her toes over the edge, the soles of her feet stinging from the chill of the metal flooring.
Desiree stared down into the twisting maw of the beast beneath her. She wondered how long it would take for the machine to chew through her. It wouldn’t be more than ten seconds or so. It would be ten incredibly painful seconds, that was for sure, but at least it would be over quickly. All she had to do was jump.
Desiree lost track of how long she’d stood there, staring down. She wondered if anyone at the office knew what she was about to do, would they try to stop her, try to talk her down from the edge of the abyss? Would they tell her she was making a mistake, that she had so much left to live for, that there were people who cared about her, that she deserved to live? Did Steve wonder the same?
But it didn’t matter. The machine had been on long enough that if anyone was going to come check on her, they would have by then. No one had come to stop Steve, and no one was coming to stop her. She was alone.
So what was she doing still standing on the platform? What was she waiting for?
Desiree grabbed onto the railing next to her, squeezing tight, feeling the numbing cold of the metal spread through her palm.
Maybe that was the answer. Even though she knew how unlikely it was that anyone was coming to stop her, maybe Desiree was hesitating to jump because there was some part of her, however small, that was still hoping that someone would. And maybe that hope, even if it was illogical, meant something in and of itself. Maybe it was enough.
Desiree remembered how yesterday she saw Steve’s death as a protest, a final “screw you” to the job, to society, to life. It was the ultimate form of reclaiming control, and in this moment, standing inches away from the end, Desiree related to that sentiment more than she ever had before.
Silently, Desiree picked up her clothes and dropped them into the Grinder.
The machine emitted a horrible scream as the fabric quickly lodged itself deep in its gears. Soon after, the machine began to shake vigorously, and the usually smooth whirring of its engine was starting to sound more erratic. After an especially vicious thud, bits of scrap wood and plastic from deep in the machine began to launch upwards, and Desiree had to take a step backwards to avoid getting hit by the stray projectiles. There were a couple loud bangs as pieces broke off from the Grinder’s internals, and smoke was beginning to spew out from the back of the machine. It continued to squeal at incredible volume as it desperately tried to pull the cloth through its teeth, only causing it to become more and more tangled in the process. The banging noises became more frequent and more violent, and Desiree could tell the machine was eating itself from the inside out.
Desiree turned around as the door to the room screeched open beneath her and people began to pour in. First were a couple clerks that Desiree had never talked to. They were followed closely by Grayson, pink coffee mug in hand, and he in turn was followed less closely by Mr. O’Dooley.
“What the blazes is going on in here!” sputtered Mr. O’Dooley from the ground beneath her, or at least that’s what she imagined he had said. Desiree could barely hear him over the noise of the machine.
Instead of responding, Desiree simply stared back down at the group with a calm indifference. One of the clerks was gawking up at Desiree’s nude body in absolute bewilderment. The other was looking over at Mr. O’Dooley, waiting anxiously to see what he was going to do. Grayson was watching the machine, mouth agape.
“You… you...” Mr. O’Dooley stuttered, trying and failing to remember Desiree’s name. Eventually he gave up. “You!” he exclaimed, pointing up at her angrily. “Explain yourself!”
Desiree shrugged. She didn’t at all feel like explaining herself to Mr. O’Dooley, and so she didn’t. Instead, she walked forward, calmly beginning to descend the platform towards them.
Mr. O’Dooley waited for an answer as Desiree approached, his face scrunching up into a knot when she walked past him without providing one.
Desiree stopped in front of Grayson, her favourite coffee mug held tightly in his hand. He looked at her, mouth moving silently as if he wanted to say something but was unable to find the words. Desiree simply smiled, and completely against everything she had come to know about herself, she winked at Grayson as she walked past.
Grayson continued to gawk at Desiree as she carried on walking. Mr. O’Dooley was shouting something at her but she wasn’t listening. The roar of the Grinder drowned out the man’s voice, but with the redness of his cheeks and the twisted look on his face, she could tell that he was quite upset. This wouldn’t bode well for her. She would certainly be fired, possibly fined and charged for destruction of property, and yet, Desire was pleased to discover that the thought didn’t bother her in the slightest. She was done with this place, with Mr. O’Dooley, with the Grinder, with Steve Chen, with Hell Days, with all of it.
Did she know what she was doing or where she was going? Absolutely not. But for the first time in a long time, Desiree was okay with that.
Desiree laughed to herself as she calmly strolled out of the room and into the main hall of the office.
Dead set. It was kind of funny, actually.