This story was written for a WRITE CLUB Atlanta bout pitting instinct versus intellect.
Zcheorg sniffed the morning air. Closed his eyes and concentrated on the scent. He smelled a perfume of berries and wild flowers. He smelled others like him nearby. He smelled Folgers Decaf Crystals and the bouquet of a dirty microwave.
“Ah, work.” Zcheorg thought. He dropped to a crouch and peered around his cubicle wall. Put his palms to the floor and felt the vibrations. Someone was approaching. Someone heavy. Someone with invoices for him to fill out.
“George…George, what are you doing on the floor? Look, this account is seven months behind, could you review their file and contact their AP department? Harriet needs you to step on it.”
Zcheorg sniffed at the three ring binder stuffed with paper and Post-It notes. The heavy man sighed and went away. Zcheorg snapped into action, letting his fingers fly through the pages. He squinted and grunted until the strange symbols and diagrams began to form a pattern, like heards of Times New Roman migrating in autumn. His hand slammed down on the book, his finger trained on one number. He picked up the phone and dialed 9…
The buzzing fluorescent lights, the cubicles, the burnt soil-smell of stale coffee–the office seemed like a dehumanized space, a place meant to turn people into drones. Not Zcheorg. In this realm of inorganic 90-degree angles, the natural world had been wrung dry and people were the only interesting thing left. Well, them and the mice.
It was an old building and it didn’t so much have a rodent problem as it had a parallel workforce, tending to its own business. Zcheorg was ever watchful. After his phone call, a savage battle of wills with an Accounts Payable chieftain named Jar-ells Ahm-ton which is a story for another day, Zcheorg spotted a mouse.
The small brown thing was picking crumbs from under Xiu-lee Krauv-nar’s desk. Zcheorg had told Xiu-lee not to keep her food stores where animals could get them, but she’d called him a long-haired freak and went back to eating her Lean Pocket. Now the mice had picked up the trail of morsels and were boldly munching out in the open.
Zcheorg slid the loafers off his feet, silently picked up an empty coffee mug from his desk and switched his phone to DO NOT DISTURB mode. Taking shallow breaths, he padded across the room to Xiu-lee’s domain, his eyes never leaving their target. The mouse ate. Zcheorg moved in. He gingerly stepped onto the desk, balanced forward on the chair and looked down at the creature from above. Coffee mug pinched between thumb and forefinger, Zcheorg held his breath as he lowered…closer…
“Hey George, some guy named Charles called for you, said…what the hell are you doing?”
Blast! Steev of the Tribe of Nomadic Interns had startled the mouse. It bounded for the nearest wall. No time. Zcheorg dropped the mug and gave chase, along the baseboard, down a hall. It was headed for the copy room, Zcheorg was certain, with its network of vents and cupboards and small holes in the walls.
“Do you want me to write the message down?” Steev was running behind–he was very short, coming to Zcheorg’s stomach–and his short legs couldn’t keep up. Zcheorg waved him off. “Okay, should I email it to you or just leave it on your desk?”
The heat of machinery, the smell of ink filled Zcheorg’s head. Low to the ground, he scanned the room for the animal and thought of where he would go if he were a mouse in a copy room. Behind the boxes of paper? Under the collating table? No… too accessible. He dropped to his belly and peered under the Xerox machine. Two beady black eyes caught a stray beam of light, flashing back at their pursuer. Zcheorg saw it breathing–it was startled, but not tired. He thought of the last time he ate–no, this mouse could far outrun him. If he moved, the creature would flee. And so they stared, Zcheorg on his belly, the mouse under the copier. A waiting game. There were footsteps. Small ones.
“Okay, so yeah, you got a call from ‘Charles,’ and I wrote it down and put it on your desk and emailed you the message and told you where you could find it on your desk in the email and I also printed the email out for you…”
With that, the Xerox whirred and groaned to life. The mouse jumped with a start and began nervously chewing on some cables running out of the machine. Two sheets of paper shot into the tray. Zcheorg and Steev looked at each other. His small, boyish frame fidgeting in the doorway. “Do you want me to get those for you?”
With that, there was a loud pop and a whiff of electrical smoke. Zcheorg shot a look back under the machine. The mouse was gone but its work was done. It had chewed the power cord down to the wires and it was shooting off sparks as it brushed against the metal side of paper tray 2. Sparks, then a whiff of paper smoke, then flames–orange and thin–burst from behind the machine.
“Oh god, should we call HR about this?”
Zcheorg leapt to his feet, grabbed Steev around the waist and ran down the hallway. He could feel the heat on his heels–the fire was spreading quickly, first hitting the boxes of Georgia Pacific, then the walls and cabinets. A fire alarm pierced the ears. Zcheorg’s coworkers looked at each other worriedly.
“What is that?”
“Is there a way to turn that off?”
“Should we call HR about this?”
Zcheorg sat the young Steev on his desk, picked up his office chair and threw it through the window. Glass shattered, and seven hundred dollars of lifesaving ergonomic comfort flew onto the lawn just outside. “WOMEN AND CHILDREN,” Zcheorg shouted as he picked up Steev and carried him outside.
“George! I’m okay! I’m not a little kid, you can put me down!” Zcheorg dropped him next to the chair.
“WOMEN AND CHILDREN.”
Xiu-lee Krauv-nar screamed “There’s a fire! George, there’s a fire! …What happened to the window?” Zcheorg bundled her up, cradled her against his shoulder and ran out the window with her, dropping her next to the dazed-looking Steev, who was on his phone.
“Charles? Yeah, he’s going to have to call you back. The building’s on fire.”
People jumped through the open window and onto the grass. Xiu-lee looked up from where she lay. “Thanks, freak.”
Smoke began to seep through the top of the frame. Zcheorg watched it rise, crest the roof, and lean eastward with the wind.