Fiction

The receptionist

Lucy sat on a chair that used to swivel, behind a desk that once greeted hundreds of people. The building’s staff had been working from home for months. There was no one to notice whether the secretary was alive. Packages still came occasionally, and Lucy gnawed at their corners. She no longer needed sleep, and spent her nights under the desk or roaming the empty docklands. Trains still rattled past but even the homeless had been swept up by the government and tucked away in the city’s flickering towers to protect their lungs, brains and hearts.

Before dying, Lucy’s life had been quite stressful. It was simple now. No C-Suite executives to notice that her white shirt was smeared with blood or her pencil skirt fraying at the edges. The relentless calls to reception had stopped. Account managers booked their own meeting rooms and made themselves coffee. The only thing Lucy really had to manage was her persistent longing for flesh. It was a desire that buzzed away in the background, a static hum.

The pandemic meant the warm kept themselves out of reach, masked up and rarely moving about. Lucy spent her days wandering between the brightly lit levels of the bank’s office. Some workers had left their desks scattered with snacks and to-do lists, perhaps in denial of how long this thing would take to ride out. Others understood its severity up front. Their tidy desks had been slowly collecting dust since Lucy ate the cleaner. There was no one to submit a complaint. Just peace, dust and blood.

The fridges smelled like rotting low-fat milk. Laminated signs describing “office etiquette” were starting to peel off the walls. If a light bulb blew or flickered, Lucy let it strobe. She looked at herself in the mirror of an all-genders bathroom and felt nothing at all. Her lips were chapped, her hair frazzled, her skin pale. Name tag still on.

The doorbell rang and Lucy walked as fast as she could, arms out in front to receive the rare delivery of a parcel. This particular postman was savvy and threw the package through the sliding doors just as they began to crawl apart. Then he ran. She must have tried to eat him before. Lucy tore the thin, rippling plastic open with her claws, like a kitten with a new toy. Government posters about virus protocols fell to the floor. Lucy kicked them to one side and smelled the outside of the parcel that warm flesh had touched only moments before. Perhaps they would get closer next time if she wore a mask? As she dug her teeth through the cleaner’s skull, his hand had jerked up and lightly grazed her shoulder. It had been nice to be touched, albeit accidentally, as he died in her arms.

“Luuuuuuuucy,” she said aloud, to hear someone’s voice. She giggled at the echo. The huge lobby laid in marble for no one at all. Before she died, Lucy had been expected to remember close to 300 names: now the only name that remained was her own. Sometimes on her nightly walks she saw people locked up in quarantine hotels. They pressed their hands against glass windows in buildings surrounded by cops. She imagined those thick, white, sweaty palms might taste a bit like pork.

It was difficult to remember words and decipher the news, but a television in the staffroom remained on. The voice of the chief health officer rang out. Doing our best … All in this together … Six more weeks …Thirteen more deaths … Continue on the path … Two hours a day … Well deserved …

She considered eating pigeons but, in the end, decided to go without. After a time that was impossible to measure, the tone of the broadcasts began to change and sour. People, the anchors said, were at breaking point. Protests erupted in the city. Leaders were out of touch. A man came on the telly and yelled that taking away tearooms on construction sites was not practical, not everyone had the luxury of working from their lounge rooms. Others told stories about risking their lives or livelihoods to fight the plague and wanted some respite. Lucy blinked through crusty eyelashes at the spectacle. Her mouth watered as the men’s faces flushed red. Sweat, armpits, flesh bumping around.

After what may have been 24 or 48 hours, an army of men in high-vis vests began to march down Spencer Street. Lucy watched them step, one boot in front of the other, pumping blood around their bodies. One man threw a bottle at a television anchor.

She imagined biting the thick stubble of their chins, chewing off their ears and spitting out the earrings.

The glass doors to the office building parted smoothly. She stepped out, kitten heels broken and dragging along the ground. The first man she saw stared at the thin pale legs poking out beneath her skirt. He stopped shouting about his civil rights and shouted something at her. If he had instead stared into her eyes, maybe he would have seen his death bearing down on him. The fragmented tips of an old French manicure dug into his scalp.

Others looked on in horror. As the man drew his last breath, Lucy tilted his chin up. She smeared blood across his lips. From somewhere deep in her old self she heard the words, You look prettier when you smile. She pushed his head back, licked the edges of her palms and moved on to the next man.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "The receptionist".

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