The Box, by Charlie Hughes

Mark sauntered over to Jenny’s desk at the usual time. Raj and Elinor both saw him, took the cue and rose to join them. They all watched from behind a row of filing cabinets.

Robert worked across to the other side of the open plan office. He tidied away his lunchbox, unlocked his desk and took the little box out of his top drawer.  His large, bald head  wobbled slightly, as if it might topple off his neck.

“Heeeerrre he goes.” Mark whispered. The others chuckled.

“Why does he do it?” Jenny asked.

Elinor screwed up her face. “Because he’s a fucking weirdo.” More tittering.

Robert carefully placed the small metal box on the desk, took a key from his pocket and turned it in the tiny padlock. He did not open the box completely, but gently lifted the lid just an inch or two and lowered his head, peering through the gap.  As always, a tiny, satisfied smile crept onto his lips. His eyes widened and he gave a satisfied nod. He held the pose for a few seconds longer, then shut the lid and put the box back in its drawer.

“What is that all about?” Raj asked.

Jenny turned back to her desk, gently brushing Mark’s leg as she did so. “Whatever’s in that box, he’s obsessed.”

“I’m going to ask him.” Mark said. They all turned to him. “I’m going to ask him straight out. I’ve got to know what he’s up to.”

“Ahhhh. Leave him be Mark. It’s not worth it.”

But Mark was already gone, striding across the office. When he arrived at Robert’s desk, he stood over his colleague’s shoulder and waited for him to turn round.  Robert’s gaze remained fixed on his monitor.

“Robert.”

A jolt seemed to go through Robert’s body. He span around and looked up at Mark.

“Ayah” He said, as if he couldn’t quite decide between “hey” and “hi”.

“I’ve got a question for you, Rob. Well, a few of us have.” Mark nodded over to the others, who quickly ducked back behind the filing cabinet.  Robert saw them and frowned.

“What? Is there a problem with the reports?” His voice was thin, reedy. “I triple check them you know.”

Mark smiled, tilting his head to a precise angle so that Jenny could see his face.  “No Rob, it’s not about the reports. Nobody reads the reports.”

“But Mr Zeltzer says the monthly revenue monitoring reports are very . . .”

“It’s not the reports, Rob.  It’s the box.”

“The box? What box?”

“Oh c’mon! The box you look in everyday, after lunch. The box that you keep in your top drawer.”

Robert sat there, staring up at Mark, unable to compose himself. His head was wobbling again.

“What’s in the box, Rob? I wanna know. We all wanna know.”

“I… I, I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.  I would rather keep office chat to work related matters, if you don’t mind.”

“You brought it into work. Not me.”

“Just, just leave me alone please.”

“I will. When you tell me what’s in the box.”

Robert drew himself up in his chair. “No.”

Mark tapped his temple with his finger. “There’s something wrong with you.”  For a full five seconds they stared at each other, then Mark turned and walked back to the others.

###

Staff were mandated to attend the Christmas Party.  Despite this, most people enjoyed themselves drinking cheap alcohol and dancing to terrible music in the building’s atrium.  Jenny and Mark alternated between talking and dancing with each other all night. Eventually, towards the end of the party, Raj and Elinor joined them at the edge of the dance floor. They shouted over the music.

“There he is.” Elinor pointed over to the corner of the room. “He’s been sitting by himself all night.”

Robert had been nursing the same plastic cup of orange juice since the start of the party.

“You know what we should do?” Jenny said. The others looked at her, bemused. “We should go upstairs and take a look in his box.”

Mark instantly grinned. “Let’s do it!”

Raj was holding his hands up, shaking his head. “Naaaa. Don’t be silly. That’s theft. There’ll be trouble.”

Elinor hopped with excitement. “I’m in. Don’t be a fucking chicken, Raj.”

Mark, Elinor and Jenny were already backing away to the lifts, beckoning Raj to join them. He waved them away and went back to the dance floor.

When they reached the fourth floor, they tumbled out of the lift, drinks still in their hands and stumbled into the office.

“How we getting into the drawer?” Jenny asked.

“I’m gonna smash it open,” Elinor replied, laughing hysterically. “I’m gonna smash it real good.”

“These desks are cheap as shit,” Mark said. “All we need is steady hand.”  He found a paper clip on an adjoining desk, unbent it and then formed a small hook to the end. Then he knelt in front of the drawers and inserted it into the lock.  He moved it around for a few seconds, then there was a ‘click’. He pulled the drawer open.

“You’ve done that before!” Jenny was smiling at him. Mark didn’t answer. He reached inside and pulled out the box.

Elinor did a little dance of delight, then stopped abruptly.  “Okay genius, how we gonna open the padlock?”

Mark picked the box up in one hand, held it to his ear and shook.  “Odd.”

“What?” Jenny asked.

“I thought I heard . . .”

Jenny heard the change in his voice. “Heard what?”

“Nothing.  Let’s, let’s just get it open.” He walked around the desk and picked up a paperweight, and returned to the box.  He held the padlock over the edge of the desk and slammed the weight down onto it. The padlock snapped off with ease.

There was no laughing now.  Jenny, Elinor and Mark all stood back from it, a pace or two, a question hanging in the air.  Jenny was the first to ask it: “Who’s going to open it?”

Mark was quick to answer, maybe too quick. “It was your idea.”

Elinor didn’t want an argument. “Let’s do it together.”

They agreed without speaking. Each of them stepped forward and each placed a hand on the lid of the box.  In unison, they lifted it, opening it wide so they could see everything inside.

At the entrance to the office, Robert stood and watched.

###

There were still two working days before Christmas.  On the Monday morning after the party, Elinor, Jenny and Mark were seated at their desks as usual. When Raj arrived, he turned on his PC and paced around his desk to see Mark.

“Hey man! What was in it? Did you get a look?”

Mark looked up, his face impassive.  “Did I get a look in what?”

“The box, dufus? What was in Robert’s box?”

Mark just looked at him blankly. His eyes flicked to his left, across the office. “I need to work.”

Confused, Raj immediately glanced over at Elinor and Jenny.  They were already watching him, both with the same blank expression.  He went over to Elinor, calculating that she, of any of them, would be the one to talk.

“Hey Els, What was in the…”

“I’m working. You should too.”

He gave a nervous laugh, then waited for her to continue, expecting the punch-line. Elinor went back to her screen and Raj was left standing there, unsure if he should try again. He moved towards Jenny, but she was already walking across the office.

When she reached Robert’s desk she leaned into him and whispered something in his ear.  Robert turned and stared over at Raj, then said something to Jenny.

She smiled, stood up, took Robert’s head in her hands and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.

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