Jerry cussed and hit the side of the copy machine. Jammed again. He opened the doors and yanked the stuck sheets out of the gears and pulleys.
“Hey, boss!” he called. Trent Fairheight gave him a look that said wait while he finished up with the sales guy, Simon Something-or-other. Jerry never could get their names straight. Not that he wanted to. They all knew these machines were utter crap, but that didn’t stop them from promising the customers the moon. Whenever he and the other guys reminded them of that, they blew them off. All they cared about was their damn commission.
“Why’d you stop working?” Renaldo called from a few machines over. He wore a grin that said he knew exactly what was going on.
“Just felt lazy,” Jerry said. “Like Micah over there.” Micah sat across the room performing quality control. He thumbed through each page of the originals and copies to make sure there were no missing pages or marks on the copies that weren’t on the originals. He wore his headphones, so Jerry figured he hadn’t heard. A quick flip of the bird proved he had. Jerry, Renaldo, and Chuck, who was in the back laminating something, all laughed.
“What’s the matter? Why aren’t you working?” Trent had come up behind him. When Jerry turned, he saw the boss didn’t have any humor in his eyes.
“Machines jammed,” Jerry said, pointing out the crumpled and mutilated papers lying on his work table. “Four times in less than ten minutes.” Jerry kept his voice even so as to not make waves. He knew Trent didn’t like him. Making copies eight hours a day didn’t pay well, but it was a paycheck. As long as Melissa’s job paid the rent, he’d be able to cover the bills and keep food on the table.
Trent looked at the papers and over at the machine and nodded. “Take your stuff to that machine in the back. You should be able to wheel your work table there with no problem.”
Jerry frowned. “The one by HR? There’re steps in the way. I can’t get the table down those.”
Trent shook his head. “No, the one in the empty warehouse. No stairs blocking you that way.”
“I didn’t know there was one in there. How come you’ve never sent anyone back there before?”
Trent shrugged and hurried back to the job board. Jerry looked over at the other guys and saw them all busy with their work. Intently. Like they’d heard the conversation and wanted no part of it.
Jerry gathered up his stuff and unlocked the table’s wheels. He yelled out goodbye to the group, but they ignored him. Strange. They were a tight group. Sure, they didn’t hang out outside of work or anything, but for those eight hours a day, they were a team. It was them against the machines; them against the sales force; them against Trent. They rallied around each other and picked up the slack when necessary. So the cold shoulders made no sense.
He knew the way to the abandoned warehouse, but he’d never been inside. It was left over from the days when Reese Copy Company manufactured machines instead of focusing on making copies for businesses and law firms. He’d asked why they let the area go to waste instead of finding something useful for it, but he’d never gotten a straight answer.
At the big double doors, a padlock hung on one of the doorknobs, and a large chain lay on the ground. How long ago had they given up locking it? Probably the only thing in there worth anything was the copy machine, and that was no doubt a piece of crap like all the others. Would he have to go back for toner? He’d brought a couple of reams of paper because there was no way there was any in the warehouse.
A gust of cold air assaulted him as he pulled the door open. Why in the world were they wasting air conditioning on this space? Had they recently started using it for something and not told him? Ha! Like they’d tell him anything. He was so low on the totem pole that he doubted anyone outside of production even knew who he was.
Jerry coughed a few times as he moved through the empty warehouse. It wasn’t something in the air, not really; it was like there was no air to breathe for a couple of seconds. A few deep breaths proved it fine now.
He spotted the office and headed towards it. He paused. Footsteps came from somewhere deeper in the large space. An echo from his steps? Yeah, that’s what it was. He pushed his stuff into the small office.
Other than two copy machines, the office was empty. There weren’t even any mats for him to stand on. He knew from experience that standing in one spot on hard linoleum caused havoc to the legs. He made that mistake once and vowed never to repeat it.
As he contemplated the mat situation, he spun towards the door. Someone had been standing there. He’d felt it. He rushed into the warehouse, but didn’t see anyone. There was nowhere to hide. Not that fast. But why would anyone watch him from the doorway without saying anything?
Jerry turned back to the machines. Both looked the same, so he chose the one on the left side of the room rather than the one along the back wall. That way he’d be able to keep an eye on the door. He shivered at nothing in particular, just the feeling in this space.
It took him a few minutes to ready the machine and set up his job. After the first twenty pages ran with no problems, he allowed himself to smile. Sure it was creepy back here, but he might have found the best machine in the building.
He got to a spot where he could run a bunch of pages without having to babysit it, so he looked around for a mat. After just these fifteen minutes or so, his legs were already starting to fatigue. He dropped to his hand and knees to check under the machines. Wouldn’t be the first time a mat had slid underneath. Instead he found something even more interesting. Neither machine was plugged in.
“What the hell?” He stood up and watched as his machine worked through the last few originals, spitting both them and the copies out. Had to be a mistake, right? Maybe the plug was from something else, or this particular machine had two power cords. He looked for the wall socket and found it bare.
As he stood there, the other machine roared to life. A single sheet flowed onto the output tray. He hesitated for a second before picking it up. Had to be an old invoice or something. When he flipped it over, there was one word typed in the middle: Hello.
This had to be a big practical joke. He set the paper on the machine and marched out into the warehouse, expecting to see Renaldo, Micah, and Chuck, maybe even Trent, standing there laughing at him. As he passed through the doorway, icy air assaulted him, so cold it almost knocked him to his knees. He stumbled and found himself alone.
Jerry almost left right then, but he couldn’t begin to imagine what the guys would say about that. Trent would probably even write him up for insubordination or some such bullshit. He moved his head from side to side to stretch his neck while he worked up the courage to go back into the little office.
The intense cold spot had moved on when he went back through the doorway. He contemplated plugging in his machine, but since it was somehow still on and working, he didn’t bother. The other machine started up again, and he picked up the page as soon as it popped out. This time there were two words printed in the middle: watch yourself.
He dropped the paper, not caring where it landed, and leaped back. Heavy footsteps sounded from somewhere in the warehouse. No chance they were his echo. Before he could bolt, a figure walked through the door. Jerry couldn’t see any details; it was nothing but a moving shadow. He couldn’t even tell if it was a man or woman. It walked straight for the machine on the back wall and disappeared into it.
The machine fired up, but instead of shooting out paper, another shadow figure flowed right from the output tray. A cry sounded out, and Jerry realized it’d come from him. The machine roared to life again, and another figure crawled out. This time the copier didn’t pause, but kept cranking out these dark figures.
He didn’t wait to see how many would pop out. He shoved his table at the group and ran from the room. He heard his assignment crash to the ground, probably ruining some of the originals, or at least mixing and bending them to a point where the customer wouldn’t be happy. Not that it mattered. He sure as hell wasn’t going back to fix it.
Jerry headed straight for the double doors, but when he got there, they were locked. No matter how hard he pushed or pulled, they wouldn’t budge. He turned, expecting to see the shadow figures coming at him, but the large room proved empty. He saw a door across the way he hadn’t noticed before. Maybe he could bust through that one.
He tried to stop himself, but as he passed the open office door, he looked inside. His copy job lay all over the floor. The machine along the back wall sat dormant, and he didn’t see anything else in there. He didn’t let that slow his pace. He needed out.
The back door was locked, too, but he could force it open. Before he leaned into it, a loud crash burst from the office. It repeated half a dozen times before he saw what it was. The copy machine moved from its spot on the back wall to the doorway. It couldn’t get through at that angle, but the fact that it had moved at all froze him where he stood.
The footsteps echoed through the warehouse, this time originating from the office. The machine’s lid lifted, and the light under the glass flashed brighter than should have been possible. Jerry barely managed to cover his eyes.
He put his shoulder into the backdoor, and it opened with no trouble. He stepped through and found himself right back in the warehouse, this time at the front double doors where he’d first come in. He frowned. Maybe there was a second warehouse? He looked back through the door and saw the copy machine, now silent, still blocking the office doorway. He went back into the new room and walked to the office just to see that it was different.
It wasn’t. The copy machine sat in the doorway, and his job was scattered all over the floor. He glanced to the backdoor and saw it stood open, just as he’d left it. He sprinted over to it and found himself in the warehouse, again by the front door. A quick exploration proved this space to be the same as the last two.
He had to get out. He made his way back to the original warehouse and the first set of front doors, which had been locked, but now stood wide open. He ran though and found himself by the backdoor again, looking into the office with the copy machine blocking the door.
“Hello? Help! Somebody help!” He got no answer, but continued yelling until his voice gave out. What else could he do? He wandered though copy after copy of the warehouse.
BIO: Eric J. Krause pens stories from Orange County, California, just minutes away from Disneyland. He has over two dozen short stories published in The Absent Willow Review, Trail of Indiscretion, Allegory, and Nocturnal Ooze, just to name a few. You can visit his website at http://ericjkrause.com.