Employers love quiet women because quiet women always respond to emails, don’t complain too bitterly when you cut their paid maternity leave in half and never ask for promotions. Erica certainly didn’t. But here she is, tugging at a hangnail in Mr. Fitzpatrick’s office while he tells her that there’s been a horrible accident- Craig fell while he was cleaning his gutters yesterday and it doesn’t look like he’s going to make it- so pack up your desk, you’re an Executive Accounting Assistant now.

Erica blinks. Grins, glossy lips parting to reveal neat little Chiclet teeth. Says “Yes, sir,” and “Thank you, sir,” before she hurries out of the room, leaving the little tab of skin from her thumb on the chair opposite his, her fingerprints on the glass door that maintenance just polished this morning.

Into the little brown box: The miniature zen garden her mother bought her, two framed pictures of herself, friends smiling in front of waterfalls, a calendar with each day marked off with neat little X’s, a mug with a smiling cat that she uses to hold her pens. Into the drawer of the desk: a fat, shiny gob of mucus coughed up quick and quiet. An elevator ride two floors up. Erica steps into the new office space. Open floor plan with crunchy blue carpeting the same color of the cans of her company’s best-selling legume and beige walls. She spots the empty desk in a cluster of cubicles tucked away in the top left corner of the office. Good, she thinks. Privacy. This floor is brighter than her old one, and the air smells less stale.

She’s tacking her calendar to the right of her computer when he taps her on the shoulder and says, “Excuse me, Erica?” She turns to find a man. On first glance, he is Elijah Wood, only younger and stockier. Black bangs that hang just above eyes light enough to give the effect of translucence. Hunched shoulders. A cluster of pimples at the left corner of his mouth, which opens when he says, “Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the Lead Administrative Coordinator here on Floor Seven. I’m here to show you around the office.” His pale eyes drink in the flat white of her face, long lashes coated in black mascara, stringy red hair. “Erica,” says Erica, flashing a grimace she hopes passes for a grin. It does.

“I know this has been kind of sudden for all of us,” says Nathan. “But welcome to the team.” He twitches his head to the right, starts walking that direction. Erica follows him across the floor, past other cubicle islands. Some of her new floor mates unstick their eyes from their computer screens long enough to watch her. Most remain glued to their screens, tapping erratically.

“Honestly, all of these floors look alike, but I still like getting to show the new guy, uh, girl, the ropes.” They walk down a hallway identical to the one two floors below while he points out the carbon copies of bathrooms and mailboxes. The hall terminates in a bleak little employee lounge with a fridge and an espresso machine. She opens the fridge. “Those cans of La Croix are for us,” says Nathan. “One of the, ah, perks of working on the seventh floor.” “Wow,” says Erica. “Now I know how the other half lives.” “That’s funny,” squeals Nathan. “I want to show you something.” He reaches into the fridge and pulls out a brown paper bag with a drawing of their company’s mascot (a certain anthropomorphized nut) with a bottle of beer in his gloved hand.

She crinkles her nose and lets out a bark of laughter. “We used to have this, mmm, huge lunch-stealing problem, so we all had to start labeling our bags. Drawing is kind of, ah, my hobby, so I do a new doodle every day. What do you think?” She hands the bag back to Nathan. “That sounds like it’s fun for you,” she says. “It’s important to have hobbies.” He tucks the bag back into the fridge and shuts the door. He leans on the fridge, using his hands to support him as he looks her in the eyes and asks, “What are yours?” Her mind flashes to all of the pieces of herself she has torn off or scratched off or smeared or dripped in her wake. Her colonies. Her satellites. She says, “I like biking.” Nathan grins. “Athletic,” he says. “I like that, uh, in a woman.”

Her first assignment pings into her inbox while she’s scrolling through her Pinterest dashboard. Lower lip sucked in between her teeth and worked like a tough piece of meat. She tastes copper, stops, pops in a piece of gum. Savoring the flavor of metallic spearmint. She makes a few calculations, plugs them into an Excel spreadsheet and sends it to the man sitting next to her. He leans over the partition between their cubicles to give her a thumbs-up. She gives a small smile in response so as not to split her lip.

After lunch, she is called into a meeting to discuss resource allocation. She watches the mouth of the gray-haired executive analyst open and shut as he speaks and imagines spitting in it.

Her quarterly project is sitting in her inbox when she returns to her desk- She’ll be delineating a series of Behavioral Directives for her supervisees. She opens a Word Document, centers and underlines “Behavioral Directives” at the top of the page and files it in her ‘Work’ folder. Types the word ‘shit’ thirteen times, closes the document, does not save the changes.

On the train ride home from work, Erica examines the architecture of her face in the reflection on the window. Someone has carved “CUNT” into the plexiglass where her nose would be. When she gets back to her apartment, she takes a long bath. She soaks, rakes her nails up and down her arms, legs and across her chest, wiping all of the dead skin that collects underneath them on the edge of the tub in little streaks of gray.

There is already a doodle waiting for her at her desk when she arrives the next morning. It is a picture of a girl on a bike with orange HI-LITE hair and big lips drawn on the back of a microwave burrito wrapper. Underneath the picture, there is a note in blocky script instructing her to be at the water cooler at 12:30 sharp. Erica picks up the wrapper and shoves it into the top drawer of her new desk.

She takes five slow, deep breaths, trying not to think about pale eyes crawling up and down her body. Rearranges the rocks in her miniature zen garden. Opens the top drawer and flattens the burrito wrapper against her mouse pad. She thinks about texting her mother, but remembers that her parents met when her father was practicing at a law firm with a certain strawberry blond secretary. Her mother isn’t the best person to ask about how to dodge a co-worker’s advances.

The carpet squeaks underneath her feet as she stalks over to the water cooler, crumpled wrapper in hand. Nathan is already there, filling up a paper cone. Fat air bubbles rise and burst as he downs the cone and then swoops in for another drink. When she gets closer to him, she sees that he is sweating. Beads of perspiration dotting his forehead, his upper lip. “I see you got my message,” says Nathan. “I was, uh, wondering if you’d like to take bike ride with me after work on Friday. There are a couple of, uh, neat trails along the lake, and I think it would be a great way to get to know you better.” His eyes shoot down to his shoes, then creep back up to her face, expectant. “I actually pulled this muscle in my hip yesterday,” says Erica. “I don’t think I’m going to be able to bike for a while.” She makes a mental note to walk a little more unsteadily for the next couple of days.

“Totally, uh, what do we have if not our health,” says Nathan. “What about a couple of drinks instead? I’m buying.” He twitches his eyebrows in a way that Erica is sure he thinks looks enticing. “I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” says Erica. Nathan’s cheeks blanche and the paper cone in his hand trembles. They stand in silence for half a minute. Nathan is a study in tight-lipped fury. Erica looks down at the burrito wrapper in her right hand and thinks about a particular patch of skin on her back that she wants to peel off. “I’m going to go back to my desk now,” says Erica. And she does.

She spends the rest of the morning in another meeting about the budget listening to another executive talk about another strategy for cutting the costs while improving the margins. She spends the rest of the morning in another meeting picking at a scab on the back of her knee until it bleeds. Then picking the scab that re-forms in its place. Then sticking them both on the underside of the conference room table.

Back at her desk, she clicks open ‘Behavioral Directives.’ Types: DIRECTIVE #1: Always be sure to keep your coworkers updated on what you need from them. Clear communication is key.’ Presses save, and spends the rest of the workday looking up crafty new ways to repurpose old t-shirts. She tries to slink out ten minutes early to avoid sharing the elevator. Only one person notices. One neck craning to follow her out, one hand scribbling something on a napkin as the crunching of her steps fades.

Erica is listening to her voicemail on the train home when she finds out that she is a Winner, and all she has to do to claim her Prize is to submit her Credit Card Information via email. Scrolls through her Twitter feed and reads an article about what to expect from the reboot season of Gilmore Girls. Reads another article about mummification practices in South America. Runs a finger underneath each eye to collect the mascara that has smudged and flaked from her now-nude lashes, then smears a black X onto the plexiglass. The train crawls forward, creaking and moaning as though this isn’t what it was built for. When she gets back to her apartment, she falls asleep in front of her television while watching a Say Yes to the Dress marathon.

Another doodle is waiting on her desk when she comes in the next morning. It is a picture of a girl with HI-LITE orange hair in a bathtub that looks just like her bathtub. By noon, she is on her third cup of coffee and there are granules of sand from her zen garden underneath her stubby fingernails. She taps her foot at her desk as she types an email to HR about the drawings, and the note underneath it in those same blocky letters: “HAPPY SOAKING.”

She checks her phone and finds three missed calls from an unknown number and a text from her mother asking about whether she’s coming home for Thanksgiving. Cancels a conference call and reschedules it for ten minutes later. Cracks all of her knuckles one-by-one and eats lunch alone in the back stairwell, ears perked up for the sound of footsteps. She shreds the tinfoil from around her sandwich and sprinkles it like confetti on the sixth floor landing before she heads back to her desk.

She takes forty-five minutes to formulate DIRECTIVE #2: Learn how to find your focus. Some great strategies for increasing concentration include eating breakfast in the morning, limiting your recreational ‘screen time’ to 30 minutes a day, and meditation. Swirls a pinky finger around in her left ear after she’s made sure nobody is watching and flicks the wax at the bulletin board in the employee lounge. It sticks.

At three-thirty she receives a response from HR, telling her that since there isn’t anything explicitly threatening in the note, or anything linking Nathan to it, there isn’t anything the department can do. Don’t worry, Erica, we’re holding a workshop about appropriate office conduct next week. Whoever is doing this will understand that this kind of behavior isn’t acceptable after they see the PowerPoint we’re cooking up! Erica stares at the screen, lips slightly parted. She wants to laugh, she wants to cry, but instead she reads an article about the benefits of bikram yoga and leaves a pile of her fingernails next to her mouse pad. A clump of red hair on the carpet by the water cooler, a dash of period blood on the seat of the only working toilet in the women’s bathroom. She checks the math on a series of receipts and dumps all of the data into another spreadsheet for the high-ups to go over in the exact same way. She eats a granola bar in three large bites and takes the stairs two at a time, snapping off the back of one of her kitten heels in the process.

She takes an Uber home and spends the ride imagining little versions of herself springing up from the all pieces of her body that she has plucked and piled and tucked away for later. Each with their own head of thin, red hair and their own urge to leave a trail of themselves behind like breadcrumbs wherever they go.

Erica closes her blinds when she gets back to her apartment, orders a pizza and screams into her pillow until her throat is raw and her tongue feels thick and dry inher mouth.

HI-LITE pigtails on a doll with her mouth sewn shut. No note this time. Erica tacks the picture on the wall of her cubicle next to her calendar, then goes to the bathroom and squeezes a blackhead out from the ridge where her nose meets her upper lip. Goes back to her desk and types two emails, fingers tapping urgent against her keyboard like she’s mashing them against the keys. She mashes them against the keys, deletes the long incoherent string, and presses send.

Her inbox pings, and she is presented with a series of graphs to label and color-code and a set of tax returns to comb over for errors. She does so while listening to a podcast about the evolution of tampons over the past hundred years.

Nathan is already at the water cooler when she arrives. He is pouting, which gives him the look and demeanor of an overgrown middle schooler whose Xbox has been confiscated. “If you’re expecting me to, uh, apologize for what I may or may not allegedly be doing, you can forget about it,” he hisses. She shows him her teeth like she is smiling. “Actually, Nathan, I wanted to apologize to you,” she says. “I should never have blown you off without getting to know you better. I’d love to grab a drink tonight- if you still want to, of course.” His mouth drops open, then shuts again. “My friends were telling me about this great little Italian place a few blocks from my apartment where we can grab dinner. Do you like pasta?”

She hopes she sounds convincingly cheery. She does. “I, uh, that sounds great,” he says. “I’m going to go back to my desk now,” she says. “Pick me up at 8? You know where I live.” She does not wait for his response before she turns to leave. All she hears in reply is the chugging of the water cooler as Nathan bends down to fill another paper cone.

The afternoon comes and goes quickly. She calculates last year’s profit margin. And recalculates it. She refreshes her email to find a follow-up from HR: Glad the situation has been resolved. Hope you have a wonderful weekend! All the while, some kind of itch inside her that she can’t pinch or pry out with her fingers or her teeth, some kind of churning in her stomach. It might be anticipation. Erica scrolls down her Facebook newsfeed and looks at a photo album of her high school sweetheart’s wedding. It is a little more than 200 pictures long. His bride is a brunette, and he has grown a beard to hide the sagging flesh under his chin. She rubs at a mole under hers.

DIRECTIVE #3 is an easy one. It is important to maintain cordial professional relationships, types Erica. After all, we’re all teammates. When “quittin’ time,” as designated by her jokiest cubicle neighbor, rolls around she is practically skipping out of the door. Nathan catches her eye conspiratorially as the door of the elevator she is in closes. She makes no attempt to hold it for him.

Nathan arrives outside her apartment at 8:00 sharp and rings the buzzer. She comes downstairs in a black pencil skirt and a white blouse with a bow on the collar. He is wearing the same button down and khakis he wore to work, but his hair has been combed and slicked back with some kind of gel. He offers her the crook of his elbow with a, “Shall we?” She takes it and nods.

The restaurant is dimly lit and their waiter speaks with a slightly Eastern European accent. Their dinner conversation is comprised mainly of Nathan’s recitation of his autobiography and Erica’s attentive affirmations. She furrows her eyebrows in sympathy when he recounts his failure to get into art school. She smiles encouragingly when he talks about his increasingly warm relationship with his father. He orders spaghetti Bolognese for both of them, but lets her order her own drinks. Encourages her to order more, even.

Nathan shatters a wine glass against the side of the table while trying to gesture emphatically, and she cuts her palm picking a piece out of the marinara sauce. He apologizes profusely while she watches the blood pool. “It’s fine,” she says. “It’s so fine.” She wipes her hand on the tablecloth, leaving a ruby streak that makes the elderly couple a table over shoot them disapproving looks. “Come over here,” Erica says to Nathan, liquor-infused warmth coloring her voice. He scoots to her side of the table and she cradles his head in her hand just long enough to ensure that when she pulls away his cheek is stained too.

They stumble out of the restaurant and into the black dark. “Let’s grab a drink at your place,” he smiles. “No no, my roommate, we’re having some painting done,” she says. “There’s… Fumes.” Nathan’s eyes go wide and he grabs her wrist. “You’re not trying to scam me for a free meal, are you? Girls think that just because-” She yanks her wrist back. “How about we head to yours?” she says.

A twenty minute train ride later, during which she repeatedly removes Nathan’s hand from her thighs, Erica is sitting on the pleather couch in a bigger apartment than she expected- “The Ol’ Bachelor Pad,” he giggled into the doorframe as he fumbled with the keys while she wound a loose thread from the sleeve of her sweater around and around her right index finger. Cutting off the circulation, turning white flesh tomato red. Glasses clinking together from the kitchen. Nathan drunk, humming. She closes one eye, then the other, trying to regain her purchase on reality. Peels at a corner of the pleather where the seams have begun splitting. “What did you say you wanted again?” he slurs. “Water would be fantastic,” she slurs back. “Fan-fucking-tastic.”

Erica gets up, walks down a hall lined with drawings. Some framed, some taped up, some scribbled directly onto the walls. She pushes open one door: closet. Next, the bathroom. Stares at her own face in the grubby mirror and urges herself to do it.

Erica braces her hands on either side of the sink, heedless of the little hairs sticking to them. She wants to do something evocative, like rip out a tooth, but none of them seem loose no matter how hard she tugs. And she tugs hard. She settles, weighs her options. Erica gags one, twice, and then: Release. The contents of her stomach (two mozzarella sticks, four cranberry vodkas and those thick ropes of spaghetti) splash into the basin and onto the carpet. Her shoes are coated, but she doesn’t care.

She wipes her mouth on the back of her hand, her hand on Nathan’s shower curtain. Takes out a tube of bright red lipstick from her pocket and scrawls ‘HAPPY SOAKING’ with an arrow pointing to her own vomit. Wipes a half-print of her palm blood on the mirror for good measure. Exits the bathroom, surging down the hallway trailing stinking fingers over the walls, staining drawings, and calls into the kitchen, “I’m sorry, my roommate just called and our cat, she’s missing, I’ve got to go!” She slips out of the apartment before he can mewl in protest.

Erica laughs in staccato bursts the whole train ride home and leaves her vomit-stained shoes on the seat when she reaches her stop.