Knox woke up in a box.
<<No, this isn’t a Dr. Seuss story.>>
He could tell because it was a dim, enclosed space, with only a few weak shafts of light filtering in. The air smelled distinctly of musty cardboard, and heaven knew the only place where such an odor might pervade is the inside of an old box.
<<Not that he would know, of course.>>
Rubbing his forehead bemusedly, Knox tried to make sense of everything that had passed, and everything that had not yet happened, and….whatever this whole waking-up-in-a-box-situation was all about.
Speaking of which--
“What time is it?” he wondered aloud. He checked his wrist, but his watch had mysteriously disappeared. The irony of the situation was not lost on him; normally, he was the one ridiculing others when they had the audacity to misplace their belongings. “Things cannot be lost if they are always put in their place,” was one of Knox’s many maxims. Except clearly this was no longer true.
Nevertheless, he had a meeting at 9:00 sharp and attendance was mandatory...as was punctuality (another of his catchphrases).
So, it looked like his first task was to find a way out of this box. Funny, it didn’t seem to actually have an exi--
BWEEP bip bip BWEEP.
<<It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait, no, it’s a bee!>>
<<Or...none of the above.>>
Knox jumped at the sudden noise, realizing with a start that it was coming from his coat pocket.
What on earth…?
It seemed to be an alarm, but Knox knew for a FACT that he would never have set such an obnoxious sound as his ringtone.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out an ancient relic. The sight brought back distant childhood memories of a similar apparatus, and with some effort, he remembered the name: a n-n-nose-nope-noke-Nokia! Seriously? He hadn’t seen a Nokia in years. He assumed that they had all been rounded up and toted off to some radioactive landfill where they would refuse to decompose till the end of time… and then continue to float in space after earth was gone, along with all of the excess uranium. Where had his custom, top-of-the-line UniverseX gone?
<<O where, O where has my little dog gone? O where, O where can it be?>>
Reluctantly, he answered the phone.
A pleasant female voice intoned: “Good morn.. err… Welcome to The Afterlife Waiting Center. Please walk down the hallway and enter the door to your right.”
Terrible customer service, after this wait. Unacceptable. Hold on... What hallway? The afterlife? This must be another ridiculous prank call. Turning around, however, he discovered that the box’s area had expanded by at least 30 yards. Contrary to the given instructions, though, the door was not on the right. It was about 15 yards away, on the LEFT side of the hall. Hmph. Inaccurate and unreliable instructions as well.
Hmph. An extended wait, a long walk, no chairs, and a customer service representative who clearly needed to be fired.
Well, he clearly had no choice, and the sooner he made his way out of the fun house he woke up in, the sooner he could get back to his regular routine.
He reached for the door handle.
At the same instant, the door was pushed open from the other side by a very harried-looking woman with disheveled blond hair, dressed in a neon green blazer and pale vermillion pencil skirt. She looked a bit like a watermelon slice, Knox thought, before chiding himself mentally for forming such a rude opinion about someone he didn’t even know.
“Oh… OH… you’re here…HI!” she stuttered, before letting out a nervous giggle. She made a halfhearted attempt to brush wisps of blond hair out of her face, but the strands merely fell right back into their original position.
“Ahemm… My name is Elaine. I’m new here, as you can probably tell,” she added sheepishly, before catching herself and adopting a more professional tone. “Right this way, right this way.”
She turned around and started down the long hallway behind her. Knox paused for a moment before he followed. Perhaps she had read a newspaper with a feature on him?
The hallway seemed endless with doorways on either side. Upon closer inspection, Knox realized the doors were actually thin sheets of swirling color akin to spilled oil.
“That was quite an embarrassing way to die,” she announced noncommittally. “I mean, this may only be my first day, but I declare that you might very well be the highlight of my career! Nothing unusual about the coup de grace-- just a simple head injury--but that video of you falling in slow motion while your friend— DT, was it?-- zooming around the room was just HILARIOUS.”
He was dead? He didn’t feel dead, and besides, he couldn’t be dead. His company needed him. Something tugged at the edge of his conscience.
[FLASHBACK] Bzzt. Bzzt. Is it lunchtime already? Knox thinks to himself. He glances at his watch, and sure enough, the clock hands indicate that it is precisely 12:30 AM. He has been working for a solid four hours, though it feels like barely twenty minutes have passed since he arrived at the office this morning. “Well, you know how it goes: time flies when you’re having fun,” he says to himself. He reaches over to silence his still-vibrating phone, pausing briefly to set another alarm, this one due to go off at twelve fifty-five. Yes, that should allow sufficient time for him to finish his meal, giving him an extra five minutes in case some unexpected circumstance should arise and cause him to be slightly behind schedule. Not that he’s ever been late, of course. Knox rises smoothly from his chair and heads toward the breakroom, where he can properly attend to the matter of lunch. Two and a half minutes later, Knox returns to his cubicle, bearing a spoon, a fork, and a stainless steel thermos which contains his noontime meal. He carefully clears a space on his desk before setting down his food, making sure that there are no documents out in the open, lest he leave stains or spill water on any important papers. Then, taking a forkful of pasta salad, Knox moves to stand before the miniature holographic display on the opposite wall. His fingers fly over the virtual keypad, and in between bites of pasta, he resumes his work. Immersed as he is in the fascinating realm of computer algorithms and optimization analysis, Knox is more or less oblivious to his surroundings. After an indefinite period of time, a strange creaking noise penetrates his consciousness, breaking his focus. Annoyed, Knox looks up from the screen--and realizes that there is now another person in his cubicle. This person, unsurprisingly, is none other than DT, the eager and extroverted Filipino who has just recently graduated college...and who also happens to be the company’s newest recruit. On more than one occasion, Knox’s colleagues have gushed praise for the young man’s quick mind and overflowing exuberance. It is clear that all of them, especially the women, see DT’s youthful vitality as a refreshing break from the mundanities of everyday officework. Knox, on the other hand, thinks that DT is an unnecessary distraction--a good-natured, well-meaning one, to be fair, but a distraction all the same--who serves little purpose except to decrease the company’s overall productivity. Ironically enough, though, DT seems to idolize Knox (much to the latter’s exasperation) and has taken to doggedly following him around the workplace. Which might have been flattering, had the kid been a little more sensible and down-to-earth and just generally less of a bother. At present, DT is zooming about Knox’s small cubicle in a swivel chair, using his hands and feet to propel himself from wall to desk and back again. (Hence the creaking noise that drew Knox’s attention.) The swivel chair in question is a Herman Miller Embody, a top-of-the-line model that had cost Knox a small fortune--seriously, he spent three months saving up to buy that chair. It is Knox’s pride and joy, and he always takes great pains to keep it in pristine condition. Only--now it has been reduced to a plaything at the hands of this spontaneous young man who has such irritatingly high spirits all. The. Time. Gritting his teeth, he demands, “What on Earth do you think you’re doing?!” DT pauses in his spinning and meets Knox’s angry gaze, bemused. After a beat of silence, he appears to decide that there is nothing to fear and instead smiles brightly at his superior, answering: “Just strengthening my creativity, sir!” “You ought to try it, too,” DT adds, “it’s great fun.” Then his face lights up as he is struck by a sudden idea. “I can teach you! Here, you take this--” with a quick push, he sends Knox’s prized office chair rolling jerkily in his direction “--and I’ll go find another. Just wait here for a moment!” And before Knox can so much as get a word in, DT has dashed out, presumably in search of another chair. Muttering to himself about “irresponsible college kids” and “bad parenting,” Knox wheels his Embody back to the desk. Not for the first time, he wishes that his cubicle had a door, to keep unwelcome visitors from barging in. Maybe then he could actually get some peace and quiet. Knox makes a mental note to add “door” to his Amazon Prime wishlist, before shifting his focus back to the task at hand. Sighing, he takes a seat in his chair--which, he thinks, with a twinge of vexation, feels decidedly more battered than it did just yesterday. All he can do now is hope that DT has gotten distracted in his chair-hunt, giving Knox a little bit of time to recover. No such luck, it seems. Knox hears the sound of the chair long before it comes into view, its wheels making an obnoxiously loud rumbling sound as it approaches. Pulling it along is DT, who catches Knox’s eye and breaks into a wide grin, yelling “I found one!” as he points to the chair. Knox turns away, hoping futilely that if he ignores DT, pretends that he doesn’t exist, maybe the kid will finally get the message and leave him alone. Knox leans forward over his desk, pretending to be engrossed in reading the papers lying spread-eagled before him. Belatedly, he realizes that the pages are all upside down, and heat rises to his cheeks. He moves to turn them right side up as discreetly as possible, praying that DT doesn’t notice. Whatever you do, don’t look up, he thinks to himself. Pretend you can’t hear the chair, can’t hear his voice, don’t know who he is… Intent as he is on feigning obliviousness, Knox doesn’t notice that DT has stopped a few meters away, backing up a little, before taking a running leap onto the chair. Nor does he look up in time to recognize the impending danger that manifests itself in the form of DT on a rolling chair, speeding directly toward him. He only hears the shout, “Look--it’s like bumper cars!” Knox’s head snaps up in alarm, but he’s half a second too late--both boy and chair crash headlong into him--he’s knocked flying from his chair--his skull hits something hard--a white-hot, searing pain floods his senses--and then--nothing. He’s out, out like a light. <<One might even go so far as to say that Knox KNOCKS himself out….okay, I’ll leave now.>> [END FLASHBACK]
“Well then, here we are!” the woman trilled, stopping in front of the door. “This is my first time doing this— I watched the orientation video though, don’t worry— but these things are quite difficult, you know. Actually, I suppose you wouldn’t know. Anyways, I’ll just nudge you in the right direction here…”
With that, she gave Knox an abrupt shove, sending him lurching through the doorway...and then he was falling through empty air, falling to a certain death.
<<except….was it even possible to die a second time…? o_O>>
“Don’t worry!” she called cheerfully after him, “You’ll be a great guardian angel!”