“Birthday Girls,” edited by Kat Howard, is published exclusively for Patreon patrons, August 2016. Photo credit: Citona Marie Rygg.
Corporate worked on the ninth floor. The secretaries worked on the eighth floor. There were seven floors below them, all empty, which Frieda knew because she’d scouted them for candy bowls on day one, and found none.
The morning of her birthday, Frieda arrived at work before any of the other secretaries. She ducked into her cubicle and scanned it for any birthday paraphernalia. But there were no flowers, no silver pillow balloons, and no cards propped up on her keyboard. She sighed in relief. No one knew it was her birthday. She was a very private person.
Frieda drew a curtain across her cubicle opening and sat down. She depressed the little green button of her computer. While it warmed up, she took off her coat, undercoat, scarf, hat, mittens, earmuffs, and balaclava, and hung them on pegs in descending order. She wrung her wrists to get the blood flowing. She was very tall, so thawing was a long process. Her tallness marked her apart, as did her accent. Her fellow secretaries would corner her and ask her about her native Norway (are there windmills? tulips? communists?), until Frieda edged away, nodding and smiling.
Frieda glanced at the clock. 6:54am. The other earlybirds didn’t usually come until 7:00am, so she had a few minutes.
Time for the first expedition.
She got up from her swivel chair, which yawed in a circle below her.
She was so tall she could see over the top of her cubicle into the grid of all the other cubicles. In another hour, it would be full of secretaries murmuring on the phone to other secretaries, snug in their nests of seasonal garlands.
Frieda swept her curtain aside and made her way to the wide central aisle. At the potted plant, she took a right, walked down a corridor, turned left at the bulletin board, then took another right. At the end of that corridor was a door of frosted glass with a nameplate that read:
And outside the door was an enormous bowl of candy.
There were chocolate footballs, peanut butter cups, and fez-shaped caramels, all wrapped in foil of seasonal colors: red, green, gold. Frieda gazed down at them, wavering in place. She could smell the chocolate through the foil. She liked to imagine that Mrs. Gruber dropped this candy at the end of every workday in preparation for the next, like a hen laying eggs.
Frieda scooped up two handfuls of candies—not too many, so they wouldn’t be missed; five in one hand, seven in the other—and released them into her pockets. She hovered at the bowl a moment longer, wondering if she should take more while she had the chance, but she told herself be reasonable and began the journey back.
Only once she was safe back in her cubicle did the candies see light again. They fell from her open hands: an excellent harvest. She separated them by kind, and then again by color. Doing so calmed her. She arranged them in a circle, as in a compass, and began to eat her way in a clockwise direction, starting at due north. The first candy was a fez-shaped caramel wrapped in bright ruby foil—how indulgent, to begin the circle with a caramel instead of end with one!—but it was her birthday after all, and this was a day to mix up the routine, to surprise herself. She turned the caramel upside down and loosened the matted foil on the bottom; extraction without destruction was part of the ritual. When the foil was loose enough, she drew up the caramel as if drawing a grub from its molting, and pressed it to her tongue, and moved it in tiny circles with her fingertip, until she felt the bottom begin to melt away.
There was a knock on her cubicle wall.
Frieda jumped and spat out the caramel and dropped a binder on the rest of the candy with a muffled thunk.
Hello? she said, coughing.
A golden-ringed hand drew the curtain aside. Two squinting eyes peered in.
Frieda, a voice rasped.
Oh hi, Jewel. Frieda coughed one last time, swallowed her chocolate-flavored saliva, then folded her hands in her lap. You’re here so early. Can I help you?
Can I come in, Jewel said. Her voice was naturally raspy, like the sound cats made when they were trying to produce a hairball. Frieda thought it polite not to ask why.
Sure, said Frieda. She nudged her trashcan out of sight; it was full of denatured candy wrappers.
Jewel came in and leaned her bottom against the file cabinet. She wore a red cardigan stitched with white snowflakes.
How are you, said Jewel.
I’m fine, thank you, said Frieda. How are you?
Not great. I wanted to talk to you. Because you’re the only other foreigner here.
You’re a foreigner?
Canada. I’ve told you that.
I’m never going back.
Why did you leave Norway?
Frieda squirmed. She didn’t know how to talk about it.
She said, I wanted to start over.
Jewel nodded. Do you like it here?
Frieda picked at her skirt. Yes, so far, she said, not looking up.
Well that’s good, said Jewel. But I think it’s cold in here. Too cold.
I thought you were from Canada.
Why do you think I left?
Oh, said Frieda. But then why did you come to Alaska?
Jewel fidgeted, shifting her butt against the file cabinet. I thought it’d be warmer here, she said. But it’s the same everywhere. I bet it’s the same in Norway, too. I know. I don’t even have to ask you. It’s the same old bullshit. Every day you find yourself back at your desk somehow. You know, when I took this job, how long I told myself I’d be here?
How long has it been?
There was another silence.
I think, said Jewel, that they’re turning down the heat.
Jewel stabbed her finger up.
Jewel hunched and gave her an evil look. Ssshhh! They could be listening.
Frieda covered her mouth with her hand. Sorry, she whispered, between her fingers.
I think the Senior Secretary is in on it, too.
Yep. She likes to watch people, haven’t you noticed?
Frieda felt uneasy, thinking of the candy bowl. No, she said.
Well, I have. I think Gertrude knows I’m cold and she keeps the heat low deliberately so she can watch me shiver. Don’t you feel cold? I feel cold. I feel colder all the time. I think they’re turning down the heat a half a degree every day. I put in a request to Facilities for a thermometer to put in my cubicle and I never got a reply so you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to bring one in of my own. So I can prove it.
Jewel stood up on tiptoe and looked around. Anyway, I gotta go, she said. But don’t tell anybody what I told you.
She slipped outside.
Frieda leaned over and drew the curtain close again. She turned back to her desk and lifted up the binder. Her carefully placed candies were now flattened discs, chocolate and foil intermingled, everything ruined.
By 10:00am, all the secretaries had settled in at work. The air hummed with the purring of phones and the patter of keys.
Frieda was almost recovered from the morning’s debacle. She tried not to feel angry at Jewel for ruining her birthday. She reminded herself it had only begun. She made some copies. She mailed some documents. She faxed a dietary request that specified No refined sugar. Upon reading the words, her heart beat a little faster.
Frieda glanced at her watch. It was almost time for her second daily expedition. She tapped her foot, waiting for the fax to go through, then grabbed the sheet hot from the tray and folded it under her arm. There was only a short window of time when the candy bowl in the far northwest corner of the building was unwatched. Frieda was already two minutes late. She strode forward and kept her head down, to discourage approach from other secretaries adrift on errands of less purpose.
Again she swerved onto the main aisle. Good morning, Frieda! someone called, and Frieda lifted her head and smiled sideways at the salutatory party, then strode on. There were more secretaries out and about. More than usual, it seemed. The aisle had become crowded with clusters of them.
Frieda took the last corridor, then rounded the last corner. A second too late, she registered another body hurtling around the same corner, and the two collided and recoiled like bumper cars.
Oh! the woman shrieked, and her coffee surged out of its mug.
Frieda’s heart sank. It was Gertrude, the Senior Secretary. What was she doing all the way over here in this quadrant?
Well hello, Frieda! she said. How nice to see you here!
It’s good to see you too, said Frieda, shifting her weight to appear casual. She’d have walked on, but the circumstance of their near-collision now demanded an engagement beyond pleasantries.
Can I help you find something? said Gertrude. I know you’re still getting your feet around here and I want you to feel welcome.
Frieda did a quick calculation in her head. Either invent a professional need of some kind, or be honest and take the candy. But she hated being watched. Especially after what Jewel had said that morning.
I just came for a little—
Gertrude followed her gesture toward the candy bowl. Oh, yes! she said. That’s what it’s there for, just a little sweetness for your day, just like the bowl outside my door! Help yourself!
I will, said Frieda.
But she didn’t want to move. She wished Gertrude wasn’t standing there. She’d be able to take far less than she usually did. How could Frieda explain that she needed far more than what she was expected to take?
Frieda moved over to the table. The bowl was full of peanut M&Ms. She only took one of each color. Her hands shook. If she wasn’t being watched, she’d take more. She’d take half the bowl. She’d wanted to redeem the disaster of that morning but now this was all going wrong, too. Her birthday was horrible so far. She could feel Gertrude’s eyes on her back, unblinking.
I hardly ever see you, said Gertrude loudly, Being in that little cubicle of yours, behind that curtain! You might as well still be in Norway!
Frieda wished Gertrude would keep her voice down. But she turned around and nodded in an semi-apologetic way.
Gertrude stared at her hand. Aren’t you going to eat them?
Frieda was incredulous. This couldn’t get worse. Her joy from sugar was personal, private. But she put one M&M in her mouth to placate her, and tried to smile as she crunched it between her molars, like a savage.
Gertrude seemed to relax, watching her. There you go, she said in a dreamy voice. We want you to feel welcome here, and the candy bowls are part of that. Did you know that we have a birthday today?
Frieda’s eyes went wide, and terror clambered up her throat like a wild animal.
Mine! Gertrude said. It’s mine!
Oh! Frieda nodded, breathing deep, telling her body to stand down and disperse the adrenaline. I didn’t know that. Happy birthday, Gertrude.
We’re having a little celebration in the ninth floor lobby at lunchtime. Sponsored by Corporate. I ordered cake! Everyone likes cake. I’ll see you there, all right?
Frieda bobbed her head. Okay, sure, maybe, she said.
Gertrude made a show of punching her waist with her fist, like a mother scolding her child. Maybe? she said. We all need a little rest and relaxation sometimes! And what better way to do it than with delicious cake? If you like candy, then you must like cake!
Frieda nodded again in a way she hoped looked more reassuring. Okay, we’ll see how much work I can get done before then. Definitely. Okay.
Gertrude swatted her hand in the air. Oh, I won’t hardly get any work done today, she said. It’s my birthday!
Frieda had been edging away this whole time, nodding at everything, wanting to stone Gertrude with the M&Ms for detaining her, but instead she said, Yes, I know, it’s so exciting, okay!
Okay! Gertrude called after her, waving.
Frieda headed back to her cubicle, speed-walking, flush-faced.
Of course Frieda had had no intention of attending the “little celebration.” Office birthday parties were her idea of Hell. An enormous sheet cake was brought out, and all the secretaries sang the birthday song, and the birthday girl had to cut it and serve each person, each one of whom specified loudly that they wanted a middle piece, no, no, much smaller than that, because no one wanted to be the one who claimed the corner piece, and then they would move away from the cake, eating their tiny squares with plastic forks, and once they were done with their piece they’d hover near the cake and urge each other to have another.
Go ahead, have some more!
Not for me, I’m full!
That’s too bad!
Look at the little rosettes they made!
They did a good job with it, didn’t they!
That’s some good cake!
Well why don’t you have some more?
Not for me, I’ve got to watch the calories!
Oh, live a little!
Easy for you to say!
Frieda hated it. She hated the way they treated sugar, no matter what form it came in. That’s why she ate hers alone. Of course she would eat some, but it would be in private, later, when everyone was in a meeting, or had left for the day, and she could take it from the fridge without anyone seeing or commenting. But in the midst of that vile masquerade? Impossible.
Frieda’s thoughts were interrupted by a rising, shuffling, squeaking sound.
She looked up. A phalanx of secretaries was rounding a bend of the main aisle. All of their outfits were slightly altered from business casual. Instead of flats, they wore sneakers. Their collars were unbuttoned and their sleeves were rolled up. They were a wave of pumping elbows, jack-in-the-box clowns lurching side to side.
Keep going ladies! called a woman at the front. We can do it!
Frieda pressed herself to the wall. The sea of secretaries broke past her, after which Frieda stepped out into the middle of the aisle to watch their rears disappear around the bend. In their wake, there was silence.
There was a furtive movement in Frieda’s peripheral vision. It was Jewel, who made eye contact, then mimed elbows pumping, then pointed to herself, then hugged herself as if to warm herself, and mouthed, COLD. Then she pointed down the aisle to where the secretaries had disappeared. And then she herself disappeared back into the warren.
Frieda herself did not feel cold, but wished that someday, Jewel would get warm.
Frieda made her way back to her own cubicle, and then was startled to see Gertrude standing outside it, as if waiting for her.
She ducked behind a partition, heart pounding.
What was going on? How had Gertrude gotten over here so fast? Did she want to press her invitation to the office birthday party? Did she want to watch her eat the rest of her M&Ms? Or had she finally figured out who’d been taking so much candy, every day, more than any one person should take, and wanted to talk to her about it? She couldn’t bear to have that conversation.
Frieda thought fast. She could go to the bathroom and wait there awhile. It was her other safe haven.
She doubled back and slipped through the warren and made it into the bathroom. As soon as she was inside, the temperature increased by ten degrees. The bathroom was the hottest part of the building. There were baskets of lotion set beside each sink, smelling of apple cider and roses. Frieda felt at peace.
She entered the farthest stall and sat down on the toilet. She felt the cool water through her polyester skirt. But she hadn’t come to pee. She’d come to escape Gertrude; moreover, she still had her M&Ms. She squeezed her thighs together, dug into her pocket, and let the M&Ms fall into her lap. The shells had melted a little but could still be salvaged. Frieda licked her palms. Should she start with the red one or the brown one? Today was her birthday; today was a day to mix things up, to surprise herself. No one could disturb her now. Her breathing slowed. She prodded them apart and then lined them up in the crevice of her legs, ready for eating.
Is that you, said a voice.
Frieda jumped, then snapped her thighs back together. The M&Ms all plopped into the toilet water. She could have screamed in frustration.
But instead she forced her voice to be calm and said, Hello?
It’s you, rasped the voice. I knew it was you.
Yeah, it’s me. We’re alone, but keep your voice down.
Frieda stayed silent. She stared down at the M&Ms, now bleeding trails of dye in the toilet water. She wanted them back. She wanted to eat them, to consume them entirely, to push them up further between her legs, all the way up.
Can I tell you something? whispered Jewel.
Okay, said Frieda.
It’s my birthday.
It’s my birthday.
I didn’t know that.
You’re the only one I’m telling. I trust you.
Because you’re a foreigner.
I come here all the time, said Jewel. At least three times a day, about the same time, when no one will miss me. I just come here and I sit and I warm up and I think. It’s warmer in here. Can’t you feel it? I just come here and I sit on the toilet and I think about getting warm. Like, really warm. Like sitting close to a hot fire, or even curling up in an oven and closing the door and getting baked. That’s what I really want. But I feel like, if I told anyone that, they’d think I was crazy. You know?
Frieda did know. In listening to her, she forgot all about the M&Ms.
She knew exactly what Jewel meant.
Jewel? she said.
Frieda took a deep breath and said, I left Norway because once, at my job there, they held an office birthday party for me with a sheet cake in the shape of the Norwegian flag, and I took a piece from the corner, actually it was the whole lower left red quadrant, and ate it, and then I went for seconds, for a section of the blue-and-white cross, because I was still hungry, but by then all the secretaries were staring at me like I was crazy, and one of them was crying, and another one was comforting her, and I left and never went back, and I know I’m not crazy, but that’s how I feel, all the time, like everyone else will think I am. No one can understand how much sugar I can eat. It scares them. But Jewel?
Frieda smiled at the stall wall and said, Today is my birthday too.
The toilet flushed.
There was silence after.
Jewel…? Frieda asked.
Frieda leaned down to look into the next stall.
Jewel? Frieda said again. She knocked on the stall wall. Are you there?
Nothing. She was gone.
Fifteen minutes later, Frieda slipped out of the bathroom.
She’d looked for Jewel. She’d looked for evidence of her. She’d even gotten down around the toilet bowl and sniffed for her. But there was no trace.
It had been Jewel’s birthday.
Did Corporate know?
Frieda sidled up to the door that opened onto the lobby. She peered around the corner. There were groups of secretaries there, gathered and waiting, she imagined, to take the elevators up to the ninth floor lobby for the “little celebration.” At the mere thought of cake, Frieda’s stomach rumbled. But she had to focus. She had to find out what had happened to Jewel.
She leaned out a little more, to see if she could catch sight of her in the crowd, but she didn’t. Was Jewel on the ninth floor? Frieda took off her flats so as not to make noise, and crept along the wall toward the elevators, hoping she wouldn’t be noticed.
Frieda! someone called.
It was Gertrude. Again, Gertrude.
Frieda broke for the elevators.
Some of the secretaries followed her. They were hailing her, speeding up. Frieda looked behind her and saw that they’d all fallen in line, eyes wide, fists pumping. Then she turned back ahead and saw that another flank had cut her off: a line of them, in front of the elevators, their faces frozen with smiles.
Here she is! they cried.
Frieda made a hard left toward the first door she saw and flung it open.
She was back in the cubicle warren now, in the main aisle—easily seen. She turned left, right, right, left. But the secretaries had followed and were matching her, turn for turn. They were calling her name. They’d definitely trained for this. But Frieda had the advantage of longer legs. Her cubicle was no longer safe—the curtain offered no protection. There was only one place to go.
Frieda sprinted back to the bathroom and reached it still running. The full impact of her body blew open the door and her stockinged feet skated on the tile. She did a full half-turn reversal, and then pushed the door closed. It had no latch. She leaned against it with all her weight. Frieda heard a susurrus of thumps on the door. Then silence.
She waited, panting, listening. It was so hot in the bathroom. It was like a sauna. She began to sweat.
The secretaries were outside. They were murmuring, consulting with each other. Then one voice rose over the others.
Frieda? said the voice. It was Gertrude.
Frieda waited, listening.
We know you’re in there! the voice continued. Listen—there’s no need to be so bashful—we just wanted you to know that we know it’s your birthday!
Frieda leaned her forehead against the door and closed her eyes.
—and we made a cake just for you! So come on out!
They knew. How did they know? She’d taken such pains for them to not-know.
How do you know? she yelled.
More murmuring. More consultation. Then Gertrude yelled back, Because we care!
For just a second, Frieda thought she might be being unreasonable. She cracked the door just a little and looked out. There were secretaries as far as the eye could see, their eyes rolling in their sockets and their tongues lolling from their mouths.
Frieda closed the door again.
She tried to think.
But it was getting hotter. Sweat was coursing down her temples. If she got out of this bathroom alive, she could try to get to the ninth floor again, to see if Jewel was there.
Or she could try to leave altogether.
But that was unthinkable. That’s what she’d done in Norway—leave—and now she found herself in the exact same situation, here in Alaska. And this was a better version of it. Even though she’d been here for only ten months, this job had many more species of sugar than the last: not only the plentiful candy bowl stations and leftover sheet cakes, but the “things to get rid of” after holidays—tins of bourbon fudge, platters of sand tarts, boxes of mint cordials. Frieda made a killing. This job provided a plentiful and diverse diet. A new job might not.
Her skin was prickling with heat now, the sweat stinging her eyes, the door handle hot to the touch. She had to get out of here.
Frieda took a deep breath.
She pushed open the door as hard as she could.
But she had no chance. The secretaries surged forward and surrounded her and gripped her arms and pushed into her back, steering her forward. As they did so, they chatted to her.
Don’t you know you don’t have to hide from us?
There’s nothing to be ashamed of!
That’s what it’s there for!
You’re going to love your birthday cake, I just know it!
You can even take some extra and take it home with you!
You just go ahead and eat however much you want, okay?
Frieda kept thrashing, trying to break free, but the more she moved, the tighter they pressed.
They carried her to the elevator. The gleaming stainless steel doors rumble apart. The throng moved forward, crowding in. Frieda was pressed to the back wall. All of the secretaries crowded in and climbed on top of each other.
Pardon my arm!
Watch your leg!
Gertrude slid right under Frieda, fitting her head beneath her chin. Frieda strained away, but Gertrude spoke, a hot moist mouth moving on her throat.
Don’t you worry, she said. You’re just going to love what we have planned for you. We’ve been planning ever since you arrived.
Frieda pulsed like a cornered mouse.
The elevator doors slid closed. There was a slight lurch, and all the secretaries exclaimed Woo! very softly.
An eon passed.
The elevator doors slid open.
Frieda blinked as she was carried out. This was Corporate. They were in Corporate’s lobby. It looked exactly the same as the eighth floor lobby except with blue-grey walls instead of grey-grey walls. The secretaries tugged her forward to a plastic chair at the head of a long table, on which there was an enormous oblong covered dish. Frieda felt pressure behind her knees, forcing her to sit. She collapsed onto the chair and then, all at once, the secretaries blew back like a fog in wind.
Frieda sat still, trembling, her sweat freezing on her skin, staring at the covered dish, and the silver spade-shaped cake server, and the paper plate and plastic fork.
Then, incredibly, the secretaries began to leave. Each one passed with a little wave, an encouraging word, or a clap on the shoulder. Frieda didn’t look any of them in the eye. The elevator dinged over and over, as the cars took down load after load of people, until everyone was gone.
Frieda couldn’t believe it. Were they really leaving her alone at last? After the last ding, she turned around and surveyed the lobby. It was true. The whole room was empty. At long last, after the morning’s disasters, they were letting her be.
She turned back to the table. She stood, grasped the covered dish with two hands, lifted it up, and let it fall to the floor with an enormous clang that made her cover her ears.
Under the dish was a life-size cake in the shape of a woman wearing a red frosting cardigan with white snowflakes.
Frieda covered her mouth with her hand.
Jewel had gotten her birthday wish, after all. And now Frieda was getting hers.
The smell of warm vanilla sugar came off the cake in waves. She bent close. Yes, this was the kind of frosting that had a stiffness to it, the contours like dunes hardened by exposure to air, the edge so easily crushed by the smallest pressure of her finger. She picked up the cake server and sank its shining silver edge into the cake—just into the toe, just to look—and parted it from the foot, hearing the crinkle of broken icing. Oh yes. It was an airy black chocolate cake with firm sour cream frosting. The very best kind. She sagged against the edge of the table, her eyes full of tears. She cut higher, at the ankle, to take off the whole foot. She got the cake server under the piece to leverage it on her plate. With all the toes, this piece had so much coastline, so much extra icing; it was like a corner piece ten times over. And a ridge of icing had collapsed in the wake of the cut, and Frieda used the cake server to wipe it off on the side of her plate, ivory frosting mixed with black crumbs, like a smear of entrails.
She sat back down and used the side of her plastic fork to cut the first bite.
As she lifted it to her mouth, she noticed the camera at the far end of the table, the little light blinking red.