Joy Hayes was really fucking tired.
She hadn’t slept well the night before, but, in all honesty, she hadn’t slept well in years. Sitting at her office desk, she ignored the way her cardigan brushed against her arms, the cotton material chafing her skin in a way that made her want to fling it across the room. Her fingers hovered over her keyboard, twitching as she fought the urge to take off her sweater, and she stared blankly at the blinking cursor of the email she had begun to type.
She winced at the throbbing in her head. Reaching her hand out for her pen, she cursed under her breath as she knocked over her pencil cup, sending her pens, pencils, and the odd unfolded paper clip scattering across the wooden surface. Her neck cracked as she rolled her head from side to side.
The smell of her discarded meal, a frozen plant-based lunch, wafted up and through the air. She wasn’t a vegetarian, nor a vegan, but had decided after sobbing to a particularly cruel PETA Facebook ad to try and eat less meat. The brutal assault of soggy Brussels sprouts and beans on her nose and the way her stomach rolled in response made her regret ever opening Facebook.
The clock sitting on the wall above her ticked loudly. She pulled a bottle of pain pills from her desk drawer and chased the white capsules with the small sip left in her lukewarm, flat Diet Coke. The phone on her desk rang, and she jumped. Swearing, she picked up the phone. Tick. She finished her conversation, a quick question from a manager of a different department that veered off into him bragging about his recent vacation and the car he was thinking of buying, and put her head in her hands. Every tick hammered into her, and she gritted her teeth.
A coworker passed by her desk, and she smiled instinctively. The older woman didn’t even glance at her, but Joy held the smile until after she passed. The moment she was out of sight, Joy’s smile slipped back into a frown. She zoned out, eventually catching her reflection in the darkness of her computer screen as it dimmed into sleep mode. The bags under her eyes made her grimace. Tick. An award sat framed on her desk, an outstanding employee certificate given to her a few months into the job. She loved praise, needed it, but it all felt so superficial. The frame itself was similar, perhaps identical, to the one showcasing her accounting degree at home. Both papers were supposed to bring her happiness. Both made her feel trapped in a purgatory of beige walls and cubicles.
She glanced at the clock, noticed it was only three, and wondered if this is all life could offer. If there was nothing more than watching the clock crawl to five, the mindless chatter about vacation plans and wedding venues, the routines, the alarm clocks, the traffic, the bills.
Groaning, Joy rubbed her temples and puffed out a breath of air. Her temple pulsed under her touch, the pounding echoing throughout her body.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
“Just shut up,” Joy hissed at the clock, grinding her teeth and glaring at the object.
As you wish, a deep voice responded.
Joy’s lips parted in surprise. She looked around for the source of the voice, halfway expecting someone to be standing behind her. Something tickled her throat, and she coughed.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
A thin black mist floated out of her open mouth and toward the wall above her desk. It condensed, forming a solid dark plume, and hurled itself at the clock. Tick. Tick— The clock shattered as the black tendril smashed into it. It rocked back and forth for a second before slipping off the nail it sat on and colliding with the office carpet. Joy flinched as the fog shot up from the clock and twisted in her direction. She gagged as the cool mist launched up her nostrils and slid down the back of her throat.
A phone rang in another office. Joy stared at the broken clock.