Hannah Thurman – Snakes in the Ceiling

“Tell me something interesting,” Phillipa says. “I feel like I’m the only one ever talking.”

I look around to see if Anika is watching us and that buys me some time. I’m worried if I start, everything will come out. But I can’t stall forever. “All right,” I say. “How about this:”

When I was twelve, my family moved to Georgia and enrolled me in this junior high named Douglass. The building itself was beautiful—tall aging brick with mullioned windows—but it was smack dab in the worst neighborhood in Atlanta. A few years after I left, the city bulldozed all the houses in the surrounding area, leaving only their laundry trees, rusting in the wet hot air.

Phillipa taps her desk twice, our signal. I turn back to my screen right as Anika appears, thin arms crossed over her YSL blouse.

“You ladies find anything?” she asks.

We are scanning the web for mentions of the 4-speed cordless 7950, which hit markets Tuesday.

“Kaitlyn found a bunch,” Phillipa says.

“Just one,” I say. “Some woman named Home Depot Hottie. She thinks the grip’s too big.”

“I told you not to worry about mommy bloggers.”

“She’s not,” Phillipa says. “Private contractor. Loads of traffic.”

“Good job,” Anika tells me, then walks away.

When she’s gone, I turn to Phillipa. “Is that true? About the contractor thing?”

She shrugs. “Whatever. I don’t think Anika’s going to check.”

Her kindness slices into me like a buzzsaw. I look away.

“Anyway,” she says. “Tell me more about your school.”

I go on. It was a weird mix of students: gangs from the surrounding neighborhood sharing lockers with rich kids bussed in from the suburbs (me), but mostly everyone got along. It felt like being at an airport, you were only there two years so everyone just held their breath til they got on the next plane to college prep or auto school or jail. I was new and shy and some days the only person I talked to would be Ms. Henley, the nervous science teacher who let me eat lunch in her classroom.

“What else?” she asks. “Tell me something really crazy.”

I’ve only known Phillipa two weeks, but somehow I know she will ask that.

It was even weirder for the teachers, being there. Students were always dying—on both sides, too: gun wounds and prescription med overdose—and that brings out the best and the worst in people. Some of them (the teachers) got all legendary, like Stand and Deliver. Some of them screwed around with students and went to jail themselves. Some just went crazy.

“Really?” she says. “Like what?”

“One time that science teacher, Ms. Henley, held us hostage with a steak knife,” I say.

“No way,” she says. “Do you know why she did it?”

“No,” I say, because my hands have begun to quiver, and thankfully she just shrugs and lets it go.

 

We’re getting paid $900 every two weeks. It’s an okay gig, especially for someone like me with a BA in linguistics and four empty summers. Phillipa is overqualified. She’s this supermodel-thin Chiquita who graduated Princeton in three years and just turned 21. She wants to be CEO of something by the time she’s 40.

I will never be CEO but that doesn’t bother me. What does bother me is: shaking hands, lost shoes, and those floaters that dart out of reach when you look at them. You’d think something that happened 11 years ago wouldn’t still eat at me, but I still lie awake sometimes listing the things that I’ve destroyed.

 

Phillipa introduces me to Martin, the new intern, as “the coolest person you’ll meet here.” I blush more than I should at the word “cool.”

“What do you guys do?” he asks.

“Media monitoring,” I say.

“What’s that?”

Phillipa answers for me. “We go around online and look up what people are saying about the tools,” she says. “See if people are talking about them, where they’re talking about them, how they’re doing in relation to competitors… so marketing knows where to place ads and do PR and stuff.”

“Do you like that?” he asks.

“I think it’s a good place to start,” Phillipa says. “You get to work with a lot of different departments.”

He turns to me. “How about you?”

I shrug. “Living the dream,” I say. “Well, a dream.” This cracks Phillipa up.

“See what I said?” she says to Martin. “She’s hilarious.”

 

For the next two hours, Phillipa types away in silence and I wonder, does she know already? Can she tell just by looking at me? But half an hour later, she stops typing and slides me a stick of gum. “Wanna see something cool?” she asks. She turns her screen to me. A window with a black background blinks with code.

“I wrote this,” she says.

“What does it do?”

“It scans posts to see if they’re positive or negative. Saves you a shit-ton of time.”

“How does that even work?”

“See this?” I don’t see. “This field lists all the words I could think of with positive connotations. And this one has all the negative ones. The program goes through the text and matches everything with this list. It’s not perfect, but it can basically tell you one way or another before you read it. I’m gonna show it to Anika when we have my review.”

“I thought she said we didn’t have to have a review—since we just got here, you know?”

She smiles. “But we still can if we want to.” She pulls a thumb drive out of her computer and pushes it towards my keyboard. “Hold on to it for me?” she asks. “I don’t trust myself not to lose it.”

And you trust me? I think, putting the drive in my pocket.

 

Later on, we sit in the back of a meeting where the head of HR talks about the reviews process, an hour talk that could have been condensed into an e-mail. We swing our legs and write notes to each other.

Tell me, she writes, about the teacher who held you guys hostage. What happened when they caught her and took her to jail?

I shake my head.

Okay, then. Another story. Please? I’m dying here.

It’s hard to think of anything but broken glass. But I’m taking too long. When I was six, my brother’s corn snake escaped, I write. It lived in the walls of our house for a year and a half before it died.

OH. MY. GOD., she scribbles. Were you terrified?!

It was okay. Sometimes at night you could hear it slithering around in the vents.

This is just like Harry Potter.

I wish. Anyway, it ate all the mice and bugs so that was kind of cool.

A perfect ecosystem, she writes.

My heart falls. “Sorry,” I whisper, crumpling the paper into a ball.

 

“Everything is an ecosystem,” Ms. Henley said that day. “You’re an ecosystem, you’re an ecosystem, you’re an ecosystem.”

“Except for you,” a big redhead named Sean whispered. “You’re just a bitch.”

I looked down. Kids picked on Ms. Henley a lot since she was old and wanted us to like her. A few days ago, I’d seen her give Sean $3.50 so he could buy pizza. She did that for all the free/reduced lunch kids so they could get junk food like the rest of us, but it was clear they resented her for it.

Her hands began to shake. She cleared her throat. “Sean?” she asked. “Do you have something to say?”

The boy looked at her.

“Can I go to the bathroom?” he asked and I knew I should be laughing with the other kids but I felt cold all of a sudden.

Ms. Henley began backing towards the door. “I want you to apologize,” she said, and the last part came out as a sob.

A couple of girls in the back began to giggle. I felt my breath catch in my throat.

“Shut up,” I said, “Everybody, just shut up.”

Ms. Henley wheeled around, gray hair falling out of its clip. “Fucking listen to Kaitlyn!” she screamed, then drew the knife out of her bag.

 

When the meeting is over, Phillipa leads me downstairs to the coffeeshop and buys a cookie for us to share. She tries asking me about stuff, like, do you think the HR director’s skirt is real fur, but when I won’t answer, she begins talking about herself.

“I don’t like Anika, but I want to be like her. Is that weird?”

“I don’t know,” I say. I’m thinking about knives and bags.

“Like… She doesn’t take shit from people, she works really hard, and people rely on her. It doesn’t matter that she’s a bitch.”

“I don’t think you’ll be a bitch.”

“But what if you have to be? Like, nice girls don’t get the corner office?”

“They do here,” I say, “Pretty much exclusively.”

“What?” she says. “Oh, the lactation room. Right.” She laughs. “You’re funny, Kaitlyn. We should hang out.”

I bite my lip. “Yeah, okay.”

“What do you do on weekends? Do you party a lot?”

I went out exactly once this year. “Sometimes.”

“That’s me, too. Like, everyone still wants to go out til 3 a.m. every Friday, but some nights I just want to make a sandwich and play Angry Birds.”

My stomach hurts. It’s been so long since someone’s wanted to be my friend. I’m excited, but the fear roils within me.

“I like Angry Birds,” I say. “It feels good to knock all that stuff over.”

“I know, doesn’t it?” She smiles. My hands begin to shake.

 

Now that reviews have started, people move strangely, marching around the office with folios or huddled in the corners like foam caught in rocks by the sea. I scroll through my sites without looking at them, feeling the weight of the flash drive in my pocket. I want to be Phillipa’s friend, but fear rustles above me like a snake waiting to strike.

Anika clomps past. “I can take one of you in five,” she says.

“Go for it,” I say.

“I’m gonna run to the bathroom first.”

While she is gone, I think of the words slumber parties, wingwomen, bridesmaids. They’re stretched out long and pink like the titles of article in Cosmo, but the background is splintered wood and black cloth. And the spots in my eyes are beginning to flicker.

When she comes back, wiping her hands on her pants, I am placing the flashdrive under my heel.

“What is—” she says and then I step and she knows what it is from the crunch. “What—are you nuts?”

I turn away and sit down at my computer, leaving the cracked pieces on the floor behind me.

“Kaitlyn!” She taps my shoulder hard. “Kaitlyn, seriously—”

“Are you ready?” I hear Anika saying. Then, “Phillipa, are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she says, and I watch her reflection in my screen as she gets up and crosses her arms away from me.

 

I remember most how it smelled: the rubber of the SWAT team and sour vomit on the floor. Musty air conditioning where my nose touched the vent and the knife that still smelled like garlic.

I remember less what she said, only that when the men came and kicked down the door, everyone began cheering.

They led us out one by one like a receiving line at a wake. Ms. Henley sat slouched in her rolling chair, arms on her lap in shiny cuffs. One of her shoes had come off, revealing a pale, freckled foot. It looked dead.

When it was my turn to go, I stared straight ahead so I wouldn’t catch her eye, but my legs were so stiff, I tripped on a piece of glass and looked.

“Thank you,” she said, in a voice that sounded like mine. Everyone turned, waiting to hear what I’d say. But I clenched my teeth together and bent my head as I walked past them all to an empty spot against the lockers.

Please stop looking at me, I remember thinking. Then, please, anyone, look at me.

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