“We live and die by the illusion of choice.” –Diederick de Wit
You open your eyes. You are staring at your desk.
The doors were locked hours ago. You have a key, so you’ve permitted yourself to stay behind. After all, the painting arrived just before closing, and you’re excited to get a glimpse of the missing de Wit. Your friend Lucy, an art historian in Washington, is insistent that you look at the painting.
“You’ve got to come back from all of this, somehow,” she’d said on the phone last week. “And how better than to get a good look at ‘De rouw ruimte’? It’s really something to behold.”
She’s right, of course. You do need to come back, because the way your boss, Phillip, is looking at you, you have a needling suspicion that he’s considering firing you. The way he twirls his monogrammed pen on your desk when he talks, watching his initials roll into view and out again—he’s definitely considered it. It’s a far stretch from the man who, overcome with vicarious grief, staggered into your office a few days after the accident reeking of top-shelf gin, taking your arms with a kind of unrestrained sympathy and anguish.
“This has happened to me, you know,” he said. His breath was hot and sharp with alcohol; as he wept, you had difficulty inhaling. “I understand. The grief is… extravagant. Extravagant grief. The caviar of grief.” He burped wetly. He was probably referring to his wife, years dead, though you didn’t know the exact circumstances of her departure.
And so you are worried, because your boss is worried. But a Diederick de Wit restoration is no trivial thing, and if you do it right, you could find yourself back in his good, boozy graces.
The crate is still resting next to your desk. The painting is big enough, but not so big that removing it will be terribly difficult on your own. You run your hands over the rough pine exterior, then slide the metal dowels from their sheaths on each corner. As you dig your fingers into the lip of the topmost panel, you hear a sound from beyond the door. A dragging, shuffling noise. Odd. Nothing like the even footsteps of the night watchman, Gregory, in his tennis shoes, or the steady rhythm of him cracking open pistachios. You walk to the door and rest your ear against its solid face. The sound, whatever it is, gets softer as it moves farther away.
If you go outside to investigate the sound, turn to page 3.
If you stay in your office to examine the painting, turn to page 5.
Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Granta, AGNI, NPR, Los Angeles Review of Books, VICE, and elsewhere. She was a recipient of the Richard Yates Short Story Prize in 2011, a finalist for the CINTAS Foundation Fellowship in 2013, and a Millay Colony for the Arts fellow in 2014. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Philadelphia with her partner.