Just before the door swung open, Amber was certain she could hear voices. When she walked into the small office, they had lapsed into silence. It had sounded like Tom. Great. He was meant to be the only friendly one. He sat at his desk, pretending to concentrate on work, music on as usual. Derek and Robyn ignored her as well. All three of them wore headphones, lost in their own world. Amber shuffled over to her desk, clutching her cup of tea, trying to ignore the tension in the room and failing. She wasn’t paranoid any more, she was certain.
At the interview, Judith, the department manager, had been enthusiastic about the social atmosphere.
‘Oh yes, very friendly team. We work hard you know, but we go out for drinks as well every couple of weeks. It’s not all nose to the grindstone.’
Everything said sounded fantastic. Amber’s last job had been full of people bitching about each other all the time. She had dreaded going into work each morning. Eventually, it made her ill. After being signed off for stress, she was advised she shouldn’t return. Amber was glad to be released but that had been two years ago. Since then, she had been living at her mum’s house. Was it her, she asked herself frequently, was she the problem?
To be fair, this new job had been good at first. Amber hadn’t really known exactly what the role was, other than general admin. She barely knew what Phaethon Laboratories did. Their website was vague and unclear. She had turned up to the office early, to be told only Judith knew what her position involved and she was on annual leave for a day. Nevertheless, Amber got on with some photocopying and tidied the office, just to occupy herself with something useful.
There were three others in her team, all hidden in a small room on the fifteenth floor. Tom was roughly her age, lanky, with thick-rimmed glasses. He wasn’t completely unattractive, Amber decided. He spoke to at her at first, asked her questions about her life and seemed interested in her replies. Then there was Robyn, a slightly older woman, maybe in her early thirties. Her hair was just as messy as her chaotic desk. She was more cautious but still chipped in with the odd question here and there. Amber didn’t take her initial standoffish nature personally at first, instead putting it down to her always being in the middle of one crisis or another. The most senior person in the office was Derek, whose stubble turned half his face grey, like a ghost. Even when he shaved he had one thick white hair that erupted from a boil on his chin, which was all Amber could focus on when he spoke. Derek barely grunted when she was introduced and spent the rest of the day completely ignoring her. He had thick headphones over his ears and never looked round.
Amber had a glimmer of hope that this was actually a social office, like Judith had promised. Maybe she would actually make some friends? She needed it, she was getting sick of staying in her childhood bedroom.
On her second day. Amber had skipped to work. feeling more optimistic and less nervous. She could feel her confidence start to build back up. At first, it had been the same as before, people chatting to her. At mid-morning, it all collapsed when Judith popped her head around the door.
‘Ah good,’ she said, ‘I see you’ve all met our new server admin.’
With that simple statement, the whole atmosphere changed. No more chats, or asking Amber about her life, only a constant tension that lingered. The office was filled with the sound of clacking keys and the low hum of the air conditioning, the occasional clink of coffee cups and spoons. Below all the ambient noise, Amber was sure she could hear music.
Then there was the question of what exactly her job involved. Judith had said ‘server admin’, but Amber had never done that before. She wouldn’t have a clue where to start. Besides, she was fairly sure the position she interviewed for was general office administration. There was zero training or guidance.
As no one wanted to talk to her, she made her duties up. The small office was lined with cupboards, all stuffed with folders and documents. Amber dragged them all down to the photocopying room, made copies of all of them and lugged them all back. No one ever told her that this was the right thing to do, but no told her it was wrong either. Sometimes she spent half an hour in the toilet, breathing deep, trying to control her panic. Amber thought about quitting, but she needed the money. It was her first job in two years and she was determined to see it through.
One morning, her bus turned up early so she got to the office before everyone else. The poky room where she worked in near silence every day was empty. The lights were off. The computers were silent. It was strange. Derek or Robyn had always been there working when she turned up. But for now, the room was still, like the belly of a sleeping beast. Sitting on her office chair Amber enjoyed a few minutes of silence.
At first, the sound hovered on the edge of hearing. As the office waited to be woken up, there it was. A low, sweet music. A melody that seemed so beautiful and easy, like a song she had always known. She held her breath to better listen to the sweet notes. It was the most beautiful piece of music she had ever heard.
Where was it coming from? The speakers in the ceiling were off. The radio on Derek’s desk was silent.
Amber got out of her chair, not knowing what she was doing. The music was hypnotic in its beauty. She walked around the room. It seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
It took her a few more circuits before she realised it was coming from behind a closed door, hidden behind the coat stand. She had never seen it before. A plain wooden door. Two holes where the screws were prised out. Just a ruined absence where the handle should be.
The music was captivating. Amber wanted to hear it clearer. The few muffled notes she could hear were beautiful. She had never desired something more. She put out her hand. Slowly pushed the door forward. Did she dare? Millimetre by millimetre, her fingertips pushed the door open.
‘What are you doing?’ someone said behind her. She jumped. She hadn’t realised anyone else had entered the room. Amber turned, seeing Derek. He was watching her with disgust and fear. The music had overwhelmed her completely.
‘I…’ She tried to speak, but seemed to have forgotten how. The words had drained out of her, like water down a drain. Her heart was beating a drum solo. She was sure she was sweating. She knew she had done nothing wrong, but still felt weird.
Derek was examining at her with roaming eyes. He took a step closer and she flinched.
‘Don’t ever, ever open that door. OK?’ Amber nodded, unable to speak.
‘Promise me?’ he said.
‘I- I- I promise.’ Amber managed to stutter out.
Derek nodded. With that, he turned and sat at his desk, carrying on with the working day as if nothing had happened.
Amber stood shaking. She felt a wave of nausea overtake her. Her palms were drenched in sweat and she felt boiling. Deep breaths. Deep breaths always helped. She breathed in and out, slowly. Finally, she managed to pluck up the courage to cross back to her desk and try to get on with her work, even though her eyes were filling with tears. Derek didn’t even glance in her direction. Had that all just happened? It had felt so real. Derek had said more words to her in those last couple of minutes than the entire time she’d been at the company
Trying to calm her racing heart, she checked her emails but couldn’t focus on any of them.
Derek didn’t take many breaks, but eventually he got up, grunted something about accounts and wandered out of the room. Amber was left with Tom and Robyn. Neither of them spoke, just concentrated on their work. Did she dare disturb the peace? She took a deep breath. Now or never.
No response, of course. She had barely made any sound. She steeled herself.
‘Derek told me never to open the door in the corner there. Why is that?’
A different sort of silence filled the office. The clatter of keyboard keys abruptly cut off. The rustling of paper stopping. Tom was staring at her in horror, like she had said she was marrying her cousin.
‘Um, yeah,’ Amber continued,’It’s just I don’t really know what I’m doing and um, it seemed a good place to start so …’
Robyn refused to look in Amber’s direction, but her eyes filled with tears. She was trying to hide it, unsuccessfully. Robyn ran out of the room, covering her face with her hand as she went.
Amber couldn’t believe it. She had only asked a question. What was so wrong about a stupid room anyway?
Tom looked at her with contempt. ‘I hope you’re happy.’ he said. That stung. Amber didn’t know what to say. She longed for the walls and ceiling to collapse in on her.
After a heartbeat or two that felt like millennia, Tom spoke again, softer this time.
‘I’m sorry. It’s just… you shouldn’t… Derek is right. Follow his advice.’
‘But why?’ Amber protested, ‘There’s music coming from that room. Can you not hear it?’
Tom just shook his head.
‘Do what Derek says. And block up your ears if you have to.’
‘Invest in earplugs. Good ones. It will help.’
With that, Tom went straight back to his work. Amber had more questions, but who would answer them? Not Derek or Robyn. Judith was never in the office.
Not knowing what else to do, Amber made herself her sixth tea of the morning.
At home, Amber spent the night halfway between waking and dreaming, thrown between the two like a body on the waves. Each time she drifted off she was sure she could hear the sweet music that emanated from the unmarked door, drifting lightly across her dreams. It wasn’t a memory, it was like she was hearing it again fresh. Each time, she woke with a start to her silent bedroom, still and shrouded in darkness.
The email arrived first thing the next morning, while Amber was still half asleep and nursing a strong cup of Earl Grey:
Hope you are settling in well and the team are showing you the ropes. I notice our website is down, could you reset the server when you get a chance?
Amber stared at it, unsure what to do. She had no idea how to reset a server. Was it all a mistake? Had she been hired under false pretences? Her thoughts drifted back to her interview. There had been no mention of IT. She was fairly sure, now she thought about it, that Judith had described the position as mostly administration. Although Judith had lied about the office being social, so maybe the whole interview was nonsense.
She must have look really worried, because Tom broke the silence and gestured to her.
‘I’ve been told to reset the server only… umm… I’ve got no idea how.’
Robyn and Derek exchanged what could only be described as a significant look. At least Robyn didn’t run out of the room crying again. Tom remained silent and looked away.
‘So… could you show me where it is or…’
Tom spoke quietly, not looking at her. He refused to make eye contact these days.
‘Don’t worry about it. Leave it.’
She looked to Derek and Robyn for guidance, but of course, they avoided her gaze. What was she meant to do? She couldn’t just stop doing her work. Since the second day, they had been nothing but aggressive and mean to her. Was it her fault? No, she decided. She had just turned up eager to work. It was their problem.
That decided it. Amber stood up.
The office had no obvious door marked server room, so Amber walked in circles. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but it couldn’t be that difficult, could it? Pull the plug out, wait ten seconds and put it back in again. Easy peasy.
Her legs stopped before her mind realised. She was in front of the door with no handle. Music poured from behind it, louder than before. It sounded like an endless chorus singing, millions of voices joined together. There were no words, just a tune of soft notes that lifted and carried your mood with it to the sky. All her negative thoughts and worries drifted away on the wind. It was bliss. Pleasure sustained and never-ending. It consumed her. Somewhere behind her, voices were shouting, urgent and filled with danger, but they seemed so distant and far away like she was underwater and they were on the surface. All that mattered was the music, calling to her, dragging her ever deeper into its embrace.
Reaching out her hand, she pushed the door open. The music was overwhelming now. Every atom of her body vibrated to the same beat.
Taking a step forward, Amber saw a blinding light and for a split second, endless rows of sharp teeth. The door slammed shut behind her.
There was a stunned silence in the small office. Tom and Robyn blinked in shock. Derek reached to his phone and dialled an internal number.
‘Judith. Might have to advertise that position again. I hope you’re happy.’