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The Cubicle Witch

The cubicle witch lives on the thirteenth floor of my office building deep within the accounting section. I think she may have been an accountant once, but those days are long behind her. Her 10x10 gray-carpeted workspace is filled with owl beaks, bat ears, dodo eggs, and mermaid tears. Instead of a computer she has a cauldron filled with bubbling green liquid that smells like expired miso soup but supposedly tastes like Sprite. She trades spells, good luck charms, and hexes for things you might not want to give.
To most she is only rumor and myth. It is possible to work here until your stock options vest and never see her once. I only know about her because I am a coward.
Last year there were rumors about management wanting to "restructure" the software development teams to make us more "lean." They announced a meeting in the main conference room--a meeting at eleven in the morning on a Tuesday that my coworkers insisted meant layoffs. I asked them if there was anything I could do to stay safe.
"Just stay out of sight," Francis said from under his desk. "They can't fire you if they can't find you."
"They'll just do it over email," I said. "Or call me."
"Embrace it," Charlene said. "Think of the places it might take you."
"I don't want to find another job," I said.
"Well," they said. "You could go and see the cubicle witch. It's the only way to be sure you'll be safe."
So I set off to find her. I traveled deep into the heart of accounting, deep where the office ferns grow tall and unwieldy and stone pillars obscure the water coolers. Where chipped stalactites drip brown water on you from the slimy, rocky ceiling and skittish owls nest on filing cabinets. Where ancient runes from forgotten languages replace the standardized motivational posters. There are lost software developers who have wandered its cobwebbed halls for decades after their termination orders have been signed by middle managers.
I cut through the ferns, navigated the pillars, and didn't look any of the accountants in the eyes. I pushed through narrow corridors and avoided spiky stalactites. And then I finally arrived at the cubicle witch's cubicle.
She was hunched over her cauldron, smiling as she stirred her bubbling potion with a long wooden pole. Her nose was crooked and green and she wore a large black hat. She dipped a "World's Greatest Mom" coffee mug into her mixture and offered it to me.
"Is it safe?" I asked.
"It's not poison, if that's what you're worried about," she said. "Not exactly. But it will help you. That I guarantee."
I thought about resumes, programming tests, networking, collecting unemployment, and moving to a new city. I gulped down the bubbling green potion and let the mug fall down to the carpeted floor of her cubicle after I drained it. It did, strangely, taste like Sprite.
She cackled and went back to stirring.
"What's going to happen now?" I asked. "Did I just give you my soul?"
"Oh no," she said. "Nothing quite that dramatic. Just the tips of your emotions. A little less happiness during the glad times, a little less sadness during the sad times. You won't even notice. And when you weigh that against job protection for the next year... well, you don't need emotions to be a software developer."
"That's true," I said, suddenly feeling uneasy. I backed out of her cubicle. I tried to work my way through the accounting maze and return to the main hallways so I could be at the conference room in time for the meeting.
The skinny hand of an accountant grabbed my wrist. It looked up at me with sad, bloodshot eyes.
"You're not the first," it said. "Most of us have been to see her, too."
I ran. I kept running until I couldn't see any runes or pillars or skeletal wraiths. I arrived out of breath at the main conference room just as the meeting started. My stomach gurgled and churned. I apologized and found a chair in the rear of the room.
The division manager, Mr. Higgins, stood in front of the long, fake-wood conference table. "I know there have been some rumors," he said, "about supposed 'layoffs' and 'restructuring.' Here at Applied Theoretical Industries we feel that..."
I looked around. Each of the twenty or so developers in the room was bent forward clutching their stomachs. Francis, Charlene, the intern who never looked you in the eyes--all were huddled miserably in their chairs.
"...and so I'm pleased to report that the restructuring won't be affecting our plugin development team."
Nervous exhalation. I was safe. The team left the conference room in silence with hope for security in the coming year.
But when I got back to my desk I realized that I didn't feel quite as relieved as I should have felt. Mostly I took the news with a dull, passive indifference. I spent the next year as a model employee: my productivity increased ten percent over the previous year. I filled out reports, submitted code, and got a small raise. I stayed clear of accounting.
Mr. Higgins was true to his word. There were no layoffs that year. The plugin team celebrated birthdays, wore Hawaiian shirts on Fridays, gathered around the coffee machine at ten each morning to discuss politics and football, and forwarded joke emails to each other. The fact that we could no longer laugh at the jokes we sent or taste strawberries were minor inconveniences.
But now there are new rumors of layoffs. This time because of a supposed merger with Amazon. As I type at my desk I feel the fear starting to come back and know that soon I will once again be visiting the cubicle witch for protection. And I know I won't be the only one.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Author Comments

I work as a software engineer. The more I think about cubicles and the quirks of office culture, the weirder it all seems. I wanted to try and explore some of that strangeness with this story.

- James Reinebold
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