In the five years he’d been working at the Center for Disease Control, Dr. Jackson Bowie had never had an issue like this. A week prior, on what should have been just another Tuesday at the laboratory, he instead found himself facing the biggest crisis of his career.
His desk chair was missing.
His utterly perfect, mesh-backed, lumbar-supported, ergonomically designed desk chair. It was gone! The chair that kept him comfortable through countless hours of research, that never squeaked while he was concentrating on a difficult equation, that he had to buy out-of-pocket because his boss wouldn’t approve the use of federal funding for “a stupid chair.” Gone.
Jackson immediately panicked. Oh my God, I’ve been robbed! He darted into his wet lab, separated from his office by a wall of glass, and started down a checklist of equipment.
Digital steam autoclave? Check.
Analytical balance that would make a drug lord proud? Double check.
Ultra-high capacity centrifuge worth more than a mid-sized sedan? Check plus.
The wet lab looked intact so he scanned his office. His computer and the mug full of pocket change were still there, his stash of highly coveted peanut butter cups was untouched, and the last of his yet-to-be unpacked boxes in the corner were still taped shut. Who just steals a chair? What kind of joke is this?
That’s when Jackson got irritated. He hated practical jokes; having an older brother made sure of that. He marched to the lab’s breakroom and, flinging the door open with astounding force, shot inside. His sudden and demanding presence scared the donut out of Dr. Higgins’ half-open mouth.
“Where is it?!” Jackson demanded. “Who took it?” He stood in the threshold with his shoulders screwed up to his ears and his nostrils flared, fists trembling at his side. He stared at each of his colleagues, doing his best to keep his gaze withering and not whimpering. While hot-headed, he was not good at confrontation and already felt bad about Dr. Higgins’ donut sitting sadly on the floor.
“You!” He instead zeroed in on Dr. Ortiz. “What do you know about this?” As he pointed a shaking finger in her direction, he became keenly aware of how desperately he needed to use the bathroom.
“And what, exactly, are you talking about?” Ortiz asked, her face warped with bewilderment and indignation.
“My chair! It’s missing and I think someone stole it as a joke and I really hate practical jokes!” The words slipped out in a tumble, and Jackson’s voiced cracked on every one.
“Nobody touched your chair, dude,” Ortiz replied and turned back to her breakfast with a chuckle.
Jackson scowled and busied himself with the coffee pot, grumbling just loud enough for the rest of the room to hear.
“Dr. Bowie,” interrupted a voice from the corner.
“What?” he snapped, his back to the room. “Look, save the bullshit for someone else, okay? I can’t believe you jackasses took my chair.” As he turned around, Jackson’s heart, which had been pounding steadily up to this point, practically flatlined. It was Dr. Mulligan, the most senior chemist in their building. Oh God. Oh God. Did I just yell at Dr. Karen Mulligan? The Nobel laureate? Undo. UNDO! Oh my God.
“I assure you that no one in this room has stolen your chair,” she continued, her tone clipped and nausea-inducing. “I would suggest you email the maintenance department and then occupy yourself and this newfound… tenacity with other, more essential, assignments.” She stood up to leave. “Dr. Maklin is still on vacation; you are welcome to make use of his chair if you find that a suitable solution.”
Without waiting for his reply, she stepped around Jackson and into the hall. As soon as the door closed behind her, the others in the room rounded on him in unison.
“You’re a dead man,” said Dr. Higgins.
“I can’t believe you just did that,” said Dr. Nguyen.
“You’re an idiot,” added Ortiz, barely containing her laughter.
“B-but you guys all said Dr. Mulligan is this really nice and wonderful person, right?” Jackson sputtered.
“Yeah, Karen’s great,” said Ortiz. “If you’ve been around her long enough.”
“You’re still the new guy, Bowie,” said Nguyen. “You’ve only been here for a few weeks. It took Karen almost six months to even crack a joke around me and I was so afraid to laugh that she had to tell me ‘laugh, it was a joke.’ You’re not ‘in’ until she makes that first icebreaker. You can’t even call her Karen yet.”
Ortiz and Higgins shared similar stories before they left and Jackson, after retrieving the chair from Old Man Maklin’s office (of course it smells like lidocaine, he moaned), spent the rest of Tuesday in hiding.
On Wednesday, Jackson arrived in better spirits and sent a memo regarding his still-missing chair. He was direct but pleasant, and labeled it “Urgent.” But Wednesday proved fruitless, and he went home disappointed. Thursday and Friday followed suit, and his patience was worn noticeably thin.
Jackson showed up to the lab on Monday in a desperate rage. It had been less than a week but already his lower back ached, his office smelled like a nursing home, and the incessant squeaking every time he shifted was about to push him over the edge. He would do anything to recover his chair, and his sanity.
Just then, a courier knocked on the door and handed him a package. Confused, Jackson cut the tape and pulled out a white box emblazoned with large, black lettering.
“What the hell?” As he turned the box over, a note fluttered onto the floor.
“I thought this might be a safer alternative than whatever truth serum you’re undoubtedly planning to spike our coffees with; I have your chair.
Welcome to the lab.
This was my submission for round one of NYC Midnight’s 2019 Flash Fiction Challenge; an annual international writing competition where entrants are randomly assigned a genre, location, and object and tasked with writing a short story (no more than 1,000 words) within 48 hours of receiving their assignment. The entries are judged and the best stories/writers move forward to the next tier of competition. My assigned prompts for round one were:
Update: Scores from round one came in about mid-September and I placed 8th in my group (the top fifteen people place in each group and there are 125 groups!). I was pleased with this result, but it means I’ll need a heckuva boost in round two to make it into the next tier of competition as the scores from the first two rounds are combined to see who moves on.
See my round two submission here.