Art doesn’t so much mimic reality as morph, stretch, and bewitch it. The so-called rabbit holes, the night thoughts, the stray bits we dismiss, the teeming multiplicity of various “realities” – in the coming months, the Action Books Strange Fiction Series will showcase texts that delve into such zones. The world is always waiting to be more haunted.
Other People’s Errors
Driving home from work on the I-90, I set my cruise control to 65mph just to make fucking sure that if I made any more mistakes today, it wouldn’t be by accident.
I control the things I can.
But some people choose not to. Some people, through negligence, inattention, obliviousness, sheer incompetence, or bloody disregard for what’s good and right in the world, go on making mistakes, despite having had the option not to.
And I just had that argument with my boss.
“I need to talk to you,” she’d said sternly as I tried to walk out of the office.
A blue Tesla passed me on the left.
You take the fucking ticket, I thought.
“I’m off now,” I’d told my boss. It was inexcusable to work late according to the organization’s regulations, and I’d made sure there was nothing anyone at work could ever want to talk to me about besides our business matters. I did not express anything personally at work, did not discuss situations, gave generic reasons for my absences—whatever it said in the collective agreement, that’s what my requests said too—“I need this time to attend to a family matter,” “I had an illness requiring absence fewer than three days,” etc.
But I dipped into the office anyway. I stood before her desk, hoping that my failure to sit would indicate to her the impropriety of the request that I lag behind after the work was clearly done, when she could have spoken to me at any point earlier in the day—during the mandated work hours, those hours during which my activities might be monitored according to the employment agreement, the same hours which would be tallied, tracked and eventually compiled into a set of performance metrics for my annual evaluation. For us, staying late meant you couldn’t get your work done during the allotted hours.
It was a performance issue.
And my boss was making sure I couldn’t scan out on time today.
What the fuck?
I stood in front of her desk.
“Sit,” she said, and I quite intentionally pulled the chair away from her desk, stepped beside it, then in front of it, then sat with my legs together, shoulders back, hands in my lap, this demonstration giving her time to realize that she was making a mistake, holding me back from my personal hours, during which I decided how to behave.
The tears ran in my eyes, obscuring the road at times, but then I would blink, and my perceptual field returned to normal. I calculated how likely it was that an obstacle would appear in my path during the time it took my eyes to fill but before I blinked and concluded that it was fine, that just like windshield wipers in the rain, the safety mechanism of my eyelids’ motion would ensure that despite the natural hindrances, I could still safely proceed.
She noticed my performance and countered with a look.
“This is serious,” she’d said.
A silver SUV passed me on the left, three passengers, two in front, one in the back, passenger’s side, looking out the opposite window. A child, maybe 10-12 years, dark hair, head lowered, a device in their lap inferred from the posture. Its gas tank cover was open. Not the cap itself, which was neatly secured, just the cover. It jutted out from the side of the vehicle, and I imagined the aerodynamics of the wind around it, reducing fuel efficiency as the currents were blocked by its offending position, like the flaps that arise from the wings of a plane as it lands. If the SUV drove fast enough, perhaps it could achieve enough air pressure to close it, I thought, but that would be a hell of a ticket.
“You need to learn to let things go,” she’d told me.
“What do you mean?” I asked. It could be any of many things I’d done.
“The president’s office says you tampered with a document,” she said.
Oh, I thought. That one.
As part of my position, I acted as a conduit of documents, seeking approvals, passing them along the established checkpoints. The documents are very important, and the job entailed the detailed logging of the path the document traversed on its way to its final destination. The logging of the documents must correspond to the document’s metadata, to ensure the accountability and transparency of the organization.
“You saw what I did to it, though,” I said to her.
“So you know it had to be done,” I said to her.
“It did not.”
“Surely it couldn’t have been sent like that,” I said to her.
“It should have been.”
“According to procedure, yes, but certainly…” I said to her.
“It should have been.”
Of course I’d known it was wrong at the time. Wrong according to procedure, not wrong according to what’s good and true in the world. Just a typo, a mere typo. The tracked changes obscuring what should have been a percentile between 1 and 100 but which actually appeared as a number between 100 and 1000, the extra digit which should have been deleted by my colleague not having been deleted at the time at which it would have been appropriate. The approvals ran from my colleague to her supervisor to her supervisor to the president’s secretary to the president, and at all stages having met its approval, I had been appalled, those weeks ago, to see such an egregious error having made it through the extensive review process established just to avoid any such discrepancies as this.
So I fixed it.
I knew it would appear in the version history if anyone checked, and I fixed it.
I knew that if someone checked that history, I’d be there in my boss’ office, sitting in that chair, explaining what I had done, and even so, I fixed it.
I guess I just thought it was better to be correct.
The silver SUV with the open gas cover slowed down in the left lane, the driver turning around and speaking to their passengers, so that I had to see its error again as it lagged behind me, and then once more as the driver turned back around to face the road, their speed increasing with the decrease in the angle between the direction of their perception and the direction it should have faced—the fucking road in front.
My boss waited for me to explain, but I wanted to go home.
“I made the document correct,” I said. I should have been apologetic, I should have said that I was wrong, I should have never changed it in the first place, but for fuck’s sake, surely she could see that in the end, it was for the best.
Except she couldn’t.
And I knew that she couldn’t.
It was mandated that she couldn’t.
“You tampered with a document after the conclusion of its approval process.”
“I made the document correct,” I repeated, the futility of the statement more apparent with its repetition.
Who fucking told on me? It was probably fucking Becky. Becky worked in the president’s office and took it upon herself to be the procedure police of the organization. It didn’t matter to Becky that I’d saved the organization some bit of embarrassment not publishing a document with a percentage over 100. What mattered to Becky is that she was an unhappy person who needed someone to fuck up so she could call it to the attention of her superiors and get the phrase from them she sought, the only measure of her worth she could muster. The only pleasure Becky felt was when someone she perceived to have power would utter the phrase, “Good work, Becky, thanks for calling this to our attention.”
It’s like she was addicted to it. She’d scour the files, the historical archives, the email trails, just looking for procedural improprieties. And with each one, an investigation would be launched, someone brought into an office, each chastisement a win for Becky, whose constant complaint was, “Why can’t anyone just follow procedure?”
Fuck you, Becky!
The SUV dipped behind me once more, and I saw its inhabitants laughing. The right wheels veered toward the line that was supposed to separate our lanes, except that the line itself wasn’t anything substantial—just a guideline it was completely possible to cross, if one wanted to or if one didn’t but simply wasn’t paying attention.
Why is it that I always have to pay attention for other people?
I saw there in my boss’ office that it wouldn’t do me any good to defend the action, no matter how correct it was. She’d been mandated to enact the chastisement, and I was mandated to take it, express remorse, indicate an intent to perform better. Except that it couldn’t logically be done! How could it be considered a better performance to willfully allow mistakes to propagate, to allow negligence to continue unabated, to see something and not say something, just allow for human frailty?
Most people don’t mean to hurt people.
But they do it.
And I wonder at the intentionality of their mistakes.
Whether it wouldn’t be better not to allow them.
There are a lot of mistakes in the world, and a lot of them didn’t have to be made.
If people would pay some fucking attention.
If they’d care a little more.
About what they were doing.
Just like when Clark had left and said, “People make mistakes, you know,” as if that made it right.
As if he’d been taught at some point that because people made mistakes, it was all right for him too. But I don’t see how that kind of mistake was an accident. Just like I couldn’t argue that my keystroke wasn’t intentional, there was no way for him to defend this idea that his meeting that woman, taking her home, and sticking his dick in her was a mistake. Just a thing that had happened, a thing that people do. The thing I couldn’t admit was that not that people made mistakes, but that they hadn’t meant to. People make mistakes, but it’s because they want to. They fuck up, because they can, because they think that if they say the phrase, “People make mistakes,” that it’s a free pass to fuck up and come back home. People make the mistake of believing that it’s not their fault when they make a mistake, but god damn it, it is.
And there are some people’s mistakes you can’t correct.
But there are some people’s mistakes you can.
I bet if I put my window all the way down, I could close that gas cover too.
One good push at the correct angle from the correct distance, and we’ll all be better off.
I pushed the gas to catch up to the SUV, felt the pressure change on the left side of my compact Corolla as I kept pace with it. I didn’t want to be in its blind spot but assured myself it wouldn’t matter, because that’s not what would stop the driver from drifting into my lane whensoever they chose. They weren’t the type to consider others before going where they pleased, taking what they wanted; they weren’t even the type to know they should. I blinked my tears back and put the window down, tried to reach the gas cover, but I too had made a mistake.
I did not have the reach that I imagined I would.
The SUV was taller than my Toyota and not just by a little. The angle of the reach meant I needed a hypotenuse length limb to reach both up and out at once, and then a little extra at the end in order to exert a force where I meant to. It would mean I would have to get closer.
At the same time, I didn’t want them to drift over and hit me, so I thought it best to keep my car at a safe distance from their whims. I’d have to move my body over to the left instead.
Letting my car lag behind, I turned the cruise control up to 72, undid my seatbelt and pushed my body up from the floor. But I couldn’t maintain the lift without bracing myself with my arms. So I let my hands come off the wheel and held it with my right foot as I sat myself in the open window, my torso in the wind as my vehicle slowly approached theirs from behind. I had reach to spare while keeping our vehicles safely apart.
I thought of how different things would have been if Clark had gone to bed with but kept two feet between himself and that woman. Because I don’t know, maybe he didn’t want to fuck things up. Maybe he didn’t want to ruin the relationship he’d just paid off, working a job where you couldn’t admit anyone else’s mistakes, for fear of illuminating they’d made them. But maybe it was inevitable, if you take as premise one this idea that people can’t avoid their errors, that ultimately they’d be destroyed. Maybe that’s where death comes from, this mortality of ours, one grand metaphysical fuck up that appears as an unjustified fate of all humanity—that it should ruin itself according to its nature, no matter whether that nature was a fault of its own, because from a practical standpoint, it just didn’t matter.
What’s done is done, and what’s over is over.
If the office had somewhere to store an extra pair of shoes, I wouldn’t still be wearing the heels I was expected to wear as a matter of professional dress. I would have left them at the office, changed into my runners before starting the drive back home. But as a recent measure to increase space efficiency, storage for employees’ personal belongings had been right-sized out of existence. And when I pushed the gas cover closed on the silver SUV, I felt it click in its proper place and with that feeling, the compensatory movement of my right foot on the steering wheel, meant to counteract the force I had exerted, but instead slipping away from the plastic steering wheel, the movement changing the course of my car toward the SUV in the other lane. Sitting in the window well of my car, I looked into the driver’s eyes as they turned to the passenger in the back, their pace slowing once again. The force of my chest on the Corolla pushed my body toward them, my head hitting their side window as my legs lost their sense of position and lifted from any anchoring friction inside my own vehicle that could have saved me. The weight of my upper body forced a rotation downward as the SUV veered away from my car toward the left gravel shoulder, speeding up to outpace me, giving me room to fall outward. My knees caught the upper edge of the window well as my body slid down the door, my head first to hit the ground and provide a friction that would decelerate my corpse in comparison to the vehicle, that deceleration the source of damage to my flesh. I felt a burning, and then worse, and then nothing. Blood marked the road behind me, a version history of my organized existence prior to deconstruction.
You can’t fix other people’s mistakes.
You’ll end up worse off trying.
Charlene Elsby is a philosophy doctor, former professor and data analyst. She is the author of Hexis, Psychros, Musos, Bedlam, and the forthcoming Violent Faculties. Her short stories have appeared in Ligeia and Vastarien.