‘Sister Grim’ was originally published by the venerable Canada’s Storyteller Magazine. Sadly, CST is now gone, so here’s a re-print of my story about Ms. Grim….
On the cul-de-sac at the end of Alyssum drive, in the green suburb of Still Creek, IrisTech Corporate Headquarters stood alone and dominant. Islands of purple snapdragons decorated the peaceful, manicured grounds that surrounded the imposing graystone; a row of oaks stood reverently behind them. Tuesday morning’s sunlight fought through the oaks’ branches and made shadows on the building’s eastern face that looked like fingers trying to reach into the windows.
Just another day at IrisTech. Office staff rushed, technicians chatted, clerks typed. Phones rang and keyboards clicked. I bent down to pick a copper paper-clip off the floor as an agitated Paula-From-Sales stood in front of her copier and asked, “Has anyone seen Sister Grim?” Her stiletto-heeled foot rocked back and forth like a manic, black ferret.
“I’M IN A HURRY!” she bellowed. “I have to be somewhere! Where the hell is that pathetic fart? The stupid copier cabinet is locked! I’d better not have to go somewhere else to get paper, I have other things to do, y’ know!” Paula-From-Sales sold more computers at IrisTech than any other sales-rep, but having to run down supplies and make copies on her own, personal copier was beneath her. She put her crimson-tipped hands on her hips and kicked the cabinet door.
Paula sought Sophia Graham, known to all of IrisTech as “Sister Grim” of the clerical staff. “Where is that friggin’ SISTER GRIM when you need her?” she whined. “If I don’t have the little clerks backing me up, doing THEIR jobs, then I don’t have enough time to sell HALF the computers that get sold at this place, and you know what THAT means!” Her loud, melodramatic speech was performed for anyone in earshot, an annoying ritual.
I was fooling around near the copier, pouring hot water into my teacup. “I’ll look for her,” I offered. Volunteering to search for Sophia let me escape Paula-From-Sales (a name she fostered by introducing herself using the three-word moniker instead of simply ‘Paula’) before an actual conversation began between us. I never liked Paula very much.
Who did Paula remind me of…a murderess…that woman that killed her neighbor with a knife and fork last year? Or was it a movie villainess…someone like that.
Sophia Graham had worked for the company for three years and three months. (As the human resources manager, I knew everyone’s duration of employment.) She was chronically sad; no bonus smiles from Sophia. She’d tell anyone that would listen that she had “unresolved issues” from her childhood, that men sought her out only as an object, that her life was going nowhere.
I once brought up our tuition re-imbursement program with her. “Move up in the company; meet some new, different people at college,” I suggested. “You’re industrious. You could really go far here if you put your mind to it.” I lied a bit.
I tried to be upbeat but she wasn’t very interested in my suggestion. “I’m one of those people,” she moaned, “doomed to the proverbial, eternal rut.” The brow on her flat, square-ish face never wrinkled a bit when she said it. I felt for a twenty-eight year old that would trudge through life convinced it held so little promise.
At a Friday happy hour, Sophia was the topic of a tipsy, laughter filled conversation. “Her life is no fairy-tale,” mused Glen, a service-tech. The “fairy-tale” remark led Paula-From-Sales to make the “Sister Grim” double-entendre, and unfortunately, it stuck. It grew tired and mean-spirited, but so common around the office I even caught myself saying it once.
I set my “I Love IrisTech” cup of steaming water next to the coffee maker, grinding it into the grit of the morning’s spilled sugar. Over my shoulder I shouted, “I’ll send her back when I find her!” Successful, I fled and began my extended break. When I found Sophia, I’d make it a point to chat and keep Paula-From-Sales waiting.
I lollygagged down the hall and turned left, toward the lobby. I couldn’t blame Sophia for her momentary absence. She had a crummy job; thankless, menial tasks from eight in the morning until five, copying and filing all day. Enough to make any normal human being flat-line. She wasn’t in the habit of just vanishing, though. Arguably, she was the most dependable person at IrisTech. She’d even won the office’s October “Attention to Detail” award.
One lunch-hour not long ago, I found Sophia alone, sorting account-payables files as she ate a brown-spotted banana. “Go to lunch, Sophia, get out of here! It’s not good to stay in a building all day. Do you like to walk?” I asked. “Or bring a book, read outside. At the lunch tables by the flowers when the weather’s nice, huh? I make it a point to get out of here when I can,” I emphasized.
She shifted in her seat and stopped sipping from the tiny straw inserted in her boxed soy-drink. “Nowhere to go,” she said. “Someone’s just going to yell, ‘Hey, Sister Grim! What’s up?’ No thank-you. The files and staplers and copiers are better company than that.” She smiled an obligatory, little twitch, not even a smile really, then returned, unemotionally, to her aged banana and folders.
I kept walking, looking around corners, in offices. No luck. I wanted to get to Sophia before Paula-From-Sales did, tell her: don’t sweat it, Paula’s a jerk, you’ll be here longer than she will…say, how are your cats? I passed by stacks of boxes that had been organized and labeled by her, years of files that no one ever wanted to tackle until systematic Sophia arrived.
A familiar, resonant click came over the speakers in the hall, the sound of the office’s public address system being switched on. Paula’s voice, as brittle and venomous as I’d ever heard it, came across at maximum volume. “Sister Grim, get your useless butt to the sales office immediately! COME! NOW!” I couldn’t stand Paula as it was, but that was too much. Her unparalleled sales performance, though, reduced my options regarding what I could effectively do about her.
I never really understood why Paula had set out after Sophia so deliberately all those years. The bully-jackal chewing at the runt’s hind-end, I suppose; the cruel order of the pack. She was lucky Sophia wasn’t vindictive, just plugged along, filing and copying, filing and copying….
“Of course, Sophia’s in the bathroom,” I muttered. “Carol, could you see if Sophia’s in the ladies’ room?” The receptionist, still giggling at the announcement that had just come over the intercom, was gone for barely ten seconds, returning and shaking her head.
Would she have just left? I headed for the subfloor basement, taking the cement stairs. Knowing Sophia, she was probably down there fetching supplies. She liked to keep the copiers well-stocked and, as she mentioned the day before, “ready to go.”
“Sophia!” I flicked a light on; no one in the musty basement besides myself. I looked around some boxes and – I don’t know why – behind the hot-water heater. Just dust. I stood on my tiptoes and looked out the ground-level window, toward the east. Maybe she was running away, through the row of oaks; she’d finally had it. I imagined her facing the building, angrily shaking her fist at her “Sister Grim” existence at IrisTech and everyone that had a part in it.
The sun over Still Creek had warmed the offices upstairs but not the basement. I folded my short-sleeved arms and rubbed away the goosebumps.
I continued poking around downstairs and found more organized boxes, courtesy of our busy, enterprising Sophia. There was a coffee-stained newspaper bearing the headline: ’28 Car Pile-Up Halts Commute.’ An ashtray full of stubbed-out cigarettes was atop an old, green file cabinet. Christmas decorations were in bags and boxes, including Paula’s favorite: a life-size poster of a Chippendale’s dancer barely disguised as Santa Claus that she faithfully put up next to her desk, g-string at tongue-level, every December.
A piercing, window-rattling CRACK made the building jump. I started sweating; my throat tightened. I galloped upstairs three steps at a time and followed a frantic crowd of about twelve people toward the copy-and-coffee room. I smelled something burning. A woman screamed and someone yelled my name.
People bunched up around the doorway, shoulder to shoulder, tilting their heads to see around other heads in front. No one wanted to commit to crossing the threshold into the room. I forced my way between over-perfumed Elaine and un-deoderized Horace from maintenance. Brown smoke hovered near the ceiling. I could see a five-foot-high black mark, like a splash of copier toner, on the area of the wall usually covered up by the huge IrisTech 5000 CopyMaster.
The copier had exploded out its back and violently pushed itself into Paula-From-Sales, knocking her out. She landed under a queen palm, her head cracking the plant’s ceramic pot. A female voice whispered she’d decided to find some paper and make her own copies after all, not willing to wait any longer. “When she pressed the button,” the voice said, “it blew.”
Carol called 9-1-1. Horace ran in and put his folded, fragrant “I Love IrisTech” wind-breaker under Paula’s head. In minutes, groggy Paula-From-Sales was rolled away on a gurney and sped to the hospital in a shiny, red-and-white-striped Still Creek Fire Department ambulance. Two high-heeled, black-stocking clad sales assistants, Tiffani and Kelli, the ‘mini-Paulas’ we called them, grabbed their matching purses and rode with her to the hospital.
Sophia was dead, found bent into a fetal position in the storage compartment of the copier, there since the previous night police later said, behind the locked cabinet door. She’d taken the back off the cabinet, crawled in and removed a panel that opened into the electronic controls of the copier. She was completely dressed in black; the security guards never saw her. She’d attempted to wire a device that would make the copier explode when the “start” button was pressed, but stayed too long into the morning, hidden and not able to leave once office staff began arriving.
I pictured Sophia curled up in the aloneness of night, fingers reaching through the maze of wires. Her last shift at IrisTech. Industrious Sophia, busy until the end.
Police found a photo of Paula in Sophia’s jacket pocket, the missing keys to the copier cabinet, along with a cassette of Debbie Boone’s ‘You Light Up My Life’ and a half-eaten banana in a baggie. The melted tendons of her right hand were fused to needle-nose pliers. The pliers still held two electrical wires from the copier and another wire that had been connected to an ounce of plastic explosive. An F.B.I. bomb expert later declared that she’d deliberately made a manual, kamikaze connection, no doubt when she heard Paula standing inches away.
I was numb as I stared at the pink and black corpse that used to be Sophia Graham, now burned almost hairless and missing both eyelids and lips. Her dead-awake gaze seemed aimed directly at me. She smiled a lipless-corpse grin, a frozen image of victorious insanity as she squeezed the wires together while she listened to her own, personal devil-incarnate screaming her name.
I pulled Sophia’s personnel file and found her application. I thought someone should call her family before they heard the story on the news. However, on the “In case of emergency contact” line, it was blank.
Instead of taking a lunch, I stood on the sidewalk in front of the IrisTech complex. Alone, I watched the EMT’s casually load Sophia’s scorched body into a dented, older-model coroner’s van. They slammed the double-doors shut and left for the city morgue, and I heard their laughter as they drove away, out of the shadowy grasp of the oaks’ branches.
I turned around to face the building and angrily shook my fist as Sophia Graham escaped IrisTech forever, past the snapdragons and down sunny Alyssum Drive, away from what she hated most of all. Sister Grim.
It’s been two years since the explosion.
Paula never returned to IrisTech. She suffers from severe amnesia and doesn’t remember anyone here. Not Sophia, not her boyfriend, not a damned soul. She doesn’t die her hair anymore, and it’s long and gray. She’s put on about eighty pounds, last I heard. She found work as a laundry worker at Still Creek Hospital.
Tiffany and Kelli were arrested last year in a drug-and-prostitution sting. Kelli ratted out Tiffani and received probation. Tiffany has ten months left on her sentence and now goes by the nickname “Gristle.”
By virtue of the explosion, the ensuing negative press and no more Paula-from-Sales, IrisTech went under. Unrecoverable losses in the tens of millions of dollars, and you know what THAT means.
I wrote a book about Sophia and her exploits titled: Sister Grim – Not a Fairy Tale. It did very well and is about to be made into a television movie. Be sure to check your local listings.
Right after I received my advance for the book, I had Sophia dug up from her unmarked, county grave and buried with a proper funeral at Willowbrook, a posh cemetery in the cool pines north of Still Creek. The stone reads: “Sophia Luanne Graham. Industrious and appreciated. Busy until the end.” I think she’d like that.
Every once in a while I drive by the old IrisTech complex. It’s vacant now and about a dozen of its windows have been broken out. The purple snapdragons have been overtaken by fat, thorned weeds. But the morning sun still fights through the branches of the oak trees and the shadows they cast on the building look like a ghost’s hands that just won’t let go.
I think Sophia would like that, too.
© copyright Robert Louis Bartlett