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Secret Life

August 29, 2010

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World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer has had novels published in fifteen languages and made the best-of-year lists of Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Weekly, and many others. His short fiction has been featured on Wired.com’s GeekDad and Tor.com, as well as in many anthologies and magazines, including Conjunctions, Black Clock, and in American Fantastic Tales (Library of America). He writes for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many others. His latest collection is The Third Bear. “Secret Life” was the title story of his previous collection, and is the (relatively) Happy version of events at a company he used to work for. “The Situation,” collected in The Third Bear, is the (incredibly) sad version of subsequent events at a company he used to work for.


A vision of the building from on high: five glittering floors surrounded by a dull concrete parking lot. To the west lay a forest. To the east, the glint of a shopping mall, substantial as a mirage. To the north, highways and fast-food restaurants. To the south, a perpetual gloom through which could be seen only more shadow.

The building housed hundreds of people. They worked day and night, as relentless and constant as the seasons. The first four stories lay open to all, but no one could visit the fifth floor without a special key. Few had ever seen the roof.

The stairs were used for emergencies only. Some of the elevators clanked and groaned. Some of the elevators, quiet and smooth as ghosts, rose and fell with limitless grace.

Most inhabitants of the building, even the janitors in the basement, it was rumored, preferred the noisy elevators. When the quiet elevators reached the first floor, a scream could sometimes be heard, as of an animal trapped and then crushed beneath their feet. The screams might continue for several minutes. No one knew what kind of animal it was, or how it came to be trapped there.

Here Be Dragons

Over time, the inhabitants of the third floor grew to despise the inhabitants of the second floor. “They cannot see what we see,” the people of the third floor would say to themselves. Sometimes, they would put an ear to the carpet and listen to the people on the second floor as they performed their empty rituals.

“They are no more intelligent than bees or ants,” the people of the third floor would say, and smile. Yet they still visited the second floor, often for no particular reason, and would talk to the blank-eyed people they found there. After all, they too had once lived on the second floor, before the growth of the company.

Over time, language fell away from the people of the second floor, as if words had been something gifted to them by those on the third floor. Over time, the words of those on the second floor came to seem like the hum of busy wasps, or the sound wind makes through corn not yet ready to be harvested. Over time, the people of the third floor grew afraid, for reasons they did not understand.

The Pen

How did it get there, he wondered as he stared at it. The pen held in his manager’s right hand had, only an hour ago, been on his desk. With that pen—extinct, no longer made, refills imported from a foreign land—he had signed important documents, written condolences, drafted memos. The pen had a black obsidian exoskeleton, a fine, sleek body. Strange symbols had been carved into its surface. The point rode across the page as effortlessly as his fingers rubbing his wife’s back.

Might the pen be as responsible for his success as any other factor?

The manager walked across his field of vision again. Behind the manager, conveyed by a film projector, images flashed across a screen: of badgers killing moles, of men in trench coats, of complex diagrams, of open briefcases like wings. The manager continued his singsong chanting of the training mission as the twenty-five trainees, one penless, watched him.

Could he be certain a signed contract was binding without that pen? Could he be certain his good fortune would continue? And did his manager know what he had done by taking the pen? Looking at the smooth smiling face of the manager, he realized he could not be certain of anything. Images of falling bombs painted the manager’s face gray and black. Anger began to glimmer inside the man, like moonlight reflected in a dark pool. He began to sweat, to fidget. His hand was empty; he could feel the phantom presence of the pen as if he had lost a finger.

The manager continued to pace and smile as he talked, sometimes pointing with the pen for emphasis. Behind him, the bombs had stopped falling and a man in a raincoat was walking slowly up the side of a barren hill, above him an observatory. Could the manager have taken the pen by mistake? No. Everyone knew what the pen meant to him. No one could take it from him “accidentally.”

Sweat flecked the man’s forehead. He could not keep still.

The pen had been a birthday gift from his wife five years ago. She had given him the pen by hiding it between her breasts. She had made him hunt for it with his mouth, his tongue. After he had found it, they had made love for hours, urgently. He could not think of the pen without thinking of her soft, hot skin. He could not think of the pen without remembering her nakedness, shining in the dark room.

Overcome, he rose.

The manager stopped pacing.

“Is there a problem?” the manager asked, his eyes cold. Steam seemed to rise off the top of his head, but it was only the screen behind him.

“Is there a problem?” he repeated when the man said nothing, all of the man’s will focused on the pen.

With a shudder, a sigh, the man shook his head and sat down.

The manager gave him a sharp look, then resumed his lecture.

Behind the manager, the walker had reached the observatory, which had turned into a museum, which had become a library, and then was gone, replaced by the V of geese migrating across thin, light-blue air… and the time between the manager’s curt words and the man’s realization that he was capable of killing the manager yawned across that expanse of sky like the slow curve of his own signature.


Sometimes, sitting in the basement, staring at dim green light through a murky portal, the janitor-in-training had a strange longing for another life, a life he received an inkling of in the small hours of the night, in a stray sentence of conversation curling away from him around a corner of the office. A chance meeting on a crowded elevator. A life he knew he would never find, too enraptured by or entangled in the life he had already chosen. Each day he eyed the back of his trainer with suspicion and found less logic in the speeches of the Head Janitor.


At dusk one day, the company that had colonized the second and third floors conquered the first and fourth floors as well. For months, they had sent their employees to work on one or four. For months, these new employees had infiltrated the first and fourth floors. The liquidation, when it came, was swift and brutal. Cruel smiles. Locked doors. Blood sprayed across walls, carpet, ceiling. No one on the outside heard the shouts and screams. No one came to help. The janitors in the basement, balanced teetering on their chairs as they watched television screens filled with snow, paid no heed, even to the muffled echoes that descended to them from the air ducts.

For a time, all was still. All was quiet. The outside of the building glimmered with patchwork lights. The sounds of traffic dulled into silence. A wind came up and the nearby forest rustled with the music of leaves. To the east, the shopping mall lost the glister of its neon signs. To the north, the highways slowed to a sometimes car, flaring like the tip of a cigarette. To the south, the sudden stars cut off abruptly, victims of the gloom that hid the south from all but the most piercing gaze.

The moon, like a cross section of rounded bone, rose into a deep blue-black sky. Crickets broke into song. The quick brown shadows of nighthawks began to glide over the building. Then, faintly, quiet and yet so clear, a sound came from the top of the building. A knife against a glass. A pen against a coffee mug. An exhalation of breath. A softly muttered curse. The scuffle of feet—a lunge, a thrust.

On the roof, the owners of the victorious and vanquished companies met in hand-to-hand combat: two identical fat men in dark suits. They sweated as they swore and swung at each other. Grappled. Gouged. Bit. Their ever-more-numerous wounds did not seem a part of them—caused by the other and thus somehow part of the other, each wound hurting the giver.

The morning would find them huddled together on the roof, as peaceful as if they had died in their sleep, conquest finally complete.

Interlude 1

The company that occupies the first through fourth floors of the building has a secret name. This name is never spoken aloud and almost never written down. A few people have seen its syllables, at night, in confidence. The name glows a fiery gold when looked upon. Those who see it are said to be changed forever. Some leave the building immediately. Others rise so fast in the company that they ascend to the fifth floor and few ever see them again. The secret name of the company is older than the company itself. It will remain long after the company is gone.

The Vine

The office building was a long rectangular box with miserly vents and faulty air conditioning. The inhabitants of the building breathed air that their predecessors had breathed years ago. Some argued that breathing this air perpetuated a sense of tradition in all employees. Most said it made them ill.

One day a woman on the fourth floor began to grow a vine in her office. At first, she feared the cutting, taken from a patch of soil near the great gloom of the south, would not grow for her. But she so hated the austere look of her office—the gray-white ceiling tiles, the brown, worn carpet, the pale gray desk and old brown chair. The instant she placed the vine in a corner, on top of a filing cabinet, she felt better, as if she could breathe again.

Her boyfriend laughed when he saw the vine. “Like a pig with pockets,” he said, looking around her office.

They were having lunch. He worked across the street as the assistant manager at a bookstore. He always smelled of lighter fluid for some reason. She liked his looks but not his manner.

“I think it’s a breath of fresh air,” she said, determined to fight cliché with cliché.

In the silence that followed, they ate their sandwiches and stared at one another. She thought about the shopping she had to do after work.

Something mournful had entered the room.

* * *

At first, the vine blanched and would not bloom. Even with the support of a trellis, even with enough potted soil and the direct light filtered through the murky glass of her window. She felt guilty, gave it more soil, added fertilizer, bought shades for the window so she could regulate the sunlight that fell upon its leaves.

For months the vine refused to grow, or die. The woman forgot about the vine. She watered it automatically, in much the same way she stapled papers together or answered the telephone or had lunch with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend ignored the vine, his disregard a palpable presence in the room.

But one day, in the spring, she entered her office to a new smell, a fragrance unfamiliar to her. Perfume? Air freshener? No. It smelled vaguely of honeysuckle, of fresh berries, of vanilla, but wilder, more pungent.

She turned toward the window—and gasped, almost dropped her purse. The vine had turned a dark, healthy green, racing up the trellis, muscular and thick. It had blossomed: large, fluted flowers, a bright yellow that had transformed it into a fountain of color.

The plant brought her great happiness after that. People complimented her on it. She felt better because the air smelled like a garden all the time. The vine outgrew her small trellis. It outgrew the medium-sized trellis she brought in to replace the old one. At first, she had clipped its offshoots, but found she did not have the heart to prune it. It was too beautiful to contain.

Oddly enough, her boyfriend now liked the vine. This change of heart irritated her and she soon stopped seeing him.

When the vine outgrew even the large trellis, she faced a decision: cut it back or give it some new outlet. The flowers were huge now, as large as any she had ever seen, and a pure yellow that gleamed like gold even in the gloom. The vine was taking over the office, but she still could not bring herself to cut into such a healthy plant.

So one morning, she shut her office door, pulled her chair over to the vine, and carefully climbed up onto the seat. Using a ruler, she pried up a ceiling tile. The top of the vine unfurled itself and sprang upward as if it had been waiting for just that moment. It disappeared into the space she had created between the tiles.

From then on, her problem was solved and she did not think about the vine for many months. The curl of vines as they reached the ceiling concealed the gap in the tiles. No one noticed. Her vine had become such a part of the office décor that few visitors ever commented on the tangled explosion of green and gold in the corner.


They found the manager after many years, finally. He had not quit without notice. He had not gotten trapped on the forbidden fifth floor without a key and died of starvation. Neither had he flung himself off the roof and landed in a drainage sluice. Nor had the large billboard visible from his office, the one advertising island holidays, been too great a temptation.

No, they found him inside his own desk. A night janitor had triggered the secret latch under the right-hand filing cabinet, revealing the secret compartment, revealing the manager.

He lay curled up inside, a man in a business suit, the skull now buried in the jacket, the leg bones loose in the slacks. He lay upon a simple bed, a pillow at one end, a tiny television at the other, a bottle of good brandy tucked into the corner.

They found a peephole in the front of the desk. They found a toothbrush. Floss. Towels. A jug of water. Snacks. Cans of tuna fish. A can opener. Several people wondered if he had ever left the office. The night janitor remembered him staying late to compile reports or edit the next training film. Some said that the images from those films had affected him, had seared themselves onto his skin, these ghostly tattoos only seen when the lights were off. In all ways, he had made his own coffin.

It seemed only incidental when the company coroner discovered that someone had broken the manager’s neck and shoved a very cheap ballpoint pen between the manager’s teeth. No one knew why this should be so. Nor could anyone recall a moment when the manager had ever been truly happy.

Interlude 2

Some say that more people travel up to the fifth floor than ever come down. Others, that more come down than go up. Those on the first floor say the fifth floor is empty, while those on the fourth floor say it is full, but will not say full of what. A few have speculated that a vast ossuary fills up the space—a plateau of bones and skulls receding off into the distance. That no manager is ever buried outside the building. That this field of bones, if measured, is longer than the building could logically contain. The janitors laugh at such speculation. They like to say, “Wiser to ask: What is in the basement?” But this only the janitors know.

“Down There”

“We rule from the bottom up,” the janitors say from their basement stronghold, knowing in their hearts that they could as well survive without the floors above as a turtle can survive without its shell.

There exist two types of janitor in the office building: night janitors and day janitors. They can be distinguished by how they manifest themselves. The night janitors rest in closets during the day, among the brooms and mops, and do not emerge until dusk. The day janitors leave the building at twilight in large, unsmiling groups. The two types of janitor never meet—know each other only by their handiwork, the signs left in the patterns of swept floors, polished hallway lamps, changed light bulbs. They are as ghosts to one another. Each has created a mythology for the other—an act of faith. On the rare occasions when they by accident meet, they stare at each other as if seeing a stranger in the mirror, and to as much effect.

Only one janitor travels between the two worlds of night and day: the Head Janitor, he who works during both light and dark and rarely sleeps. It is the Head Janitor, bulked and bulky, tall and thick, who growls out orders in a gravelly baritone from between moistened lips, as much despot as cleaning agent. They listen as if to a force of nature; during the day, he comes to the night janitors in their closets as a premonition of darkness and they smile in their twisted sleep, dancing through the halls with mop and broom.

He it is who gives voice to their thoughts, their desires, as he paces up and down the basement hallway, neither cleaned nor cleaner.

“You shall not think of them as your masters,” he says to them. “You shall not think of them at all. Your work exists independent of them, without them. They are as wraiths to you. Our faith has to do with honest labor, with the purification of the inanimate. This is how we pray and how we do our jobs. Remember that. They are nothing: a scrap of cloud, a hint of a breeze.”

“We empty their trash,” the janitors intone. “We straighten up their messes. We complete their very thoughts. They can as well survive without us as without the very air.”

Their philosophy has descended to them through long years from the floors above—from crumpled pages saved, from the backs of notepads casually scribbled upon and tossed aside. They are as likely to divine wisdom from a discarded sentence passed down from generation to generation as from any reputable source. Theirs is a philosophy of scraps and fragments, the punctured code of incomplete memos and torn note cards. What words were meant as flotsam, they regain as compost for their ways.

The Head Janitor cannot remember a time when he was not alive. He looks out sometimes through the ground-floor window that faces the south and grumbles about the gray, the gloom. “Clean,” he mumbles. “Cleaner.” His bloodshot eyes widen and he trembles, in the grip of some secret emotion.


…and the vine continued to grow, twisting its way across the inside of the ceiling tiles, winding its way past layers of insulation, found the air ducts, and began to colonize the building’s arteries, harming no one, so that even the strange people of the second floor, with their clicking beetle speech, noticed that the air had become fresher, while in the basement the janitors grumbled and jabbed their mops into the air, for they had grown to like the stifling mustiness above the basement, the vine still crawling and pushing its way through the building, filling every hidden corner, allowing mice to crawl over it and chew on its blossoms, their droppings over time creating a thin layer of soil from which it grew stronger still, the infiltration continuing…

The Shadow Cabinet

Every second week of the month, on a Thursday, the Shadow Cabinet meets, all twelve men and women in black suits rising frictionless and fast via the glistening silver elevator.

On the fifth floor, the doors open with precision and out walks: the Shadow Cabinet. Eyes hidden by black shades. Faces unsmiling. Smoke-gray briefcases caught in vicelike grips at their side. Silver cufflinks. Black shoes so shiny the ceiling reflects in them.

As they pass through the sliding glass doors to the receptionist’s outpost, the Shadow Cabinet seems to flow or glide, their steps so smooth and controlled that they might as well be moving forward on an escalator.

In neat rows of two, they wordlessly pass by the receptionist—she scrunched low in her chair, making herself as small as possible; mouse to their collective snake—and ripple into the fifth-floor conference room: a wide space without windows. The last two in line always stare back at her, nod once, and close the door.

Outside the conference room an hour passes. No one knows how much time passes inside. No one has ever discovered the purpose of these meetings. No sound comes from behind the closed doors. Ever.

The receptionist’s part in the ritual is, by tradition, limited. After an hour, she will enter the now-empty room, gather up the twelve empty, open briefcases—resembling the discarded exoskeletons of thick gray beetles—and toss them into the incinerator at the end of the hall. The briefcases feel hot to the touch long before she reaches the incinerator. Any curiosity this phenomenon might arouse in her, she quells immediately. It is not her job she fears for.

One week, she entered the room as usual and was gathering up the briefcases when she felt an odd prickle on her neck. Turning, she looked up—and screamed, dropping the briefcases. There, on the ceiling, clung a man in a black business suit. His pale hands were splayed flat against the ceiling tiles. His eyes were large and luminous. When he saw the receptionist staring at him, he let out a soft moan, a shuddering shiver. Then he scuttled across the ceiling in a series of quick-darting movements, crossed over to the sidewall, and disappeared out the door, taking a route as far away from the incinerator as possible.

Since that moment, there has been no curiosity so great the receptionist could not ignore it.


A green tendril of vine curled out from under one of the ceiling tiles. The janitor-in-training was certain it had not been there a moment before. It seemed to form a finger, beckoning to him.

For a minute or two, he did nothing, dark eyebrows scrunched together. He looked around. Was this, perhaps, a test of his integrity concocted by the Head Janitor? Should he investigate or not? He put down his pencil. The Head Janitor had assigned him the dull duty of requisitioning supplies. He had been writing down numbers in columns and then crossing them out, a scowling smile on his face. His parents had been artists. His grandparents had been circus acrobats. Yet he sat in the basement of an office building and created strings of numbers. If only he could lose the ability to write them—if only the numbers would, like leaves carried by the breeze, fly off the page and fall to the floor…

The young man contemplated the curling tendril above him. It was not in his nature to ignore it. He could not ignore it. So he stood on top of his desk and peeled aside the ceiling tile, revealing insulation, the hollow area between the tile and the next floor—and a tangled welter of green vines and giant yellow blossoms. The sweet, sweet smell of the flowers overwhelmed him; he almost fell, just from the memories they brought back to him. They smelled like the perfume worn by his first lover. They smelled of even earlier memories, too, like firewood burning in the fireplace of his childhood home, or the spices his father had used to season the pot roast for Sunday dinner.

The young man breathed in deeply and saw new numbers in his head: the chances of the Head Janitor noticing his absence; the chances of finding the source of the vine; the chances he might die of boredom while sorting through the inventory. Nothing added up. Nothing made complete sense.

An image floated into his mind: him, at the same desk for another fifty years, his lithe, muscular body, seemingly made for climbing in tunnels, slowly turned to fat and defeat. He leapt off the chair, found some sticky notes and a pen in a desk drawer, then took a big bag of change over to the vending machines and bought as many bottled waters and snacks as he could shove into his pockets.

Standing again beneath the tendril, he hesitated, staring up at it for a long time.

Interlude 3

The smell on the third floor did not come from someone’s rotted lunch, but from an executive vice president who, having lost a spoon behind the lunchroom refrigerator late one night, fell during his efforts to retrieve it, was knocked unconscious, and died without a murmur in that small space, victim of the diet that had allowed him to fit, not found for three weeks, the whole episode distasteful to his wife and four children, not to mention the day janitor who found the body and almost left it there, hopeful that at some later date the white of picked-at bones might be more easily cleaned up.


It was a form of release, an escape, for the janitor-in-training to pull himself up into the air ducts using the vine for support. As soon as he replaced the tile behind him, the young man felt lighter and happier. He almost laughed aloud. In the darkness ahead, the yellow blossoms glowed a friendly phosphorescent yellow, giving him enough light to see by. Like a lithe and clever lizard, he crawled forward, first through one corridor and then the next, always leaving a trail of sticky notes behind him.

The tendrils of the vine brushed against his face. The flowers bumped against his nose. His eyelashes became dusted with pollen. I’m a bee, he thought to himself, not unhappily. I’m a hummingbird. Below his hummingbird self, through minute openings, he could hear the buzz of conversation, the reverberation of people walking just a few feet below him. Something about the secret life he had entered gave him a deep sense of satisfaction.

* * *

Hours later, the young man had still not found the source of the vine. With astonishment, as he rested, the water bottles weighing him down, he realized that the vines had taken over every secret part of every floor. It might take a day or more to find the source. He could either turn back now or continue the search until he was successful. It did not seem like a true choice to him.

Minutes passed or days, hours or months—he could not tell. As he gave himself up to the search, he also gave up time. There was only the vine, the blossoms, his need. When hungry, he ate the sweet fruit of the vine, with its lingering aftertaste of regret. When thirsty, he licked moisture off the vines or sucked water from the blossoms. After a while, he could hear the vine—a soft undercurrent of sound, a hum that matched its glow of good health. He would fall asleep entangled in the vines, wake refreshed, and continue on. Below him, at times, he thought he could hear the janitors grumbling among themselves in their own language, and he would laugh silently because now he knew more than even the Head Janitor.

The vines, the floors, the confined labyrinthine ecosystem that had come to life in the air ducts amidst the insulation, had its own rhythms and patterns. At regular intervals, for example, which he somehow equated with morning, a phalanx of mice would stampede down the vine—running right over him, their feet cold and tiny, their speech a deep chittering that he could swear sometimes held hints of human language. At other times, biting flies would assail him. Dragonflies and frogs. Dust and rivulets of water. Once, at the end of a long passageway, an animal with pale eyes stared at him before vanishing into darkness.

He felt himself twisting into the vine itself, so surrounded by leaves and flowers that surely they must sprout from him. At some point, his clothing fell away from him, no longer necessary. He did not pine for the sun or for any other living thing. Once, following a stray tendril of the vine, he burst from darkness into light—the vine having found its way out through a crack in the side of the building—and looked out into blue sky and gulls wheeling over the parking lot, four or five stories up. The light disturbed him. To the new senses he had developed, the light felt wrong. True light could only come from the source of the vine. He dove back into the darkness without regret.

Finally, when he had reached a place that suggested there might be no separation between himself and the vine, he found the source. It started as a sudden stubbornness on the vine’s part—a thickening that resisted his progress. He had to suck in his breath and flatten his stomach to wriggle forward. The vine grew bigger still, muscular and gnarled. It cut into his skin, bruised him. He would have stopped and turned back, but a mote of light in the semidarkness ahead caught his eye. As he grunted and groaned his way toward the light, the mote became a gash, and the gash turned into a gap in the tiles, smothered with leaves.

His breath caught in his throat. Somehow he had forgotten that his journey might have an ending. What if this was the source? What would he do?

Slowly, heart pounding, he wriggled into position and pried the tile open. Light flooded the space around him. He stared down. Below, the vine burrowed down into a large pot. To the right of the pot, a woman sat at a desk. She had brown hair, and small hands that found their way over the keyboard of her computer by degrees—hunting for each key as if for the first time. Her face, as her gaze shifted from the computer screen to her window and back again, became now young, now older, sometimes tired, sometimes lively, but always anchored by the deep eyes, the stare neither stern nor gentle.

The smell of blossoms in his nostrils, the young man could not separate the vine from the woman. A feeling the young man had never before experienced flooded over him. He did not know what he had expected of the source—salvation? revelation?—but she seemed as miraculous as anything in his imagination. A vision formed in his head of the two of them covered in the vines, making love, their limbs rapturous with blossom and with root, the imprint of her hands burning into his skin.

As if awakening from dream, the young man pulled aside two tiles and lowered his head and chest down into the room below.

The woman looked up, gasped, pulled back in her chair.

“Oh!” she said, her voice surprised but melodious.

“So you—” he said, in a cracking voice unused to speech, and grinned. “So you’re the source,” he said.

And wept, for the face she turned up toward him was the most beautiful he had ever seen.

A Confusion of Tongues

Once, through a glitch in the system, an employee on the fifth floor was forgotten but remained on the payroll. She had only one task: to stamp APPROVED on various documents. Several years before, this job had required a full-time employee because so many documents had to be approved. However, that time had passed long ago. Now, in an office on the opposite side of the building, another employee rushed to stamp REJECTED on a mountain of documents. The order of such things might again reverse itself, but for now the woman spent her days in languid anticipation of the next document, which might not arrive for several hours.

The woman did not even have a window to distract her. A rare storm from the south had broken the window and the janitors had replaced it with planks of wood. Sometimes, she would peer through the cracks of light in the wood, but all that lay beyond was the sky. Had she expected anything different? Yes. Yes, she had.

Mostly, the woman read or listened to the radio. Late in the day, she might dance or even drink whiskey from a flask. She did these things at home in her tiny apartment, too, but they felt more daring at work.

Tiny gray mice that poked their heads out of cracks at the base of the wall near her desk provided the only break in the monotony of her routine. The first time she saw a mouse, she gasped and lifted the receiver of her telephone. The janitorial staff did not like mice. But as the mouse wrinkled its nose, scenting, and sidled out into the office, she put the receiver down. There was no reason to call—she had been acting out the role of someone who was not her.

Instead, she took out the whiskey and poured herself a shot. It tasted crisp and burned her throat. Nothing this exciting had happened to her all day. As a child, she had spent summers on her grandparents’ farm. She used to sleep outside, smelling clover, grass, and the thick earth as she stared up at the sky. She would ride her horse for hours over the lush green countryside. Much to her grandfather’s bewilderment, she had also tried to save mice from the half-feral farm cats.

The next day, the woman began to bring breadcrumbs, seeds, and other scraps from her apartment. She even went to the store to buy cheese. As many as ten scruffy, nervous mice feasted on what she had brought in with her. Their quick, hesitant movements amused her. Their psychic abilities impressed her as well; they always disappeared at least fifteen minutes before the courier arrived with the latest document to enjoy the stamp of approval.

She found herself trying out names for the mice on a pad of paper: Charles, Leisa, Paul, Zeb, Gwen, Jonathan, Diana, Bob…

After a while, as she sat in her office without windows, waiting for the next document, she found herself listening to the chirping language of the mice as they bickered over a biscuit or a rind of cheese. The more she watched them as they spoke to each other, the more she began to understand the nuances of their speech. Once or twice, she lay on the floor and covered her arms with bits of cracker and seeds. The bristly feel of their whiskers, the softness of their noses, the delicate touch of their paws—all of this helped her to understand them.

* * *

Several years passed. The woman’s hair became flecked with gray. Her father and mother both died within a year of each other. The number of documents to be stamped never increased or decreased. Her entwined states of being friendless and alone were broken by all-too-infrequent periods of happiness that only made her feel worse when they ended, abruptly.

But she did learn the language of the mice. So well did she learn their language that she was able to teach them elements of her own language. This happened slowly and steadily, so that she almost did not notice the change, how the mice became her eyes and ears in other parts of the building. How they reported back to her on events and people that fascinated her. And because the viewpoint of a mouse is rather like that of a child—different and new and sparkling around the edges—their accounts were all the more entertaining and insightful.

The woman let her hair grow long and did not bother to dye the gray out of it. She wore long patchwork skirts and slippers. She stopped drinking whiskey. She no longer even bothered to say hello to the infrequent courier.

Instead, she found herself speaking more and more often through her mice, the voices of the mice become her voice. They spoke out in rustles and murmurs and chirps from the air ducts and the little holes in the vents and pipes: a dusty whisper that filled the building little by little until the janitors would look up from their jaded contemplation of the newspaper, struck by what seemed like a tongue of air in a place where no breeze ever blew.

At least, this is the story some inhabitants of the building tell to explain why, at odd times—on elevators, in an empty hallway—voices can be heard, speaking through the walls.

The Mimic

Dressed in a black business suit, a mimic appeared among the office workers on the third floor. He set up his computer in a just-abandoned cubicle. The dull hiss of his gray-spackled monitor reflected ghoulishly off his chalky face. He had an odd way of staring at the monitor, with his head cocked to the side. He had wrists and hands pale as the underbelly of a toad. He did not talk much.

“He is not natural to this place,” some said.

“None of us are,” others said.

If there had been fewer employees, perhaps the mimic would have been found out sooner. But the inhabitants of the third floor now numbered in the hundreds. They pressed down into the emergency stairwells, where middle managers sat in bewildered little groups, laptops balanced on their crossed legs. Everyone had to take lunch in shifts, for otherwise the elevators would groan with the weight for hours. Even a half-desk of space was coveted as a promotion.

Perhaps it was strange enough for the mimic to have taken a cubicle for himself, but stranger things soon occurred on the third floor. When the mimic began to pluck bugs from the stalks of his neighbor’s hydrangea—the long, pink tongue erupting from the pale, calm face—everyone pretended not to notice. His neighbor told herself that it was nothing really, nothing important; after all, hadn’t they acclimated themselves to the strange customs of the people who lived on the second floor?

Gradually, they noticed several other strange things about their new coworker. For example, despite the dress code, he did not actually wear shoes; his feet just resembled shoes. And when he ate his open-faced sandwiches of thick green paste, he swallowed in such a way that his large eyes receded into the back of his head, as if pushing his food down like a frog. He wept almost continuously as well, which was disconcerting if poignant, although one coworker remarked in a whisper that since the new employee’s face never changed expression, it might just have been rheum, not tears at all.

The mimic smelled of cardamom and mango, sometimes of pears, sometimes of fresh rain on newly tilled soil. Sometimes he smelled like a thunderstorm come up from the south.

The mimic had violet eyes. “Violet, sad, soulful eyes,” as someone said, sarcastically.

Anyone who looked into those eyes found themselves falling. They would remember events or people they had not thought of in years. They would feel a sudden compulsion to leave the building. They would feel an ache, a yearning for something they could not quite name.

For this reason, most people avoided looking at the mimic directly. Shaking hands was also not recommended because his oddly curled fingers were always damp. The pads of both his hands and his feet were sticky, and festooned with natural suction cups, although they did not learn this until later.

At meetings, the mimic would imitate the chatter around him, but afterward no one could remember exactly what he might have said, if anything. They just remembered it had sounded good at the time.

The woman who shared the cubicle to his left often defended him. “He’s quiet,” she would say. “His lunch doesn’t smell. He’s polite. He’s considerate of other people’s privacy.”

For long hours, the mimic stared out the window toward the south, and wept the tears that might not be tears at all.

* * *

It was not until the night the mimic was discovered scuttling across the ceiling tiles in a twitching frenzy of movement, sucking insects and spiders into his mouth, that the people of the third floor turned against him. The sight was too strange for them. It did not mimic them at all.

He mewled as they bound his limbs. He made a soundless scream as they kicked him. He mumbled to himself as they hauled him into the elevator.

By the time the elevator doors opened on the second floor, he had gone limp, staring hopelessly off into the distance as they roughly dropped him in the second floor lobby and brushed at their clothes in distaste.

The mimic stared at them as they left. As the doors slid over their solemn, disgusted faces, they distinctly heard him speak to them. But each heard something different—reassurance, admonishment, joy, grief.

When the elevator doors opened at the third floor, they had all become very different people.

Interlude 4

As for the darkness to the south, it never advanced or retreated, but, like a perpetual thunder cloud threatening rain, remained in position: a wall of gray to block all traffic, all commerce, all thought. There were those who had passed on into the south, but no one ever saw them again. Some nights, lights would be seen in the southern darkness and in the morning strange creatures found dead at its perimeter. But over time it became as much a part of the landscape as the shopping mall and the fast-food restaurants. No one remarked upon it. No one cared. No one spared it a second thought.


From floor to floor, the vine began to know its own deep green strength. The woman who had brought it to the building had left long ago with the young janitor, but it no longer needed her. Tendrils of an advance guard of triumphant yellow blossoms had found the outside of the building and begun to discreetly colonize cracks and indentations. Water coolers had been suborned to feed it. Any plant on any floor rooted in any kind of soil found a sly invader in its midst: a little curling vine exploring that soil with it.

The plant began to thicken and mature within its hidden passageways. The blossoms hardened into fruit, blackened, and fell off. The seeds sprouted in the most unexpected places, rattling through filters and vents to fall on desks and floors. The plant grew brown and tough. It could feel the sun all around it but not upon it, except in that niggling place where it had reached the outside. That tiny scout sent back the most pleasurable of sensations. The vine flexed and pulled and writhed. Ceiling tiles popped in remote corridors. Walls bulged. The Head Janitor muttered darkly to himself about the end of the world.

The people of the second floor embraced the change. They opened up their air system by order of their new leader, a pale man dressed in a black business suit who liked to climb across the ceiling. Great draping vines fell out of the ceiling, trailed across the floor. Soon a dense forest covered the second floor, and the people of the second floor lived among it in solitude and peace.

The vine grew stronger still.

Until one day, it filled every crack, every crevice, every secret area of the building. It had reached as far as it could go. And still the sun maddened and teased it.

The building began to crumble from the pressure, the stone and metal subverted, infiltrated, by vegetation, compromised beyond repair. The cascade of ruin moved inward and outward, everywhere revealing the miracle of green: a slow avalanche that took many weeks.

First to leave were the people of the second floor. The vine rent a gaping hole in the side of the building, the vine feeling for the earth. They crawled down the vine, still buzzing their fey speech, their possessions strapped to their backs. Led by the mimic, they disappeared into the southern gloom, never to be seen again. It is said that when they reached the perimeter of that melancholy place, the mimic gave out a great cry, raised his arms, smiled widely.

Others tried to fight back, enlisting the help of the janitors, but it was no use: cracks had appeared in the very foundation, and the sweet nectar smell of the vine was everywhere. The edifice began to crumble. The fifth floor, long since abandoned except by the Shadow Cabinet, fell to the street in an almost silent collapse in the middle of a cloudless day. Empty briefcases shattered on the pavement below. Now the building wore a cascading green fountain of vines down its sides.

After a while, all was still. The company was no longer really a company anymore. Half had fled. Most of the rest had been drawn back by the sheer rote power of routine, but this did not hold them for long. In pairs and packs, they drifted away. Gradually, the parking lot became empty in the middle of the day. The offices nearby became abandoned, bereft.

The vine kept growing—under the pavement, under the topsoil, coming up in odd and unexpected places, always seeking the light.

Soon, even the strip mall lay abandoned. Birds flew overhead in thick flocks. The fruit of the vine fell where it would and took root everywhere. Stone and vine and steel, the slumped ruins of the building stood guard over squirrels and trees.

Beneath the ground, the Head Janitor railed and shouted at his staff. They had successfully sealed off the basement from the vine, but now found their philosophy as useless as a basement without a building.


One woman remained in the building, even after silence had fallen over it, even after the janitors had given up their struggle. Every afternoon she would walk from her apartment and climb through the rubble to her office with its ever-empty APPROVED box. The mice had long since left. She didn’t mind—she was happy for them. They would send her words throughout the world and one day they would come back and tell her tales of where they had been.

She had long gray hair now, but her stance remained straight as she stood by the cracked window, framed by the hissing half-light of tentative fluorescent lamps powered by a failing emergency generator.

The woman neither lamented nor welcomed the death of the building. It was unimportant to her. She came back because there was nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Her check, issued by some central location, was hiccupped out to her at irregular intervals by some bureaucracy that had not heard of the building’s fate.

Nothing ever changed.

In a way, she found it peaceful looking out across the green, watching the way the clouds sped across the sky. Through the broken glass, the wind sometimes leapt into her office and she would close her eyes and enjoy the sensation of it against her face. She had lost her voice, but felt she did not need it anymore.

Sometimes she would walk through the crumpled passageways, the corridors that led to unexpected light, and wonder about her coworkers. She had never really known them before. Now, though, by the things they had left behind, she knew them well. She had found love letters buried in the rubble once. Another time, a wrapped present. Fingerprints on a windowpane had caused her to stop and examine them, wondering who they had belonged to, why they had felt the need to place their entire hand against the glass…

Every night she would let the emergency generator sleep, turning out the lights on her floor. The stars would come out all at once, soft and glistening. The world would be reduced to a shadow, a coolness. At such times, she would wrap her shawl more tightly around her and look back over her life—at the spaces in her life, the gaps—and she would be only a little sad.

After a while, she would take out her flashlight and shine it into the darkness, slowly turning and turning. The darkness ate the light. She couldn’t really see anything clearly—just the outlines of shapes, of the vine, of the dull, reflective chrome of a distant car, approaching the gloom of the southern border.

She did this for many nights. She didn’t know what she expected to find, or why she had decided to shine the light. She only knew that the ruination of the building had released something within her. So she held the light and flashed it out into the darkness.

Then one night, from the deepest part of the southern gloom, a light shone back at her: a violet light, small but intense.

She almost dropped her flashlight in surprise.

* * *

Some say it was only the mimic, mimicking her from the safety of the southern gloom. Others, that it was just a reflection in a pool of water. Still others say it was her one true love, created from need and darkness.

“Is it you?” she might have said. “Are you the one?” she might have said. She might have said nothing at all.

But come morning, she was gone, never to return, her flashlight dropped on the floor of the office, and all across the world there were only the sounds of the vine: the bees upon its blossoms, the ants collecting drops of moisture from its leaves, and its own distant hum, vibrating against the earth.

© Jeff VanderMeer
Originally appeared in the collection Secret Life by Jeff VanderMeer, 2004