Jan/Feb 2021  •   Fiction

The Appendix

by Robert P. Kaye

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador, Coordinated Chaos VI, 2020, California

Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador

I used to take the stairs up to work to shake out the kinks from sleeping in a car seat that couldn't recline with all my stuff in the back. The terror of destitution made my gut hurt, and I wondered if something was wrong with my plumbing, but the company didn't provide health insurance for temporary workers. One morning, a door in a service corridor off the stairwell caught my eye. It opened into a kind of architectural appendix containing old furniture, shelving, and a utility sink.

I returned to the car, grabbed my sleeping bag and toiletries, and cached them inside the space. I spent the evening ensconced in the luxury of an executive chair with a missing caster, spelunking Internet wormholes about gut aches via the building Wi-Fi.

The Internet says the purpose of the human appendix—a finger-shaped oxbow of the colon—remains a mystery. It can become inflamed and rupture, causing peritonitis, sepsis, and death. Doctors began snipping appendices out of kids prophylactically in the 1950s, a practice discontinued decades before I came along. Sleeping on a floor that night seemed the apex of luxury.

Someone stole my car a few days later, but the building appendix provided salvation. First to work, last to leave. Downtown nightlife accessible and affordable with no rent to pay, a vehicle superfluous with zero commute. Management tapped me for the Fast Track Leadership Development program, designed to secure the company's future. The pain in my gut subsided.

Not long after moving in, I awoke to the sound of snoring. Moving a set of cube walls revealed a giant pupa. Great, I thought, pod people, but then realized it was someone in a sleeping bag. "Hey you," I said in my best security guard growl. "What the hell yadoin in here?"

Taylor from Fast Track Leadership wormed out of her mummy bag. "Nicholas?" she said, squinting into my headlamp.

"How did you get in here without me knowing?" I said.

She pointed to a door a little farther down the service corridor. I had a thing for Taylor, so I chalked it up to serendipity. We cooked ramen together on her hotplate and arranged the cube dividers for access and privacy. A professional arrangement, at least for the time being.

A week later, Taylor discovered Brandon, another Fast Tracker, on the far side. Cool to have someone with a big screen and game console, even if it meant sharing Taylor's attentions. It felt like we were all climbing the corporate ladder together.

"What about the other floors?" Taylor said one day over takeout Pho.

The other floors shared an identical configuration, occupied by Justin, Amber and Kayla; Hannah, Christopher and Ryan; etc. The Fast Track cohort. We went in together on mini-fridges and an espresso machine. Roommates hooked up, paired off, bickered, swapped, but discreetly. It doesn't pay to shake the ladder.

These days the human appendix is thought to play an important but undefined role in the immune system and is removed after the advent of pain but before death. It's a just-in-time supply chain, not unlike our industry.

The Company announced a competition to see who could close the most calls, the prize a permanent position. Taylor won, which made it weird in the Appendix. "Permanent" is a funny word for a job if you think about it.

"You think they planned this?" Taylor said one day.

"Of course not," Brandon and I said in unison, though I'm sure we both thought the opposite. The Fast Track program emphasized positivity, but there had always been a curious tolerance for unlocked doors and a dearth of security hygiene.

Taylor took a management position with a competitor, leaving her hotplate and air mattress behind. We were all grateful for the vacated rung above, or so we said. And yet the mood felt precarious.

For a spell in the Middle Ages people believed the human appendix filtered gold from the gut. Bodies were disinterred all over Europe and dissected in situ. Some speculate this led to a recrudescence of plague.

Sometimes I lie awake in the windowless darkness of the Appendix on the edge of panic. I catch the fading scent of Taylor's shampoo on her air mattress and listen for her soprano snore before remembering she's gone. Brandon disappeared weeks ago. Other floors are empty. I try to focus on the next rung, but the mantra of positivity has lost its potency since the pain in my gut returned. I have begun to suspect the ladder itself is missing. I lie awake for hours, anticipating the spasm initiating a fast track appendectomy.