Bernice clocked in at exactly 8:00 A.M., using the correct amount of cardinal numbers, capital letters, periods, and colons. She had worked at the Godwin Punctuation Factory for twenty-two years, starting out on the factory line producing commas, working her way up to floor manager, then office manager doing quality control for hyphens, until she had been promoted to the illustrious position of head of the Exclamation Department.
She thought today she might finally quit.
Bernice found Albert slumped over his desk, forlornly poking at wilted exclamation points.
"Did you see the memo?" he asked. She could hear the droop in his question mark, appended to the end of his sentence as an afterthought.
"Which one?" She kept her question mark crisp, as a point of pride, but she couldn't hide the tired lines under her eyes. Her blue scarf hung down like an exclamation mark without its point. Bernice herself looked somewhat like an exclamation mark: narrow legs encased in black slacks, arms boxed into a grey jacket, hair a black bob.
"Stewart left us to join Swindon's Grammar. He's already gone."
Bernice groaned. Stewart was the last employee in the Preservation Department. He made sure the punctuation marks were free of rot, degradation, and ink ticks. It was going to be difficult to get along without him, but Bernice supposed they would manage until someone else could be hired. She said as much to Albert, but Albert shook his head.
"They aren't planning on hiring anyone else," he said.
Bernice let out a sound best described as: !
Albert let out a sound best described as: . . .
"Who do they expect to do all of Stewart's work?!" She was distraught enough that an interrobang just slipped out. She paced in front of Albert's desk, knocking over some stray commas.
"The idea is that we will all become generalists. There will be no individual departments. Instead, we will exist in a utopian efficiency."
"You mean, our director thinks we are going to magically acquire the specialized skills of all the departments, without hiring anyone who actually has the requisite knowledge or experience?"
"So it appears," said Albert.
"Great," said Bernice, wishing there was a punctuation mark to convey sarcasm. She jotted down a note to bring up a sarcasm mark at the next quarterly meeting, but then she remembered she was quitting. Probably.
As she made her way to her desk, she noticed the lid on a container of semicolons had come loose. Again. The Preservation Department oversaw the containers. There would be no one to fix it now.
Bernice pushed the lid, trying to force it closed, but the darn thing was stuck. Inside the container, semicolons hummed. Carefully, she pried the lid up, putting her hand over the opening. The semicolons tickled her palm like nibbling guppies. As she maneuvered the lid, her hand slipped. The box clattered to the floor, unleashing a flood of semicolons.
It had happened again; the semicolons were on the loose. Bernice buried her head in her hands; this was just what she needed today. A horde of semicolons made their way across the office; jumping; sliding; gliding. Onto papers; into mouths. They ran like ants; the floor was black and swirling. Chaos; chaos; chaos.
Bernice made a sound best described as: #@$&*!
The director stormed out of his office. "Who let the semicolons out?!?!" he roared. The director always used more punctuation than was needed. It bothered Bernice to no end.
It took her the rest of the afternoon to round up the semicolons, and eight were still missing.
She took out a blank sheet of paper and wrote, "I QUIT," using an obscene amount of capital letters. From her desk, she drew out a fine exclamation point she had been saving for just such an occasion, the black lines crisply drawn, almost glimmering.
When she looked down at her paper, it read:
A semicolon had snuck onto her paper!
She couldn't leave her message incorrectly punctuated. She wasn't the director, for goodness' sake.
She appended: at least we all tried our best.
It was true. The Godwin Punctuation Factory was full of dedicated workers who knew the value of a job well done. Full stop. It wasn't their fault that the leadership couldn't tell the difference between an em dash and an ellipsis. She wished them all well.
Never one to slink out, Bernice strode into the director's office and handed him the paper. "It's my official resignation."
"After all of these years. What about job loyalty--or dedication--or at least the decency to not spill a crate of semicolons on your last day!?"
The director's proclivity for dashes made Bernice want to cover her ears. It was like listening to a violin bow scratching against strings. "Did you know we have a very excellent comma department?" she said.
The director, oblivious, went on. "I suppose it doesn't matter. The Exclamation Department will be reorganized shortly." He often used the passive voice to avoid responsibility. "Don't tell me that you're going to Swindon's Grammar." He said that last with particular venom. They'd lost a lot of employees to Swindon's.
Bernice hadn't thought much about what she'd do next. Maybe she would travel. She'd always longed to see the use of Spanish exclamation marks. What would the weather be like in Chile this time of year?
After, perhaps she'd see if Swindon's had an opening.
"Watch out for those semicolons," she said.
The director grimaced, revealing that he had a semicolon stuck in his teeth.
Before leaving, Bernice put the excellent exclamation point on Albert's desk, the crisp lines gleaming. She hoped he would find some use for it.
She walked through the doors of the Godwin Punctuation Factory for the last time, her smile like an upturned parenthesis.
This story originally appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects.