The first person to approach Neil was Jared. He placed his coffee cup on a stack of completed forms and seated himself in the chair facing Neil’s laminated name plate, scooting forward and folding his hands on the desk. Neil patiently removed the mug from his stack of papers, setting it on a coaster.
“Man, we gotta talk.”
“All right,” Neil responded, setting down his pen.
A long moment passed during which Jared watched his coworker, his face a careful blank that was negated by the blatant concern in his traitorous, expressive eyes. He cleared his throat, looking down at his hands. “Man- I don’t know how to say this.”
Refusing to engage the man with the disheveled hair and the crooked tie, Neil waited.
“You are an awesome guy. You’re smart and funny and- and I know you don’t want to hear it, but Becky really does like you. Anyway, the bottom line is, you’re really important to this business. And I know I’m not best friends with Bossman, but I can tell that he thinks highly of your contributions.”
A drop of hazelnut coffee had been standing guard on the rim of the mug and now began its journey downwards.
“Man, are you listening?”
Neil looked up. “Yes.”
“Are you sure?” Jared leaned forward. “’Cause I don’t think you are.”
“The boss thinks highly of my contributions.”
One dark eyebrow rose. “And?”
“And I’m awesome.”
Jared threw his hands in the air and an invisible burst of energy exploded forth from his endless reserves. He leaned back in the chair to cross one leg, his face hidden behind his knuckles in thought.
“You really are something, aren’t you?”
Neil forced himself to maintain eye contact. The bead of coffee dripped into the coaster and disappeared.
“You got everything, man. Nice house, good money, great family. That mama of yours makes hash browns like she has a black belt in it… I don’t get it. What’s not to like?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean why you gotta go and make stuff up for attention?”
“I haven’t lied since last January when I told the waitress at Krazy Fries that I’d take the online survey.”
Jared’s hand dropped to his lap. “Really? You are really going to do this right now? To me?”
Neil stared at Jared, blinking once. Shaking his head, the man stood, grabbed his coffee, and left the room.
– – –
The next person to confront him was Janet. She knocked three times, loud enough to make the pens rattle in the penholder. They seemed to Neil to be shuddering in fear.
The fabric of her corduroy skirt groaned in protest as she shuffled in and slammed the door. She seated herself with an unceremonious exhalation of air. It reminded Neil vaguely of a gas-filled yard decoration deflating.
He waited patiently for her to continue. Her eyelids batted sluggishly, the left a split second ahead of the right. She let out another whoosh of air and continued.
“As you know, my position here is as the public relations advisor and administrator. It is my job to ensure that employee interactions with our cherished customers are upbeat and productive.”
Neil wondered privately how he wouldn’t have known such a fact, as he had worked with Janet for just under seven years.
“It has come to my attention that you have been discussing work-inappropriate issues while on duty.”
This moment, apparently, was the appropriate one to heft her gargantuan, construction-site clipboard onto the desk. One of the faded orange flower stickers on the plastic was beginning to peel.
A seafoam-colored pen clicked, poised in the woman’s endless fingernails. She jotted down what appeared to be the date on the top line of the legal pad.
“You’ll have to excuse me, Janet.”
Janet looked up, her brow furrowing as if she would never forgive him for interrupting her writing of the number “3.”
Swallowing, he continued. “I’m not sure what I’ve said that was inappropriate.”
The woman’s massive body heaved upward, settling in a dubiously upright position. “Well what do you think, Mr. Astor?”
Mr. Astor took a moment to collect his thoughts. “It has been my understanding that inappropriate subjects are threatening or sexual in nature, or are the spreading of rumors. Or lowering morale in general.”
The gust of air that emerged from Janet could’ve knocked him out of his chair. “It has come to my attention that you have been discussing questionable issues in the workplace. And by questionable, I mean that they’re distracting, and they put employees in an awkward position.”
Neil cleared his throat. “Awkward, ma’am?”
“It means people aren’t sure how to respond.”
At this moment, crinkled flower sticker decided to make an escape attempt.
“You’re telling people to believe things that they aren’t sure they believe. It makes people uncomfortable, Mr. Astor, because they’re torn between acknowledging you by lying and being honest about their feelings.”
“But wouldn’t that make any opinion a party disagrees with an inappropriate workplace discussion?”
“I’m here to tell you that it can’t happen again. If it does, you’ll be in quite a spot. If it happens in front of a customer, Mr. Lewinsky will be offering that spoiled brat of his a nice consultant job.”
When Neil had no more contributions to make, Janet scribbled something down on her pad of paper. The flower raised a single petal to Neil. Neil thought it must be asking for his help.
When she left the room, the door slammed so hard that his monitor flickered before returning to his screensaver.
– – –
After a day of relative normalcy, the door creaked open so quietly that Neil hardly heard it over the hum of his computer.
Minimizing the spreadsheet he was filling in, he looked up. Becky’s eyes were wide, and she shuffled through the crack in the door before closing it as if her life depended on the finesse of the act.
She seated herself in the chair across the desk and immediately began to squirm. “Um.” The blonde let out a small laugh, prompting her face to flush a brilliant red. “I guess I heard from Jared that – well, and I heard it myself too. Um.”
Brown eyes flickered up to his gaze and immediately dropped back to her lap.
“You said you’ve seen something s-strange, and I – I guess I wanted you to know that we don’t all think you’re crazy. Not that you thought that we thought that you were crazy. I just wanted you to know that you’re important to me – well, important to us.”
Becky pursed her lips and squeezed her eyes shut for a brief moment. Neil could see her pulse in her neck, hammering like that of a tiny bird.
“When I was little, I would see things. I … I knew that they were real. So I know what you’re going through, not to insult you in case I don’t, but I just…” The petite woman sucked in a breath and held it for a long moment. “At the time, the things I saw seemed so real that I believed them, but I know now that it wasn’t my fault. Things can seem so real, and that doesn’t make you crazy. It just makes you flawed, a-and that’s what I like about-”
“I’m not seeing things.”
Neil had risen to his feet and slammed his fist on the desk before he knew he was acting. The crease in his brow disappeared and his mouth fell open, embarrassment blocking the flow of any semblance of an apology from forming on his lips.
A sob tore itself from the woman’s throat as she cowered back into the chair.
“I’m sorry,” he felt himself mutter, mind a haze of disbelief at his own rage. “I’m…”
Becky had run out of the room before he could complete his sentence.
– – –
The next discussion off the matter came not five minutes later when a small but round figure appeared through the mottled glass of Neil’s office door. Mr. Radjeet’s tired, sorrowful expression seemed for once to be intentional. He seated himself without a greeting.
“Mr. Astor, do you know why I’m here?”
Neil stared at a spot on the desk between them. “Possibly.”
“Rebecca Morrison just walked past my office, very upset. Several of your co-workers reported an altercation of sorts that came from this room. A shouting.” He cleared his throat, a task that sounded like a great and fruitless undertaking. “Would you happen to know anything about that?”
There was a speck on the desk, Neil realized. Dirt, perhaps. “Yes, I think I would.”
“Neil,” Mr. Radjeet uttered, leaning forward and forcing his weary gaze to be met, “we’ve had this issue before. A few months ago something was said repeatedly to employees, and it started up again a couple of days ago. I sent Janet over to speak with you, and she seemed assured that the issue was resolved.”
“She was mistaken,” Neil heard himself reply.
A sliver of irritation was beginning to line the chubby man’s voice.
“Neil, this behavior is unacceptable. You cannot force your urban legends on people who are here to do a job. It would be one thing if you say you think you saw something in the woods once while you were drunk, but you’re telling people it’s coming into your house!” He sat back, and Neil’s eyes returned to the speck on the desk. It couldn’t be dirt. Maybe ink?
“I have given you ample time to fix this problem, Neil. Our benefits cover counseling services as long as your doctor refers you. You’ve been employee of the month six times! I don’t understand why you aren’t content with your position here.”
He looked back up at his boss. Yes, it was most definitely ink. A rose-colored sheet of paper slid across the desk, pushed by Mr. Radjeet’s stubby fingers.
“For the good of the business, I have to let you go, Neil.”
– – –
The door closed behind him with a creak, and the man shuffled his feet across the welcome mat. His shoes clattered to the floor followed by his keys clattering onto the bookstand. Not bothering to remove his coat, Neil shuffled into the kitchen.
The figure at his kitchen table set his beer down when Neil entered. As usual, a deck of cards was sprawled across the table. “Hey, man. How was work?”
“I got fired,” Neil answered simply. The figure grunted, and his eyes lowered beneath the thick curtain of fur that covered his face.
“Awww. I’m sorry, Neil.”
“You have to leave.” Gathering his courage, he looked at the massive creature and forced his voice to be stern.
With a sigh, the thing in his kitchen picked his hand of cards back up. “Now why would I do that? Free power, hot showers … and those hash browns your mom brings over every Sunday? Amazing.”
When the thing said no more, Neil shook his head tiredly and went up the stairs.