Oblong

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Chapter 16

Double A twirled TF’s hair as he finished reading Oblong’s morning story. When he was done, he moved her fingers to his temples, and she began to rub them in a circular motion.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“That what you’re doing feels really good.”

“No, I mean about Oblong’s story.”

“Pop goes the weasel...not my favorite,” he said. “It started off as an interesting encyclopedia entry but ended up as an...I don’t know what. I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to be, but whatever it is seems incomplete to me. What did you think?”

“It wasn’t my favorite either, but the imagery of a weasel staring out from ‘behind human eyes’ was haunting—like I could almost picture it...felt eerily familiar.”

“It was eerie all right, but the ones I don’t get make me wish that instead of writing ten very short stories a week that he’d write one longer story that actually made sense and went somewhere.”

“Flash fiction isn’t everyone’s cup of coffee,” she said.

“It’s not the quality of the coffee I object to so much as the quantity. It’d be nice to take a long sip from a full mug instead of knocking back those little shot glasses of espresso over and over.”

“I believe they’re called demitasse cups, but you really ran with that coffee metaphor.”

“I’ve got coffee on my mind, or rather in my bladder.” TF stood and walked toward the door. “This is the third time since I got in that I’ve had to pee...must be all the rain.”

“Well, beware the weasel.”

“My weasel is at capacity, which is why I’m going to the restroom.”

* * *

TF was still feeling a sense of relief as he approached the row of sinks to wash his hands. When he’d first used the floor’s restroom on Monday, he’d had a difficult time getting the automatic soap dispenser to respond to him, but today he rubbed his hands together under the spigot and the soap dispensed right on cue.

TF shook the excess water from his hands into the sink bowl and then grabbed for a paper towel. In the mirror, he saw the reflection of the giraffish executive standing behind him.

“This is the executive washroom.”

TF dried his hands. “It’s the only communal restroom on this floor.”

“Then maybe you’re on the wrong floor.”

“What are you doing in here, anyway? Don’t all you senior execs have private bathrooms in your offices?”

“I don’t have an office anymore.” The black-eyed executive approached the sink next to TF. “The old man just terminated me, so I returned the favor.”

TF watched the exec wash his hands; red, soapy water filled the white porcelain bowl. “You...killed the old man?”

“I see it as a kindness on my part. All he ever wanted was to die at his desk like his old man before him. You know what bothers me most about being fired on a Friday? It’s that my fate was decided earlier in the week, but instead of telling me when the decision was first made, they let me go on working even though they knew I was done for, saving my dismissal for Friday in the hope that I’d leave quietly and cool off over the weekend instead of making a scene.”

“I guess that strategy didn’t work out so well.” TF took a step backward.

“No, it did not.” The rangy exec quickly pulled a folding knife from his pocket, flicking open the blade and holding it against TF’s throat. “I made one hell of a bloody scene.”

TF raised his hands. “Hey man...you can always get another job.”

“Do you know how long it took me to claw my way up the corporate ladder to get this job?” The exec grabbed the scruff of TF’s neck. “How many people I had to stab in the back along the way?”

“So now you’re going to start stabbing them while they look you in the eye?”

“Seems more honest...and, as I’ve recently discovered, more gratifying.”

“Don’t do anything stupid here. I gave you that shiner yesterday, but I’m pretty sure my neck is bleeding now, so let’s call it even. You can still walk away from this.”

“I just murdered my boss—the richest man in town...there’s no walking away anymore, but killing one more company man—a lowly, former junior exec at that—won’t change my outcome any, though I imagine it’ll make me feel better. It occurred to me after the old man accused me of not pulling my weight, alluding to a pattern of impropriety on my part, that somebody must’ve buzzed in his ear about my little misunderstanding with your girlfriend. There used to be a time when employees respected the chain of command.”

TF felt the knife’s blade press harder against his throat. “I didn’t say anything to the old man about that. The only time I’ve ever talked to him alone was while you were in our mentor’s office yesterday.”

“That’s a lie. I saw you talking to him at the bar on Tuesday. You must’ve had the old man’s ear. He probably thought of you like a son.”

“No, you’re wrong. When I talked to him yesterday, he practically asked what the point of me was.”

“That’s another lie. I pleaded with him, saying that instead of firing me he ought to get rid of the new hire who couldn’t hack it as a junior exec. That’s when he told me how impressed he was by you.”

TF resisted the urge to shake his head. “You’re using fragments of the truth to create a false narrative. If the old man accused you of misconduct, it’s because he kept tabs on you. Did you ever send any inappropriate emails? He told me that he checks our computer activity the same way we monitor our subordinates.”

“An executive wouldn’t do that to another exec—there are rules. You’d say anything now to save your neck, but I can’t abide a liar. I’m going to pull out your lying tongue through your throat.”

TF saw the executive’s eyes turn feral in the mirror, as if the human part of his brain had been usurped by an underlying animal instinct. Then a toilet flushed. They both watched, clenched but frozen, as Tom from accounting emerged from a stall, walked indifferently to a nearby sink, and began washing his hands.

“If it isn’t old Oblong,” the tall exec said with a razorblade smile. “I’d given thought to come looking for you after I’d killed this kid, and here you are.”

“Here I am.” Tom dried his hands and then crumpled the paper towel with his left hand to reveal a blade in his right.

The executive smirked. “What is that...a letter opener?”

“Trust me, it can open a person too.”

With the executive momentarily distracted, TF grabbed the hand holding the back of his neck and the wrist holding the knife at his throat. The exec returned his attention to TF, drawing the blade across his neck. Suddenly the exec stopped. He turned back toward Oblong and slashed wildly, slicing open Tom’s forehead. Then the executive dropped the knife, and it fell to the tiled floor—a moment later so did he.

TF looked down at the pool of blood spreading across the tile and then back up at Tom who held his forehead over a sink, examining himself in the mirror. TF kicked the knife out of the exec’s reach even though he appeared unconscious.

Tom glanced over at TF. “As tempted as I am to handle this situation internally by letting him bleed out, you’d better go let someone know that we need an ambulance.”

“Are you going to be okay if I leave you here?”

“I don’t think he’s got any fight left in him.”

“No, I mean...you just got cut across the face.”

Tom inspected his wound more closely. “The blade broke through the skin, but it looks like it only scraped the bone. I’ll likely just need some stitches.”

“Uhm, okay—I’ll be back in a minute then...and thanks, by the way. I think Richard Roberts would be proud of you.”

“Great, maybe we could stand here and have a long conversation about that...or instead you could go for help.”

* * *

Double A and TF waited outside the hospital recovery room where Tom was being interviewed by the police. TF rubbed his finger along the edge of the large Band-Aid covering his Adam’s apple.

“The nurse told you not to mess with it,” said Double A.

“But it’s itchy. Every time I turn my neck—”

“Then stop turning your neck.”

Two police officers exited the recovery room. The first officer said, “We have everything we need for now, so you two can go in and see your coworker. They’ll be discharging him soon.”

“Thanks officer,” said TF. “He’s not in any trouble, is he?”

“His account corroborated yours, so you’re both in the clear.”

“Any word on the other one?” asked Double A.

“He’s still in surgery,” answered the second officer. “He was stabbed through his right kidney and the blade also clipped his liver. He’ll lose the kidney, but the liver should heal fine. After spending a week or so pissing blood into a catheter bag, the doc thinks he’ll make a complete recovery, but then of course he’ll most likely have a few decades of prison to look forward to.”

“That fine by me,” TF said.

The first officer nodded. “I’m sure we’ll be in touch again as we continue our investigation.”

“So don’t make any long-term travel plans.” The two cops walked on down the corridor.

“I plan to stay right here.” TF turned to Double A. “It just occurred to me, should we have brought Tom something?”

“You mean like flowers?”

“I don’t know...maybe—he did save my life after all.”

“You don’t bring flowers to someone they’re about to discharge,” Tom shouted from within. “By the way, the door is still open.”

“How are you feeling?” Double A asked as she and TF entered the recovery room.

“I have the worst headache of my life, but otherwise I’m fine.”

“They did a nice job with the bandages,” TF said.

“I look like I’ve just had a frontal lobotomy.”

“Will we see you back in the office on Monday?” asked Double A.

“No, I’m planning to go there as soon as I leave here,” Tom answered. “I’m going to tender my resignation and then clean out my desk. I figure after two decades with the company that two hours of notice ought to suffice.”

“So, no more Oblong stories?” asked TF.

“Not unless one day you happen to read them in print. I think I’ll start writing fulltime...maybe stories that take longer than a page or two to tell.”

“You’ll have our support one hundred percent when your book comes out,” said Double A. “We’ll be the first in line to check it out from the library.”

Tom chuckled. “Don’t grow a sense of humor on me. I might start to like you two.”

“I wasn’t sure if you liked me or not,” TF said, “given how long it took for you to come out of that bathroom stall.”

“Sorry about that—I wasn’t trying to make a dramatic entrance or anything, but I wanted to hear the weasel’s rationale straight from his own mouth.”

“How did you know he was going to snap?” Double A asked.

“I didn’t ‘know’ exactly, but I’ve been keeping an eye on him for a while now.”

“It’s a good thing you had that letter opener with you,” said TF.

“I always carry it as a memento...and a talisman. I hope to get it back eventually.”

“I’ll remind the officers about returning it when I talk to them next,” TF said.

“Thanks, a bigshot executive like you would probably have more clout with the police than an unemployed writer.”

“Oh, then you haven’t heard the news through the office grapevine,” said Double A. “He’s stepping down and taking a job in the sales department so that a line worker from the Dearborn plant can have his spot in the junior executive training program.”

“That’s unprecedented at Imperial...taking less despite being offered more.”

“I don’t think I’m the first person to ever have that idea,” said TF.

Tom waved a hand in the air dismissively. “Anyway, as the officer mentioned, I should be out of here soon, but since I came here in an ambulance, I don’t have a ride. Care to give me a lift back to the office? We could stop for a late lunch on the way.”

“The lunch part sounds good,” said Double A.

“And we could drop you at the office afterwards,” added TF, “but then we’re taking off for a weekend getaway.”

“Together? Well, it seems due to all the time I spent alone in the blank space that I’m not hooked into the office grapevine whatsoever. I’m not sure the old man would’ve approved of you two taking off early after his demise—a sign of weakness in the face of death and all that—but then there’s a lot about corporate culture that’s in need of changing.”

Epilogue

By the time she arrived at the office, Double A had given away almost a third of her doughnuts to the other bus riders she’d gotten to know over the past week. She would receive her first paycheck come Friday and figured she’d have enough money left after paying her bills to cover a down payment on a car, so it felt good to bring a little fried-confection joy to her fellow riders before she left them behind.

Double A dropped off the box and a half of doughnuts in the breakroom. When she departed for her newly bifurcated office, she overheard a coworker comment, “Monday doughnuts instead of bagels—upgrade.” As she approached her mentor’s old office, where there were now two doors, she noticed that the new door was ajar. She knocked lightly on the half open door and peeked inside. A man in his twenties stood near the window.

“Hello.” He crossed the room to shake her hand. “I’m the new guy just in from Dearborn. They told me I didn’t have to come until later in the week, but I was anxious to get started—I bought this suit yesterday...I’m not sure why I mentioned that last part.”

“I’m sure your enthusiasm will serve you well. I’m actually the other junior executive in the office next door...and my suit is only about a week old.”

“That’s great...I mean that there’s another newbie. I’ll probably have like a hundred questions for you over the next several days.”

“I don’t know how many answers I’ll have, but I’ll be glad to help however I can.” Double A took notice of the young man’s brown complexion and dark hair. “It’ll be nice to no longer be the only minority exec.”

“Minority? Hispanic Americans make up the second-largest segment of the population.”

“Sorry, I meant it’ll be good to have some more diversity around here. I don’t believe we have another Chicano executive.”

“Well, you still don’t. I’m Latinx, not Mexican. My parents emigrated from Venezuela.”

“Okay then, I’ll let you get back to settling in. We’ll have our Monday morning meeting upstairs in the boardroom in a little while. There are doughnuts in the breakroom.”

“Thanks, I forgot to eat breakfast.”

“No problem.” Double A left and entered her own office. The room was as empty as the one she’d just been in. Not only had the office been halved but so had the furniture. There was only one guest chair and barely enough space on her new desk for her laptop and purse. The walls were stark white, and the room smelled of fresh paint. She wished the window would open.

Double A opened her laptop and powered it on. Before she started checking her email, she logged in to access the computer of an employee five floors down. A document entitled “Monday Morning Story by Oblate” was open on his desktop, but other than the title the screen was empty. She picked up her phone and called TF’s new extension.

“Hello,” TF answered.

“Sorry, I think I have the wrong number,” said Double A. “I was calling for someone named Oblate.”

“I’ve been staring at this blank screen for twenty minutes now. It’s harder than it looks...I don’t think I can write two of these a day.”

“You don’t have to write any.”

“I know, but I want to at least try...might be a good way to figure some things out.”

“Such as?” asked Double A.

“Who I am...what I want.”

“Those seem like big questions for short stories.”

“Maybe, but like I always say, the short stories of our days inform the long story of our life.”

“I thought I said that...yesterday.”

“You repeated it yesterday, but as you may recall I said it first on Saturday.”

Double A clucked her tongue. “Then I don’t think you should be saying, ‘like I always say.’”

“My plan is to start saying it more often from now on.”

“That’s too bad since I’m bored of hearing it already. How are you settling in down there?”

“Pretty well—I bought bagels, which were a big hit with my new coworkers.”

“Nice...I brought in doughnuts.”

“Upgrade,” said TF.

“That seems to be the consensus so far. The new guy from Dearborn is here.”

“Already...I didn’t think he’d be in until later this week. What’s he like?”

“Eager, nice, our age,” answered Double A. “He’s Hispanic, and I made the mistake of thinking that meant he was Mexican.”

“Funny, I thought only white people did that.”

“We still on for lunch? You drive, I’ll buy.”

“Sounds like a good deal to me, though it’ll be a disappointment to come back to work afterwards instead of to our hotel room.”

“It was a nice weekend...too bad it’s over.”

“If my arithmetic is right, there’ll be another one in a few days.”

Double A sighed. “Yeah, I know.”

“You sound tired.”

“I am, but it’s a good kind of tired.”

“Are you sure?”

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