*with grave apologies to the late Edgar Allen Poe and George Eliot*
I stare at the mirror in front of me. It shows me the room in its stark blandness: the gray paint, the battered table, the florescent lighting that lights my face to paleness and hides my eyes in darkness. I need a shave. I need some sleep.
The coffee they offered me sits beside me, untouched.
I suppose I should tell you my name, but I won’t. There’s no reason to. If you want, though, you can call me Bob Smith. A common name for a common man.
I’ve always been insignificant … until now.
I was an accountant for the Blakely Firm, an insurance underwriting group with connections in many countries and fingers in many pies. I didn’t concern myself with the internal workings of the company, or try to cross over into management or sales. I didn’t involve myself in office politics and I rarely attended official functions.
All I did was what they paid me to do, balance the books and perform a quarterly internal audit. My annual evaluations were consistently positive and unblemished by any hint of ambition. I wanted to do my job correctly and get paid for it, and that was all I wanted to do.
Dave Bradshaw was head of corporate sales. Unlike myself, he was a born go-getter. He had long ago grown bored with the tedium of selling insurance plans and had been scheming to move into real management for years. He was very close, right outside of the doors. It was rumored that three members of the board of directors would be retiring next year, and the truly ambitious, the people like Dave who saw an opportunity to insert themselves into a position of power, were watching upper management with cunning eyes and solicitous smiles.
He needed his department’s paperwork to stay spotless in order to gain credibility with the board, and I quickly became used to a frantic morning request for an afternoon spreadsheet. He was as generous as he was demanding and often bought me lunch, or drinks after work.
My fiancé Rhonda was in clerical. She was a dear girl plagued with insecurities and constant doubt, a legacy from her parents, with whom she still lived with at age 28. The furniture in their sitting room was older than Rhonda herself. But she suited me.
One evening when Dave had put away one too many at happy hour, he confessed that he envied my relationship with Rhonda. He had spent most of his younger years establishing his sales credentials, and had never had much time for serious dating. Of course he’d met women in bars, but those encounters rarely led to much besides an inflated tab that night and trying to sneak out of a strange house before work the next morning. Now that he was on his way to the top, it’d be nice to have a sweet girl to share it with, he mused while finishing a vodka tonic.
The next time Dave invited me out, I invited Rhonda along to meet him. He brought a date as well, and we all sat in silence and listened to his stories about his clients, his deals, his nights of splendor and his glory days. I had heard these stories too many times to be impressed. Dave’s date also looked bored, her attention wandering to the big screen tv behind the bar. Only Rhonda seemed enraptured, drinking in his words with a wide-eyed gaze. “He seems nice,” she said during the drive back home.
“Now you listen to me,” one said, seating himself directly across from me. The other two men positioned themselves in the corners, arms folded, eyes on me to observe every move, every twitch. “I’ve had it up to here with you, do you hear me? You’ve wasted our time long enough. Tell me what you know about the Hammer accounts.”
“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t know anything?”
His face turned beet-red. He threw the chair to the floor. One of the other men took a cautious step forward. The third man didn’t move.
“Do you think I’m an idiot?! Your name is all over the books! You’re one of the top money men for this firm! You’re the only one who had the access! Unless you want to spend the night in jail, you’d better start talking about those accounts!”
“I’ll tell you the same as I told my bosses. I don’t know.”
The Hammer accounts. Another set of spreadsheets that had to be done immediately. But I couldn’t do them. I couldn’t do any accounting work now, thanks to my accident. Spilled coffee on the desk wasn’t a big deal … but a damaged computer cord and a stuck flash drive led to a lot of problems.
I woke up on the floor, a circle of strange faces hovering around. A paramedic helped me to my shaking feet. I had endured a severe shock, he explained. It was very possible that I would experience serious consequences as a result.
I was taken to the hospital under protest. They performed MRI scans. They tested my reflexes repeatedly. They studied my response to stimuli. They monitored my appetite, my temperature, my activity level, my interests, everything. At last they sent me away with strict instructions to call if anything changed. I was given two months of sick leave as a mandatory recuperation period.
As foolish as something like that is, it amazed me. This was the best that I could manage before the accident. Now I could create effortlessly. I went to the store, bought paint, brushes, canvases by the armload.
I wandered down to the community art center and rented a sculptor’s wheel and bought cases of clay, wood, and scrap metal. I created clumsy artifacts from the soft clay. Then I slowly carved a few pieces out of the wood. I managed to cobble together a ramshackle horse from the rusty metal.
During my forced solitude, I painted endlessly and filled the halls with my work. By the time I was scheduled to return to the office, all that remained untouched were the big blocks of stone, but I no longer had the time to work on them. I needed to get back to working on reports, and accounts, and spreadsheets, and audits …
… and I couldn’t.
Not that I wasn’t willing, but I couldn’t understand the process anymore.
I went to my superiors to explain myself. They looked at me as if I were insane. I was the strongest accountant in the department, perhaps in the entire branch. In my term of service I had always been a reliable, steady employee who knew procedure and policy inside and out. Was I seriously trying to tell them that I no longer understood basic accounting principles?
Despite the confidentiality and sensitivity of the issue, I soon found that I was the main topic of the office rumor mill. I was accused of everything from lying to gain more time off to lying to cover up wrongdoing. But in any case, no one believed that I was no longer able to do my job. And so I stared at the piles of paperwork that I no longer knew how to complete, watching them grow.
My worry was so intense that I didn’t have enough strength to continue making art. I called Dave, but he was on business trips and didn’t return my messages. I called Rhonda, but she could never talk for long.
I couldn’t. I had to work. I had to teach myself what I’d forgotten. I didn’t have time to commit to carving. Their smooth, unblemished sides reproached me. I painstakingly hoisted them into the attic. I took down the art. I put away the easel. I tried to forget.
The meeting was swift and brutal. My work was no longer satisfactory. I took a slow breath, nodding. I began to explain that this was what I had been trying to tell them, that I wasn’t able to understand how to do the work!
“It’s come to our attention that you have seriously jeopardized the Hammer accounts. Fortunately, our new chairman Dave Bradshaw alerted us in time to have the inaccurate reports corrected.” They looked at me with indignation on their faces. “Honestly, what were you thinking? Did you think you could falsify corporate data and not have it found out?”
I couldn’t get a word out. I looked from one unsympathetic face to the other. Dave ALERTED them? Dave?
“I’m personally deeply ashamed of you,” Ernie said in his infantile voice. His youthful face was strained. “You were my most trusted accountant. You helped create the algorithms that run all of our software! I don’t think there’s a financial record in the company that you haven’t touched in one way or another. Do you even realize the position that you’ve put us in? Everything our company does is now open to scrutiny! We could all be in front of a grand jury testifying any day now!” He looked directly at me, her eyes full of hurt. “How could you? Why did you do this to us?”
The second officer set the chair back on its feet and seated himself. The first officer was glowering at me from the other side of the room. The third officer remained in the corner. “We already know you didn’t do it for the money.” He held up my bank records. “Lots of cash in your checking and savings accounts, multiple mutual funds, all bills paid on time. Not even a late notice in the past five years.”
I stared at my hands.
“He stole your fiancé, I understand. Maybe you needed to get under his skin? Show him he wasn’t the top dog after all?”
The officer flipped through some more paperwork. “I see here that you called her a lot. Usually your phone calls were about eighteen minutes long. After you were released from the hospital, the calls dropped down to about fifty seconds. That’s a big drop. Just enough time for her to pick up and tell you she already had plans for the night?”
It was too true. Rhonda had visited me in the hospital approximately four times: twice with her parents, once alone, the last time with Dave. She had always ended our phone calls first, saying that I needed to rest and that we would talk later. Later, she simply refused to talk at all. I hadn’t understood. After my first meeting with my managers, I found the photos I had given her in my desk drawers. After the second meeting, I found the ring.
“I don’t know anything,” I pleaded. “Shouldn’t I be allowed to have a lawyer?”
“Yep,” the officer said, standing. “You’ll need one.”
Sixteen hours of interrogation. I barely knew which end was up by the time they released me. I didn’t remember what I had said, what I had signed, what the lawyer said, really, much of any of it. The lawyer told me to stay close to the phone, that he’d call tomorrow.
I stared at the fireplace for hours that night. In a month’s time, I had lost everything I’d known for years: my job, my knowledge, my best friend, my fiancé. I would lose the house next because I wouldn’t be able to find employment with accusations of corporate sabotage and corruption hanging over me. And I couldn’t prove that I wasn’t lying. The more I spoke, the more foolish I seemed.
And now I heard them calling.
‘Carve us …’
For the rest of the night, I knelt by those stones. I felt the marble veins burn with cold. The smooth, dead surface, trembling with a life yet to be carved out. And always, those haunting voices, begging.
In the morning, the stones were on a barge, on their way to Egypt. I watched the boat leave the dock with resignation. It didn’t matter how far away I sent them. I would follow them soon enough. I had no other choice.
To be continued…