Friday After Next
DescriptionThis is my first posting. I would appreciate any feedback you could give.
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Thump! Michael’s head bounced off the desk, violently returning him to the land of the conscious. “Damn” he muttered as he rubbed the spot on his forehead with his palm. It was the third time he had fallen asleep while staring at the mounds of spreadsheets that littered his desk. He rubbed his aching eyes and checked his watch, 11:37 PM, and groaned “God damn you Chad, I’m never going to get this stupid project done.” The mountain of paperwork was a gift from his boss, Chad. It was what he called a “hot little project” and he needed by COB next Friday. COB of course stood for Close of Business, Chad liked to talk in acronyms and abbreviations as much as possible, claiming that it was more efficient. Michael always wondered if he kept his own spreadsheet calculating how much he had saved the company by avoiding the use of whole words, for all he knew Chad was returning the company to profitability one syllable at a time. Michael yawned and stretched his aching shoulders, then rolled his head trying to work out the kinks in his neck. He leaned back and closed his eyes for a moment and reflected on his current situation and thought “Fuck you Chad.” He was normally more elegant, but exhaustion had limited his vocabulary. Michael had started with the company fifteen years ago as an intern and had painfully clawed his way up. He told his few friends that he hated the ridiculous hours they made him work, but that wasn’t the truth. The truth was that he was a junkie, hopelessly addicted to the job and the dream of the next promotion. Michael, like all addicts was willing to sacrifice any one and anything that came between him and his addiction. Gym buddies want you to go three times a week, screw that there’s work to be done. Girlfriend wants to go out to dinner and can’t understand why you have to work till eight on a Tuesday, then she’s got to go. The only thing holy and sacred in his life of addiction was the job. Now after all those years he was one rung away from the ultimate high, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO). There was only one problem the current CFO, Chad. Michael hated Chad, and not in the casual “I hate my boss” way people get upset when they have to work overtime. No in his heart of hearts Michael hated Chad like Ismail hated that damn white whale. While it had taken Michael years of hard work to become the company’s senior financial analyst, Chad had taken the more direct and effective route, nepotism. No rational person could observe the office for more than an hour and not realize that Michael was clearly more qualified than Chad, for starters he was actually qualified unlike Chad. Chad ticked quite a few boxes on the terrible boss checklist. He was arrogant, rude, forgetful, and hopelessly incompetent but none of that seemed to bother his uncle, the Chief Operating Officer (COO). Uncle COO had protected Chad through a wide array of moronic moves and ensured that there was no level of stupidity Chad could exhibit that would get him fired. But Michael’s addiction was too strong to let him quit now. His only hope was to work so hard that Uncle COO would have to recognize his talent and find another department for Chad to run into the ground. The project that Chad pawned off on him might have been hot but it sure as heck wasn’t little. It was a review of one of their smaller competitor’s financial records going back five years. Apparently, the company had secretly been in discussions to buy them out for months and a thorough review to ensure they were fiscally sound was one of the last and most critical steps. The news of the impending deal was a shock to Michael, especially since he read Chad’s email. Because the deal was a secret, Chad had asked for the records to be delivered in hard copy believing he had out foxed the hackers again. Michael was dumbfounded that not only was there a mountain of work to be done with an incredibly unrealistic deadline, but it had to be done manually. Seriously, it’s the 21st century and here he was working through the night with a pencil and calculator. It was archaic, how could Chad had thought this was a good idea, didn’t he realize we were living in the digital age? No one did this type of work by hand anymore, everything was automated. So here he was working another eighteen-hour day trying to pull off a miracle and save the department from utter embarrassment. Michael picked up the spreadsheet on top of the stack nearest him and tried to get back to work. He stared at the page for several minutes but couldn’t to get the numbers to come into focus. His will might still be strong, but his body was failing, and he realized that he was useless until he got some sleep. Slowly and painfully he stood on unsteady legs, knees creaking. “When the hell did my pants get so tight”, he thought and headed for the vending machines, ignoring the problem. As he walked, he noticed that he didn’t feel right, he was queasy and shaky, and his muscles didn’t seem to respond properly to his commands, “I got to stop skipping dinner” he thought and ran a hand over his protruding belly. Arriving at the machines he pulled a large collection of coins from his pocket. Michael always had a sweet tooth and a weak will, so he hoarded coins for the machines. Without thinking about it he dropped the coins into the slot and punched A7, for his favorite, chocolate doughnuts. As he bent over to retrieve his treat, several things seemed to happen at once. First, his chest felt as if it was being squeezed, there was a sharp shooting pain in his right arm, and he felt as if he couldn’t catch his breath. He struggled to stand up straight feeling dizzy and confused, slumping against the machine that gave him so much pleasure but might be causing him so much pain now. Fear wrung out all rational thoughts and he immediately forgot about calling 911 for help. Instead he added panic to his growing list of symptoms and thought, “Holy shit I’m having a heart attack! I’m going to die alone in the middle of the night at work!” As his mind and body continued to shut down Michael felt a wave of calm wash over him. He forgot about the pain in his chest and stared at the figure standing next to him. The figure was the spitting image of the traditional depiction of Death; black robe, scythe and all. The figure placed a skeletal hand on his shoulder and in a gentle voice said “Michael, don’t be afraid. You’re dying but it’s going to be OK. I’m here to help you with the passing from this world into the next.” Despite receiving this life altering or life ending news, Michael found he was calm. He was certain it was going to be OK, because this figure was going to be with him. Slowly, Michael came to grips with the fact that he was about to die and decided it wouldn’t be so bad, as long as this figure stayed with him. Accepting death’s embrace Michael allowed himself to be led away. Before they had gone even three steps a second figure appeared barring their way. This new figure was identical to the first except he had a scroll in the hand not holding the scythe. “Stop!” It commanded in a firm voice. “Michael, it is not your time. The pain you are feeling is caused by fatigue and heartburn due to your terrible diet.” Michael’s wave of calm started to retreat leaving him confused, but his guide was experiencing something very different, it was pissed off. “Are you kidding me? Who screwed up the schedule this time?” it angrily demanded. “Do you know how embarrassing it is to show up and tell some dumbass they’re dying only to find out you’re wrong? This is why I’ve been complaining that we need to automate and institute some quality assurance routines so these kind of mix ups don’t happen!” Michael couldn’t see the face of either figure, it was just darker space within their already very dark robes, but he was pretty sure the second one was taken aback. “Look here this system has worked for eons. Then you come around and we start having problems. Maybe we don’t need to automate (said with skeletal air quotes) maybe you need to learn the system and do your job. You ever think of that hot shot?” the new figure fired back. “Look right here”, it said as he unrolled the scroll he was carrying and pointed at an entry. The scroll was written in a fancy calligraphy style script that Michael imagined monks used when transcribing the Bible in the 1500s. “Right there it says he’s going to die on the 21st not the 11th, this is just the warning sign that he ignores before he drops dead next week.” The first figure leaned over the scroll and seemed to squint? It really was hard to tell since he couldn’t see its face, “Are you sure? That looks like a one to me, meaning he dies tonight.” He turned to Michael said, “Take a look, is that a one or a two?” Michael’s mind was swimming through a sea of peanut butter, but he did as he was instructed and leaned over the scroll. Again, he stared at a page of numbers and again he couldn’t get them to come into focus, they just seemed to float away. “I-I-I don’t know, maybe it’s a two? It’s really hard to read.” Michael stammered. Seizing the point, the first figure pounced “See, it’s not just me. Those stupid scrolls are antiquated and impossible to read. Why you just standardize on something like Arial that everyone can read?” Michael was beginning to believe that what he was witnessing wasn’t the first iteration of this fight. The second figure seemed to be the older, more experience of the two, and Michael began to think of it as the boss and the first one as the subordinate. Like most bosses he didn’t like being challenged by his employees. “Let me get this straight, our system has worked from literally the beginning of time but now because you can’t read cursive you want us to standardize on Arial? Seriously, Arial why not Times New Roman!” it sarcastically replied with more air quotes and frequent finger pointing. It continued “It clearly says he dies on the 21st, do your job and let’s move on.” Now the first figure was really and truly enraged “Oh hell no, it’s not my fault your ones and twos look identical? This is ridiculous.” And on the argument raged. By this point the terror of possibly dying had revived Michael and he felt he had to get away right now. He stood there awkwardly for a moment while the robe figures traded barbs and accusations. Finally, he worked up the courage and softly said “Hey guys, I think I’m just going to call a car and go home. I could really use some sleep and several really stiff drinks.” The boss figure simply held up a bony hand with the index finger pointing up in a universal “just a moment” symbol and returned to the argument. After a moment Michael decided that his need to get out of here was greater than his fear of interrupting the dark figures, so, he tried again, “No, it’s cool you guys seem to have some things to work out, I’m just going to take off.” This time he succeeded in getting the boss figure’s attention. It turned and faced Michael and said in a calming voice “Look, I know this is a trying time and you’re very confused, but I can’t let you go just yet. I promise we’re working very hard to determine your actual death date and will be with you shortly. We appreciate your patience in this matter.” Michael could feel the words wrapped him in a blanket of contentment, and he thought “I can wait a few more minutes, I guess it really is important that they get my death date correct.” The boss turned to the worker and promptly ripped the blanket off Michael by saying “I hope you were taking notes because that’s how you reassure a dying simpleton.” The junior figure groaned in frustration “I thought you said he wasn’t dying tonight? Look who needs a clearly printed schedule maybe I could work something up for you, maybe in Arial.” And the two figures were right back at it. The boss figure was clearly close to losing it and said, “Enough! Do you have any ideas how many people have died while we’ve been arguing?” “Of course, I do, I’m down here twenty-four seven, three hundred and sixty-five days a year picking up dead people. I’m working my bony ass off. There’s something crazy like seven billion people on this planet alone and they are dying faster than you can count them. Which is why we need to work smarter not harder. We could automate the process end to end. Maybe get those little scanners all the delivery guys have. That way we can just pop in and be like ‘Sorry you’re dead Chuck’ then just scan and done. You have to admit it’s more efficient.” “OK I get it seven billion people tend to leave a lot of corpses, but I’m done talking about this especially in front of him.” It said with a twinge of disgust in its voice. “You’re coming with me back to the home office and we’re going to settle this issue tonight.” The junior robed figure seemed to realize that he had pushed things too far this time and started to backtrack as fast as it could. “I don’t know if we can do it tonight, I still have quite a few pickups tonight.” The boss figure seemed to be enjoying his subordinate’s discomfort and said “No, problem. I’ll get someone who can read the scrolls to cover the rest of your list.” The first figure continued scrambling for an escape “But what about him? I mean I started this pick up I should really stick around until this situation is resolved. We’re not even sure if he’s dead, right?” The boss shook his head and replied, “I guess you’re right, but then we’re going to have a long talk about your attitude in my office.” He opened the scroll again and both figures leaned in to study it. After a moment the junior one spoke up “I give up, he’s either already dead or is dying the Friday after next.” The boss leaned his scythe against one of the vending machines and pointed at a specific line on the scroll and said “I’m pretty sure it’s the twenty first but to be honest I’m not sure about that year, is that a three or an eight or maybe a six. You’re right this script is really hard to read when it’s this small.” Then it turned to Michael and asked, “Can you read that?” and pushed the scroll in his face. Michael stared at the scroll for a long moment noticing that it was made from a far older and more primitive type of paper than was found in the copier down the hall. The script was beautiful and grossly ornate. “What? You want me to figure out my own death date? Fuck this I’m out, I bet Chad’s got a bottle of something in his office.” And with that Michael turned and started purposefully down the hall. The figures just stood there for a second, looked at each other as if trying to decide what to do and then they simply disappeared. In Chad’s office Michael found a bottle of scotch, a legal pad and a marker. After several long pulls on the scotch he wrote his resignation letter which consisted of the words “I QUIT” in all caps, ensuring it was clear and legible. He then called for a cab to take him to the airport. The text on the scroll had been difficult to read but the bizarre events of the night had chased away his exhaustion and unlike earlier this time he was able to focus. The script truly was hard to read but Michael had spent his professional life looking at numbers and knew exactly what date was written next to his name. While his visitors might not know if he had ten hours or ten days to live, he knew. He knew that he had enough of this life, and that he was going to be on the next plane to Hawaii to spend his remaining ten years trying to find a better one.