George was always diligent in expelling extraneous effects from his office desk. He assigned every document a one-up serialization code the instant their cellulose contacted the table. Before closing the work away in one of the many gunmetal filing cabinets, he would place it in a folder with a color that indicated its urgency — Green was unimportant, yellow meant semi-urgent (but even George knew the looseness of the term) and he carefully selected blue as urgent. He had been anxious around any text or labeling remotely crimson since middle school due to the abundance of red highlights and strike-throughs on each of his essays. The sole survivors of the organizational massacre were his computer, a single grey-brown stapler and a quote of choice that was thumb-tacked to the wall. This week a single strand of paper held up by two same-colored thumbtacks read, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Creative IT Solutions lauded George’s cleanliness so much they made his desk the standard in the recent revision of the employee handbook.
When he woke up on the morning of the 23rd of May, George had a premonition that someone had been in his office. It wasn’t so much a vision than a dull ache in the pit of his stomach. He drove more distracted than usual on the way to his ten-story, solid grey workplace, but he still made sure to drive exactly the speed limit. With the elevator out of service, George had to walk up six flights of stairs before entering his floor. He opened the door to his sanctuary tucked away from social commitments and noticed his office chair was an inch tucked in more than normal. He made it halfway around the his long “L” shaped-desk before he froze. Someone had taped a lined page that still bore the frills of a notebook with only three strips of flimsy transparent tape. The page taunted him in the middle of the monitor with its obnoxious flaws: Odd numbers and intact perforated edges. The intruder wrote in all capital letters and in red pen, “HELP ME!”.
George, following the onslaught of blows from the red pen and ominous plea, stood fixed in place. His mind normally was bombarded by thoughts, but his brain had reformatted its drive and left no processing power for thought. Times ticking didn’t provoke swaying or adjustment; George out of anxiety had become as still as Christ The Redeemer. The minute it took for him to recover felt closer to ten, but when he did move, he did so quickly; He ripped the page off the screen, crumpled it and threw it in the waste bin. To his own dismay and contrary to his will, George was still preoccupied by the message, even as he relaxed in his chair. It was coded in his nature — and certainly a deliberate product of how he was raised — to yield even his urgent desires to those who needed help. But with no name, George was trapped between wanting to help and craving to restore his day to the normal schedule.
Following a clench of his fist and slight grinding of his ivory-whites, he opened the bottom draw of a smaller filing cabinet with a blue magnetic strip on its face. He needn’t even look as he pulled the file 0523001 out of its gloomy shelter. The package of 60 papers only required three signatures in approving the acquisition of new monitors, but he signed them joyfully, even taking the time to read details of the purchase. Like in a well executed play, an employee with a goatee that teetered on the edge of abnormal picked up the folder from the “Outbound” shelf of a two-tiered system. The other label read “In progress”, but due to a particular employee’s efficiency, that section had assembled a near-invisible layer of dust.
This was the first time the motif involuntarily played in his head. George noticed it as much as he would have noticed the microscopic lives of bacteria. He continued filling out papers from first the blue-label cabinet, then eventually the yellow. He was unaware of the bacteria self-replicating within his body whose genetic code was the message “Help me!” As the repeating mantra was loud enough to cause a slight stir just below his navel he saw the clock’s hands ticking just past 10:00; Lunch would be soon. And with that would be a new energy and a chance to further suppress the morning’s event.
But time to yielded to dread as that once faint stir immigrated to his chest and upper-stomach, which threatened make George’s omelet and oatmeal breakfast reappear. The man who had been captain of his ship since birth had been swept away in a mutiny of his own concerns. The mantra reverberated on the canyon walls of his ears, but instead of growing dim like the echoing of a cry, the sound became a cacophony horns thundering within his ear drums. As the aural-assault endured, a single clip flooded the view of his mind’s eye. He was working on a project that had taken him a three weeks to get to a state of near-completion, but it wasn’t perfect. He fussed over format and font. When he broke from the detail-hypnosis he noticed the red blip on his phone that indicated a text message. It was from his wife.
I feel so alone when I’m with you but I can’t be without you, either. The loneliness has been too dreadful to bear anymore and you aren’t doing anything to help. All you do is work. So I’m going to put an end to my misery. By 4:30 today I’ll be no more than a memory to you.
With a series of deep breaths and a fierce clenching of his submissive jaw, George fought back the flood of memories but the chanting remained. Help me, help me, help me, it droned and George couldn’t fight back, at least not from his office desk. He needed the one thing that could soothe his nerves: taking a walk. George had always linked his efficiency to the deliberate walks. In fact, he convinced upper management into mandating a 10-20 minute walk prior to working on a new project. George left his office, ignoring those who stared at him. He knew how he looked. He looked like a frantic madman who just decided to gun down his work place; he was viciously sweaty and his eyes darted to and fro before he could even fixate on an object. When he escaped outdoors he felt the warm spring sun caress his skin, causing him to let out a deep breath. He was not completely relieved from the grasp of his anxieties but it certainly helped. Help me, help me, help me continued in his head.
Georges route was always the same (he was outright opposed to the adage of variety and use as a spice). Walking the same route and realizing that it doesn’t transform as much as life — or even himself — was therapeutic. It was a constant reminder that somethings don’t change. Some enduring beings can outlast the metamorphic power of life, for better or worse. George’s route had always been two clockwise cycles around the building he worked followed by a seat on the bench across the street. So he let his feet do the work and let his mind observe the scenery. This hiatus from reality was interrupted no sooner than it had started. On a wall behind the building was a page from a notebook taped to a dark blue maintenance door with three pieces of tape. George shook from the arms which permeated to his wrists. His quivering hands grabbed the sheet and he looked at the writing. It was a lot more deliberate than before, he thought. But he quickly rescinded this thought as he thought about it further. Even though the first page had only been two words — a mere 6 letters— each one was deliberately crafted to the point where both the “E”s in the message had been identical. It wasn’t the frantic writing of someone acting on a single suicidal urge.
I see the way your expressionless eyes look at the world, now. It was my doing. Things got so intense so fast, I got lost in it. By the time I’d come to my senses it was much too late but I tried to fix it anyway and that’s why your eyes look that way, forever reminding me of what I’ve done.
He didn’t know how to make sense of the cryptic message. Someone felt guilty for his stares. But “expressionless”? That’s hardly the adjective George would use from himself; “distant” was closer and “aloof” even more so but he still had feelings.
George went through a brief list of those who knew him enough to notice subtle changes in attitude and also knew his peculiar peeves. The list was a whole two people: Daniel Barber from accounting who would spend time with him on weekends at the local library and cafe, and the rising star of Creative IT Solutions, VP of Public Affairs, Joseph Decker. George and Daniel would spend their time exchanging books and offering literary suggestions to one another and after a few hours would saunter to the mom-and-pop cafe around the corner. There they would discuss what they had read; George from the logical perspective and Daniel the side of irrational passion. There were days, especially while they read the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where Daniel would irradiate with so much fervor it caused George physical discomfort. But Dan was a good man and a better friend. Joe was the gelled-back haired alpha-extrovert type who had no business hanging out with George due to their wildly paradoxical personalities. But through a series of persistent persuasion he started frequenting bars and clubs with Joe. George had actually met his wife because of him, too. They were at a small pub — something more to George’s liking— when he saw the curly-haired woman who had a primal passionate gaze. It immediately conquered his heart. It was Joe that convinced him to say the simple hello that ignited a marriage just a year later.
George was confident neither of these effervescent personalities could be burdened by some misplaced guilt as to kill themselves. He circled the building one last time, decided not to sit on the bench and reentered the building. Before he could make it back to his office, he caught sight of the last page on the elevator door. He didn’t know how he knew it was the last one but he felt it. It was like something Dan would say; he felt it in his heart that the letter left for him would be the ultimate.
Your wife and I fell in love 6 months after you married her. I fell hard for her even though it was me who got you to talk to her, I couldn’t even look you in the eye after we first hooked up. I was ashamed but I couldn’t stop seeing her. I was so enthralled by her passionate way of life I lost control of my own. I started doing poorly at work and my finances were being dumped into courting her. When I finally wised up she had already fallen for me. We were even talking about her getting a divorce. But I had to get my life back in order. I cut her off and lived as if nothing happened. Honestly, I’m surprised you didn’t catch on. You were always so busy with work. When I cut her off, she became desperate to get me back but I was persistent. Then I heard about her suicide, and I knew it was my fault. From beginning to end it was all my fault. I’m going to jump from this building now, I can’t bare to look at your eyes, but they’re there even when I’m asleep.
As he read the note, George began to tear. He was betrayed and abhorred that two people who had been instrumental in enhancing his way of life in miraculous ways, were equally capable of destroying it. And now, Joe was trying to escape the life he had created spawned for them both. George crumpled the page, crammed it in his pocket and ran up the stairs. Each step brought him deeper into a recent memory that he struggled for months to suppress.
After he read the text from his wife he looked at the clock which had just began to ring in 4:10. This left George with no time to waste if he were to make it in time to stop his wife. He got up from his desk and started to run but a powerful force in the back of his mind began to scream, “Push in that damn chair.”And so he ran back and tucked in the chair. He didn’t waste his time with the elevator, which had spent more of its operation out of service than not, and ran down the stairs instead. The voice commanded him to count each one as he descended the 6 stories. By the bottom floor George’s face was full of tears to the point of snot trails. He was able to resist the command to check the backseat and trunk before driving, shaving off a few minutes, but when he looked at the time he became furious. It was 4:22. George drove recklessly for the first and last time of his life; he ignored stop signs and ran reds when he could. The clock was minutes before 4:30 when he entered his home. He couldn’t fight back the impulse to lock and unlock the door four times before he ran upstairs and saw what would drain any joy and passion that Joe saw into a permanent state of indifference. His wife dangled from the ceiling already hanged, already dead.
George ascended the steps and gritted his teeth until he felt they would crack. The voice was still there, berating him at each non-counted step but one death in a year was enough. Each step was a chore even beyond the physical component. Each step became an act of defiance to 31 years of a meticulous life. If someone else died because of the twisted web that had to be woven he wouldn’t forgive himself. He would be unlike the entities that remain prostrate in the face of catastrophe; he would bend so far he would split like a flimsy tree in storm. Then the mantra from the first page made a resounding resurgence. It was so loud it shook the walls of the stairwell and made the handrail shake, but George couldn’t waver. Even as the pointlessness of saving a man who betrayed his trust set in, he continued the ascent. Then, “Roof Access” sign.
George opened the door and saw the man he once looked up to pacing in a frenzy. His hair was standing more on ends than normal as if the gel too had realized the meaninglessness of further existence. He then nodded to himself and his eyes returned from the hell they visited and looked over the edge. George was 50 yards away when he saw Joe’s knees bend and unbend as he decided just how he would jump. Exhausted and wanting to quit, George sprinted toward the man who just decided how to he would spring to his death. Joe spread his arms wide, put his feet together and took a deep final breath. He started to fall forwards, enjoying the realization his life was over. But was his descent was stopped by an embrace than a yank backwards. Both men fell back onto solid ground.
George was the first to stand, and though his body trembled, for the first time since deciding to get married he felt resolute. “Joe, I can never forgive you. You’re a fucking bastard for going behind my back. But not even you deserve to die,” George said as the ice that held his eyes so distant began to melt away. George repeated, “Not even you deserve to die.” George had wished that Joe had went ahead and jumped before he made it, then made sure he knew, “I wanted you to die, you know that? I ran up here trying to save you. The more I ran the more I realized that I should have let you die for what you’ve done.” He sighed, “But more than anything, you need help Joe.” The ice behind George’s light brown pupils had melted completely and an unknown heat permeated his body. He was sure that this is what Dan felt when he was passion-filled and he took notes as it filled his body to the brim and started to pour out of him. There were many emotions he couldn’t understand but there was a boundless spectrum mixing their way into their new host: fear, anger, happiness, and excitement. He offered his hand to the depression befallen man with a benevolent smile.