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He sensed he was alone, and he remembered it was Saturday and Gwen was at her company-wide meeting. She probably got up before dawn to get ready. She was giving a presentation on her human resource accounting program, and she'd been looking forward to the meeting the way Norman looked forward to company holidays.
Maybe he could risk rolling over without hurting his back. when he started to shift his body, however, the bed suddenly dropped from under him, and he fell. He opened his eyes on his way toward the floor and saw that his bedroom had changed overnight. Nothing was where it was supposed to be, and none of the furniture looked familiar. By the time he hit the carpet, he understood. He wasn't in his bedroom. He wasn't even home. He was in Pierce's office.
He lay on the floor with the chair overturned beside him. His heart pounded while he tried to reconstruct what had happened. He'd been sitting in a chair, and Pierce had paralyzed him before doing something to Jacqueline. Something revolting and unbusinesslike. Jacqueline had moaned.
Norman didn't try to move, but swept the room as best he could with his eyes. The floor was a strange angle from which to view Pierce's office. He'd never looked at an office from the floor before. There was a small dust kitty under Pierce's desk, just visible in the pink light that suffused the room. It was no longer dark.
He worked it out then that he had fallen out of his chair because he'd shifted his body. He tentatively stretched a leg in front of him. His body ached, but the leg moved. He wasn't paralyzed. He shifted his head, and the carpet nap made a scratching noise against his cheek. He reached up and felt the cheek. There was a growth of beard there, much denser than he usually acquired by the end of the day. The legs of the chair that remained standing beside him were nicked and scratched.
He reached behind him and felt for the chair he'd overturned. Grasping one of the legs, he pulled himself to a sitting position. Early morning sunlight from the doorway to the reception area softened the room.
He pushed himself slowly to his feet, using the overturned chair for support. Then he bent over and righted the chair. He looked around. There was no sign of any struggle. Everything seemed to be in its place. He walked around the room. Pierce apparently kept no personal items here. There were notebooks and office paraphernalia, a computer that sat inert on the credenza behind the desk, a desk that was quite clear except for the halogen lamp (now switched off), a telephone console, and a letter opener.
Norman walked over and picked up the letter opener. The blade was stainless steel, and the handle was pewter, or at least a good imitation, with an ivory-colored plastic inlay painted to look like scrimshaw. It had a picture of a timber wolf on it and a caption: "Save the Wildlife." Otherwise, the office lacked the mementoes, photos, and potted plants that were so common elsewhere in the company.
The red message indicator on the telephone console was blinking, and for a moment, Norman thought of listening to Pierce's messages. But he didn't have his password, and it was a tacky thing to do anyway.
He looked at his wristwatch. Six-thirty. Had he sat in that chair all night? No wonder his back was sore. He punched a line button on the telephone console and dialed his home number. It rang for a long time.
"Hello?" Gwen's voice was thick with sleep.
"Norman?" She hesitated a moment. "You're not here. Where are you?"
"I'm at the office. How are the kids?"
"They're asleep. Are you OK? What's going on?"
"I'll be home as soon as I can," he said.
"You have to hurry," she said. "I've overslept. I have to leave for the company meeting as soon as I can get ready. Somebody's got to watch the kids."
"I'll be home as quickly as I can," said Norman.
"Norman," said Gwen, "what's going on?"
"Go ahead and leave," said Norman. "I'll be home in a couple minutes. The kids will be all right for a couple minutes."
"Don't wait dinner for me," she said. "I wish you'd tell me what's going on."
Norman didn't know. How could he explain it? But Gwen let him off the hook.
"I can't think about this," she said. "I have a presentation to give in a few hours."
"Good luck, sweetheart," said Norman, but he was talking to a dead line.
Norman stared at the blinking message indicator on Pierce's telephone console. what had happened here last night? He remembered it all-the paralysis, Pierce's shadow enveloping Jacqueline, her strange and sensual moan-but could he trust such a memory?
The simplest explanation, of course, was that Pierce and Jacqueline were playing some kind of joke on him. Norman was often the butt of corporate jokes. The people around him, who shared such a hell-for-leather commitment to the company, took note of Norman's insistence on leaving at five each day to be with his family and treated him as the village idiot. But in the past, the jokes had always been limited to funny remarks, e-mail messages, and bulletin board flyers. Nothing this elaborate.
Nevertheless, it was the only explanation. A joke. when Jacqueline came in Monday morning, she would have a good laugh. He'd never seen Jacqueline laugh before. It would be interesting.
As expected, Gwen was gone when he got home. His son was watching an infomercial on television, in which ordinary people were being relieved of profound fatigue by eating an All-Natural Herbal Food Product.
"Where's your sister?" said Norman.
Norman watched the man on television make outlandish claims for the food product. "Justin, why are you watching this?"
"It's cool, Dad. This man here says he got rich from taking these pills."
Norman sat down beside him. "You can't get rich from taking pills."
"This guy did," said Justin.
Norman watched for a moment. The man actually insisted that he had suffered from severe fatigue until he began taking this product, whereupon he went from being poor and tired to being rich and energetic.
Norman stood up. His hip sent a painful twinge toward his back. "The guy's a squid. Can't you find some cartoons to watch?"
"They don't show cartoons on Saturday," said the boy. "There's real estate on channel six, a food processor on channel thirteen, spray-on hair on channel
"Yeah, it's really cool." Justin aimed the remote control at the television, and the energetic rich guy was replaced by a well-spoken and well-groomed woman who was spraying hair from an aerosol can on to the heads of a line of men suffering from male pattern baldness.
The woman explained how important hair was to both social acceptance and professional advancement.
Norman wished they still showed cartoons on Saturdays. "I'm going to get a shower," he said. "Then I'll fix you some breakfast."
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