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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 told him to take a nap and then had done something to Jacqueline. Something revolting and unbusinesslike. Jacqueline had moaned. But Norman had fallen asleep, and the memory seemed more like a dream than an actual event.
Norman didn't try to move, but swept the room as best he could with his gaze. 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. The room was no longer dark.
His body ached, but nothing seemed to be broken. 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. There was a small reddish stain on the carpet beside it. The cleaning crew was slacking off again. They must not have even come last night; otherwise, they would have awakened him.
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.
Norman sat still for some minutes. He had fallen asleep in a meeting, so deeply, apparently, that the others would not or could not wake him.
He pushed himself slowly to his feet, using the overturned chair for support. Then he bent over and righted the chair. He looked around. The room, where he'd attended hundreds of meetings before, seemed perfectly ordinary, even cheery in a businesslike sort of way. 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. Pierce had told him to take a nap, and he'd slept in the chair all night. Norman wondered if Pierce was a hypnotist. If so, he wondered if that kind of thing was regulated by federal labor policy. Are you allowed to hypnotize a subordinate? Norman imagined himself bringing a claim against Pierce at the National Labor Relations Board. What would his claim say? That he'd fallen asleep in a business meeting? It didn't sound like a particularly viable case.
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 where to begin. 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 red message indicator on Pierce's telephone console. His mind went a little fuzzy until he shook himself out of it. He leaned over Pierce's desk for a minute. This was all very disturbing. He was glad, at least, that he had the weekend to try to figure it out.
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?"
"I don't like cartoons," 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 Justin liked cartoons, but he didn't think it would be possible to make him. "I'm going to get a shower," he said. "Then I'll fix you some breakfast."
After breakfast, Norman tried to call Jacqueline at home. He wanted to start his apologies with her and maybe find out more about what happened before he approached Pierce.
"I can't come to the telephone right now," said Jacqueline. "Please leave your message after the beep."
Norman didn't leave a message. What was he going to say?
For all he knew, she might be spending the weekend with Pierce. He piled the kids into the car and went off to do the food shopping. They stopped at the town library and while Justin and Lisa looked over the shelves of recently arrived videos, Norman went and found a book on hypnosis. He sat down at a reading table near the videocassette shelves so he could read the book and keep an eye on the kids at the same time.
The hypnotist, read a paragraph in chapter one, using a quiet but compelling tone, suggests to a responsive subject that he enter a state of profound relaxation. It sounded a bit like Norman's experience, but he hadn't realized he was a "responsive subject."
Having induced a hypnotic state, the skilled hypnotist can actually alter the subject's experiences, distorting the expected effects of different stimuli. This applies to any sensory modality, including vision, taste, hearing, and tactile sensations. Norman began to wonder then if he'd even seen Pierce bend over Jacqueline or if he'd heard her moan. If Pierce had hypnotized him, these impressions could have been suggested to him. But why would his boss do that, unless it was part of some elaborate joke?
Norman paged through the book until he found the chapter on the hypnotic response. It said that responsiveness to hypnosis was pretty normal, and that it was associated with an individual's capacity for creative imagination. That counted Norman out. It looked like he had only himself to blame for falling asleep in the meeting.
Otherwise, there were chapters on posthypnotic suggestion, hypnosis and the will, and hypnosis in therapy. None of the rest of it seemed to be useful in explaining his experience, so Norman left the book on the table without checking it out. He gathered up Justin and Lisa, who said they couldn't find any videotapes they wanted to borrow. As Norman shepherded the kids out to the car, Justin pointed out that the library's video collection ran heavily to ballets, operas, and documentaries--material, he explained, that was favored by squids.
Saturday in the supermarket, with its oppressive crowds and myriad distractions, is not a place where one thinks about anything other than surviving the process of collecting food choices and conducting them safely through a check-out line. The kids didn't particularly want to be there, and Norman had to watch them every moment to make sure they didn't wander away to be kidnapped or do something to embarrass him.
Norman found himself at one point in a brief conversation with his son over a refrigerated display of upmarket cheese.
"Here's one." Justin offered him a chunk of white American cheese in plastic wrap.
"That's not what I need." Norman laid aside a wrapped wedge of sharp cheddar that was a little too large and took a smaller one from under it.
"It's cheese," said Justin.
"You couldn't prove it by me." Norman moved along the cold box and began to pick through the provolone.
"The label says it's American," said Justin.
"I have doubts about its loyalty," said Norman.
Justin laughed, and it lifted the fatigue from Norman's shoulders. Justin didn't expect him to have any ideas or be marked for leadership. He accepted him pretty much for what he was, and he laughed at his jokes.
The crowds and the traffic were so bad that it took nearly the rest of the day to get the shopping done. It was the late in the afternoon when they got back to the house. He sent the kids off to amuse themselves while he tried to call Jacqueline's apartment. He got her machine again, so he gave up and started making macaroni and cheese for dinner. Most people think you just throw a lot of cooked macaroni into a dish with some processed cheese food, but that wasn't the kind of macaroni and cheese Norman wanted for his kids that weekend.
He put a layer of macaroni into the dish, then a layer of freshly grated cheddar cheese. Then he put in another layer of macaroni, followed by a layer of freshly grated provolone cheese. Then he put several dots of butter into the dish. His back still hurt, so he sat down at the kitchen table before starting the next layer of macaroni. He stared at the wall of the kitchen and wondered if he wasn't poisoning the kids with all this cheese and butter. It hardly mattered. He couldn't help himself. They loved this stuff. It felt so good to give it to them.
His mind wandered back to Jacqueline. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was of the joke theory. Pierce had not impressed him as a man who would play practical jokes on his employees, but a good practical joker can create an elaborate setup. If it hadn't been a joke, why did they leave him there asleep?
He stood up from the table and walked over to the counter to start another layer of macaroni in the casserole dish. He repeated the cheese grating, the macaroni, the dots of butter. When he finally had all the layers in place, he poured a little bit of milk into the dish and topped it with bread crumbs. As he slid the dish into the oven, he noticed it was dark out.
He went to the telephone and called Pierce's office. But he got the voice mail, and he realized that Pierce's apparently limitless dedication to his job did not extend to weekends. He did not leave a message, and he didn't try Jacqueline's house again. He knew he would just get her machine. He sat down with the kids in the dining room shortly after he took the casserole out of the oven. It was late, and Gwen wasn't home yet, but the kids hardly seemed to notice her absence. Norman ate macaroni and cheese, traded squid jokes with his son, and listened intently to his daughter's description of various acquaintances' transgressions of social protocol at school. It occurred to him, as she described how alliances and relationships shifted in response to things like too much enthusiasm in conversation or wearing white socks on Tuesday, that the social order at her school was at least as rigid as that of eighth-century Byzantium. He wondered if her school weren't in need of re-engineering. He imagined himself reorganizing the place, waving a blank piece of paper, suspending students, and laying off teachers.
Gwen came in the door after they'd finished the casserole and their salad. She had already had dinner with her staff, but she sat down to ice cream with Norman and the kids. She seemed energized from spending the day at the office. She took her turn joking and laughing with the kids, and as the four of them sat at the table eating ice cream, Norman had that funny feeling that he often had with his kids, wishing for their bedtime at the same time he hoped the moment would last forever.
Finally, it was time to send them to their rooms, and he and Gwen were alone at the dining room table.
"Good meeting, huh?" said Norman.
Gwen sipped from her coffee cup. "It was fantastic, Norman. Fantastic." She took another sip. "Fantastic."
Norman got the impression her meeting had gone well. "The kids were good at the supermarket today."
"Norman, what happened last night?" Gwen seemed curious rather than upset. She was apparently in too good a mood to be upset about Norman's night-long absence.
"I fell asleep in the meeting with Pierce and Jacqueline, and I guess they finished the meeting and left me there."
Gwen started to laugh. "You what?"
Norman wondered why her laughter made him feel ill at ease. Then he laughed as well, realizing how ridiculous he must have seemed to Pierce and Jacqueline. It must have been a better outcome than they could have hoped for with their practical joke. "The meeting wasn't very interesting," he said.
Gwen laughed harder. "What must they think of you?" she finally managed.
Norman shrugged. "I don't care very much."
"I guess you don't." Gwen stopped laughing. She smiled, and Norman thought there was a little sadness in it. "How could I love you so much?" she said.
"I'm sorry about being out all night," said Norman. "I hope you weren't too worried about it."
"I worried until midnight, but then I fell asleep. I wish you had called."
"I couldn't," said Norman. "I was asleep."
They both laughed.
"Want to get ready for bed?" said Norman.
They went into Justin's bedroom, and Gwen tucked him in while Norman watched. Then they did the same for Lisa, doing her second because she was older and got to stay up a few minutes later.
Norman switched off the light, and as he and Gwen stepped into the hall, she grabbed Norman's hand. She smiled at him as they walked down the hallway. Gwen was a woman of passions. She was passionate about her marriage, passionate about her kids, passionate about her job. She would have done well at Biomethods, Inc. before the acquisition. As it was, she apparently did pretty well at her company, where they prized the ideas and the intensity she brought to her work.
Gwen turned to him as they went into the bedroom and motioned for him to shut the door.
Norman closed the door and walked over and wrapped his arms around her. They kissed and rubbed themselves against each other, then slowly broke away. They each started to undress.
Gwen kicked off her shoes, then she came up close to him again and began unbuttoning his shirt.
"How did your presentation go?" he said.
She smiled broadly. "Norman, it was fantastic. Standing O."
Norman wondered what it was like to give a speech for which everyone in your company gets to their feet to applaud. It must be such events that made people want to be leaders.
"They loved it." Gwen threw off her blazer and unbuttoned her blouse. "I talked with Rod afterward, and he asked me to have lunch with him in the Sky Room next week."
Rod was the CEO at Gwen's company, and the Sky Room was the company's VIP dining room. Norman knew something big was in store for her.
She threw her blouse on the bed and unbuttoned her skirt where it fastened at the hip, then stepped out of it before throwing it on the bed along with the blouse. She stood before him in black bra and panties, dark stockings fastened to a garter belt around her hips.
Norman grabbed her and felt her flesh and her underwear against him. "Do you want to take a shower with me?"
Norman didn't think she particularly needed washing, but in the special code they had created over twelve years of marriage, an invitation to a shower implied an entire ritual. They would shower together, soaping each other gently and then taking turns under the shower head to rinse off. Then they would dry off and climb in between the sheets and make love. It was their way of marking major achievements, and it was part of the ceremony that the achiever was the one invited.
The shower went as he had imagined, and almost as soon as he climbed into bed, her firm, satiny body was all over him. His back was still a little sore, but desire surged through his groin. He stroked her breast, kissed her neck, nibbled her shoulder, and they moved quickly into energetic sex without making a sound. Gwen had always worried about the children hearing, and the two of them had the habit of utterly silent lovemaking. As always, he lost himself in the experience of her, and he was barely aware of her arching her back under him as he exploded in climax. He kissed her neck just behind her ear and then rolled off her. He reached over and stroked her shoulder before becoming comatose.
Norman woke up in the dark to an utterly silent house. He didn't know what had awakened him, but he realized he needed to use the bathroom. He pushed himself out of bed and padded into the master bathroom. His back felt raw. He closed the door and turned on the light, then had to stand without moving for what seemed like a half hour until his eyes could tolerate the light. He finally opened them and looked at his naked body in the mirror. He turned and looked over his shoulder at himself. There were about a dozen scratches in a herringbone pattern up his back. Some of them looked deep. Three had broken the skin.
Gwen had scratched him during their lovemaking. He studied the welts over his shoulder. They were sore.
Why had she scratched him like that? Was she trying to make him hump faster or something? It occurred to him that the scratches were symbolic of their relationship. He loved her, but sometimes he wished she didn't have to always encourage him to hump faster.
After he'd finished in the bathroom and returned to bed, Norman rolled on to his side facing away from her, and thought about his scratches. Sexual activity apparently had anesthetic properties. If he hadn't been orgasmic when Gwen scratched him, he'd probably have noticed she was doing it. He imagined Gwen scratching him under other circumstances--watching television, say, or during a conversation. But he could not imagine himself sitting still for it. In the midst of sexual climax, he supposed he could tolerate just about anything. He wondered if everybody was like that, or if it was just him. But he didn't think about it much before he fell asleep again.
Norman often got to work late the first day of the week, and Monday he arrived at the office at nine-thirty. Cheryl and Louise were both at their desks already. Their hair was more evenly matched than it had been the previous week. Norman hoped he could look forward to a little less tension. When he walked into the office, he saw both women crying. He didn't want to interfere with whatever was going on, so he didn't say anything to either of them. He walked between their desks through the reception area and went straight to Jacqueline's office to get everything cleared up about the joke she and Pierce had played on him.
But there was nobody in Jacqueline's office, and as Norman stood in front of her empty desk, he heard snuffling behind him. He turned and found Cheryl in the doorway.
"She's not here, Norman." Cheryl sniffed and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. "Her neighbor called about a half hour ago. They found her dead in her apartment on Sunday."
The office around him went out of focus for a moment, but snapped back to clarity when Cheryl began to speak again.
"They think it was an arterial aneurysm." Cheryl stopped and sobbed for a moment, then continued, her speech catching on the rhythm of her crying. "Oh, God. I can't believe it."
Norman made responsive noises to Cheryl, hoping he was saying things that were appropriate. But his voice did this on autopilot while he tried to grapple inwardly with a strange feeling that blossomed in the pit of his stomach and welled upward. When the feeling reached his collar, it caught in the vicinity of his necktie, which suddenly became too tight. He could hardly breathe. He managed to walk past Cheryl out of Jacqueline's office and then through the reception area, where Louise was crying into a telephone receiver.
He stopped himself between the two desks in the reception area, feeling like he was in a fog. He managed to catch a bit of breath and said deliberately, "The department's closed for the day. Go home."
Then he went into his own office and shut the door behind him.
He sat down behind his desk and leaned over the blotter, supporting himself with his hands on either side of it, and breathed deeply. He heard Cheryl and Louise on the other side of his office door closing and locking their desks. He might have been one of the last people to see Jacqueline alive. He focused on his breathing, and it calmed him somewhat.
Norman was seized by a weird fantasy. Pierce might know something about all this. He might even be involved. The memory was more like a dream than anything else, but Norman did have an impression in his mind of Pierce bending over Jacqueline and her voice giving a strange, sensual moan. Was Pierce in the act of killing her? Can you give somebody an arterial aneurysm? Norman didn't even know what an arterial aneurysm was. Does it make you moan when you get one?
The rest of the impression was blurry and entirely dominated by Norman's fatigue and his failure to do anything while Jacqueline moaned. She had been his subordinate. He was responsible for her. And he had taken a nap.
Norman decided to call Pierce. Even if he knew nothing about Jacqueline's death, it was Norman's responsibility to tell him. He grabbed the telephone and punched in Pierce's number. He got the voice mail, then he remembered it was still morning, and Pierce's schedule did not include any daylight office hours. He hung up the telephone, and frustration caught him like a marionetteer taking up his strings. It made him jump out of his chair and kick over the wastebasket beside his desk. There was nothing in it to spill, but it scuffed his shoe, which made him angry. He beat his desk with the heel of his hand once, twice, three times. He struck it again and again and lost track of how many times he did it. He was just conscious of the gratifying noise it created as the blows reverberated through the desk's structure. His hand was beginning to get sore when, between blows, he heard a knock at his door.
"Norman?" said a voice.
Norman stopped beating the desk. "Yes?"
The door opened, and Tim, the department benefits specialist, stepped diffidently into the threshold. "Are you all right?"
Norman looked at his hand. An ugly red welt was spreading across the lower palm. It would probably turn purple shortly. "I'm fine."
"Everybody's gone," said Tim. "Where are they? What's going on?"
Wasn't it just typical that everybody would leave without telling Tim anything? He was just not the kind of person the rest of the staff sought out.
"I closed the office," said Norman. "You can go home."
"Is it a holiday or something?"
Norman realized Tim didn't even know about Jacqueline yet. It was Norman's responsibility to tell him. "Jacqueline died."
"Here at the office? When?"
It seemed a strange question to ask.
"No," said Norman. "They found her at her apartment on Sunday."
Tim laughed nervously. "Then what was she doing out in the parking lot this morning?"
Norman's hand was too sore for him to comprehend Tim's question.
"I saw her. I had to come to work early this morning to work on the bonuses for the Genographics Project. Just before dawn. I saw her walking across the parking lot toward the west."
"Jacqueline died, apparently over the weekend," said Norman. "You must have seen somebody else."
"I guess so," said Tim, no longer confident of his story. "Maybe that's why she didn't answer when I called to her."
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