Mitch Novak was sitting in his office at 9:17 p.m., on a Tuesday night. One of the few undeniable benefits of spending an extra three years and an additional 50,000 dollars on law school was the opportunity to bypass the cubicle phase that most young professionals endure at the beginning of their careers.
Compared to sixty percent of the world, Mitch was wildly successful. In his parents' eyes, he was successful beyond their greatest, lower middle-class dreams. In his wife's eyes, he was sufficiently successful. In his eyes, he was almost successful. He was on the brink of true success. Tangible success. He was a fluke, a chance, a victory, a simple vote away from an established life of success.
Mitch was one of twenty senior associates in a mid-sized law firm. This meant that he had, at most, a one in five chance of making partner. And making partner meant several things. Despite what most laypeople thought, it meant that Mitch would have to work even more than the sixty hours a week he was already easily satisfying. It meant a great deal more pressure and constant stress for the rest of his working life. And it meant upper-class financial stability. He and his wife, and their potential children, might never own a castle or a professional sports franchise, but they would want for nothing and enjoy most everything. Not only would his potential children have their own cars, they might each even have their own jet skies, if they were so interested.
After a decade of focusing on the goal that would soon be realized or lost, the fact that Mitch Novak was sitting in his office at 9:17, and then 9:18 p.m. on a Tuesday night was not a surprise to him or in any way distressing. It was entirely normal. So much so that his wife had adjusted her schedule, the schedule of a normal human being, to that of her husband. In other words, Mitch knew that he had to leave his office soon if he were to make it home on time for 10:00 o'clock dinner.
Mitch clicked the "Save" icon on the three-page summary judgment motion he had spent five hours researching and drafting. Well, the three-page summary judgment motion he would bill for five hours of "work." Five billable hours that would help give him the edge over his competitors/co-workers, all of whom had left the office much earlier. He was alone. The survivor. The endurer. He was sure of it. He was always the last to leave. He knew the sounds, movements, and schedules of everyone in the office as they were on their way to the elevator, and he had checked them all off the list again that night, for the thousandth time.
With his efforts preserved, and his workstation in order, Mitch grabbed his once pristine, leather briefcase, a graduation gift from his parents and well beyond their means, and stood from his desk. He took his usual glance down at his office phone, but thought better of it immediately. Several years prior, Mitch's wife, Mary, had insisted upon a rule wherein Mitch was not allowed to call her from his office unless it was an emergency, inasmuch as there was too much temptation for Mitch to get distracted by work or find something on his desk that he falsely believed was worth discussing.
Mitch and Mary wed during his third year with the firm. Younger, more naive, and more enthusiastic, Mitch, like most junior associates, had trouble flicking the off switch. Whether at home, in bed, at a picnic, or on Christmas morning, Mitch's brain tended to have a singular focus, work. He struggled to remember that people, other than his fellow law school graduates, found the details of his work in no way interesting. He was not trying landmark cases and his clients were not famous ne'er-do-wells. People, particularly his wife, wanted to talk to Mitch as they knew him, not Mitch the man obsessively researching a minor procedural glitch in his opposing counsel's case.
Eventually, Mary snapped. Mitch was hardheaded at first, demanding that his work was for their benefit, for their future, and that she should take an interest in it. Ultimately, however, after attending a happy hour with his college friend, then a medical resident, and her fellow young doctors, Mitch understood perfectly his wife's sentiment. He had never been more bored. Consequently, things changed. He changed. He forced himself to abide by a conversation topics diet. And he found himself with a set of ground rules all revolving around his right to free speech in his own house. With regard to his wife, for Mitch the First Amendment to the Constitution had been re-written simply, "Leave work at work."
Mitch had followed the rules for years, and respected them. As such, he would, as he always did, have to wait until he was sitting in his car to call Mary on his cell phone and let her know that he was on his way home.
Mitch turned out the light in his office and dragged himself toward the exit. As with any self-respecting law office, Mitch's firm leased a space with an entrance/exit designed to impress potential clients and intimidate any opposing counsel. In Mitch's relatively extensive experience, he had often found it hard to believe that such a tactic actually affected the mindset or composure of any visitors. At the same time, nonetheless, he also rarely failed to note the psychological gamesmanship afforded by the entrance/exit to his firm.
The building was cylindrical. It was tall and round, and Mitch's firm leased and operated the top floor, the twenty-eighth floor. All of the attorney offices were located on the perimeter of the floor, each with two windows along the circumference. In the meat of the floor, the area in between the offices was a maze of cubicles, work areas, copy stations, and the kitchen and restrooms. Directly in the center of the office, however, was the only publicly accessible entrance/exit to the floor. The reception desk was located at one far side of the floor and extending from it was a long, narrow hallway leading to the elevator on the other side of the floor. The hallway was lined with little to no decoration, other than the imitation oriental carpet, inasmuch as mirrors covered the walls entirely, from the elevator to the small reception area.
No matter how Mitch was feeling at any time he arrived or was leaving work, whether self-conscious or particularly confident, the mirrors in the hallway haunted him. They were so imposing and extensive. No human being could resist taking at least a glance or three to regard their reflection in the ever-present mirrors. They were maddening, most effectively so.
Mitch looked from side to side during nearly his entire walk down the hallway. His hair was disheveled slightly and the knot of his tie hung several inches below the unbuttoned collar of his shirt. With his suit coat draped over his arm, Mitch actually enjoyed the way he looked. He suspected that had he been twenty years older, more deflated and bitter, he would have resented immensely the state of his appearance and the sacrifices that his work required. But he was still young enough, and still satisfied with a challenging career. Mitch, as he tended to do regularly, imagined the managing partner getting off the elevator in front of him to retrieve something from his office. The partner would notice Mitch with surprise, and express admiration for his work ethic and congratulate him, all with merely a proud look in his eyes and, perhaps, even a slight wink.
But, that was not to be. It would never happen. And Mitch knew it. Just a small daydream to spark some motivation into the day. He arrived at the elevator and hit the call button. At this time of night, the elevator was surely stalled in the lobby waiting for a rare late night call to action.
Mitch tilted his head back and exhaled, just for the sake of his role in the world. More than half of his professional duties involved just playing the part and he was, after all, a bit of a perfectionist. He considered his to-do list for the next day and whether he would have to re-set his alarm clock for earlier than the regular 4:30 a.m. sound off. And he also started considering why the copy machine was still running.
Suddenly awake, Mitch stopped his breathing and listened intently. Was the copy machine really in operation? What was that noise? It occurred to him that it could be the fax machine, but no. The rhythm was too distinct. After ten hours a day, six days a week, for more than a decade, Mitch was perfectly in tune with the sounds of the office. It was the copy machine. Had he missed something? Had his checklist been too quick to decide that the office was empty? What had he missed? Nothing, he concluded.
Footsteps. Mitch definitely heard the sound of footsteps. His co-workers, lawyers and administrative staff alike, had all left at least an hour earlier. The cleaning crew had all finished before 9 p.m., though Doris had not stopped to say good night to him. But it was Tuesday. That was her night off. Mitch was certain of this. And the building security check did not pass through until after 10:30 p.m., if they decided to actually do their job on any particular night, that was.
The elevator bell dinged and the doors opened. Despite the questions filtering through his head, Mitch reactively stepped through the doors and turned back toward the narrow hallway. Though the footsteps had quieted, Mitch noticed a shadow being cast on the wall behind the reception desk by the light blue security light at the far end of the hallway. Curiosity overwhelmed Mitch so much so that he failed to consider the possibility that the footsteps had ceased only in response to the unexpected sound of the elevator bell.
On schedule, the doors of the elevator began to close. But Mitch, conditioned by his recurring daydream of unexpectedly bumping into the managing partner, or any partner for that matter, reached his arm over the elevator entrance, causing the doors to re-open. He stepped one leg across the boundary to further prevent the doors from closing on his chance and potentially fruitful encounter.
The shadow finally broke its stillness. It continued along the far wall, slowly, carefully, inching toward the reception area. Mitch's eyes became distracted by movement in the last mirror on the right side of the hallway. From his viewpoint, and in the relative darkness, the image was unclear at best. All he could make out was the outline of a figure. A figure being cautious in movement and sound. Mitch was mesmerized.
With the slightest lean forward, and an accidental and fluky product of angles and reflection, the light blue security light made the figure's face clearly visible in the far right mirror. Mitch could distinctly see the man. He had a shaved head and a beard of stubble. The width of his strong jaw matched the width of his neck extending below it.
While Mitch was staring at the reflection, the man finally realized that he could be seen, and that he could see. He looked directly into the mirror on his left, Mitch's right. And in the reflection he and Mitch locked eyes. Despite the development, the man's facial expression did not change, at all. His eyes remained fixed. His jaw remained locked. He was a statue. Mitch did the same, but only out of confusion. He was waiting for a clue. And he would not have to wait long.
In much the same manner as an amateur poker player after having successfully completed a bluff, the man's mouth slowly extended into a grin, and then a smile. A wide and full smile, exposing all of his sparkling white teeth until his mouth had no choice but to open completely. In response, finally, the man's eyes also opened fully while maintaining their unblinking stare.
Mitch's brain initially accepted the reaction as friendly, but his body, meaning his heart rate, adrenaline production, and breathing, involuntarily maintained high alert and awaited a second opinion. As Mitch searched the face of the reflection for understanding, his brain would soon agree with the instincts of his body. The man's smile. His eyes. It was like looking at the face or portrait of an exaggerated clown. Affable and even comical at first, but disturbing and haunting if one allows his or her gaze to become lost.
Just as Mitch's brain was attempting to send the necessary never signals down his spine ordering his body to fully re-enter elevator and get the hell out of the office as quickly as possible, the man's reflection disappeared from the far right mirror as he quickly turned the corner and started running furiously down the hallway. The man was lean but strong. He was wearing work boots, dark jeans, and a stained, white t-shirt. Though it was too dark to make out the blemishes, Mitch's mind presumed the stains to be blood.
Every reaction in Mitch's body was one of flight. Fight was nowhere to be found. His breathing had accelerated almost beyond capacity. Though he had already pressed the button "G," for garage, he reached down and tapped the lit circle at least ten more times, despite having noted people do that on a near daily basis and mocking them for thinking that it would actually quicken the process.
The charging man said nothing. He hardly even made a sound with his rampaging boots. He only ran straight and determinedly, all the while never breaking his eye contact or compromising his euphoric smile. In all his years of life, in all his nightmares, both asleep and awake, both irrational and possible, both the boogeyman and his wife getting into a car accident, Mitch had never considered the horror of a man running at him without explanation or hesitation.
Mitch finally heard the click of the elevator doors. He saw the man drawing ever near. The timing of it all was impossible to calculate. He could not focus enough to predict the outcome and he was out of options, regardless. He could not move. He could not escape. He had entombed himself, for better or worse. He could do nothing, but hold his breath, tear his eyes, and urinate in his pants, literally.
The doors were closing, though this did little to relieve Mitch. He could feel the breath of the man flowing into the elevator. He was not in a movie. He was not in a spaceship. He was not sealing an air lock. He was not securing a zip lock bag. The elevator was in control. And it was slow, deliberate in its process, just in case some jackass decided to reach his arm across the threshold, so as not to injure that jackass. And once closed, the elevator doors were not uncompromising. A pinky could open them. A piece of paper could keep them from closing. All things considered, Mitch was doomed. His mind could foresee no other outcome.
The elevator doors shut tight. The man's face, his eyes wide and his smile still wider, remained unchanged as it approached seemingly inches away from the door. Mitch could hear the man's outstretched arm and extended hand collide against the door followed, presumably, by his face and then his entire body. Mitch fully expected the elevator to hesitate, to feign operation, to open a crack in the doors just enough for the man's fingers to slide through at first. Then, the inevitable. The man's hand would force the doors far enough apart to trigger the computerized response of the elevator opening completely. And the man would stand there, for a moment, appreciating the moment, still with his large, glaring eyes and ominous, clown smile. And that would be it. That would be all. Mitch's name would be placed on a memorial in the office, not on an inscribed gold plate under the names of the rest of the partners.
It wasn't until the elevator purposefully slowed after passing the fifth floor that Mitch snapped out of his nightmare scenario. The elevator had not hesitated. It had not been feigning operation. The doors had not opened, not even a crack. Mitch had to consciously manipulate and slow his breathing while he watched the floor lights above the doors indicate that he was approaching his stop in the parking garage.
As the elevator was coming to a fixed stop, Mitch moved to the back of the elevator, despite knowing that he was in the only elevator that served his office floor and assuming, reasonably so, that there was absolutely no way that the man could have descended the stairwell any where near as quickly as the elevator. The doors opened to the sight of nothing but the standard placard displaying emergency exit instructions that Mitch had seen more than three thousand times.
Mitch stepped into the corridor. It was adequately lit, at best, and quiet. And Mitch decidedly immediately to not tolerate rationality or curiosity. He would not tip toe to his car. He would not look over his shoulder to see if the elevator responded to a call signal. He would not wait for the door to the staircase to open or wait for any sound to scare him into freezing. In other words, Mitch ran to his car, fast and furious. He could hear nothing but the sound of his footsteps and the electronic key in his hand unlocking his Audi.
Having learned from recent experience, Mitch continued his thoughtlessness. He placed the electronic key in the ignition and pulled his vehicle out of his assigned parking place and recklessly traversed the sharp curves of the parking garage. Distance. Distance was all that mattered. And he was achieving it. He lived twenty miles away. But getting out of the city was only two miles away.
Mitch pulled up to a red light at the end of the bridge. The bridge that crossed the river that defined the city limits. He had been checking his rear view mirror with every beat of whatever song was playing on his car's radio. Nothing had appeared. He was not being followed. He was free. He was clear. And, no matter the circumstances, he had his orders. Mitch removed the cell phone from his once pristine, leather briefcase, and hit the speed dial for his house. His home. His safe place.
"Hey, sweetie. How are you?"
"Oh, Mitch. I'm glad you called. I was beginning to worry."
"I'm sorry, sweetie. I got caught up. You know how it is."
"I know, dear. And that's enough."
"Right. I'm on the road, sweetie. I'll be home soon."
"I can't wait to see you."
"I know, sweetie. Me too. What's for dinner?"
"Oh, umm, well, it's Tuesday, dear?"
"It is, isn't it? So, stuffed peppers then?"
"Of course, dear. Is that ok?"
"Sounds great, sweetie. I am looking forward to it. I really mean it."
"You have no idea how much."
"Mitch, hold on a minute."
"Sweetie? Everything ok?"
"Yes, dear. Well, I think. Just a second."
"Oh, no . . . no . . . no way!"
"No! I don't believe it! Oh, goodness!"
"Sweetie!? Sweetie, are you there!? Say something! Sweetie!?"
Mitch looked down at his cell phone. His last words had gone unheard, by anyone. His phone battery was dead. His conversation had been terminated. For the first time in years, Mitch was cursing the constitutional amendments insisted upon by his wife. What was happening to her? Could it be? How could it be? Could he be there? The man? How could he be there? The man? It couldn't be. It just couldn't. But, what if it could? What if he was? What if it were a different man? A partner? The man's partner? The man and his partner, was it all an elaborate ploy to keep Mitch from making partner?
Mitch, having experienced his own cowardice through and through, was in no mood to continue being a coward. His wife, his love, his Mary, possibly in danger? That was a nightmare he was prepared to confront and to conquer. He hit the gas pedal and drove dangerously around every curve and through every red light and stop sign. His eyes were fixed on seeing his driveway only. Nothing would stop him from getting there. In his mind, he was prepared to drive through the front of his own house, crashing into the living room and kitchen, because that would be the most effective way to drive into the legs of the man who was surely trying to strangle his wife over the sink.
Putting his fantasies aside, yet again, Mitch pulled into his driveway, albeit a bit more haphazardly than normal, and parked his car safely. He stepped out of the driver's side door and looked into the bay window extending out from the front of his house. All the lights were on. He saw no one. No shadows. No figures. This was not determinative of trouble or terror. Nonetheless, Mitch had obviously been hoping to see Mary, well and unencumbered, tossing a bowl of salad with an anticipatory grin on her beautiful face.
In an attempt to maintain outward normalcy, Mitch grabbed his once pristine, leather briefcase and walked casually, or at least attempted to walk casually, to his front door. He was terrified of what or who might be waiting for him, but he was determined not to show his cards.
With his hand trembling, Mitch breathed deeply as he inserted the key into his front door, pushed it completely open from the porch, and, seeing nothing threatening, took one long stride inside. As he dropped his coat and case onto the chair and placed his keys on the rack, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. From his vantage point, however, he could not see into the kitchen. He could only hear.
Not having been home in time to even consider preparing a meal for himself or his wife in years, Mitch was not in tune with the sounds of the kitchen. He had left his office. Thus, he was no longer in his element. He had lost his battlefield advantage.
The rattling and tinkering sounded normal enough. It did sound like a meal being prepared. And the odor of peppers was unmistakable. Nonetheless, Mitch walked slowly down the abbreviated hallway and poked his head around the corner. Ingredients and food bits were scattered over the counter. Steam was emanating from two pots on the stovetop. Plates, a recently used cutting board, utensils, paper towels. It was all there.
The only thing, albeit not a small thing, out of the ordinary that Mitch could see was his college squash racquet lying on the floor in a red pool in front of the refrigerator. More worrisome, however, the thing Mitch could not see was his wife. He did not see anyone.
For that reason, in addition to every other horrifying and inexplicable thing that had happened during the evening, Mitch nearly fainted when Mary rose from behind the kitchen counter. As he took a step back with his entire body twitching, Mary saw him and became equally startled. She stumbled back toward the stove and nearly burned her hand on the pot full of boiling water and brown rice.
"Oh, dear. I didn't hear you come in. You scared me silly, you silly."
"Sweetie? Are you ok?"
"Well, yes. I am now, you sneaky, lovely man."
"Are you sure, sweetie? Everything is ok?"
"Yes, dear. I'm sure. What's got into you? You look frightful. What are you looking around at?"
"Sweetie, on the phone, you sounded . . . I thought . . . what . . . nothing is wrong?"
"No, dear. I'm fine. Are you?"
"Tell me, sweetie. Tell me, please. Did you hear something? Did you see something? Perhaps . . . someone?"
"Dear, please stop it. You're making me very nervous. You're acting batty, dear."
"Really? Are you . . . ok. Ok. You're right. I'm sorry, sweetie. It's just that, on the phone, you screamed? You sounded . . . bad."
"Oh my, dear. Is that what this is all about? I completely forgot." "My phone died. I just couldn't help but think . . ."
"Oh, dear. You are such a caring man. But really, it was nothing. Just bad timing."
"With your phone cutting off. Just bad timing. That's all. I got upset because I realized that I forgot to buy shredded cheese for the stuffed peppers. We're out of provolone, your favorite. But I found some mozzarella. I hope that's ok?"
"Yes, sweetie. That is ok. That is so much more than ok."
"Oh, good. I know how much you like your provolone."
"Sweetie, what about the, you know, my squash racquet? And the . . . stuff, on the floor?"
"That? Oh, well, I had the back door open and a moth flew in. It was creepy and really bothering me. I found your paddle . . ."
"Squash racquet, sweetie."
"Yes, dear. I found your squash racquet in the closet and started swinging at it. But I couldn't hit it. I guess I got frustrated and then I knocked over the jar of marinara sauce on the counter. It spilled on the floor. You know how klutzy I am. Such a stupid klutz, I am."
"Oh, wow. What a relief."
"Sweetie, I didn't mean . . . You are not stupid, sweetie. You are the best. But yes, you are a klutz. Come give me a hug."
"Mmmm, you always were the best hugger, dear. Such a lovely man."
"You feel so wonderful right now, sweetie."
"You too, dear. Though you look a mess."
"Gee, thanks, sweetie."
"You know I'm kidding. You big goof. But you do look unkempt, even more than usual. Rough day?"
"You know how it is, sweetie. Same old, same old."
"I know, dear. Just glad you're home now."
"Is the back door still open?"