“Will you come and visit me in prison?” my coworker whispered over the cubicle wall.
At first I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps this was a test, an initiation into deeper levels of friendship.
Dreading what I would see, I stood and peered over the grey divider. A tiny baby-sized figure sat typing at Mike’s computer. Resigned to what my eyes reported, I shook my head and replied, “Of course I will.”
My week had started out in the normal first-week-of-a- job manner. As the manager led me to my desk, I tried to smile at my new coworkers, but everyone either stared at their computer or had a phone attached to their ear. Conversations sprinkled with phone ringers blended into a steady hum in the maze of cubicles.
“If you have any questions, ask Mike next door. He’s been here forever,” the Human Resources lady said as she dashed off.
After dumping the ream of orientation paperwork onto the metal desk, I felt the pressure of eyes upon me and looked up.
“Welcome to my level of hell,” my new co-worker grumbled. His dark hair was slicked back tight to his head, and his brown eyes contained deep wells of misery. He stooped over like an old man, but his face was looked closer to my age.
“Hi, I’m Dave, the new guy,” I said, determined to have a conversation with someone. This had to be Mike, a seasoned veteran that would take me under his wing and ensure my success.
The man nodded, and continued on. “I’m Mike. I may as well tell you that I’m not the most popular man on the team.”
I smiled at him, having never been part of the popular crowd myself.
My new neighbor leaned over toward me, resting his arms on the top of our cubicle wall. He paused as if he stood on the edge of a cliff. I nodded, showing him my best compassionate face, one I had practiced in the mirror after that last job.
“My girlfriend left me,” he continued. “She met this guy at the grocery store. He’s a chef or something.”
“Man, I’m sorry,” I offered. Was this guy that I barely met sharing his innermost pain with me? Maybe that was why he wasn’t popular.
“The love of my life,” he said, his eyes growing darker. “We were a couple in high school. Graduation night, we had this big fight. I was going to Arizona State, and she was staying local. We were done. That’s what I thought.”
“That’s a tough break,” I said, moving slightly away from his reddening face.
“Why couldn’t she leave well enough alone?” he asked me. “She had to call me up years later, and beg me to move here. After her marriage went south, she still had my number.” His eyes reflected the fleeting hope that had once resided there.
I attempted another interjection, but the train of his thoughts had already left the station and was steaming full speed ahead.
“Everything was great!” he bellowed. I looked through my doorway nervously. Was this really going to be an embarrassing scene on my first day? “For three years, we were happy, and then she finds this guy. At the grocery store! She moves out and immediately marries HIM, NOT ME!”
At this point, I was on my feet, ready to escape to the bathroom, if necessary. Several sets of eyes glanced my way, but quickly returned to their computers. Mike finally noticed the effect of his words, and took a deep breath, pulling his emotions back in slowly.
Mike cracked a smile that made me shiver. “I hope that guy turns out to be a lazy bum. What kind of a man works in a kitchen?” His words echoed in my ears the rest of the day.
That was Monday. The next day, I rode up the elevator clinging to the faint hope that my second day would be better. Today I would find someone besides Mike to talk to.
No one was standing by the coffee pot, so I poured myself a cup and walked slowly to my desk. I glanced into a doorway and tried to catch the eye of a balding man who was clattering on his keyboard like it was a horse race. Shaking my head, I continued on to my work station.
“Good morning, Dave,” I heard Mike call over the wall. His voice sounded small and squeaky.
“Good morning, Mike,” I replied. I walked up to the wall and looked over into his cubicle.
“Thanks for remembering my name. I’m only a shell of a man. Ruined by the only woman I ever loved.”
“That stinks, man.” I felt rude staring at him, so I took another sip of coffee. Mike was standing next to his wall. While yesterday, he had cleared up to his shoulders above the top, today only his head and eyes were able to see over. How could he be a foot shorter overnight?
Mike started back into his favorite topic of conversation. “She called last night.” The anger attached to those simple words could have burned through the wall.
“What did she say?” I couldn’t avoid asking since that was my line in the script he was writing.
“She wanted the T.V.” Mike started to pace his small workspace. I noticed worn paths in the grey carpet, and wondered how long this had been going on. “I told her to come get it, but she didn’t want to. Let her come over with her burly dish washer.” He clenched his hands. “I could take care of them both. Tie them both up, and take them apart bit by bit with my new kitchen knives. The ones I had to buy when she left.”
Not wanting to further this dangerous conversation, I said, “Well, I’d better get started. Who knows when Mr. Blinker might want to see our reports?”
“Later,” he growled, and I didn’t hear anything more from him the rest of the day. More than once I wanted to stand up and say something, but his rage had erected a barrier. I started calling former customers, eager to speak to someone, even if they hung up on me.
On Hump Day, I entered the office with diminished enthusiasm, having concluded that this job would be as dreary as the five previous. A hunched over man poured coffee with a trembling hand, splashing his wrinkled suit. I greeted him as I placed my lunch in the fridge.
“Good morning, I’m Dave.”
“Morning,” he mumbled as he hobbled past me, splashing coffee as he walked. A quick flash of anxiety hit me as I realized I could be him in twenty years.
Walking down the aisle toward my corner, I wondered if Mike would talk to me today.
“Morning,” a scratchy voice said. I looked over my wall to see my dismal neighbor readjusting his tie in a small mirror. He was standing on his tip toes to see his neck in it. Today he was only half as tall as the cubicle wall!
“Mike, are you getting shorter?” I blurted out before I could catch myself.
The hobbit-sized human shook his head. Then he started to chuckle, which ended up sounding more like a giggle. “I know what you’re doing, Dave. You’re trying to get my mind off of her. But I saw her on the street today. Walking toward 1st Street.” His eyes flashed at me. “I wanted to run her down. All I had to do was jump the curb and take her out. Do you know how hard it was to keep my hands steering the car straight?”
I wondered how he could even reach the gas pedal. “Now, Mike,” I said. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little carried away? You could have really hurt someone.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was going for,” he said with an eruption of more giggles.
“I’ve got to get to work,” I said, turning back to my computer. But his words hung in the air. Should I report Mike to HR? At first he had sounded bitter and sad, but the conversations were turning violent.
I pulled up my work email account and wrote to Mrs. Bailey in Human Resources:
Dear Mrs. Bailey,
Thank you for the opportunity to work in this fine organization. Everyone has been so welcoming to me, and I feel part of the Fidelity Life family.
However, it has come to my attention that one of my co-workers, Mike Jones, has a severe anger problem. On more than one occasion he has mentioned that he would like to inflict bodily harm on his former girlfriend and her current love interest.
Although I acknowledge that Mike’s personal life is none of my business, I can’t with good conscience continue to listen to his rants without making you aware of them.
Please do not mention my name when you talk to him.
I clicked send and went back to work. Right before it was time to wrap up for the day, my email notification binged. It was a reply from Mrs. Bailey.
In response to your concerns, I spoke with Mike on the phone this afternoon. Other than a terrible cold that affected his voice, he seemed to be in good spirits. There were no indicators of violent behavior.
Thank you for caring about our Fidelity Life family,
I erased both messages and closed down my computer. Obviously the stress of a new job was affecting me.
On my way to work Thursday, I struggled to keep up with the flow of pedestrians that pushed me up the street. Last night my mind had been binge dreaming nightmares about tiny angry people.
In the elevator I recognized the woman who worked across from me. Stirring my courage, I turned my head toward her, leaving my body in the full frontal position required for elevator travel.
“Good morning, it’s Susan, isn’t it?” I queried.
She nervously turned toward me, as I was breaking the number one rule on an elevator-don’t talk to anyone. “Yes, it is. You’re the new guy across from me.”
“Can I ask you something?” She glared at me and motioned with her eyes toward our fellow riders. “It’s not personal or anything.”
“Well, okay,” she said with a frown.
“What’s the story about Mike?”
Her face froze. “What about him?”
“I just wondered,” I said, trying to tread delicately. “How tall is he normally?”
Her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I just wondered how tall he is, that’s all.”
She gasped. “We’re not allowed to gossip about coworkers. It’s grounds for dismissal.”
Under her glare, I lost all conviction. “Never mind.”
“Indeed,” she said with a sniff.
As I approached my cubicle, I could hear mouse-like scurrying noises. Unable to help myself, I looked into Mike’s office.
A small child tried to boost himself up into the chair. My mouth fell open as I recognized the dark hair, still carefully combed back like an adult would do.
“Good, I’m glad you’re here. Help me up into my chair!”
Not knowing what else to do, I helped the four-year-old sized man into his chair and adjusted it for him so he could reach his computer keyboard.
“I’m going to do it!” he insisted. “It’s going to be poison. I’ll follow her at the grocery store and use a needle to inject hemlock into her meat. Let them choke on a juicy steak!”
“Mike,” I said. “Don’t you think you should let this go?”
“Ridiculous!” he retorted. “They ruined my life!” As he waved his hands around, he looked like a small child throwing a tantrum. Unable to bear the sight of him any longer, I returned to my cubicle, sat down, and stared at my computer screen.
I decided to do what I usually do in the face of conflict. Nothing. I was new here. It wasn’t my place to stir things up. Instead I pulled out a file from my inbox and got to work.
Finally, Friday arrived like a long awaited package. I didn’t even look into Mike’s cubicle. After answering my seventy-fifth email, I heard a faint whisper coming from the wall.
“Will you come and visit me in prison?”
Unable to resist, I stood up and looked over the wall. Sitting on the chair was a tiny person, barely larger than a baby, holding his head in his little hands. My heart went out to him.
“Of course I will.”
“Thanks, man. I’m really going to do it, you know. She deserves it.”
I had to try again. Obviously there was something I was supposed to do here. “Mike, do you think that your ex-girlfriend ever thinks about you? Maybe it’s time for you to move on and live your own life.”
He glared at me with his tiny eyes. “This is my life!” And he went back to his computer, turning his baby-sized shoulders against me.
Shaking my head, I sat down to address the myriad of problems that had grown during the week. I heard nothing from Mike’s cubicle the rest of the day.
The weekend dragged on. I slept in on Saturday morning until the phone woke me. It was my sister, and after five minutes, she insisted that I go to the movies with her. The theater down the street was showing a Disney marathon featuring “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” I started to get a head ache so we left the theater early.
Sunday I watched football. The violent slams of the linemen reminded me of Mike’s vivid threats. The sauce on the pizza I ordered looked too much like blood.
Suddenly it was Monday again. Since it was my second week, I arrived late. Entering the office, I saw Susan delivering memos to cubicles. She avoided my gaze, so I didn’t offer her a greeting. That’s what talking in the elevator gets you.
The morning passed uneventfully, and it wasn’t until after lunch that I noticed that I had not received my daily rant from Mike. In fact, I hadn’t heard anything from his cubicle at all.
Hesitantly, I got up and looked over the wall. No coffee cup, no coat, and his computer dark. Where was he?
My phone rang, and I went back to work. When I finally put on my coat to leave, I glanced over once more. All was as quiet as a cemetery.
Did he quit? Was he fired? Did he finally murder his ex-girlfriend and her lover? My swirling thoughts caused me to sway against the wall as I exited toward the elevators.
As the closing door clanged shut, I pondered my friend’s demise. All the way back to my apartment, I wondered what I should do. So I popped a dinner into the microwave, and turned on the television. The evening news was on.
“Police are asking for help from viewers to locate a missing insurance salesman, who disappeared over the weekend. His parents are asking that anyone who has seen this man, Mike Jones, to call the Westerfield station immediately. Thank you for your help.”
Mike’s intense face stared out from my TV. Something had happened to him. There had been no mention of a double murder, so I took a breath.
Then the phone rang. Jumping to my feet, I ran to answer it. Could it be Mike?
“Hello, is this David Small?”
Yes,” I said. “Who is this?”
“This the Westerfield police station. We’d like you to come down and answer a few questions about Mike Jones. He was your friend, wasn’t he?”
I had to think about how to answer truthfully. Mike was the only one who talked to me at work and shared with me his personal life. Did that make him my friend?
“Yes, of course,” I answered, “although I’ve only been working with him for a week. I’ve never been over to his place or anything. I’d be glad to help.”
When I arrived at the police station, I was whisked inside an interview room by a policewoman who looked like she drank vinegar daily. I sat on the chair that felt almost as uncomfortable as my chair at work, and waited. And waited. Finally, I laid my head down on the table in front of me and took a nap. Nothing else to do, and my anxiety about Mike had burnt me out.
The door squeaked open, and the aroma of stale burnt coffee woke me up. A small foam cup full of black liquid was plopped in front of my face, and I sat up to view an older man with a mostly bald head and wire rim glasses sitting down across from me with a thick folder. He didn’t wear a police uniform, but instead looked like some sort of professor. He wore a slightly rumpled suit and tie that had a mustard stain on it.
“Well, now, Mr. David Small, is it?” he said, opening up the folder. “You know why you’re here, don’t you?” He took a sip of his own coffee and grimaced.
“Mike didn’t come to work today,” I said. Was I really going to tell them that my friend had been shrinking every day as he planned the death of his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend? If I didn’t totally believe it myself, I was sure the serious gentleman across from me would make a phone call and have me locked up.
“Well, of course,” he said, pushing back his glasses. He was skimming through the stack of papers. “There’s no way he would be able to get to work in his condition.”
“His condition?” I asked, wide awake now.
“It’s quite rare, you see,” he said, slamming the file shut. “But we’re seeing more and more of these days.” He opened a notebook, and took a pen out of his front pocket. “Tell me about Mr. Jones’ behavior at work last week.”
I never was good at lying, probably due to my lack of imagination, or that I didn’t have a poker face. Something in the way this guy looked at me told me that I had to go with the truth.
“Mike started telling me about how his girlfriend left him. He started to get angry about that. The next day it was worse. He told me that he was planning to kill them.” I stopped, my tongue stuck on my next words.
“Go on,” the man said. He watched me without blinking as I gathered my small courage. I took a swig of my coffee and almost choked on it.
“Every day when I saw Mike, I thought…” could I really say it out loud? “I thought that Mike was getting smaller. A lot smaller every day. Maybe I was just imagining it.”
“I see,” the man said, writing down some notes. “And how many days did you observe Mr. Jones shrinking?”
My eyes grew wide as I realized that my interviewer didn’t think my words were crazy.
“Well, I only saw him at work, so it was five days. I don’t know what happened over the weekend,” I said. He continued to take notes, not even looking up. “What does it mean, …sir?” It was only then that I realized I hadn’t even been given the man’s name, or what his role was in the investigation. Didn’t they have to flash me a badge or something? Maybe he was FBI or Homeland Security or something.
“Well, Mr. Small, I’m not at liberty to tell you much. We’re right in the middle of studies on this condition, and don’t want to divulge too much to the public. Might start a panic, you know.” He smiled at me, and I noticed that his teeth were perfectly white and even. Behind the thick glasses, his green eyes glinted, even in the dim florescent light of the interview room.
“Of course, sir,” I answered. “But is Mike really missing?”
“Oh no, not at all,” the man reassured me. “We know exactly where Mike is. The question is whether or not we can treat his condition. There are so many factors to consider, like how long he was suffering. I just need to get all the facts.” His smile seemed less friendly, like he was tiring of my questions.
“Can’t you tell me something?” I pleaded. “After all, he was my friend.”
The man stood up and pushed in his chair. He picked up his coffee, looked at it, and threw it in the corner trash can. “You realize that this is strictly off the record,” he said. Seeing my nod of assent, he continued. “Mike was an angry man. His anger grew like a fire, and you know that fire consumes its fuel. We believe Mike’s anger ate him up.”