I hated being the last one out of the building on Fridays. The prospect of leaving the office last superstitiously meant the “loser” would have bad luck until the following week when someone else, with the grace of God, would have a turn. There was one month where Paula, bless her heart, was the last one out three weeks in a row.
I’m unsure if our office prediction is true, or if she believed it so much that it came true, but her month was pretty much toast. Her car broke down twice because of a bad radiator she eventually replaced; she surprised her boyfriend by bringing home a cake and discovered him celebrating with someone else on his birthday; and someone in her apartment building fell asleep with a cigarette in his hand, taking out four apartments before they were able to contain it. Paula’s was directly above him. Anyway, it had to have been she was the last one out practically every Friday that month. Paula has never been the last one out since.
There was one week Tim took Friday off just to prevent being caught off guard because he had a flight Saturday. He said he was packing, but even through the rugged displacement of the curse, I could see right through him. I’m fairly sure everyone else could as well, despite his denial. I won’t fault him for his caution – he took his wife to Vegas for their one-year anniversary. Nobody could blame him, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t give him crap for it.
But, as the numbers on my screen neared the magical five o’clock hour, I found myself peering about the office and noticing everyone else tidying up their desks. Paula frantically slid papers together and crammed them into desk drawers. Mike hummed merrily, adjusting the photos of his kids because his paperwork had been cleared at least five minutes ago. Nicole remained calmly speaking in low tones into her mouthpiece in an obvious effort to get her customer off the phone. And Cassie feverishly scrolled through her cell phone muttering something about deserving her life. Her image flickered and disappeared a few times and finally disappeared for good. An empty desk remained with nothing but a phone remaining on top. I missed her. We had been pretty close, supporting each other through our breakups – well, all but the last one. I’d been pretty busy that week.
There were rumors that Cassie Schmidt was the base of the unnerving feelings and bad karma because she killed herself in one of the bathrooms a few months ago. They wouldn’t tell us which restroom it was for sure, but she was the last one here that Friday night. The custodians didn’t find her until Sunday morning. But since she worked on this floor, I’d assume it was one of these bathrooms. I tried not to miss her, but it wasn’t easy. I often found myself anticipating her tidying up to leave for the day and walking out with me to my car – especially on Friday. I’m pretty sure I was the last to see her alive.
At 4:58 p.m., the red light on my phone blinked and the ringing pierced the air as everyone glanced at their phones assuring the call wasn’t his or hers. The relief on their faces was similar to a high school class after the year-end exam was over. “Gardens of Resilience,” I chirped into the phone. “This is Chloe, how can I help you?”
I found myself rolling my eyes when Mrs. Bernstein told me how happy she was to speak to her favorite agent and how lucky she was to get through before we closed. Paula scurried out first without saying anything to anyone. Mike pointed his finger at me. “Last one out’s a rotten egg,” he laughed, ducking out the door. Nicole simply winced, shrugging her shoulders and silently mouthed “Sorry” as she disappeared.
It was just me and Mrs. Bernstein left in the building. Scratch that. It was me. Mrs. Bernstein was at home with her five cats loitering about her feet. Periodically, she’d pause to scold one or ask it what it was doing, as if she would receive an answer. “Mrs. Bernstein,” I did my best to match her pitch of joyfulness, “How can I help you this evening?”
“Yes dear. You know how much I love my babies and how important their health is to me?”
“Absolutely, Mrs. Bernstein. I recall when you called last month, asking for me to tell me it was your cat’s birthday.”
“Oh yes,” she chuckled sweetly, “The only reason I called that time was to tell you the cat I named after you, Chloe, turned five. It meant so much to her when you helped me wish her a happy birthday over the speaker phone.”
Unfortunately, I did remember that. I’d tried to sing the birthday song for Mrs. Bernstein quietly, so as not to draw too much attention to myself, but Tim noticed, and the rest was history. He nudged every person on my row and jutted his thumb in my direction, laughing all the while. I’m the one with the most placards on my desk for my customer support though, and it dos pay the bills. And believe me, after seeing the people on the corners with cardboard signs, I’m happy to have any job, especially one that recognizes my efforts. It’s nice to be appreciated.
Mrs. Bernstein rambled on about each of her cats’ recent accomplishments and the lights blink off for a second. All of the equipment also turned off and back on again. “A power surge most likely, “ I caught myself stating.
“I’m sorry dear, what did you say?” Mrs. Bernstein nervously chuckled.
“Mrs. Bernstein, I’m sorry but we’re having power issues right now,” I felt a little guilty because the power was on, but my system needed to reboot and start again. If I handled her now, another ten minutes would be added on. Even though I had no big plans for the night, my gallon of ice cream and movie rental were awaiting me. And honestly, I was beyond ready to go home.
“Oh, your power’s out?” Mrs. Bernstein sounded concerned. The lights flickered again. I peeked out the window to see if the wind was even blowing. But the trees and grass seemed calm in the slowly darkening sky. The next time the power was interrupted, the phone line went dead.
“Mrs. Bernstein?” I asked, receiving no response but the same dead air that played throughout the empty office. The only light I had was that permeating the windows. Thank goodness the outer walls were glass. I glanced around me and slung my purse over my shoulder, taking my purple lunchbox out of my desk and locking my drawer, I stood tall. A shiver plunged from my head to my toes. When it was gone, I needed to use the restroom. “Great,” I stated aloud. “It’s going to have to wait.”
Beyond a few desks, the elevators chrome doors shined, so I marched over and hit the button to go down. The darkened triangle remained as it was – unlit. “Duh,” I whispered. With power outages, the elevators don’t work. I’d be taking the stairs down four floors this evening, and the stairs were on the other side of the building.
Trying to convince myself I wasn’t afraid, I hurried past the elevators to the hallway leading away from my desk. Both sides had rows upon rows of cubicles that usually held the hustle and bustle of sales agents. But the quiet in the office now was so absorbing, I couldn’t even hear myself breathe, and I’m certain the air was audible as it passed over my open and hyperventilating lips while my feet scurried through.
Purse and lunchbox swinging against my side, I clamor through the chest-high walls, where little light reaches, and stretch toward the button to release the stairwell door. But then it hits me. Although the stairwell has an emergency light system, I have four flights of stairs to jog down with a full bladder. If anything sudden and unexpected happens, Chloe wetting her pants will be talked about for years to come.
Just past the stairwell is the drinking fountain with a bathroom door on either side. It’s dark enough I can’t see anything other than a slight glimmer from the fountain’s metal spout. The thought of the cold water shooting from the spout seals the deal. I reach into my purse and pull out my phone, activating the tiny little flashlight. The little beam shoots out the top. “Better than nothing,” I murmur.
A faint sound of whispering voices echoes from the area of my desk. I ditched quickly into the bathroom, my little beam of hope piercing its way through the empty porcelain room. The sounds of my feet shuffling and even the fabric of my clothes rubbing the bags I carried were amplified. I hurried into the bigger stall at the back of the restroom and slammed the door closed, locking it.
Placing my bags in the corner, I quickly flashed the beam around the stall. Nothing but clean tiles lined the room with an empty bowl against the wall. I even checked the toilet paper making sure it wasn’t empty before I sighed, lowering my pants and sank onto the hard seat beneath me. The long tinkle of relief flowed, and I exhaled loudly. “I can’t wait to get home,” I weakly said in the cold silence, exhausted.
“I can’t wait to get home.” My voice echoed a couple of seconds after me. The stream ceased and my eyes shifted back and forth. The echo was a bit slow in recurring.
I gulp and weakly spew out with a shaking voice, “Hey.” No response – at first. Seconds later, however, “Hey.”
Frozen on the toilet, I was afraid to move. I wondered how long I could remain in the blackened void, knowing the custodians wouldn’t be through until Sunday. The wait was far too long and the ring on my butt was already starting to ache. The phone was still in my hand and I flashed the beam up on the silver lock of the stall. Nothing.
Carefully, so as not to elicit any sounds at all, I clenched the phone between my teeth and stood, pulling up my jeans. I snapped them with a loud POP and froze. I used the light to peek into the toilet at the yellow water and twisted tissue floating around. But I wasn’t about to flush. Screw that.
The phone fell from my hand as I drew both hands over my mouth. I heard it clatter on the tiles as the beam shown on the corner across the floor. I clenched my teeth and waited for the echo. Nothing. I waited longer. No echo ever came.
Shaking with the hands of an old grandmother, I stretched to retrieve my phone from the floor. I shot up and flashed it around the stall again, ensuring my belongings were where I’d left them. Bending over one last time, I peered beneath the wall into the stall next to me, shining the light.
A blue-faced girl with lanky dark hair peeked back at me, snarling, with saliva drooling from her lips onto the floor. “Last one out’s a rotten egg!”
“Cassie?” I squeaked.
Hysterical laughter bounces from the echoing chamber of the restroom throughout the fourth floor.