by Marcus Emanuel
the office hummed. There was no music, no cacophony, little conversation — just the steady quiet that exists a few hundred feet above ground level. But within this quiet, dotted through it like wisps of clouds on a clear day, were the hushed sounds of people busy at work. They worked as if trying not to wake a sleeper. The ticking of keyboards like cicadas chirping beneath the stars at night, lulling the sleeper into a dream state. A phone bleating out only to be snapped up, met with a soothing greeting sung through a smile, assuring the sleeper that everything is alright. Amidst this steady, productive hum, Carl (of the burgeoning pot belly and the unexpurgated laugh) sat uselessly, dumbfounded, staring at the strange thing he found in front of him. Finally, at his wit’s end, he picked up his phone and, with four adroit taps of the number pad, dialed John.
"Yello," John answered. Carl thought he could hear him yawn.
"I . . ." Carl started, and then hesitated. "Could you swing over when you have a minute? I need your help on something."
Three minutes later John had an elbow on the corner of Carl’s cubicle, a cup of coffee dangling in the air. Carl had attempted to move to other work in the interim but had found it impossible. The other tasks were like dark matter to him, incomprehensible. He’d simply stared at the endlessly strange thing in front of him, waiting for John.
John leaned in to look at it. "A trade error?"
"Yeah I know, but . . ." Carl said.
John leaned in closer, his aftershave rolling in over Carl’s shoulder. In a blurred voice he read through the error, streaming his words into one. With a nod he stood back up when he’d finished.
"You bungled the CUSIP, that’s all. What, you got fat fingers or something?" John hit him lightly on the shoulder.
"Yeah I know, I just . . ." Carl wasn’t asking about the bungled CUSIP. He turned in his chair to look up at John. John smiled lightly, still pleased with himself, one foot bouncing happily. The ceiling lights backlit two rogue hairs John had missed while shaving, tucked between his ear and the edge of his jaw. Carl looked at him very carefully. Had John seen what Carl saw? Carl liked John because John was smart enough to appear dumber than he was. Was that what was happening now, John was playing the fool, pretending not to see the bizarre, perplexing impossibility directly in front of him? Or was it just simple ignorance?
"How’s Emmy, huh, you guys have a good weekend?" John asked, slipping the question out before a slurp of his coffee.
No, it was impossible to tell, Carl thought. But it was also impossible not to keep looking. In the handwriting on post-its, in the positioning of the sticky on the page, in the syntax of the messages of his co-workers — everywhere, Carl looked for some kind of shared understanding, some solidarity. Had anyone else noticed it too? Were they as frazzled as he was? In the small talk in the kitchen, in the refilling of the paper on the printer — but he only found his co-workers as per usual, smiling brightly, undisturbed. Until he found Toni.
She was in the kitchen standing over the sink. Her coffee mug was full but sitting in the stainless-steel basin. She stared down at it. Carl had spoken to her twice but still she didn’t respond.
She looked up at him and, quickly, he saw her chase away the look of horror and confusion with a smile.
"Are you alright?"
"Tired." She maintained eye contact but her whole being was wobbly. "Busy."
Carl simply stared at her. Toni looked back to the sink, let out a halting, scraping laugh, and lifted the coffee mug. She was halfway to the corridor when Carl spoke:
"I had the strangest trade error the other day."
With a gasp she turned. A shudder of terror ran through her, the coffee mug shaking in her hands, but she didn’t stop or even slow. Her face turning towards him, equal parts confusion and curiosity, as her body lead her away.
That was enough, though, for Carl. Strange, he thought, that just that little bit and he was then so sure. When he got back to his desk everything was different. His work was not the box of black matter it had been — incomprehensible, overwhelming, inescapable. Instead he saw opportunity, even excitement. The confirmation that he wasn’t alone, wasn’t insane, had washed the confusion away and revealed opportunity beneath it. He hunched over his work in anticipation, his fingers pecking eagerly at the keyboard.
Fifteen minutes later she showed up behind him.
"What was strange about the trade error?" It was a question but it wasn’t a question. Either way, Carl didn’t have much interest in answering it. He was past that now. He had harnessed himself to that something strange and he wanted to ride along with it.
"Carl." But Toni was persistent. "What was strange about it?"
And desperate. He turned at the quiver in her voice. Her eyes were red, her cheeks sore and stretched out.
"Nothing." He tried to smile gently. "Did you have one too? Where something was strange about it?"
She nodded. "I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it. I can’t make any sense of it."
He nodded too, but more lightly. "I’m sure it’s nothing."
"Can you come look at it?"
He sighed at this, reluctant in his fervor to leave his desk.
"I . . ."
But she was pleading, desperate. "Please?" Terrified.
He pulled himself out of his chair.
She’d botched the number of shares, selling more than were in the account. Carl’s finger hung in the air, pointing at the mistake.
"Right," she said slowly.
"Maybe you misplaced a decimal, or made a transposition somewhere."
Then for a while they both stared at it.
"Do you—" Carl started and then he paused for a moment, thinking through it. How had he gotten through it, made sense of it? Not by looking at the big picture, that was too much, but by focusing on the small things, the things he could comprehend. "Do you know what we’re looking at?"
"Right," Carl’s head bobbed lightly. "What are we looking at?"
"The morning error report."
"Sure," Carl gestured for more, "but what specifically?"
"OK," again the gesture.
"The shares amount?"
"Sure, of course, but what about," with two hands, flexed as if gripping some large object tightly, Carl gestured towards the thing in front of them, the thing they both couldn’t stop staring at, "this?"
Toni’s shoulders rose. She turned towards him. "A computer?"
"Yes," Carl smiled. "And is there anything," he searched for the right word, "different about it?"
"It’s," her brow furrowed, "it’s so much older than I expected it to be."
Carl nodded. "Yes." And then, his voice lowering, his body shifting in, closer to her: "What year do you think we’re in right now? What year do you think it is?"
There were other people, too, around the office asking this question. Amidst the hushed sounds of people busy at work, dotted through it like wisps of clouds on a clear day, the question began to appear. They whispered it to each other. Gradually, they were finding that others shared their bizarre sense of deja vu. But no, this was not like any deja vu they’d known before. Deja vu did not reach back decades. Deja vu did not consume your everything, paint over your world. Deja vu did not hang around, like a fog you couldn’t find your way out of. So, carefully, as not to wake the sleeper from her dream state, they reached out to each other. In the copy room over the unclaimed copies, on the elevator on the way down to the cafeteria, in the bathroom beneath the stalls — they whispered the question. What year do you think it is?
"Our estimates put it at late 1994, possibly 1995." The director leaned in towards the CEO as he said this, his voice hushed. Next to him, back lit by the floor to ceiling windows of the CEO’s office — a bird’s eye view of the cityscape surrounding them — the COO nodded.
"Which means we’re in a position where we know essentially the next two decades of returns, where we know the basic underlying market fluctuations." The Director said, his eyes flaring. The man was like a reptile. The skin of his bald head rippled. His movements were quick, sharp — not furtive but spry, kinetic. His tongue darted out, wetting his lips, before he continued: "This isn’t really something we can explain or account for at this point, how we seem to have slipped back a couple decades, but . . ."
"This is something that can be leveraged," the CEO said, nodding. He was an attractive man but dressed poorly, the buttons on his shirt never quite aligning with the fly of his slacks.
Finally, the COO cleared his throat, leaning forward. "At some point," he spoke calmly, locking eyes with the CEO, "the question is going to become, not what year is it now, but what year did we think it was before."
The CEO turned to look out the window. "As long as we can control the reaction to this, there is opportunity here, significant opportunity."
The reaction was beyond control, but that didn’t matter. As the awakening spread from person to person, cubicle to cubicle, it was greeted with, after the initial trepidation, a certain excitement. They knew the worst of it, they knew what the next few decades would hold. More than that, there was a chance they could make it different, perhaps make it better.
After the awakening, though, surprisingly little in the office changed. The company meetings carried on as before. "Our dividend growth products continue to be strong, but our message to our clients holds. A diversified portfolio is what is key here. We want them to focus not on what their returns are for this year, but on what their average returns are. There will be good years and bad years, of course, but we want to keep them focused on the long term." But now, near the end of the meetings, the Director would step forward, offering a brief coda. Around the room heads would rise. The collective pulse would quicken.
"We believe there are opportunities specifically in the technology sector, a number of small but promising companies that are currently somewhat significantly undervalued." His voice was quiet, just barely carrying across the room, but his eyes were shimmering, his tongue flicking out eagerly. "Asset Management has started to overweight some of the portfolios in this direction, as they believe there will be opportunity for significant development in the next few years. Perhaps." A knowing smile, shared now by almost all in the room.
Along with these pregnant codas, a sense of camaraderie developed around this shared secret. Because, for whatever reason, no one else seemed to know. Colleagues at other companies pushing their trays through the cafeteria, parents over the phone, wives and husbands together in bed at night — these people all asked questions that there were already answers to. "When do you guys think oil’s going to reach a bottom?" "Have you seen that mole on your father’s back, do you think it’s anything serious?" "Will it be a girl or a boy?" Those that knew didn’t try to awaken anyone. Instinctively, they seemed to know it wasn’t possible. Instead they tried to guide the others to the answers that were already there.
"Sometimes I think they know too," Toni said, refilling her coffee.
John nodded. "As if they’re not aware, not really, but the knowledge is there at some subconscious level."
Quickly, papers in hand, an admin passed through the kitchen, and Toni and John waited for her to pass. While the talk had stopped being quite so whispered, there were still those at the firm who were, amazingly, unaware. They still had to watch their words.
Toni leaned in. "Fred told me he wants to wait another year so we can afford a place with a second room but I said we should start trying now because often the first time, it can take a while. And then he turned to me with this smile and said that no, he didn’t think so, he thought it would happen easily. Some part of him had to know!"
John’s mouth turned down. Gently, he placed his glass on the counter. "But Toni, you’re still going to do that?" She looked at him confused. "But don’t you remember what happens?" he asked, a hand placed gently on her shoulder.
"Oh," she held the coffee mug with both hands. "I, I guess I’d forgotten."
They were beginning to forget things. It was so hard to remember, when the rest of the world didn’t. And there were just too many things, too much to keep in one’s head. The Director’s codas began to be punctuated with hesitant pauses.
"Does anyone," his eyes scanning across the room, "do we have a best guess for when the oil market might begin to turn again?"
"I think," a tepid answer from a far corner of the table, "I think, if the relative stability in the Balkans continues for a few more months, we might see some leveling out in the market . . ." A few heads nod, encouraging the line of thought. But then:
At once the collective memory snapped back into focus. Everyone silent as they replayed the news footage in their head. The buildings that would, only a few months from now be on fire. The people that would be screaming.
Little things they forgot, of course, as happens regardless. But big things, transformative things — how did they not seem to remember these? How did they not anticipate it, make some plan for it? How could they have forgotten the biggest things of all?
It was Carl who saw the first clue:
"The name." He whispered it to himself on the copy room, the letterhead stamped on the paper in his hand. Deschler Financial Planning. His eyes held the words but something in his mind colored them strangely, wrapping them in the heavy emotion of a dark memory. He went to show the others.
"But that’s right, isn’t it?"
Dave Deschler — Founding Partner, Chief Executive Officer, and Chief Investment Officer.
"No I remember something else, too."
"Something . . . less personal."
"Maybe . . ."
"Yes!" They paused, all smiling for a moment at their success. Slowly, the images came back to them. The three letters on the stationary, on the company website, in their product names. DMW Fixed Income Opportunities, Series 2. DMW Core Equity, DMW Real Return.
"We changed it," one of them said quietly, still lost in the memories, "we rebranded."
"Yes . . ."
DMW Absolute Return. DMW Emerging Markets Equity.
DMW Taxable Fixed Income.
"Oh my god . . ."
Together, their heads turned, looking for him, hurrying.
Clarence Watson. Rumpled thinning hair, coke-bottle glasses askew on his nose, long fingernails scratching at his stubble.
"We have to tell Dave."
The stationary, like some damning piece of evidence, passed from their hands to the Director’s — amidst hurried explanations and stuttered acronyms, running noses and teary eyes — and then passed from the Director’s to the CEO’s. "Um . . . we might have an issue here."
The official stance became to do nothing about it. "Do not engage Clarence." This is undoubtedly because they did not know what to do about it. But this was not seen as a satisfactory reaction.
"But what about Patsy!"
"What about Francis!"
They couldn’t remember if there were others, but they were enraged.
"By doing nothing we’re putting their lives at risk!"
Against the directive, they tried to talk to Ben about it. He’d always been reasonable, level-headed, if boring. Carefully, they tried to lead him towards it.
"DMW, Ben, remember? DMW Capital?" But of course he didn’t.
"Ben," someone grabbed him by the shoulder, "Ben — Clarence Watson."
They thought this would spur the same montage in his head as in theirs. Clarence shouting, spittle flying from his lips. Clarence with a pistol outstretched, the gun long and spindly like his limbs, like a natural extension of himself. Clarence hunched before the blood-smeared windows, his teeth clinking the metal barrel. But of course Ben didn’t have these memories. He hadn’t made it to see all of that.
But what could they do? Tell Ben and the others to stay away, find a new job? Who would be the victims instead, who would take their place? Tell Clarence that he was fired? Technically the man had done nothing wrong. And besides, they had their worries about provoking him.
"Isn’t that how it happened before? They fired him for something and then one day he showed up, fought his way back in?"
"No . . ."
But they weren’t sure anymore. The images were becoming blurred. It was difficult to distinguish memory from imagining. Which images were there as artifacts, the after effect of light dancing into their eyes twenty-some years ago, and which were the product of their prejudices, projected against the inside of their mind, magnified by their emotion? That question had never had a good answer but at least it had had a structure. Now, when twenty years ago meant sometime next year, that too was breaking down.
So they followed orders. They did nothing. And Clarence continued to work among them. His hunched walk through the carpeted walkways, bringing his empty coffee cup back to the kitchen. His spindly fingers fumbling with the staple remover. His throat clearing noises, constant and unconscious, punctuating the minutes of a meeting. They carried on together. No one could remember exactly when the incident happened anyway. Summer maybe, or early Fall. They had time to deal with it. They would get to it then. Time passed. Things went on.
"Maybe we were wrong," Carl said one day.
He had been thinking those words for a while now. He had taken to practicing them so that he could feel them in his mouth, on his tongue. Early in the morning, before his wife was up (no, his fiancee), standing in the soft light of the bathroom, he’d wipe the condensation from the mirror so he could see his lips. Maybe we’re wrong.
"How?" Toni asked. They were in the kitchen together and Toni was intently watching the coffeemaker. Little by little, the water wound its way through the ground, bled out through the filter, and plopped with the rest of the black water inside the brown-stained pot.
"About what happened, about the change, about this not being the first time that we’ve been here."
"What?" Toni turned away from the pot to look at him.
"Maybe we just got confused. We thought it was one year, we thought we were in one time, but we weren’t. We got confused about it and we just dealt with it, we just tried to make sense out of it. We thought we came back from whatever year we were in into this year, but we were wrong. Maybe we just never left this year."
"No." The coffee maker was done. Toni grabbed a mug.
"What if we’ve never left this year? What if time’s just stopped progressing altogether but we haven’t even noticed yet? How would we even be able to tell?"
"I miscarried," Toni said. "Again."
She sipped her coffee.
Carl turned to face her, his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide.
"I’m sorry," He said. He truly was. He cleared his throat. "Had that, had that happened—"
"Yes." Holding the mug with both hands, she walked back to her cubicle.
Laying in bed that night, Carl thinks he can see it happening. He can see Clarence’s snarl, the tears in his eyes, his shoulder bucking from the force of the pistol. He can see savagery and clarity in the blood in the sunlight. He can see the market events as if spread out before him. The tech bubble bursting, the crash in ‘08. A skyscraper collapsing in on itself. But so what? he thinks. Yes, it’s all there. Yes, maybe it’s already happened. But even if it has, so what? Can we say that it really even happened? What is the stock market but something that can’t be understood, can’t be comprehended? Easily, he thinks, it could not actually exist. And the human being once inside Toni? The bodies falling from the building like loaves of bread? Ben and Patsy and whoever else? Maybe they don’t exist too? Or, once not existing, never did?
Maybe, he thinks as he turns on his side, but he isn’t sure. Something doesn’t seem right. It isn’t existential dread that’s gnawing at him, something much more plebeian than all that. Some fact he’s forgotten about that doesn’t work with the theory. Something he had tucked in the back of his mind that he’s now lost track of. Calmly, he begins searching for it. He is still doing so when, gradually, without even realizing it, he falls off to sleep.
Marcus Emanuel is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He has previously been published in Loud Zoo and The Rag, as well as on various blogs and websites.