The lights inside the building had been out since nine, when security locked the tall glass doors, and shut down the army of computers with a simple tap-tap on a keyboard. Crowding every office was a battalion of papers, folders, and meeting agendas that had been hastily abandoned when the clock struck five, only to be solemnly met again at nine the next morning. Maintenance had already been through by nine-thrity, attacking the glossy linoleum floors with soaps and mops, and raiding the windows with Windex and a sponge. Security would be back again, of course: nowhere are night shifts so vigilant as they are in New York City, and when they did return, security would be equipped with flashlights and a gun.
But for now, Mr. Simon was alone in the building.
Mr. Simon did not trouble security by asking for a light to be left on in his office when he worked late during the week. Light switches themselves had been completely eliminated from the lives of corporate Americans: light could only be rationed by God, the mainframe, and God operated on a schedule untouchable to even the most technologically able security guard. At six am., the lights would shatter the gray darkness of early morning, and would ricochet from the spare, white walls of the thirty-six floor office building - unforgiving, blinding, and right on schedule. Instead of skirmishing with technology, Mr. Simon chose to bring a lamp from home. He preferred lamp light to the glare of the harsh flourescents anyway. Lamp light was golden, and chose to seep into darkness rather than invade it.
Mr. Simon sat at his desk, aimlessly shuffling folders and papers by the golden light of his lamp, proof-reading the agenda for his next board meeting. The seconds on the clock ticked away, and Mr. Simon found evening slipping away from him. Soon it was midnight, and then the first hour of the morning. After that, Mr. Simon stopped looking at the clock.
At four o'clock, which was still dark in January, Mr. Simon needed to decide whether he would go home and get some rest, or whether he would stay on until morning, and complete the next work day. He had plenty of work left to do, but then again, he always did. He rubbed at his eyes, at once amazed that he could still feel the effects of sleep-deprivation.
Of course I can, he corrected himself, I'm only human.
Mr. Simon's friends had a phrase for people like him, but it was more of a euphemism, really. The dictionary could sum him up in a word: 'workaholic.' Mr. Simon understood the word, but much preferred the phrase his friends used. They used to say that everything he touched would turn to gold.
Mr. Simon was very rich. His company was richer. He worked very hard.
Mr. Simon felt himself drifting away at his desk as he imagined his old friends. He still saw them around the office sometimes, but he had moved up the corporate ladder so quickly and so assuredly that friendship, for them, had become suddenly impossible. At the time, however, Mr. Simon had not noticed the friendships slipping away. And when the time came that he may have sat up and taken notice of his life, he was completely preoccupied; blinded by love.
As his fingers resumed their rhythmic tap-tap-tap at the keyboard, he thought he saw something flit across the hall. Mr. Simon stood up, and rubbed his eyes again. He needed to get some sleep. He looked down at his computer.
I'll just finish this, he thought to himself, and then I'll go home.
Halfway through, his head began to nod.
Mr. Simon saw his wife smiling at him, her brown eyes glittering. He had come home early for the first time in his life, and Beth was happy. She too had left her job at noon in order to meet him. They played pool in the basement downstairs. They went to a movie. Mr. Simon was happy. He needed no friends. His wife was everything to him.
It wasn't my fault! His mind screamed. I just wanted to get rich quick. Retire early. Live with Beth. What was wrong with that? I never meant to ignore her, I never meant for my job to be my life.
But then he became CEO.
Mr. Simon's eyes snapped open.
No, he thought. I've stopped thinking about her, remember?
Again he saw something flit across the hall. Something small and yellow. Mr. Simon stood up, and blinked his heavy eyelids. He stepped into the hallway, and looked right and left for the flitting thing. There was nothing there.
He was about to turn around, when he saw it again, out of the corner of his eye. He turned sharply, and walked after it down the hall.
His eyes were hazy, and he couldn't see it clearly. He saw a yellow beacon, almost gold. The thing began to move more quickly, and Mr. Simon stepped up his pace. It swerved and circled and danced through the hallways, weaving amongst the maze of office cubes, sweeping from floor to ceiling with ease. It was flying.
Mr. Simon strode after it in a fever, trying to catch up, always one step behind. He tripped over a file that had been carelessly tossed into the middle of the hall. He stopped long enough to catch his breath, and pick it up. He opened the folder, and peeked inside. As soon as he did, he dropped it with a shout. A picture of his wife. His wife was smiling at him inside that folder.
His mind numbed. No, he thought. I must have imagined it. But he did not touched the folder again.
Mr. Simon looked up. The yellow light was still dancing, and he followed, mesmerized.
"What are you?" he asked it aloud. He tripped after it, around and around, trapped in the maze. The thing flitted through a crack beneath an office door. Mr. Simon opened the door. It was his own.
Mr. Simon's eyes darted about, searching for the flitting thing. He groped for his lamp, and when he found it, he switched it on.
"I've got you now," he whispered, as the light washed the office room in gold. The flitting thing swerved away from the light, but Mr. Simon saw it.
It was a butterfly.
Mr. Simon laughed. "A butterfly? Is that all you are?"
No magic here, he thought. But all the same, the tiny, yellow creature made him smile. It reminded him of the outdoors, of central park, of his wife, of his childhood. With a smile that was twenty years younger than the rest of him, Mr. Simon reached for the butterfly. But when he touched it, it glittered, and hardened, and dropped like a stone. A rock of pure gold hit the floor with a chime, and Mr. Simon gasped in horror. His heart wrenched, and his eyes filled with tears, and it was as if his wife had died all over again.
Kelly McWilliams is a student at Phoenix Country Day School and enjoys studying Akido and playing piano. Her novel, Doormat, will be published by Delacourt press in August of 2004.
Published by permission of the author.