As the rest of that morning—and the early afternoon—dragged on, I largely forgot about the unexplained Bicentennial quarter, and my somewhat prickly discussion with Madison.
Perhaps it had been nothing more than a mere coincidence. Madison, moreover, was something of a mystery to me. Bluntly speaking, she was an odd duck. Why else would she doggedly insist on calling me Mr. Wagner, when I had invited her, multiple times, to call me Steve?
I had two meetings after lunch. Nothing unusual about that. Much of my day is consistently filled up with meetings.
I returned to my office in the middle of the afternoon.
There was a shiny object in the middle of my desk blotter. Now it was glinting in the afternoon sun, instead of the morning sun.
I walked over and picked it up. I already knew that it would be a Bicentennial quarter. But I felt a compulsion to confirm that fact.
I turned the quarter over in my hand. I saw the familiar design of all U.S. quarters minted in 1976, to commemorate the American Bicentennial.
I dropped the quarter into my pocket. Then I walked out into the anteroom of my office. My administrative assistant, Loretta Byrd, was busy at work. She was proofreading one of the many reports that my division issues each week.
“Loretta?” I said. “Excuse me.”
Loretta lifted her head of platinum blonde hair.
“Yes, Steve. What is it?”
Loretta is about my age, give or take a few years. Unlike Madison, she has no qualms about addressing me by my first name. Loretta has worked at Covington Foods for seventeen years. She has raised two children, and she’s coped with two husbands. She outlived the first husband. I expect her to outlive the present one, too.
“Has Madison Greene been in my office since lunch?”
“No,” Loretta said. “I’ve been here the entire time. I would have seen her.”
“Of course I’m sure. Didn’t I just say that I’ve been here the entire time?”
There was no way I could push the matter further without accusing Loretta of lying.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Would you like me to ask Madison to come up here?” Loretta reached for her phone. Madison, we both knew, occupied a cubicle on the fourth floor. Along with most of the other co-ops.
“No,” I said hastily. “That won’t be necessary.”
Loretta leaned slightly forward, and eyed me suspiciously.
“Is something wrong, Steve? Is something going on?”
“No. Thanks again, Loretta.” I turned back toward my office.
Something was indeed wrong. Loretta was right about one thing. She would have seen Madison enter my office. So that didn’t make sense.
But the idea of Madison dropping the quarter on my desk a second time was equally inexplicable.
Madison Green was a young woman who dotted every “i”, and crossed every “t”. Placing the quarter on my desk the first time had been a gesture of monumental forwardness for her. Completely out of character, in and of itself.
But for her to place the quarter on my desk again, thereby defying my explicit wishes…?
I took a step inside my office, looked up, and saw what was on my desk.
And then I forgot all about that quarter in my pocket.
Madison Greene’s severed head was sitting in the middle of my desk blotter, where the quarter had been just a few minutes before.
Her eyes and mouth were both open. She had not seen the blade coming, I thought absurdly.
The blotter was soaked with blood, I could see—Madison’s blood.
What had happened? I wondered frantically. Apparently there had been much that Loretta hadn’t seen, despite her insistence that she’d been stalwartly at her desk.
Then Madison’s eyes rolled over in their sockets. Her mouth moved soundlessly. Madison was trying to rebuke me. For what I had brought down upon her with my arrogance.
That may have been the element that knocked me out of my daze. This isn’t real, I told myself. There was no way it could be real. It was a deliberately concocted illusion. Or my own hallucination.
But it wasn’t real.
I turned around, and walked back into the anteroom. This time Loretta heard me coming.
“Yes, Steve. Are you all right? You look a little pale.”
I didn’t address her remark. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that I looked a little pale.
“Would you mind coming into my office for a moment, Loretta?”
“Okay,” she said with slow emphasis. “May I ask what for? I really need to get these reports done.”
“It won’t take a minute,” I promised her. And it wouldn’t. Loretta would either see what I had seen, or she wouldn’t.
Loretta let out a sigh, as if to say, You’re the boss. What can I do about it? Then she stood up and walked around her desk.
“Could you take a look in my office, Loretta, and let me know if you see anything out of place or unusual?”
Loretta gave me a frown.
“Please, Loretta. Just humor me.”
She let out another sigh. “Oh, all right. Very well.”
I stepped aside so that she could enter my office. I remained just outside the threshold, with my back to her.
If she screams, I thought, then it’s real. I’ll know in a matter of seconds.
But Loretta didn’t scream. And after another five seconds passed without her screaming, I turned around.
“What? You wanted me to look for ‘anything unusual’?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Well, other than that pen that’s exploded on your desk blotter, I don’t see anything unusual.”
I was standing beside her now, and I could see the situation that she was referring to: An ink pen was in the middle of my desk blotter. It was the ballpoint pen that the company had given me more than a decade ago, to commemorate my first twenty years of service.
As Loretta had noted, the ink tube inside the pen had indeed ruptured. The pen was sitting in a puddle of its own ink.
Had the pen been there a few minutes ago? I wasn’t sure. I did vaguely recall using the pen to write a memo to myself, immediately after lunch.
All that mattered was that it wasn’t Madison’s head.
I was still breathing heavily, but I willed myself into some kind of composure, a recovery.
“Thank you, Loretta,” I said. “That—that will be all.”
But Loretta wasn’t letting me off the hook that easily.
“‘That will be all’?” she mimicked. “You still haven’t told me what this is about, Steve. You pulled me away from my reports to tell you that a pen was leaking ink?”
“It’s a market research thing,” I told her. “We—we’re checking to see how quickly people notice anomalies in their environment. That helps us anticipate the average person’s responsiveness to ads. Forgive me for making you a guinea pig, Loretta, but it would have ruined the experiment if I’d explained it to you in advance.”
“Okay,” Loretta said, grudgingly.
I didn’t know if she actually believed my elaborate lie. I only cared, at that moment, that she was willing to drop the matter.
And yes, I did feel guilty for lying to her. But I had to give her some explanation.
“Would you like me to clean up that mess on your desk for you?”
“No, thank you, Loretta. I’ll take care of the pen. Sorry to disturb you. I’ll let you get back to your reports now.”
With that Loretta went back to her desk—and I immediately left the office. Loretta watched me walk out without comment. She was probably fed up with my strangeness, wanted no more part of it.
There was another, related matter that I had to attend to. And I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else until I had seen to it.
I walked down the hallway to the elevators, and rode down to the fourth floor, where the co-op cubicles were located.
I exited the elevator on the fourth floor and walked to the edge of the co-op wing. I didn’t want to attract any attention. I didn’t want anyone to notice me at all, in fact.
I stood at the edge of the co-op wing and saw Madison Greene seated inside her cubicle. She was typing away at her company-issued laptop.
She was very much alive, and her head was completely intact upon her shoulders. Thankfully, the layout of the cubicles enabled me to see Madison without her seeing me.
I was about to go back to my office. And then I saw him.
He was a red-haired young man, with an angular face. Another one of the student co-ops—or rather, that’s what he might have been pretending to be.
I don’t know how long he’d been with the company, but I’d never noticed him at Covington Foods before. He was sitting a few cubicle rows away from Madison.
He looked up from his computer and smiled at me.
He looked immediately familiar. A red-haired young man I’d encountered decades ago, in the summer of 1976.
I gasped. He saw me gasp, and he smirked. Then he shook his head and returned his attention to his computer.
Before he could look up again, I left the co-op area, boarded the elevator, and returned to my office.