“How much for the wrapping, please?” Charles took out his wallet and began counting the notes.
“Our wrapping service is free, sir,” said the woman behind the counter. She took another look at the now completely wrapped box in front of her. “A birthday gift for someone, sir?”
“Yes,” he replied. He picked up the box, tucked it under his arm, placed a couple of ten-dollar notes on the counter, and began walking off. The woman cried out after him, “Sir, you don’t have to pay for the wrapping! Sir!”
He stopped, half-turned towards her and said, “Consider it a birthday tip. From the birthday boy.” And walked out of the store.
Charles pulled into the parking lot adjacent to his office building. It was expensive to park here, but he had no choice, since he hadn’t yet received clearance to park at the free company parking bays located in the building’s basement. As he eased his car into a tight spot next to an old Honda, he briefly wondered just how much longer he’d have to wait till his parking application would be approved. He’d have thought the last 4 years was long enough.
As Charles closed the door of his car, he glanced at the gift-wrapped box lying on the backseat. He allowed himself a quick smile, before walking off towards his office building.
It was going to be an interesting evening. At least, that was his hope.
Charles entered the lobby of the building, and walked towards the elevators, right past the security guard who was sitting at his post and reading a newspaper. Charles had always wondered why the company even employed a security guard. As long as Charles had worked here, the guard had never once looked up and seen him walk into the elevator.
“Who knows how many terrorists have entered this building, right under that old man’s very nose?”, Charles wondered. He pressed the number for his floor, and waited. As the elevator doors were closing, he heard someone shout, “Hold that lift!” He pressed the ‘Door Open’ button and a man rushed into the elevator in a state of breathlessness.
As the doors closed again, the man flipped open an expensive-looking cellphone, pressed a few buttons, and stared at its screen. Charles stood next to the elevator wall, watching the man. The cellphone buzzed briefly, illuminating the enclosed space of the elevator with a pale blue glow, and the man smiled. He quickly pressed more buttons on his phone, and once again waited, watching the screen with anticipation.
The elevator stopped. It was Charles’ floor. As he got off the lift, he turned round and looked at the man who was still staring at his phone.
Charles watched the doors to the lift close, and muttered under his breath, “You’re welcome.”
Charles entered his office area and headed straight to his desk. As he placed his briefcase next to his computer, he looked around at a few of his colleagues, most of whom had just got in. A few of them were standing around at another colleague’s desk, chatting and laughing at something one of them were saying. A few were talking on their phones, while a few more were at the water cooler, having what appeared to be a lively conversation.
Another colleague entered the office. Immediately the group by the water cooler greeted him and called him over. The newcomer rushed over to them, and was presumably quickly brought up to speed regarding the conversation topic.
It had been 10 minutes since Charles had walked in, and no one had looked at him once, much less greeted him.
One woman walked by his desk, carrying a few pieces of paper in her hand. One slipped out of her fingers and floated to the floor. Charles called out to her, “Hey, Libby, you dropped something!”
Libby paused, knelt down and picked up the paper, straightened up, and walked on. She didn’t even so much as glance at Charles’ direction.
Charles logged on to his workstation. He opened his e-mail software, and waited till all his messages were downloaded. He began quickly running through the mail, deleting messages that he deemed unimportant, while saving those that appeared at least useful. A few mails were asking about the status of his work on one particular project. It was a major project, but his role in it was minor. He’d finished the necessary work after only a couple of days, but he still kept getting status requests despite it being over a month since he had completed the work.
Suppressing a sigh, Charles replied his status update for the umpteenth time. Just then, he received another email in his Inbox. It was a message asking him about the status of the project. The message was from Ford.
Ford was sitting right next to Charles.
Charles leaned over towards Ford’s desk, and said, “Yo, Ford. I’ve finished my modules on the project.”
Ford didn’t say anything. He was staring intently at his computer screen.
Charles tried again, a little louder this time. “Ford! The modules are finished! Ford, ya hear me?”
No response. Charles guessed that Ford must be really wrapped up with something, probably another project. The company was always coming out with all kinds of projects, although Charles rarely ever knew what they were, since nobody actually ever tells him anything that happens around here.
Charles returned to his computer screen, and replied Ford’s email. A minute later he received a message in his Inbox. It was a notification message, informing him that the email sent to Ford had been opened by the recipient.
Charles looked over towards Ford. Ford’s attention remained resolutely focused on his computer screen.
Charles felt his stomach rumbling. He figured it must be getting close to lunch time. He looked up from his screen, and noticed that Ford was not at his desk. Indeed, there were already quite a few empty seats around the office.
He noticed a colleague walk past him towards another colleague’s desk a few metres away. Both women had a brief whispered discussion before giggling together. “Probably some office gossip,” thought Charles.
He watched the two giggling ladies leave together. At the office door, they were joined by a couple more guys. One guy turned around and called out to another colleague, “Hey Ted! We’re going to Costanza’s! Meet us there, yeah?”
Ted replied with a hearty affirmative.
Charles watched the rest of his colleagues leave for lunch. No one stopped by his desk. No one called out to him to join them.
The last to leave for lunch (other than Charles) was Ted. As soon as Ted walked out the door, Charles opened his briefcase, and took out a sheaf of brightly coloured notices. He walked briskly around the office, placing a notice on each deserted desk.
Once he had done that, he walked over to the noticeboard. He pulled out an especially large notice from his stack and pinned it at the centre of the board. He then stepped back to make sure that the notice was not only readable, but prominent.
Charles Banks invites you to the 30th anniversary of his birth.
His address and phone number was printed in a slightly smaller font size below the main text. He’d initially thought to leave out the address, since he assumed his colleagues would surely know where he lived after having worked together for nearly 5 years.
But he changed his mind. It was better to be thorough – just in case.
Charles stood outside The Costanza Restaurant. He had spent about 5 minutes debating where to go for lunch. In all the time he had worked here, he had never gone to Costanza’s. He knew some of his colleagues were inside, and he thought that maybe if he walked in and if they saw him, they’d invite him to join them.
He decided to stick with Maria’s Deli instead.
It was the only place he visited during his entire time here. Most of the time the place was nearly deserted. The lack of patrons could be traced back to the time when one diner found a rat’s tail in his soup. Understandably, not many people chose to return.
Charles never really had a problem with Maria’s Deli. For one thing, the proprietor, Maria, would actually make eye contact. Oh, and she had a very attractive daughter, Nina.
Nina never looked at Charles, though. He, on the other hand, stared at her all the time.
Lunch, for Charles, was always a 30-minute affair. He wanted to appear like someone in a hurry, like he had some important work to do and couldn’t afford the luxury of slacking off. In reality, he just didn’t want to appear like a fool sitting alone at a table long after having finished his meal. There were times when he’d pull out his cellphone and pretend to be text messaging someone or making a call and engaging in a heated discussion. He stopped doing that when his phone started ringing in the middle of one of his ‘calls’.
It turned out to be a wrong number, anyway.
When Charles finally returned to the office, he noticed, as usual, that his colleagues were not back from their lunch break. He’d also noticed that the notices he’d left on their desks were missing.
The cleaning lady must have been doing her rounds.
Charles looked at the noticeboard. His notice was still there.
“Guess that’ll have to do,” he thought.
At around 5 pm, people began switching off their computers and packing their bags and cases. It was the last day of the working week, and most people were already thinking of their weekend plans.
Charles watched his colleagues leave one by one, some going off individually, some going off together in groups. Some leaving after exchanging perfunctory goodbyes, while some lingered on, chatting away with a colleague or two.
Charles watched them all. He didn’t see anyone looking at the noticeboard. He didn’t see anyone looking at him.
Ted was usually the last person to leave the office. Charles usually left around 5.30, which he figured was the optimum time to file out of the building, since that was when the exiting crowd was probably at its largest. More opportunities to interact with everyone.
At least, that was the idea. Charles couldn’t recall more than 5 words having been directed at him in the last 5 years or so, most of which was probably “Excuse me..”
Today, though, Charles decided to stay back. He waited till Ted got up from his desk, watched him gather his briefcase and some files, observed him walking towards the door, and chuckled quietly as Ted switched off all the lights before leaving the room.
“He must have done that out of habit,” thought Charles. “He must have not spotted me sitting here, in the middle of the room, with the only computer screen still lit up like a bright Christmas tree!”
The rage that washed over Charles was as sudden as it was rare. Charles was not one to lose his temper. As a child, he had been severely beaten once by a school bully, but even during the entire ordeal, Charles never fought back. Instead he had simply remained on the ground, his eyes closed and mouth mumbling words to a long-forgotten tune, all while he was being kicked bloody by the bully.
He told his mother he had fallen down a hill near the school.
But today, right now, Charles was angry. It wasn’t the kind of rational fury that can overcome a person, when he feels he has been hard done by. This was an irrational rage, the kind that eludes any logical explanation or reasoning.
It was the “Hulk SMASH!” type of rage – and Charles was feeling particularly destructive.
Charles logged off from his computer, switched off and then unplugged the wires connecting the PC, gingerly lifted the monitor, slowly walked over to Ford’s desk, and slammed the monitor on Ford’s PC.
“Reply that, Ford.”
Charles pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex at around 7.00 pm. He had just about an hour before his party was due to begin. He reached towards the backseat and picked up his box. The thought of the gift once again made him smile.
It had taken him two months before he found a shop where he could make the purchase. It wasn’t the kind of place that one could find in a department store. Indeed, if not for the fact that he’d overheard a couple of people talking about it at a singles bar last week, he might have never found it. That was the only tangible reward he’d got at that bar, anyway.
Charles entered the sparsely decorated one-room apartment, and headed straight towards the dining table. He had always meant to purchase more furniture for the place, but his meagre salary never made his plans feasible. For 5 years, he had kept hoping for a raise, working his socks off on any work that came his way, but he had never received so much as a Christmas bonus.
He had always wondered whether anyone else in his office was making as little as he was.
Charles placed the gift-wrapped box on the table, and walked towards the fridge. It was the most expensive thing he had ever bought, and he’d done so on credit. Unfortunately, he had been unable to make the monthly payments for the last couple of months, and was fully expecting the arrival any day now of the electronic store employees to repossess the fridge.
Charles opened the fridge door, and carefully removed a bright pink box from the lower shelf.
He returned to the table, and placed the pink box next to the gift-wrapped one. He opened the top of the pink box, and carefully lifted out a cake, covered with chocolate and vanilla frosting, with letters forming the words “Happy Birthday Charles Wanks” neatly spelled out on top.
He hadn’t noticed the typo on his name till he had brought the cake back home from the bakery, and when he called up to complain, they told him that he should have checked the cake before leaving the premises.
He could have pushed his claim, he could have at least tried to remove the ‘W’ from the lettering, but Charles had done neither. “It might make for a great conversation piece at the party,” he thought.
Charles walked over to the cupboard by the wall. From the bottom drawer, he pulled out a box of candles. He emptied them on to the floor, and was disappointed to count only twelve sticks. He must have used up the rest during the frequent blackouts that plagued the apartment complex.
He replaced all but three candles back into the box. Leaving the box of candles on the floor, he returned to the table and stuck the three candles on the cake.
It was nearly 7.30 pm. He had a phone call to make.
He took out his cellphone, and speed-dialed the number to his parents’ home. He got the answering service. At the beep, he left his parents a message: “Remember me?”
He looked at the table. The cake was ready. The gift was ready. He was ready. He looked at his watch. Nothing to do but wait till 8.
The buzzing on his watch woke him up. He’d dozed off as he sat by table, counting down the minutes. Fortunately, he had set the alarm on his watch for just such a situation.
Time to get the party started.
He walked over to the apartment door and glanced out the peephole. It was dark outside, and there wasn’t any sign of people milling around the corridor. He opened the door to see if anyone might have left any messages or cards or gifts on the doorstep.
There was nothing.
He closed the door and turned the lock.
Charles walked back to the table, and removed a cigarette lighter from his pocket. He had stolen it from Ford’s desk earlier in the day, when had been rifling through his colleagues’ desks. He hadn’t found much anyway.
He used the lighter to light the candles on the cake.
As the flame on the candles flickered hesitantly, Charles placed his chair next to the gift-wrapped box and sat down.
He took in a deep breath, and proceeded to tear the wrapping off of the box. As he did so, he began singing softly to himself.
“Happy birthday to me…”
He crumpled up the wrapping paper and placed it on one side of the table. He removed the lid of the box and reached inside.
“Happy birthday to me…”
He withdrew his hand from inside the box, his fingers clutched around a shiny, black pistol. It was an old-fashioned six-shooter revolver, the kind made famous on countless old TV Westerns.
“Happy birthday to Charlie…”
Charles picked out one bullet from the bag of cartridges included in the box. He loaded the bullet into the gun, as he had seen done on TV many a time.
He pointed the barrel of the gun against the side of his head.
“Happy birthday to me.”
He noticed the candles on the cake. He leaned towards the candles.
“Why bother?” he thought. “Wishes don’t came true. They never do.”
He pulled the trigger.