by ROBERT GADKEY
Otis Covington uncrossed his legs and swiveled in the brown leather chair, sliding his worn athletic socks underneath the gray tanker desk. He wore a standard uniform: faded blue jeans that tapered in at the ankle and a colored North Face pullover. Today, the fleece was red, but that was because he had forgotten to wash the black one last night. Brown tortoise matte glasses that he had found on the internet sat on his lean face. His short brown hair was clipped military style, which, when combined with his runner’s build and bright white teeth, made him look considerably younger than the forty-nine years and ten months listed on his driver’s license. At least, that’s what the women at bars told him.
Every day for the past twenty-five years (excluding weekends and federal holidays), Otis sat alone in the bare, windowless office in the basement of the Preston Building. The sign on the wall in the hallway, outside the locked metal door (that had no knobs, just keyholes on both sides) said Edison Film Developing. Otis didn’t know why. And no one had ever told him.
Above his head, two high-efficiency tubes buzzed in the ceiling. A pleasant, lemony chemical smell wafted in from the janitorial closet next door, signaling the arrival of the weekend cleaning crew.
Moving slowly, with the kind of patience that only came from years of experience, he closed the copy of War and Peace he had checked out from the county library four days before, placing it squarely in the center of the clean desktop. Then he shut his eyes, stretched his arms wide above his head, and yawned, enjoying the moment.
He tried not to think about what came after the end. Nothing could be done to change it. Rules were rules. Mandatory retirement at fifty wasn’t all bad, especially since his employer had promised a pension. Thirty thousand dollars per year if a family member took his place. It seemed like the deal of a lifetime.
Otis let his eyes fall open, staring aimlessly at the room’s Sheetrocked walls. And the black bubble camera that watched him. He glanced down at the Swiss Army watch on his wrist. Ten minutes to five. Another week almost done.
He wondered if they were still watching. Probably not in real time. But if someone did check the tapes, Friday afternoon would be the logical place to start. No sense risking it. He was good at waiting.
Thinking of the Watchers made him remember his first day. Back when he didn’t know the rules. Carelessly, he had brought a jacket and cell phone into the room. The black bubble on the front wall went crazy, changing color, turning into one of those spinning red-light sirens. He broke into a sweat, running into the hall certain he’d be fired. The voice modulator that called his cell phone told him it was a warning. The tone made clear there wouldn’t be others.
Staring at War and Peace on the desk in front of him, Otis realized how lucky he’d been. Could anyone else really claim to have read the book three times? At work? Just for personal growth? He doubted it.
Looking back down at his watch, he hummed along with the second hand, as the final ten seconds of his workday slipped away.
Convincing his sister to invite him to Sunday dinner hadn’t been easy; she sighed into the phone when he suggested it. He knew she wasn’t much of a cook (squeezing a lime into a Vodka Diet was her idea of a meal), but the rest of the family had to eat. Eventually, she relented, reminding him how lucky he was to have such a good family. And making him promise to bring all the food.
Even harder, though, was making sure his nineteen-year-old nephew would be there too. The boy was on a “gap” year after high school that seemed unlikely to end. Currently, he worked part-time filling paper coffee cups. Even when Otis mentioned that he had the perfect job for the boy, his sister didn’t seem interested.
Otis sat in the formal dining room of his sister’s two-story colonial, twirling his fresh spaghetti with a fork, savoring every bite of the chunky tomato sauce. The taste of the cheap Pinot Noir (that his brother-in-law claimed to have picked for this occasion) paired well with the fresh oregano. He grabbed the last piece of garlic bread from the wire basket in the center of the table, pausing to smell it before crunching a bite, feeling the three eyes watching him.
Of course, his nephew had finished first, filling his plate like a bird, claiming he was meeting friends later. Next, his brother-in-law grew impatient when the wine was gone. Finally, Otis’s sister tossed her napkin on the handwash only china.
“What do you mean Zach wouldn’t have to do anything?” His sister said, using the back of a fingernail to dig a spice out of a tooth. “Is this some kind of scam?”
Otis looked over at his nephew. The boy had dirty, shaggy brown hair and wore a black t- shirt with “F*ck You” stenciled in white across the middle. The peach fuzz growing underneath his chin could only be called a beard on a woman.
“No, that’s not what I said at all,” Otis said setting down his fork, causally dotting the sides of his mouth with his napkin. He looked across the table, directly at Zach. “If you took this job, you’d have to follow the rules. To the letter. My employer is very strict.”
Otis had already explained the rules three times, but nobody at the table seemed to understand the simple procedure: (1) except for a single paper cup of black coffee (size didn’t matter) and one hardcover book (no paperbacks; they were too dangerous), nothing else could be brought inside the tiny basement office; (2) for two, four-hour periods each weekday (but not federal holidays), commencing at precisely 8:00 a.m. each morning, Zach would be required to sit in the brown leather chair at the empty desk and await further instructions.
That was it.
Otis tried to emphasize that Zach could do what he wanted with his time. Or nothing at all. As long as he sat in the chair. And he didn’t bring anything with him. Being present was the job.
Sure, it would be hard at first. But in time, Zach would learn to love the silence. The time to read. His mind free to travel the world.
“I don’t know,” Zach said. “It sounds pretty restrictive.” Otis’s brother-in-law waved a hand at Zach to be quiet.
“Now don’t get the wrong idea, Otis. Suzie and I sure appreciate what you’re trying to do for Zach. But let’s cut to chase. How much does this deal pay?”
Otis knew the question was coming. Every time he saw his brother-in-law (which, thankfully, was only on holidays), the man would take Otis by the elbow and tell a tall tale about how much money he made.
“If Zach can follow the rules, he’d earn $165,000 per year,” Otis said.
That was how his employer explained it. By email. Otis’s current salary ($195,000) less his retirement pay ($30,000) equals Zach’s salary.
The brother-in-law eased back in his chair, “Not bad. Not bad at all.”
“Exactly why I wanted him to have the job. It sets up his future. Lets him find a place to live. Have the means to start a family.”
Zach leaned forward in his chair, not happy. “Who says I want any of that? I got a job.
Plus, I like where I live.”
Otis wanted to throw up. Of course, the boy liked where he lived. It was rent-free, with his mommy do his laundry.
Otis looked first to his sister, then to his brother-in-law, waiting for one of them to be the parent. No one said a word.
“You two can’t be serious,” Otis said. “At least say something. I’m offering the kid a way to print money. And he doesn’t even have to shower for work.”
Otis watched his sister’s eyes narrow, lips purse. “Knock it off, Otis. If Zach doesn’t want to waste his life sitting in a little room like a Guinea pig, his father and I sure won’t make him. Not everyone’s like you.”
After dinner, as he sped down the freeway behind the wheel of his black Porsche 911 Boxster, the last of the day’s light sliding behind the horizon, Otis kept replaying his sister’s comment in his mind. What did she mean “not like you?” It wasn’t like he asked the boy to risk his life. Or become a coal miner. Or do any kind of real job. All the kid had to do was sit on his ass for eight hours a day for God’s sake!
The next week at the office passed in a blur. On Monday, by a stroke of luck that almost seemed divine, the county library sent him an email saying they had found a lost book he requested ten years before.
What? The library found a book? Who even knew such a thing was possible?
The book was an out of print gem written by a retired military commander, who, despite going crazy later in life, was still considered to have written the bible on leadership strategy. Back in the days before Amazon, Otis used to pop in used bookstores hoping to find a copy. But then, for some he couldn’t remember, he had forgotten all about it, not giving it another thought until the email chimed his memory.
The next morning, idling in his car in the parking lot outside the Preston building, Otis worked out the number of pages he needed to read each day to finish the book by the close of business Friday. Carrying it over the weekend wasn’t possible; it was too stressful. As he stared at the calculator on his phone, a part of him knew (the conscious part that had read all those self-help books) that he was avoiding his real problem. He didn’t have a replacement for the job. And he was running out of time.
At 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Otis shut the leadership book, positioning it in the center of the empty desk. He closed his eyes, again stretching his arms wide above his head, and yawned. His mind kneaded over the information his eyes had spent a week sucking in.
He was struck by two absolute truths. First, he was damn lucky he hadn’t been shipped to Vietnam; he would’ve shit his pants the first time bullets started flying. Second, the real heroes of war were guys who acted, the ones who crawled into the clearing even though they were afraid, even though they hated the guy lying in the weeds. Heroes were people who led when leaders failed.
Otis opened his eyes, started thinking about his sister. Maybe it was because she was younger. Or maybe it was because she never had to support herself. Whatever the reason, Otis saw it now. His sister was a lousy leader, a failing parent who couldn’t help Zach when he needed it most.
It all made sense now: Zach taking a gap year. Living at home. Working part-time. Heroes led when leaders failed.
If his sister wasn’t going to stand up and lead as a parent, then it was up to Otis to save Zach.
Leaving the book on the desk, Otis hopped in his car and swung by a drive-through ATM at a bank two blocks down from the office. While waiting for the machine to do its job, he dialed his sister’s cell. Found where Zach was wasting an afternoon. Coffee shop. Where else?
Twenty minutes later, Otis was slouched low in the front seat of his sports car, waiting for Zach to come out the front door. He couldn’t understand why the place was even open at 5:30 p.m. Who bought coffee in the afternoon? From the looks of it, the regulars customers must have agreed with him because he couldn’t see anyone inside.
At 8:15 p.m., the lights went out in the lobby of the coffee shop. Otis watched Zach hold the front door for his girlfriend, Katie. Otis had met the girl at Christmas the year before. She was a spindly, high school senior with wavy, shoulder length red hair. No one would have guessed the sarcastic girl was a computer geek.
Otis lit up the engine, quickly moved across the lot, and pulled into a handicap spot directly outside the front door. Zach was holding the girl’s hand, whispering something in her ear. Her eyes smiling at him.
Otis yanked the handle, got out. “Zach,” he yelled, “Is that you?”
The boy turned his head, his face souring at the moment of recognition.
“Hello, Uncle Otis,” he managed with almost no hint of courtesy.
“Your mom said you’d be here. I was hoping to buy you a beer. You know. To apologize for last week.”
Zach paused, appearing to think it over. “Does the offer include pizza”
Otis smiled. The book said that the first step in leading anyone was convincing them to follow.
It took ten more minutes for Otis to convince Zach not to drive his own car. More time after that to get rid of the girlfriend. Even though she only lived a mile down the road, she said she was too scared to walk. Maybe it was true, hanging around with Zach could make anyone dumb.
In the end, the only way Otis could get rid of her was to drive her home. She sat in the front seat, curling up on Zach’s lap, giggling about one thing after another. He had grown not to like her. Or the house where he dropped her off. The crumbling, brick, late 1940s one and a half-story home had a detached, single car garage and a front yard full lawn gnomes. It looked like a village of the Smurfs.
Otis didn’t say a word, figuring it would only slow things down. When the girl was gone, Otis told Zach they needed to stop by the office because he had forgotten his wallet. Zach nodded as if he understood.
Once inside the Preston building, Otis headed for the back stairwell that emptied into the basement, nearest his office. On the way down, he passed a man wearing in a tan overcoat with his face buried in his collar. Otis thought it was weird, but shrugged it off, when he saw that Zach was still at the top of the stairs.
“Keep up,” Otis said.
Stopping in front of the locked metal door, Otis fished his cell phone from his back pocket, gently setting it on the floor. Zach hesitated, then did the same after Otis motioned with his head.
Turning the brass key, Otis pushed the door open, exposing his tiny world. He flipped the switch for the lights, then waved Zach inside.
The boy tip-toed in like he was venturing someplace dangerous. Moving to the center, he stood next to the tanker desk, then began slowly turning around like a figurine on a music box. He stopped when his eyes hit the bubble camera in the wall, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.
He moved behind the desk, pulled out the chair, and plopped down. Propping up his feet up, lacing his fingers behind his head.
“This is some crazy shit, Uncle Otis,” Zach said. “You really sit here? All day?”
Otis had expected that kind of response. What else would a kid say if he didn’t understand the value of hard work?
Not that he was utterly wrong. Otis had felt the same way years ago when he started sitting in the room. It was tough. Lonely. But then he found peace in the silence, learned how to be comfortable with his thoughts. In time, Zach would too.
Otis let the door close behind him, leaning up against it. “It’s not all bad. Not once you get used to it. Plus, the pay’s great.”
Zach stared at him, tilting his head and partly closing one eye, then nodded. “I guess . . . I mean, having your own space could be nice.”
A smile crossed Otis’s face. Maybe it could work.
“A private space to read is great. It’s changed my world. It’d do the same for you.”
Zach looked up at the tubes. “No way, Uncle Otis. Not me,” he said shaking his head. “I’d go crazy sittin’ in a little box like this all day. Not much of a reader.”
“Neither was I. Not a first,” Otis said. “But I can help you. Recommend books to get you started. Once you’re rolling, you won’t want recommendations. You’ll be too busy.”
Zach dropped his feet, stood up, and walked over to Otis. “Maybe when I’m older. You know. After I’ve done things.”
Otis shook his head, eyes narrowing. “I wish that were possible, but there’s no time. You need to be ready in a few weeks.”
Zach slid his hands into his pockets, shifted his weight from side to side. “Okay, Uncle Otis. I’ll think about it. Really will. Now let’s get that pizza you promised.”
For all the hours Otis had spent alone in the windowless room, he wasn’t bad at reading faces and Zach’s was clear: he wasn’t going to think about it. He had already decided to throw away his future, and Otis’s retirement too, all because the job wasn’t fun enough. Too restrictive.
What happened next, surprised even Otis. In a flash, his hands shot up. Using every bit strength he could muster, he shoved Zach away from the door, pushing him back towards the far corner of the room. Then he spun, yanked the key from his pocket, and tried to steady his hands enough to open the lock.
Stunned, Zach said: “Ouch. Why did you do that? What are you doing, Uncle Otis.”
Not stopping, Otis twisted the key in the latch, pulling the door open just far enough to squeeze through.
Sensing what was happening, Zach lunged towards the door. The boy managed to get one hand wrapped around the edge before Otis could pull it shut.
“Let me out,” Zach yelled. “Stop! Let me out.”
“Not until you agree to take the job,” Otis said, digging his toes into the carpet in the hallway searching for better leverage.
“You’re crazy! There’s no way I’m ever taking this job!”
Finding the footing he needed, Otis worked his legs, inching the door towards the metal casing. “You’d better let go. I’ll smash your fingers.”
As the words left his lips, Otis watched the skin on the boy’s knuckles begin to stretch backward, the frame digging into the bone. Zach let loose a horrible, ear piercing scream.
Hurting the boy had not been part of the plan. But it wouldn’t have happened, Otis told himself, if Zach had simply let go of the door.
Otis gave an inch of slack. Instantly, the fingers retreated inside. Then he clicked the door shut, leaning up against it, trying to figure out what happens now.
An hour passed without either of them saying a word. Otis sat on the floor in the hallway.
He had his back against the wall, legs spread apart, the door on the right.
The $634.00 he had withdrawn from the ATM was on the ground between his legs. Sorted into eight piles of $79. He hadn’t figured out what to do with the two extra dollars, so they had their space off to the side.
As the only adult nearby, he figured it was up to him to resolve the standoff. Grabbing one of the piles off the floor, he slowly began to feed bills under the door. When he finished, he paused.
“Aren’t you gonna at least ask why I just gave you $79.00?” Otis said.
“Don’t care,” Zach yelled. His voice sounded far away like he was still at the corner of the room. “I’m telling my parents what you did.”
Maybe trying to help the kid had been a mistake.
“I don’t care who you tell. The money’s yours. You earned it.” “I didn’t do anything.”
“True. But you still earned it. It’s what an hour sitting in the room pays.” Another hour passed in silence.
Otis checked his watch. Five after eleven.
He lifted another pile off the carpet, began feeding it through the crack. Then he leaned over, putting his nose close to the floor, trying to see if Zach had taken the money. None had moved. Not one inch.
Frustrated by the boy’s stubbornness, Otis stood up, hobbling a few feet down the hall, trying to get the blood flowing in his legs again. Sitting on concrete was hell on his lower back.
Heading back towards the door, he heard a rhythmic thumping coming from inside the office. It sounded like Zach was banging on the desk.
“Quit it!” Otis yelled. “What are you doing in there?” The banging continued.
“What you should have done years ago,” Zach said.
Otis put his good ear to the door, trying to figure out what was happening. It didn’t sound much like a fist anymore. It was lighter, hollower. Like something was hitting a hard-plastic shell.
When he heard the crack, he instantly knew what it was. Racing, he grabbed the key from his pocket and pushed open the door.
He saw Zach standing by the far wall, using his heel to rip down the last of the camera.
The bubble housing was in a mangled heap on the floor.
Otis fell to knees. There was no fixing what Zach had done. On Monday, his employer would discover the damage. Then he’d be out. His pension gone.
Sometime later, after Zach had fled, Otis dragged himself to the chair. It was the first night he had ever spent in the office. When the numbness began to fade, he found himself staring at the hole in the Sheetrock.
The leadership book was still in the center of the desk. It was taunting Otis now. The picture of the retired Colonel on the cover was barking orders at him, demanding to know, “How he could be so damn stupid?”
Otis clenched his eyes shut, covered his ears with his hands, and screamed at the top of his lungs. When he was out of breath, he violently swung his right arm forward, knocking the book to the floor. Face down.
All of it was the Colonel’s fault. People were right. The guy was a loon.
It was three hours before Otis was rational enough to devise a plan. It wasn’t a great plan.
Or even a good plan. But it was the only plan he had left.
A short drive down the freeway later, he eased the Porsche next to the curb outside Katie’s house. He didn’t think it was possible, but the place looked even worse in the dark. Yellow floodlights staked in the ground lighted up the green and red lawn gnomes, giving the whole yard a nativity feel.
Walking through the ankle-high grass, Otis tiptoed up to the bushes running along the side of the house. The inside was dark. The only light came from a side window in the attic. It had to be Katie’s room.
A dog barked from somewhere behind him, causing him to crouch down. At his feet were layers of gray rocks. He grabbed one, holding it in his hand.
When the dog gave up, Otis stood, not sure if he should do it. He didn’t have any other ideas for getting Katie’s attention. Knocking on the front door, asking to see a seventeen-year-old girl in the middle of the night, wasn’t exactly an option.
As soft as he could, Otis tossed the rock up towards the window. It hit the glass square in the center, causing a jagged crack to run down it.
“Shit,” Otis muttered.
Above him, he saw Katie approach the window, run her finger down the crack. She was wearing the same outfit from before. Then she pushed up the window, slid her nose out, began looking for whoever did it.
Looking down, she saw him.
“Otis?” Katie said. “Did you break my window?”
Otis hesitated. “Can we talk for a minute? There’s something I need to tell you.”
Five minutes later, after convincing her that he wasn’t a crazy psycho, she stood on the concrete steps outside the front door, arms folded across her chest. Her mother peered out at him through a sidelight in the front door. Otis gave Katie the abridged version of what had happened, telling her about the job, Zach, and his pension.
“He already told me what you did. Why are you here?” Katie said. “Because he’ll listen to you. You can tell him to take the job.”
“Why would I do that?” Katie said. “He doesn’t want to spend his life in a dungeon.” “He’s eighteen,” Otis pleaded. “He doesn’t know what he wants. Be realistic. He works part-time making coffee. Lives at home with his mom. You could shape his future. And yours too.”
The last sentence seemed to get through to her, causing the wheels to start spinning in her head. Over her shoulder, Otis could see her mother shifting impatiently.
“I suppose I could help,” Katie said
The way she hung on the word “suppose” it made it clear that it wasn’t something she’d do out of the kindness of her heart.
“What do you want?” Otis said.
She uncrossed her arms, put one hand on her hip. “Money. Ten thousand dollars.” Otis scoffed.
Ten thousand dollars? For what? A conversation? The number was absurd. “Two,” Otis said.
He sighed. “Five. And that’s my final offer. Plus, there’s one more thing I’d need you to do. What do you know about bubble cameras?”
The rest of the night was the most stressful Otis could remember. He tossed from side to side, flipping over his pillow every time his ears got hot. His mind kept replaying the scene where Zach cracked the camera’s plastic shell.
The next afternoon, he got a text from Katie. She said she had found a replacement camera, but before she could install it, Otis needed to get to his sister’s house to hear Zach’s decision. Apparently, even she didn’t know what he was going to say.
Otis sat with his hands folded neatly across his lap on a flowery couch in his sister’s formal living room. His sister scowled at him from across a glass coffee table, a tilted tumbler with two fingers of whiskey in her hand and his brother-in-law at her side.
Out of the corner of his eye, Otis saw Zach march down the stairs in the foyer. Katie trailed close behind. When they reached the living room carpet, she stepped forward, taking his hand. Otis studied her face, trying to guess the verdict. Nothing.
“Thank you for coming,” Zach said in a professional tone that didn’t match his t-shirt. Otis figured his sister had to be proud her boy. Zach’s new black cotton tee had white lettering running across the front that said “SUCK THIS.”
“As all of you know, last night, Uncle Otis and I spent some time alone at his office. It wasn’t fun.” Zach held up his other hand. The bruises on his fingers had already started to change colors.
Katie leaned forward, making eye contact with Zach. “Stay focused,” she said.
Zach pursed his lips, then looked back at the group. “Like I was saying. It wasn’t fun, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn something. I did. Uncle Otis’s job is like being in prison.”
Otis’s heart sank. He leaned back on the couch; sure it was over. His drunk sister grinned smugly at him.
Zach kept talking, oblivious to what was happening around him. “No way I could do that job forever. But then, Katie said something that hit me. Uncle Otis wasn’t asking me to do the job forever. Just a little while. Until he settles in retirement. I figured I could do that. Everyone’s gotta work somewhere.”
Otis couldn’t believe Katie had done it. She had changed Zach’s mind.
His sister snorted, then downed the last of the amber liquid in her glass. “I always knew Zach would help Otis. We raised the boy right.”
Six months later, Otis stood in the basement hallway, catty-corner from the locked metal door. The chill in the air made the hair on his arms stand up. Probably the reason he didn’t wear khaki shorts and faded polos to work.
At precisely 5:01 p.m., the lock clicked open, and Zach walked out. A leather bag hung over his shoulder. The job had changed the boy. The black t-shirt was gone, replaced by jeans and a gray pullover.
When Zach’s eyes met Otis’s face, they lit up.
“Uncle Otis,” Zach said with a smile. “I’m so glad you could stop by.” “Nice uniform, kid,” Otis said.
Zach paused, then seemed to remember. “That’s right. It’s what you used to wear.”
Otis nodded. “What’s with the bag? Doesn’t the camera go wild?”
Still holding the door open, Zach motioned Otis inside. “Nope. Not anymore. That’s what I wanted to show you.”
As Otis crossed the threshold, he couldn’t believe he eyes. Size wise, the office was still the same. But the decor couldn’t have looked more different.
The white Sheetrocked walls had been painted gray. Two flat screen TVs hung on the far wall where Otis’s used to blur his eyes. The tanker desk in the middle was gone, replaced by a sleek modern design with a computer on top.
To the left, a square piece of Sheetrock had been cut out, replaced by a fake window with video of the ocean playing behind it.
Zach read the surprise on Otis’s face. “Sweet, right?” Zach said.
Otis stammered, trying to find the words. Instinctively, his eyes gravitated to the place on the wall where the camera had been. It too was gone, covered by a metal plate.
“How?” Otis said.
“Right,” Zaid said appearing to understand. “My mom didn’t tell you? Figures. We probably need to do an intervention. She drinks a lot these days.”
Otis was listening, but still struggling to comprehend. Zach filled the space.
“After you left, I managed to track down the company listed on our checks. It wasn’t easy, but I found our boss. Or rather, my boss. Yours was fired days after you started. Apparently, he was a creeper who liked to watch people.”
“It turns out they never cared what we did down here. All they wanted was for us to be here.”
“What?” Otis said.
“Doesn’t it feel great? To be a part of something so exciting. I mean, obviously, I’d rather be on our side, but it’s not like we’re the enemy.”
Otis shot him a puzzled look. Then Zach laughed, patting him on the shoulder. Otis didn’t bother asking more. He knew Zach couldn’t explain.
Robert Gadkey lives in Edina, Minnesota. He was a runner-up in the 20 18 Gotham Writers Workshop Goodnight New York contest. “The White Room” is his first non-contest publication.