It crashed down around me, a sudden silence that swept away the harried footsteps, the frenzied commotion, the frantic howls of the moments before and replaced them with a somber, sonorous awe. The deep, ringing quietude was disturbed only by a faint murmuring; a whisper of music filtering into my mind as if from an unseen radio buried somewhere nearby.
I struggled clumsily to my feet, shaken but grimly determined to inspect the extent of the damage. Surveyed the chaos surrounding me; the swelter of random papers, wrecked file folders, bent-spined reference books littering the floor. An assortment of pens and binder clips had clattered uncontrollably from their owners’ desks and now lay sprinkled about the tile in haphazard array, threatening to jar the ill-soled foot; trip the unwary stroller through the random wreckage. Cautiously I picked my way through the wide white streamers of cash register tapes; curiously hoisted one particularly long and crumpled one and scrolled through it. And found, at last, evidence of the person manning the machine: a quintessentially human scrawl penciled in beside a lengthily-calculated total that, at the bottom, merely read E.
“Help!” it said.
I shook my head sorrowfully. There was no help for it now.
Tense with apprehension, reluctantly I continued my journey, down the brightly-lit hallway that led past my co-workers’ disastrously-disarranged stations, the flimsy cubicle walls that had offered so little protection, so little guidance in their occupants’ most desperate hours. The music persisted, grew almost imperceptibly louder: the barest hints of a tune that seemed vaguely familiar; that sweetly rocked my aching mind and body like a half-remembered childhood lullaby.
Then suddenly the noise of it shifted, changed, becoming deeper, raspier, more regular, and its direction altered, too, seeming to hail from the desk before me rather than far off at the end of the corridor or beyond. I halted; peered past the work-papers and printouts that threatened to overwhelm the mere mortal man in their midst.
Paul lay helplessly sprawled across the vast surface of his heavy oak desk, his head angled limply onto his shoulder, his splayed arm cushioned only by an enormous purple pocket file that was leaking its contents haphazardly onto his lap and about his feet like a cascade of pebbles released by an avalanche. He snored gently, his exhalations ruffling the bright paper leaves stubbornly strewn about his mouth, catching his breath in a peaceful tranquility that surely had not been his when he was awake. Compassionately I let him be.
Abruptly the tune was interrupted; overpowered by the sound of muttering from the open office behind me, its source obscured by a massive pile of tabbed manila folders that rose impassively about the lengthy table like a solid stone wall.
“How’re you doing, Bob?” I prompted gently, standing on tiptoe to peer over the Great Wall of 1040 and unexpectedly finding my partner smiling as broadly as if he’d just won the Super Bowl.
“Transmitting!” he declared cheerfully, banging his thumb hard against the keyboard.
I paused, alarmed. “You know you’re too late, don’t you, Bob?”
“Transmitting!” he chirped again happily, his fingers still poised over the callous keys.
I bent closer; tilted my sore, stiff neck towards his computer. The screen was entirely blank.
“You should go home, Bob,” I suggested uneasily.
“Acknowledged,” he agreed, grabbing hold of his keyboard sideways as if it were a briefcase and humming softly to himself as he stumbled purposefully towards the elevator.
In the renewed silence that accompanied his departure I finally located it, the source of the eerily-familiar music that had been haunting me these long lost minutes, emanating from the recessed desk of my junior assistant. She was sitting slackly, the receiver pressed loosely against her skull, her eyes glazed over as if hypnotized by the repetitive chant on the other end of the line; so enraptured that she didn’t even notice me until I spoke.
“Who are you on the phone with, Gail?” I inquired curiously, finding it odd that my most eager aide should have spent these catastrophically-tense moments on the telephone.
“I called IRS,” she answered dreamily, twirling the phone cord about slow-dancing fingers.
“Today?” I responded, shock ravaging my heart as I wondered whether to be impressed with her devotion or disturbed by her sudden and uncharacteristic senselessness.
“Yesterday, actually,” she clarified, waking from her reverie and glancing nervously at the clock and then defiantly at me. “Well, I had a question!” she exclaimed obstinately, attempting to detach a page of scribbled notes from the sweaty elbow to which it was stubbornly stuck.
Gently I plied the earpiece from her clutching hand; resolutely ignored her cry of protest as I returned the telephone to its base, at last shutting out the pitiless peals of the singular piece that endlessly played, over and over and far too loudly, while you were on hold with the IRS.
“Go home, Gail,” I said kindly, turning tactfully away from her emotionally-shattered visage and letting myself quietly into the empty, echoing restroom.
It went much better this year, I thought encouragingly as I scrutinized my reflection, pale and shining in the florescent light, dark saddlebags burdening the skin beneath my eyes, shiny new silver hairs sparkling freshly across my still-youthful scalp, brightly defying the dread and fear that had so nearly consumed us all. Thankfully I bowed my head while solemnly I praised its coming, this glorious day, the day that erased the memory of the twelve weeks of trials and suffering that had preceded it; the twelve hours of horror and insanity in which it inevitably culminated. The day that meant that you had won, you had survived another season, and with only half-a-dozen deep brow wrinkles and half-an-inch of receding hairline remaining as evidence of the tribulations you had so stoically endured. The most blessed of days, a day of celebration, a day of joy like no other; the tax professional’s sacred holiday: April the sixteenth.
Lori Schafer is a part-time tax practitioner and part-time writer residing in Northern California. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Springfield Journal, The Berkeley Undergraduate Journal, Every Day Fiction, The Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette, Romance Flash, Leodegraunce High End Flash Fiction, and That’s Life! Fast Fiction Quarterly. She is currently at work on her second novel.
This story is sponsored by
Jenny Schwartz — Australian contemporary romance author in love with steampunk.