This story is by Paul King and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I forget how it all started. It was an office rivalry. A “work nemesis”. He was never a bad guy, we got under each other’s skin. A gaffe here or a snide remark that I can’t remember the origins of, it just always was.
Then came the project. Our boss had noticed the bad blood and gave us a huge, high visibility project to work as a team. We were to design a pitch for a high-profile client, he wanted all our pistons firing together. “Only as strong as our weakest link” type cliche that they must teach in every generic manager school. We butted heads the entire time. We worked long days, meals at our desks, and ignored our families. We had the project and we had each other. Days of brainstorming lead to the pitch. Now, in hindsight it might have even been his idea, I can’t remember in my panic. We practiced, honed our pitch until it was a skit. I deserved an Emmy for dealing with him like that while we absolutely hated each other’s guts. It was visceral but I grinned and bore it, I can’t think of an interaction where both of us didn’t walk away rolling our eyes. After all that, we had it down. Not too many slides, speaking parts, it was all very “upper management” and I was more than a little proud of how it came out.
When the day of the pitch came, he froze. A room full of clients that we could not fail and he looked like a helpless woodland creature, frozen in the violent brilliance of an oncoming semi. Stammering with that stupid look on his face; the truth was obvious. He was going to ruin this and it was down to me to save us. Of course it was, this whole thing had been me. Looking back I was filling in details that weren’t there but at the time I was furious. He up and quit in the middle of the most important pitch of our careers. He left it in my lap and I had to lift it for the both of us.
I steamrolled him, I was a one-man show. The client was thrilled and offered me a job on the spot even in front of my boss. My boss was thrilled, I was thrilled. My stupified partner had dropped his dumb visage, it had melted away from a heat burning behind his eyes. A rage that I had never seen on another human being, never imagined would be pointed at me. I know now that it was murder burning a hole through his green eyes. He quit right there storming out of the room, his rage burning him forcing him to unman himself in a screaming fit. He deserved it. He would have done the same thing to me if I had given him the chance. Dinner that night involved drinks, then more drinks. It was late by the time I was heading back to my car. The parking garage was aggressively lit with angry overhead fluorescent lighting, casting deep shadows under the stairs where my partner presented himself. His normally preened, moisturized look had succumbed to his rage. His hair was wild, his hoodie and jeans were filthy, his eyes bagged and bloodshot, they carried the same murder that I saw that afternoon.
He didn’t give me a chance to quip something smart. He lunged, his knife-edge flashed in the light. I was confused and sluggish from the drinks as a blinding pain ripped into me, his knife opening my forearm. The blade carved down in an arch of my blood, the blinding lights contrasting its darkness on the concrete. Our hands met around the handle of his knife, the point of our hatred staring up at me as my life dripped onto the echoing cement and we fell to the ground. I bent his wrist toward his chest, the murder glared in his eyes, I could smell it on his breath. The strength was failing in my hand, slick with my blood. My bodyweight bent his arms with the snarling blade to his chest. The tip of the knife, the point of our hatred, bit into him under his rib cage. There was no resistance, no more difficult than puncturing an orange. The murder fled his eyes, running from his irises, leaving panic and pain in its wake. Fresh blood flowed through my fingers. I had to force them apart as I scrambled away from my partner’s dying body, gasping for air through bloody airways in the direct lighting. Not like the blood from my arm, not like any blood I had seen before, this was lifeblood. Slick, vicious, life pooled between us. Was our rivalry worth this? Was it worth our blood expanding on this bleak concrete floor? His life fled his eyes, as the murder had seconds before while the pool grew, flowing into that ocean of our souls. We were covered in it, as we were covered in our guilt, now mine alone to carry.
Only the guilt remained. None of this was worth what it cost. Not worth my panic, not worth me lying here covered in our blood panting and bleeding into the pool between his body and what was left of mine. It was not worth the murder that was on my hands and growing between us. My arm was bleeding, its hand worthless now, my partner warm but lifeless. He had that same look of shock on his face but his eyes showed no one was home.
The skin of my good palm stuck to the steering wheel as I turned into my driveway. My rival’s blood cold and unexpectedly sticky in my hands. My thoughts were a daze, how had I gotten here? I can’t remember the drive. I remembered turning into my driveway and I of course remembered the murder. I guess it was murder. A thousand thoughts hammered at the walls of my mind, do I call the police? No obviously not, I had killed him. I left his body to be found in the parking garage, no one could connect it to me. No one had been there. No, that isn’t right. I had been there. I had killed him. I killed a man. My thoughts all stopped hammering, turned, and pointed to the one thing that mattered. They pointed to my guilt as it took root inside my mind. Guilt like I had never felt before, although it felt a little like the heart-dropping weight of disappointing my father in my childhood. Except this was the adult dosage, this guilt had a weight to it, it pulled at my every thought. I tried to wash my hands in my kitchen sink but it wouldn’t wash off. The blood was on my skin like my guilt, the coppery scent of it filled my mouth. I had taken another man’s life and I could not scour it away. I couldn’t wash it off my soul, the weight of my sin crushed me to the floor in a bloody tear-stained mess. How do I move on from this? I had lived through our violent encounter but was my fate any better than his? His story ended on that concrete and I’m now fated to live for the both of us. Who was he to give me this fate and leave?
The morning light woke me up from the kitchen floor, the dried blood on my hands a diluted reminder of the night before. My left hand, still useless from the knife wound that must have found something important. Panic encased my heart like cold hands, my guilt infecting every aspect of my life, there was no way out from this. On autopilot I showered, avoiding looking at my face in the mirror. I knew the murder had left his eyes only to take residence in mine. I couldn’t bear to see it staring back at me. I used my good hand to bandage my bad arm. My guilt brought me visions that my partner’s body had surely been found. Would I be questioned? How would I explain the severed tendons to my hand?
The soul-crushing guilt of my actions gave me no recourse as I found myself in my office 10 stories above the busy street. Exhausted and in a daze, as if something else was piloting my body while I sat with my guilt. I rested my forehead against the cold glass of my window. Watching the passers-by walking oblivious to my all-consuming dread. The void below called to me. 1000 feet above the concrete, that space held the answer to my guilt.