Donovan Hudson waved Michael into his spacious office. “What is it, Michael?” he asked impatiently.
“Sir, could you check the seating arrangements and menu for tonight’s dinner and see if they meet with your approval?”
Donovan nodded, then preceded to make Michael wait half an hour before taking the list and giving it only a cursory glance before signing off on it.
Then Donovan dismissed Michael in that impertinent way of his: by simply ignoring him. Never saying, Thank you, Michael, or That is all, Michael, he would just go back to the work lying on his desk, saying without saying, Get out, Michael. We’re done.
It was the night of Donovan’s annual dinner gala for a short list of close friends, the crème de la crème of the financial world. If you threw a bomb into that room, and Michael casually entertained that idea on more than one occasion, half a dozen of the world’s wealthiest men would take a powder.
Michael hated these dinner parties, had come to resent them in fact. Not because the guests were wealthy, but because they floated around in their elite bubbles, having no idea, or worse, not caring that they were huge assholes.
Just do your job, Mikey Old Man, he said to himself, sounding an awful lot like his father.
There was a soft knock on his bedroom door. “You alright, Mr. Michael?” It was the shrill voice of Laney the housekeeper. She sounded worried, which made her voice even more piercing — if that were at all possible.
The whole staff knew that Michael had not been himself lately, and on this special night, if his game was off, they would all pay the price.
“Cook would like to talk with you about the menu,” she shrieked.
“Coming, dear,” Michael said, trying to assure her that he was alright. “I just need a moment.”
But Michael was anything but alright — it was happening again. For the third time in as many weeks, he was beginning to … well, fade. He knew when it was beginning, because he could feel his limbs begin to tingle, and he was able to look right through the image of himself in the mirror and see the wall directly behind him. Then he would re-form, and was solid once again. But it was happening with more frequency, and Michael was beginning to worry that one day it would be permanent.
“What is happening?” he whispered.
But Old Mikey was a trouper, and once feeling completely corporeal again, he took a deep breath and headed downstairs.
Hudson Manor was the only home Michael had ever known. His father and mother worked for Donovan’s parents, and Michael and Donovan practically grew up together. Initially, the two were close friends until Donovan’s mother told him, “Honey, you’re not supposed to play with the help.”
Both boys were crushed — at first. But soon after Donovan started to change. He began speaking to Michael in short clipped sentences, then quickly ending conversations and leaving the room. If friends from school were over, Michael was ignored altogether.
“We work for them, Michael. We’re not their equals,” his father told him. An undeniable truth that hurt more than Michael was willing to admit.
Now, thirty years later, Michael would catch Donovan staring at him with disdain in his eyes: the look of a man who wanted to forget that he was once a lonely boy who considered the butler his friend.
The guests began filing in. Michael greeted each one as they crossed the threshold, but none said even so much as a hello. They handed off their expensive coats to Michael, ignoring him and greeting each other with that friendly phoniness that accompanied each one of these dinner parties.
I am here, you vipers, Michael told himself. A trick he began using to stay solid. If he let himself feel insignificant, then he would begin to slip away into that haziness between this place and nothingness — but sometimes he preferred the nothingness.
Tonight Michael was struggling and Donovan noticed. “You are on thin ice, Michael. Watch yourself,” Donovan warned.
But Michael wasn’t sure if he could stave off whatever was happening to him until the end of the party.
The night was going off without a hitch, and Michael brilliantly moved unnoticed throughout dinner. When one course was finished, he carefully removed the used dish and replaced it with the next one even before the guests realized it.
But then he felt the tingling sensation again and stood still, hoping it would go away. Michael looked at his hand and watched it fade out, then back in again. The sounds of the room, loud at first, had receded into the background, sounding very far away. It was peaceful, though. He wanted to stay. Then he heard someone calling his name, distant at first, a quiet Michael, Michael …
Then, “Michael!” He was pulled back into the dining room by the bellowing voice of his employer, who was very angry.
“I’ve been calling you for several minutes,” Donovan said, trying to keep from exploding in front of his company. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked. Michael gazed around the room at the faces of the guests shaking their heads and whispering to one another.
“Never ignore me again, Michael. Do you hear me?”
Don’t talk to me like that! Michael thought, but said, “Sorry, sir. It won’t happen again.”
“It better not, for your sake,” Donovan said, as his guests snickered behind their napkins and expensive glasses of wine.
Michael began hyper-focusing on each dish, making sure he remained solid for the remainder of the night. Please God, don’t let it happen again.
But the familiar tingling sensation coursed through his body once again, and the dishes he had been holding seemed not to slip, but pass right through his hands, landing with a crash on the dining room floor.
The loud clang of the breaking plates and cups stunned everyone in the room, and Michael thought he would certainly be fired on the spot. He heard his father’s voice say, You’re in deep shit, Mikey.
Donovan stared down at the dishes, a puzzled look on his face. “It’s like they just fell out of thin air,” he said.
His guests looked nervously around, then Laney burst into the room, sweaty and nervous. “I’ll get it, sir,” she said in that squawking voice of hers.
Michael stood there as Laney walked toward him, and he was horrified when he realized she was going to walk right through him.
“Who dropped these dishes?” Donovan asked her angrily.
“I don’t know, sir.” She said, glancing nervously at the guests in the room.
“Find Michael, now!” Donovan told Laney. “I haven’t been able to depend on him much lately,” Then each guest began relaying their own horrifying stories about their disappointing household staff.
“Sir, I …” Michael froze. He caught sight of himself, or what was left of him in the mirror above the sideboard. He was there, but at the same time, he wasn’t.
And for some reason this made Michael laugh. “Yes, sir. I’m here, sir. Fuck you, sir,” he said as the laughter came in gigantic waves, so powerful that Michael didn’t think he would ever stop.
As Donovan continued yelling at poor Laney, as the guests squirmed in their seats, hoping the night would mercifully come to an end, Michael knew he was going for good. But he welcomed it. Because the nothingness wanted him in a way no one in his life ever had before.
And as Michael began to fade into oblivion, his grip on the world loosening, he simply continued to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.