This story is by Susan J Liddle and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Think of the company. Make the sound choice. Dad’s voice. Again.
Griffin Lepouvoir glanced at the dark window of his father’s office. His office, now. He blinked to clear his bleary eyes, focusing on the lights across the street. The spreadsheets still offered no solutions after hours, days, weeks.
Seven weeks and three days, to be perfectly honest.
Be the leader we taught you to be. He gritted his teeth. Mom again.
He could see his parents’ solution as clearly as if they had left a note.
You know what to do.
His pulse pounded, and he felt like growling in frustration.
He knew what he could do. The problem was, he didn’t want to lay off half the staff. He pictured Taylor from IT, with kind eyes and a quiet wit. Taylor, who regularly detoured two floors to bring him a doughnut. But what else could he do? If he acted, half of the staff would lose their job; if he didn’t, everyone could.
Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgement.
What had clouded their judgement that night? Why go driving when there was a storm warning?
He felt jittery and angry, and he needed to sleep.
He turned off his computer and pulled out a fleece blanket and pillow from the cupboard beside the office couch. The faint aroma of cigar smoke had him picturing Dad surreptitiously smoking beside the open window on nights he worked late and slept at the office.
A walk would calm him down, help him work out the excess energy.
He turned and came face to face with a cleaner standing in his doorway with a trolley.
The man smiled, and Griffin’s heart lurched. The man could be Papi’s identical twin. His breath froze when he read the man’s nametag: Jean Labonté. But it couldn’t be Papi. Grandpa died when Griffin was a teenager.
Griffin mentally shook himself. “Labonté” was a fairly common name in the region. Obviously, he wasn’t seeing his dead grandfather. Just someone with the same name and facial structure.
The man moved aside as Griffin stepped towards the doorway into a cold draft.
“I’ll get out of your way for a few minutes, Mr. Labonté. Thank you.”
The cleaner nodded.
Guilt churned in his gut as he went down the stairs. Could Mr. Labonté find another job at his age?
It’s not about the people. It’s just business.
His parents’ voices were not helping.
Griffin sped up, anger driving him along hallways lit by emergency lighting and exit signs.
He walked the three floors over and over, glancing at photographs, sweaters draped over chairs, mugs in all shapes, sizes and colours.
Tomorrow, a hundred people would be here working. They were smart. They knew who taught him the business. They were likely expecting layoffs.
He stopped at a washroom to brush his teeth and splash water on his face, and carefully wiped the counter and tap. It didn’t feel right to leave a mess right after the cleaners had gone through.
Hm. Unusual to see a cleaner so late; they usually came around supper time.
He sped back to his office. No signs of disturbance. The recycling bin and garbage can were empty. Everything was as it should be, except for the old-fashioned wicker basket on his desk.
Had the cleaner left his lunch?
He leaned over, sniffing the tea towel covering the contents.
It could be a threat.
Irritated, he made a “pfft” noise and lifted a corner of the cloth, then folded it back.
Curled up asleep in the basket was a tiny grey and white kitten. He stared at it for a moment, then reached out.
His hand curved perfectly around the softness and warmth of the small sleeping body.
A steady purring started, and the kitten nuzzled into his hand without opening its eyes.
Some time later, he realized he was still standing there — and he was smiling.
He walked to the door.
“Hello?” he called softly. “Mr. Labonté?”
The hall was empty, so he shut his office door, turned off the light and picked up the basket, setting it down beside the couch. He took off his shoes, jacket and tie, and lay down on his side facing the basket, one arm dangling, fingers resting in the kitten’s fur. Sleep came quickly with the sound of purring. It was the deepest and longest sleep he’d had in months.
In the pink of dawn, he woke to the sound of squeaking. He disentangled the kitten’s claws from the couch where it had gotten stuck, then took it to his desk, putting its nose to his glass of water. It lapped a bit and continued squeaking.
“I’m guessing you’re hungry.”
The kitten twisted and clung to his hand with all its claws, gnawing on his thumb.
Wake up early and tackle the day before it tackles you.
He snorted. Too late, Mom.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go find provisions. He tucked the kitten into the left pocket of his suit jacket.
Forty minutes later he was back. He dropped off boxes of cookies in the cafeteria, then brought the rest of his haul into his office and shut the door.
He set his coffee cup down and got two dishes ready, one with food and one with water. When the kitten attacked the food with enthusiasm, he felt a warm glow of satisfaction.
He spread newspapers between the couch and the wall, barely glancing at the business pages that were about to be used as a litter box.
A memory: Himself at the table, maybe nine years old, small legs swinging, reading the business section of the newspaper his parents left when they went to work. Matante Joanne, the neighbour who watched him before and after school, bustling around the kitchen and packing his lunch.
The kitten had finished eating and was batting at the shoelaces of his dress shoes, so he scooped it up and put it on the newspaper.
Another memory: He was six, sitting cross-legged on the floor surrounded by wrapping paper, cradling a kitten in his arms. The adults were arguing, but he ignored them. He remembered the all-encompassing love and joy he felt — and the heartbreak when his parents took the animal from him and handed it back to Papi, who bent down and hugged him tightly, then left with the kitten without even staying for supper.
Tears dripped down his cheeks. That was the last time he saw Papi.
The kitten was scratching at a wet spot on the paper, so he picked it up and stroked it, holding its soft ears to his cheek. When it climbed across his arm and down into his jacket pocket, his heart seemed to loosen.
He sat at his computer and thought about the people who worked for him. Finally, he typed an email. Read and re-read it. Added “All staff” to the To field. Waited.
Were their voices finally gone?
He clicked Send and closed his email.
He called up the personnel files. Jean Labonté had to have left the kitten. Griffin needed to make sure it was his to keep.
Yes! There was the man he’d seen last night. He really did look like an older version of Papi. It was remarkable.
Ice skittered from his head to his toes as Griffin read once, twice. Jean Labonté had died on the job of a stroke some twenty years earlier — and under next of kin was Griffin’s mother’s name.
He remembered to breathe. He cleared his throat.
Somehow, Papi had found a way to get him a kitten after all this time. Thank you, he thought. Thank you!
Think of the company.
Griffin stood up, knocking his chair back in a clatter. They weren’t gone after all. His fists clenched.
“Mom, Dad, I am thinking of the company. The people are the company. I’ve made my decision. You’re not in charge anymore. You need to stop. Just stop.”
He paused and spoke, voice deep, calm and authoritative, the way they had taught him.
“Dad, Mom. Time to go. Now.”
He waited. Moments passed in silence, then the kitten squeaked at him and blinked. He’d swear it was showing approval. And that made about as much sense as anything else today.
A sigh pushed up from his toes, and he suddenly felt buoyant.
In the space where his parents’ voices had been weighing him down, he felt something that very much seemed like hope.
Time to go downstairs.
As he stepped out of the elevator and turned towards the cafeteria, Taylor fell into step with him.
They glanced at his slightly lumpy pocket where a soft grey ear was just visible and raised an eyebrow.
Griffin smiled. “Oh that? It’s a kitten. Next time you drop by with a doughnut, I’ll tell you the story.”
He gestured towards the cafeteria door.
“Now, let’s see if there are any cookies left. I have some listening to do.”