Fiction: GAO (A Halloween Horror Story)

The incantations of a cranky Congress spell terror and doom for the hapless bureaucrats upon whom fall the wrath of the watchdog unchained by the elected 535. Read the story if you’ve got the guts.

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On Friday at 4:59 everyone goes home for the weekend. Everyone, that is, except for the people on the alternative work schedule. They have Friday off altogether.

On Monday at 9:01 everyone comes back to the office. Everyone, that is, except for the people whose flex day it is. They have Monday off altogether.

Lingering in the hallway an hour later on the way back from breakfast, everyone wants to know how everyone’s weekend was.

“Good!” say some.

“Well!” say others who unfortunately attended last week’s GrammarCram and are now overcorrecting everything.

It is then that the intern walks by carrying a pile of papers to the secure recycling receptacle.

Everyone shuts up and stares. Somebody screams. Unaccustomed to being acknowledged, the intern freaks out. He throws the papers into the air and scurries back to the supply cabinet that serves as his place to sit for the summer.

Everyone drops to the floor to gather the scattered papers. These they stuff into the nearest file cabinet and slam shut the drawer. They look left. They look right. They look up and down the hallway. All of this looking they do with wide eyes and trembling teeth like a bobble head nutcracker on a trampoline in an earthquake.

“Way to scare the intern straight to the private sector,” says Carlos, a senior analyst, once the hallway crowd has resumed respiration. Carlos has been working there for well over the median 7.8 years. He has been there so long that not even he can remember his start date. And yet despite his lengthy tenure his office is immaculate. For this the other analysts fear him—fear what evil he might bring upon them if the dreaded A were to occur, the dreaded G to descent upon the office with the hellish fury of 535 elected officials.

“We don’t want any trouble now, Carlos,” says Erik, the boss’s pet. “Why don’t you just run along back to your office and browse the internet?”

Erik believes wholeheartedly in the legend—has done so ever since the boss admitted as much for himself at the office Christmas, er, Holiday, party some winters back. Erik keeps every email, every paper, every printout of PowerPoint slides that comes across his desk. He even goes out of his way to document his processes, just in case, even when the documentation comes days or weeks or months or quarters after the decision has been made and the assignment executed to completion. At which point, of course, comes the after action review, always with an executive summary, always accompanied by a slide deck.

Although nobody has ever actually seen them butt heads, Erik and Carlos are rumored to despise each other almost as much as they are both rumored to be in love with Myrtle, despite all three of them being married and nobody having ever actually witnessed any flirtation or furtive glances.

Myrtle says, “How about we all go talk the intern down from the ledge and then you can both go back to browsing the internet?”

Everyone grumbles their assent. By this point, everyone altogether includes Erik, Carlos, and Myrtle.

So Erik, Carlos, and Myrtle head down the hall past the haunted teleconference room to the supply closet.

The door is shut. It is locked, in fact, which is strange because it doesn’t have a lock. Division policy ever since the forgotten fish sandwich/two week Alaskan cruise incident.

Oh wait, no it isn’t. Erik just forgot that you have to turn the handle while shoving the door with your shoulder.

Erik turns the handle while shoving the door with his shoulder. This time it opens, but only part way. Something heavy blocks its path.

“Who is it?” a frightened voice whispers from behind the door.

Erik says, “Intern, is that you? What’s up, buddy?” He has no idea what the intern’s actual name is.

“Little intern, little intern, let me in!” Carlos says in his best big bad wolf voice.

Myrtle jabs him in the ribs. Erik makes a mental note to mention this at the next office gossip session.

“Please,” Carlos says in his best little pig voice, “they could come at any moment. I don’t feel safe out here.”

Myrtle goes for another jab. Carlos catches her hand and brushes it aside. Wow is everyone going to flip when they hear about this!

“Listen, sweetie.” Myrtle is talking to the intern, probably. She has no idea what his actual name is. “You’re safe for now. We just want to talk. There’s something you need to know about.”

With the heavy shwoot of a filing cabinet being pushed aside, the door to the supply closet gradually opens wide enough to admit Erik, Carlos, and Myrtle.

Inside it is dark except for the pale blue glow of a computer screen propped up on the middle shelf. The rest of the shelves are a graveyard of abandoned three ring binders, dried out whiteboard markers, and accordion files of mysterious dimensions never before seen in printed paper documents.

The intern crouches against the shelves making himself as small as possible, which in addition to being his natural wont is the only way all four of them can fit inside.

“Ooh, do you mind if I take a marker?” Erik asks. The intern shrugs and makes himself even smaller so Erik can squeeze by.

Erik reaches for a red Expo marker perched on the edge of the top shelf. His fingers brush the cap and it rolls backwards out of reach. He stretches further, pulling on the lip of the shelf for purchase. Erik takes a small step closer squarely onto another red Expo marker that he didn’t see lurking on the industrial carpeting. He sloops forward with a grunt. The shelf comes down with him. It makes these sounds in the following order: Crork! Spreak! Kachoom!

On the back end, by law, an equal and opposite reaction requires Erik’s right foot to swoop upwards into the file cabinet. The cabinet snatches Erik’s shoe and shudders into the door, wedging it shut. The shelf cromps down onto the computer monitor, popping it free of its connections. This really is a small supply closet.

Darkness.

There comes a high-pitched shriek that realistically could have originated from any of the four of them. Carlos gets the sense that Myrtle is holding onto the intern for support. He is not normally one for gossip, but by changing the supporting actor to Erik he could turn this into a pretty good story to tell everyone.

Nobody asks Erik if he is all right.

“I’m all right,” Erik announces as he extricates himself from a flock of accordion files, or so one must imagine. Remember, it’s dark in there.

“Boo,” says Carlos.

The intern does not jump. “I have an eleven o’clock class I have to get to,” he says, anxiety beginning to override fear. “I’m supposed to present today.”

“Oh, sweet. Good job, buddy. What are you presenting on?” Erik asks this while still only half up from the floor. His right shoe, sans foot, is caught under the edge of the cabinet and he is jiggling it back and forth like a block in a game of Jenga, although obviously in this case the tower has already toppled.

“You’ve got bigger things to worry about,” Myrtle says.

Nobody says, like what?

Myrtle answers anyway, “Now do you remember when you were about to throw away those files and everyone got all panicky? Well it’s time we told you about the terrible legend of the audit.”

“Audit?”

“Audit.”

“What’s an—”

“AUDIT!”

The awful cry comes from outside. Inside three hearts freeze. The fourth heart would have frozen too if Myrtle had gotten farther along in her story.

“AUDIT!” the cry echoes along the hallway. They are like chimpanzees out there, screeching out involuntary emotional responses after sighting a leopard in their home range.

“What’s going on?” a voice that sounds like the intern’s voice asks. Remember, it’s dark in there.

“Shh!” Erik shushes him. “They’ll hear you.”

Myrtle says, “Our only hope is to get the file cabinet outside. It might distract them. I hear they can smell a paper trail from three floors away.”

“Will that be enough? Will it? What’s in there? I can add more. What if I documented a process on this binder cover and slid it under the door?” Erik picks up the marker he tripped on.

“I cannot believe it. I abso-­posi-­lutely cannot believe it,” says Carlos. “This is a prank. It’s got to be a prank. April fools, ha ha,” he insists, knowing full well that it is October because he just had his annual performance evaluation.

“AUDIT!” The cry is now so severe it seems the leopard must have caught one. Muffled by the door the four can hear drawers being yanked open; binders pulled from shelves; archived emails printed double-­sided; project folders flung like Frisbees to slow the oncoming auditors.

“Listen, I really need to get to class,” the intern says. Anxiety is now giving way to annoyance.

“You can’t go out there,” Erik says. “We can’t risk them seeing you. We can’t risk a Finding.”

“My grandmother almost had a Finding once. Or so she used to claim,” Myrtle says in a flat and far away voice. “She was in the civil service at State. I thought it was just something she made up to get me to show my work on my math homework. She said the auditors carried clipboards and wrote with Skilcraft pens. Skilcraft: proudly made by Americans who are blind. They had Gregg-­ruled yellow notepads.”

“Snap out of it, woman!. We need you here right now.” Carlos is displaying a sense of urgency he has never before shown when speaking at the weekly staff meeting.

They can hear the swishing sound of wrinkle-­?free Dockers drawing near. The intern rocks the file cabinet forward. It releases Erik’s shoe. Gravity immediately pulls down hard to close the gap between cabinet and floor. Thoonk!

Three frozen hearts leap into three dry throats. The swishing stops. The intern keeps going.

Shwoot. The cabinet slides an inch or two. Carlos grabs at what he thinks is the intern to stop him from doing something stupid. What he feels instead in his hand is padded and round and definitely not the intern.

Two hearts restart.

“Oh my God! Harassment!” screams definitely not the intern.

The third heart restarts.

“Shut up!” screams Erik.

“It was Erik!” screams not Erik.

“I am going to be late!” screams the intern.

“Or maybe it was the intern!” screams Carlos.

“Hello? Is someone in there?” asks a voice from outside.

Shwoot. Shwoot. Shwoot. The intern zigzags the file cabinet three more shwoots away from the door.

The handle turns.

“That’s weird. It’s locked,” says the voice. “I thought these things didn’t have locks anymore.”

“Oh no oh no could that be a Finding?” Erik asks.

“I definitely hear someone in there. Hello?”

The handle rattles. With a final shwoot the file cabinet rocks free.

“Oh yeah, remember? You have to kind of shove it with your shoulder? Like, at the same time?”

“Oh yeah.”

The handle turns and a shoulder shoves the door at the same time. The door opens onto the intern, who gets wedged between it and the file cabinet. Light pours in, revealing everybody outside and revealing to everybody, inside, Erik, Carlos, and Myrtle compromisingly close together. Erik’s shoe is still off. His shirt is untucked. Markers and binders and folders are strewn suggestively about.

“Audit drill’s over, guys,” somebody says.

“Oops,” somebody else says.

“I would have thought one or the other, but both?” says a third somebody.

“I just came in here for a marker,” says Erik. He holds up the red Expo. “Found it.”

“It was an accident, I swear,” says Carlos.

“No, it was just a drill,” says somebody. “Part of our annual emergency preparedness exercise. I should know—I’m the floor warden.”

“I had a feeling it was planned,” says Myrtle.

“Wait, do you mean the…” Carlos’ voice trails off as Myrtle coolly squeezes out the door, through the crowd, and back to her office, possibly to start a paper trail.

“Yep, just needed a marker,” says Erik. He holds up the Expo again, and he too makes his way through the crowd and back to his office.

“This is all a big misunderstanding,” says Carlos. He exits, pulling the door shut reflexively behind him.

Everybody sort of shrugs and smirks at the same time. They all wade through the clumps of binders and folders and papers strewn about the hallway during the exercise and return to their respective offices. They will come back and clean up after lunch. At least that’s what the documented process for this sort of thing says they should do.

Later, while cleaning up outside the storage locker, somebody hears a voice call out from inside. “Hello?” it asks. “The door seems to be locked.”

Great, somebody thinks to himself. Now the storage closet’s haunted too.

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