The next day at work Leon watched his co-workers all around him, studying him like he were a caged animal. He knew what they all were thinking, that he was going off the deep end, and yet he knew that thoughts like that were exactly the problem, but he didn’t know how to stop them. The only person who didn’t set Leon’s teeth on edge was Stuart. That was because Stuart was, perhaps, almost as bad off as Leon, except he didn’t have the added benefit of owning the Quixote. He wanted it for himself. Leon could read him like a book. But he would never have it.
Leon stayed late. He hadn’t been able to concentrate at all for the first half of the day, but after he’d left for lunch and gotten some fresh air he’d felt better, and now he assaulted his accounts with effective, productive energy, the little figurine perched atop his square glass paper weight, though he could not remember for sure that he had been the one to put it there.
There were no goodbyes proffered through his doorway from the employees filing to the elevators; temps and interns, admin assistants and account managers, the setting sun’s rays through the window behind him shattered by the San Francisco skyline.
When he gathered his things to leave he was the last person on the floor.
He snapped the Quixote into his briefcase.
He felt that something had changed, some element rendered more manageable perhaps by his advantage over Stuart; misery loves company, but it absolutely adores someone who is even worse off.
Leon walked out into the darkened rows of cubicles and silent computer screens, and he heard the ding of the service elevator arriving, then the squeaking whir of tiny plastic wheels, a cart being pushed. It must be the cleaning lady, a portly Mexican woman with whom Leon had never conversed, the only person who came to clean their floor, daily, with an expression of gratitude ingrained in her face like the wrinkles of time. The only person who could have emptied his waste basket, Leon never having made the trip to the basement himself. The only person who could have come to their floor without being recorded in the security guards’ ledger…
Leon felt a panic build inside of him.
A Mexican woman, and hadn’t the word ‘Tuehltipec’ a ring of the Aztec to it?
His briefcase had grown suddenly heavy in his hand.
The cart’s wheels rolled down the tiled elevator corridor and silently clunked onto carpet.
Leon closed and locked the door to his office. She would not be cleaning in there tonight, lysol on the carpet of his over-active imagination.
He struck out through the rows of cubicles on an intercept course.
He found her from behind, bent over her wheeled cleaning station, vaguely alive with the watery sound of plastic bottles knocking against each other.
Leon cleared his throat. The cleaning woman made no response.
He cleared his throat again, louder, no mistaking this time. But again the woman may as well have not heard him. Perhaps she was deaf. Bent over like that, she’d held that posture for some time now. Leon tried to remember ever seeing anyone talking with her. He couldn’t remember to be sure. She was not a person that anyone had to know.
“Excuse me, miss?” he said.
The maid straightened her back. She was wearing a dark dress, her uniform. From behind her hair looked black and greasy.
“Miss? Excuse me, please,” he said.
And a rumbling, deep-throated voice issued forth in response:
“You have a question for me?”
That was no Mexican accent to her words; and why did her dark dress strike Leon as familiar? As terribly, significantly familiar?
Because when the maid turned to face him Leon saw that it was not who he’d thought it was at all. It was no maid, but rather a grinning, round-eyed hobgoblin with leathery green skin and sharp gnashing teeth. Held at its stomach, before that dark leather dress, (jerkin), was a motor cycle helmet, clutched in leather claws.
“You have a question for me?”
Why the thing’s dress looked so distressingly familiar. Leon had seen it so many times before on the creatures with their donkeys.
But Leon couldn’t bear it now, his mind moving too fast, too much information at once, the answers that he sought. He saw in his mind’s eye a whole suitcase of Quixotes. He saw the maid opening this suitcase in his office. He saw her leaving the door open behind her as she left, and went about her work.
“What is the question? Your question now! Quickly or you will never know,” the thing gibbered. “You will never have the answers, and we will take you and eat your soul!”
It started to shamble towards him on its great big maid’s legs beneath the medieval jerkin. It held the motorcycle helmet tight at its stomach like it were some abominable baby.
“What is your question, trapped man? How may we serve you?”
“I… I don’t know,” Leon stammered.
“You speak the truth. You know nothing.”
But he had nothing to say! What could he say to this thing that seemed so unreal to him, as if the past few weeks were only the beginning indeed, and that he had so much further to go.
“Help me,” he croaked. “Please, just help me.”
The thing kicked back its head and howled a shrieking peal of laughter, and even so Leon was convinced, in this building full of working people, that he was the only one who could hear it.
“Trapped man. Don’t you see? We are not here to help you. That is not our purpose.”
“Then why are you here?”
“We are here for you.”
“Oh God, why me?”
“Because it was time, and because you were willing. Now come here to me, and let us make your passage complete!”
“NO!” Leon screamed and he turned and ran for the stairs.
“Your life isn’t coming back trapped man!” the thing howled at his back. “You have changed and you are not coming back!”
But Leon was already two floors down, and while he ran, blindly, from the building emptying itself of its civilians, he felt the little statuette in his briefcase growing heavier still.
On the sidewalk, past the security desk and the front glass doors, he stopped and dropped down his briefcase and snapped back the catches and there was the Quixote, glowing luminescent like a setting sun on a smoggy day, a hot little star. Before he plunged across the street into the parking garage, towards his car, towards some semblance of peace and home, he took the Quixote out of his briefcase, dodging pedestrians, mercifully normal pedestrians on the busy sidewalk, and he threw it as far as he could. And he didn’t even stop to see where it fell in the garbage steam and humanity of rush hour Market Street.