Why does this keep happening? Every day, when I arrive at my desk in the cubicle farm on the twentieth floor of the Prudential building in Uptown Charlotte, there is a Post-It note stuck to the middle of my computer screen that reads: “I Know What You did”
I’m punctual to a fault and usually arrive fifteen minutes before everyone else. There is sometimes the occasional coworker already in the farm, but it’s rarely the same person. They come in early because they’re trying to polish off a project or prepare for an important call with a client. We sell insurance of all kinds: auto, home and life.
It’s a boring job, but it’s a job. Something to pay the bills and save for the next vacation. My wife and I have one three-year-old boy, who I continually brag to my coworkers about. My wife, Carrie, works in a small dentist’s office near Harrisburg. We share a small ranch house on the outskirts of Charlotte. Our mortgage is low, and between us, we have a pretty nice set of bank accounts.
Life is good.
It started about two weeks ago on a Monday, when the first note appeared: “I Know What You Did”
I had glanced at it, puzzled, and looked around to see who the jokester was. There was no one in the farm, so I crumpled it up and threw it in the trashcan under my desk.
I thought nothing of it until the next day when I arrived and there it was again. What in the world?
I went to lunch with a few coworkers that day, and brought up the mysterious messages. They were puzzled as well, and swore they had nothing to do with it. Over the next few days as the notes kept appearing, I asked other coworkers, janitors and even my boss about it. That last may have been a mistake. Now I think that she thinks that I’m a little crazy. But I had to check.
No one had any answers. The notes were written on a plain, yellow Post-It note in blue ink and blocky letters. After the fourth note, I started saving them to compare. They always had the same message and looked very similar but with a few small differences from day to day in maybe the size or shape of different letters. It was unmistakable. The notes were always written by the same hand.
What was really troubling about these notes is, I don’t know what they mean. I can’t think of anything I’ve really done wrong. I’ve never done drugs, cheated on my wife, had a traffic ticket or been in a fight. It’s weird. I don’t steal coworkers clients, talk bad behind my boss’s back or anything. I come in. Do my job to the best of my ability and go home.
Today is the Thursday on Week 3 of the Post-It notes. I’m have a nice stack of notes in my desk drawer. Each more mysterious than the last. No one has stepped forward to claim the notes or confront me about what they supposedly fixed for me.
“Sorry, sweetie. It looks like I’ll be getting off late this evening,” I said to my wife over the phone just before I was supposed to leave work.
She breathed a heavy sigh. “Ok, Wes,”–that’s my name by the way–“I guess I can put the leftovers in the fridge.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it. What are we having?”
“I roasted those tomatoes that your aunt sent down from her garden in West Virginia and made some homemade spaghetti sauce.”
“Mmm. That sounds great. How is Brett?”
“Oh, he’s fine,” she perked up, talking about our son. “he’s been playing with that new set of Duplo blocks you brought home last night.”
I smiled and leaned back in my chair. Brett was gaining better use of his hands and able to manipulate small objects well enough that I bought him his first set of building blocks from the LEGO store on the way home yesterday. We played for several hours last night before he fell asleep in the middle of putting together some sort of building. I was so proud of my little boy. “Is he buildìng anything in particular?”
“No,” Carrie said, “he’s just randomly sticking different pieces together. He likes the little plastic bunny rabbits that came with the set. He’s making them hop around together. He’s so cute.”
“He definitely is,” I said. “Tell him I love him, and that I’ll see him later.”
She said she would deliver the message and we ended the call. I had a prospective client that lived in California that I had to wait for him to get off work before I could call him to try to seal the deal.
I glanced at my watch and shook my head. I still had a couple of hours before he’d be available. The farm emptied out, leaving the floor to myself. I decided to go downstairs to the commissary to get a sandwich to hold me over before I got home. I loved Carrie’s homemade sauce.
I ate the sandwich in the elevator on the way back to twentieth floor. When I stepped off, I had the feeling there was someone in the room. The entire floor was dimly lit. The only light entered through the floor-to-ceiling windows on the left side of the room and from my desk lamp near the rear left corner.
“Hello?” I said into the emptiness, getting no response.
I shrugged, but hesitated before going to my desk. I walked slowly, looking around for the person I thought might be here. I looked over a few cubicle walls, but there was no one.
I returned to my desk, and in the middle of the computer screen was the Post-It note: “I Know What You Did.”
I knew the janitorial crew wasn’t there. They arrive a few hours before work starts to tidy up the office. My boss left after everyone else. Shè had a date with a former classmate she hurried off to.
So, who put the note on my desk? I stood up and looked around. No one was in sight.
I still couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was here.
Left with no answers, I returned my attention to my paperwork. The office was quiet. The air-conditioning unit hummed overhead and a desk phone occasionally rang. The sun was beneath the horizon and the only light coming through the windows came from the lights of the surrounding high-rises.
Lost in thought and a stack of paperwork, I didn’t notice the man standing behind me until he tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Brinkley.”
I jumped out of my chair, knocking over one of my shared cubicle walls, which in turn knocked the computer monitor on my neighbor’s desk to the floor.
“What the–!” I shouted. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The man stood there calmly. He showed me his hands. They were empty. His clothes were tattered and a little dirty. He had on an old, wrinkled dress shirt and gray trousers. His wingtip shoes were scuffed. His gray hair was and had a unkempt long beard.
He looked like one of the homeless men who sat out at the bus stops at the corner of 5th and Tryon.
“I can explain,” he said. “My name is Gregory Urban. I live here.”
“You live here?” I asked, incredulous. “How? Where?”
He pursed his lips and pointed at the ceiling. “There.”
I furrowed my brow. “In the ceiling?”
He nodded. “Yes. I’ve lived here for several years. There’s a reinforced joint in the air ducts just above your desk. I came here a few years ago with a group of potential employees and stayed.”
He had an Ivy League accent, I thought. He sounded very smart. I looked up. There was a vent directly over where I sat in my desk chair. He was a small guy and could probably easily fit into the large air ducts. “You stayed? Just like that. You stayed?”
He shrugged. “Well, yeah. I had just graduated from Cornell and came to Charlotte for a job interview here. My parents in New Hampshire died during my senior year. I have no siblings. The rest of my family lives in the mid-West. I had few friends. I was in a deep depression.
“When I came here,” he gestured to the office around us, “I thought that this was a place I could get used to. However, the group interview wasn’t going well for me, and I could tell that your boss didn’t like me for whatever reason. I knew I wasn’t going to get hired, but in my depressed state of mind, I didn’t want to leave.”
I had almost forgotten by this point the potential client I was supposed to call, or that this guy had been living above my head for a few years. I was more intrigued by his story than anything else. “So, how did you stay?”
He smiled. “I snuck off at one point during the interview, during a break, I think. There were about twenty of us in all. I didn’t figure anyone would notice, and apparently, they didn’t. I went and hid in the bathroom, in a stall, and put my feet up on the toilet out of view until everyone left. Someone stuck their head into the bathroom to see if anyone was in there. They didn’t look too closely, and why would they? I don’t know if anyone ever noticed that I had left the group interview.”
We stood there, about ten feet apart. The initial tenseness that I had when he tapped shoulder abated. I somehow knew I wasn’t any danger. I reached down and picked up my chair and set it upright. The table I overturned could wait. I went to a nearby cubicle and grabbed another chair for Gregory. He said “Thank you” and sat down heavily.
There are moments in your life that you will remember forever. I think this will be one of them.
“Have you left this building since you came here?” I asked.
He shook his head and looked over my shoulders to the windows behind me. “Nope. Not once.”
As I studied him more, his left eye twitched occasionally and he constantly rubbed his hands, as though they were cold. For the first time, I wondered if he was slightly crazy.
“So, how do you do it? Live here? What do you eat? How do keep yourself and your clothes at least mildly clean? How do you get in there?”
He smiled. “That’s simple. I forage at night. You’d be surprised at how many of your coworkers leave food in or on their desks. I walk around at night and dig for food. I stash extras in the air ducts. I found a way in that first night at the back of the janitors closet. I took the grate off the vent, crawled through and climbed up to the ducts overhead. After a while, I found the spot above your desk. It’s at the intersection of two pipes and it’s reinforced by sheet metal. I only weigh about 120 lbs., so it supports me easily while I sleep. The janitor’s closet has a nice supply of flashlights to use up there and a bucket for… you know… my waste during the day.”
I grimaced. Yuck. But said, “Makes sense. We all just thought that the cleaning crew got rid of leftover food.”
Another crooked smile. “Yep. Someone left an overnight bag here one night that had a toiletry kit in it. The toothpaste and deodorant ran out years ago. But, there was a pair of scissors and a toothbrush that still get the job done.”
“Even without toothpaste?” He shrugged. I sat there and studied him, then looked around the office. “What about the cameras? Didn’t security ever come up here when they saw you on camera?”
“They never have. I looked at the cameras one night. I think they’re props. Dummies.”
“Hmm. Probably just to keep us in line.”
I didn’t know what to do. Should I call down to security and report this guy? I mean, apart from some minor theft of toiletries and food, he wasn’t harming anyone. Sure, he was a squatter, but I felt kind of sorry for him. What would I gain by having Gregory arrested? I hadn’t asked the biggest question yet. I was to wrapped up in his story. I was fascinated.
I looked at the clock on the wall behind him. It was getting late. Carrie would start getting worried and Brett’s bedtime was coming up soon. Time to get down to it.
“So, I take it you’re the guy. The person who’s been leaving those notes on my computer everyday.”
He nodded. “Yes I am. I’ve been meaning to talk to you about those.”
“Okay. I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure it out. ‘I know what you did.’ That’s what the messages say. What did I do?”
For the first time, he stopped rubbing his hands, and steeped his fingers together in a contemplative gesture. A far cry from the twitchy, distant fella I’d been talking to. He said he was a Cornell graduate. Despite the disheveled exterior, he now displayed an air of authority and intelligence.
“At night, when no one is here. I get bored. All of your computers are password protected, so I can’t use those. I have no one to call. I’m sure if I made a call, someone would definitely notice. So, what I did was read.”
“What did you read?”
He gestured to all of the books, binders, printouts and portfolios in eyesight. “Those,” he said.
“What? All of them?”
“Well, not all. Most though. Mainly the ones about best practices and protocols. How the business should work.”
“Wow. So you know, what? Everything?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that, but I have a good grasp. I’m a B&E graduate, so I had a background before I came. I just didn’t do well during the interview.”
I nodded before pressing, “Ok, so what did I do?”
He explained that the evening before he left the first note, from his position in the air duct, he watched as I received a phone call, spoke a few quick words, and then left the office hurriedly. It took me a few minutes to remember that call and subsequent hasty exit. I was working over again, and most of my co-workers had already gone home for the day. I was working, actually, on a file for the same person I was staying late tonight to speak with. It was after my first contact with him, and I seemed to remember that I was working on entering his financial information when my wife called to tell me that she had to rush my son to the emergency room. He was having an allergic reaction to a bug bite he got while playing in the backyard.
I didn’t even think to stop and save what I was working on for my client. I panicked and rushed to the elevator, leaving sensitive documents up on my computer screen and desk.
I told him about the call for my son.
“Is he OK?” Urban asked.
I nodded. “Yes, thank you. He got into a small mound of ants and got bit by a few. He foot got all red and swollen. The doctor gave him some benedryl and it cleared up.”
“That’s good. I’m glad he’s fine.”
“Yeah, me too.” I thought about the mess I left on my desk. I didn’t remember having to enter the rest of the info or filing the paperwork. I asked Urban about that.
He shrugged. “I did it for you.”
I wanted to be angry at him, but couldn’t. After that day, we were ready to start working with this very wealthy computer mogul. It has taken a few weeks to get everything arranged, and the purpose of me staying late this evening was to go over the final numbers and get the go-ahead to start deducting money fromm his account for our services, effectively making him not only the biggest client I’ve landed in my time here, but one of the biggest in the entire company. I was looking at a possible raise or promotion from this.
But, it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for this beleagured man sitting across from me. A man who has been without a home and job for two years after losing his parents. I can’t imagine the personal hell he has gone through. By being able to finish and file the initial paperwork, without ever being formally trained, that showed me that Urban had what it took to work here, no matter how bad his interview went. No one probably remembered him anyway.
“Like I said,” he continued, “I’ve read over all of the manuals and material since I’ve lived here. When I saw that you left your computer screen up, and after the others left, I climbed down and finished what you left. I know what you did,” he said, echoing the message on his Post-It notes.
I raised my eyebrows. “That’s pretty amazing, Mr. Urban.”
“Thank you, Mr. Brinkley.”
I explained the reason for my staying late on this evening and asked if he’d like to stick around for the phone call.
“Yes,” he said, “it’s not like I have much else to do.”
That made me pause. “So, have you ever done anything like that for others? Complete things like that?”
“Yeah, a couple times. I can only do it when someone fails to shut down their computers. I don’t know anyone’s passwords, so I can only work on documents on open screens. Doesn’t happen very often.”
“That’s really impressive.”
“Thank you,” he said again, ever polite.
“I’ll tell you what…. ” I laid out a plan where if I got the final say-so from this potential client, I’d make sure Urban got a job with my company. He’d be on his own when it came to finding his own place live, however.
He smiled. “That would be great, Mr. Brinkley.”
I returned the smile. “No, no. Mr. Brinkley is my father. You can call me Wes.”
A concerned look crossed his face. “But, what if this doesn’t work? What then? Are you going to turn me in?”
I looked at the mysterious, well-meaning man. He wasn’t hurting anyone. To have lived above us for that amount of time without anyone knowing it is a phenomenal feat. If he was content to live this way, and apparently he was, who was I to ruin it?
“If that happens, then as far as I’m concerned, you’re okay where you are. If you want to continue staying here,” I pointed to the ceiling, “then I’ll never tell anyone. In fact, you’ll probably start finding gifts like food and toiletries in my desk drawers.”
At that moment the phone on my desk rang. I looked at the caller ID. This was the call I’d been waiting for. I looked at the derelict, he looked relieved. No matter the outcome of this call, he knew he’d be taken care of.
“This is him,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”
We shook hands.