I was perfectly prepared. After months without a job I knew that all my chances were on this opportunity, as researcher at a financial consultancy.
The job interview was the smoothest I ever had.
“Welcome,” said the bald, skinny man in his 50s, my future boss.
He smiled and then asked me only two questions:
“Do you smoke?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
“Good,” he said. “We don’t like that here.”
He smiled again.
“Do you value your faith?” He stressed the last syllable – “fai-thee.”
The question took me aback. I thought that would have been an illegal interview question. But he looked serious, with his eyebrows raised to a frown.
“Yes sir, to a certain degree,” I replied. “I believe, but I will make sure that it won’t affect my work, sir.”
“Good,” he replied, and his face widened to a smile and didn’t change from its position until the end of the interview. “I’m Matt. And I’m glad you have faith. We need people like you around here.”
“Thank you, sir.” I said. “I really think I’m a suitable candidate because of my expe-“
Matt cut me off. “It’s okay. You’re hired.”
I signed the contract and walked out of his office, down through the corridor past a string of rooms with desks and chairs. I found it strange that nobody else was around, but it was nearly lunchtime. I made a mental note to eat a small breakfast so that I would be able to join the early lunch crew.
The next morning the office was buzzing. Fax machines, copy machines, coffee machines, a water cooler and the constant hum of an air conditioning welcomed me to my new life. Higher pay, own office, flexible hours – it was the perfect job.
My colleagues welcomed me the moment I sat down in my brand-new office chair. The black leather was smooth to the touch. I closed my eyes, but before I could lean back and relax I heard shuffling feet and saw the whole team was standing around my office door.
They all beamed with joy.
“Welcome!” Said a young, attractive woman I later got to know as Natalie. “I think you will be a beautiful addition to the team.”
“Hey,” said the company lawyer. “I’m sure you’ll do great with us!”
“I’m Candice,” said another attractive woman. “The boss said you have a faith. I really like that.”
The rest of the introduction is a blur in my memory. Too many smiles, too many kind words, and, that’s the only thing I really remember from that introduction, too many of them mentioned my faith.
I loved my new office. I loved that it was right between the boss’s office and the fire escape. I loved the brand-new computer and swivel chair, the small fake plant in the corner and the big, spotless mirror to my right.
That first day I was motivated. I was happy. I didn’t mind that I wasn’t sure of my task and that they only made me fill excel sheets. “They are testing the new guy,” I thought to myself – and the fact that they kept passing by my office with beaming smiles reassured me that I would be fine.
At first I was worried that they all went out of the fire exit to smoke. But the air conditioning worked well and I never smelled a thing. The only smell that bothered me was the smell of warm, fresh plastic, similar to that of a new car or new computer.
Despite the boring tasks the first was a breeze. They all smiled at me while they walked past, or when I walked past their desks or the obligatory water cooler.
I was nervous that first day, maybe that’s why I didn’t notice that they all avoided me. Sure, they looked at me and greeted me, but it seemed as if the conversations I had with any of them were limited to yes and no answers. I asked them questions. I offered them anecdotes and jokes at the water cooler. But they all either smiled and laughed, gave short, monotonous answers, or simply walked away. And during lunch hours they all just disappeared.
I have heard of bullying – but I never felt it like that. It was as if there was a wall between them and me. They kept smiling, but they were all in on it; even the boss. He had nothing better to do than sit in his office and, just whenever I was finished with my mindless tasks of copying data from one spreadsheet to the next he came in and pointed me to a new email or new file on my desktop or handed me a new USB-stick.
I tried to bring the bullying up with him, but he ignored what I said. He just sat, smiled, and stared at me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Once you lose your faith you will understand.” And again he stressed the word faith in this odd manner – “fai-thee.”
“For now the only thing I can offer is to raise your salary.”
And he did. I thought he would offer me maybe a thousand more – but instead he doubled my salary.
I thought the money was good and I would be able to take the bullying. I knew it had to stop at some point.
It was Natalie that finally broke the ice. She stood in my doorway when I turned around.
“Hey,” Natalie said.
“How long have you been standing there?” I asked.
“Not long.” She grinned and walked into the room, placed her hand on my shoulder.
“I was just wondering,” she said. “Whether you have a girlfriend? Or maybe a wife and kids?”
“No,” I said. “I’m a free man.”
Natalie lost her smile for a moment. “Okay. I just thought an attractive man like you would also need an attractive partner. I just like that you have a faith.”
Natalie winked while she walked out. She too pronounced the word faith with a long, stretched “e” at the end.
That day, or rather, moment, was the happiest I had in that job. I was so sure that they all hated me that a one-minute flirt blew me away. I even did some of my work, rather than look on Reddit and read the news, which I had taken to after two weeks of constant mindless number-copying.
It was strange that the boss was not interested in my results. He asked me for them, but to my knowledge he never actually read any of the analyses I wrote. I had first just done the simple copying, and then began to calculate results that I thought might be useful. Twice I even wrote short summary notes of what I thought the company profile would be and how beneficial an investment would be for our clients.
But Matt ignored all of that. “Nice job,” he said. “I like your faith in this job.”
For the first weeks I didn’t notice the quietness of the office. I thought my room was just had good noise-insulation. The only things I heard were the footsteps of my colleagues sneaking out for a smoke, the footsteps of the boss coming into my office. Sometimes I heard the fire exit door fall shut.
But when I stepped outside my office, the moment I stepped through the door, the busy conversation began. Phones rang. People argued, laughed, talked. I could rarely make out what they were actually saying to the clients or each other, but they were clearly talking.
It shouldn’t have taken me so long, but it was the fourth week that I noticed that the noise stopped whenever I entered my office. It was like a button – I stepped outside, the noise began, I stepped inside and, I counted the seconds, after exactly five seconds the noise stopped.
No conversation, no laughter, no printers, no ringing phones. Only, occasionally, the footsteps and smiles that passed my office.
That day, with a fresh Monday-mind, I thought to join them outside for a smoke. I never wanted to smoke before, but it felt as if that was the only thing that separated us – they went all day to smoke. I never heard them go to lunch; I never heard them go to the bathroom. The only time I heard them was when they went to smoke.
I stepped outside my office, turned around the corner, and saw Natalie standing in front of me, right next to the fire exit door.
“You smoke too?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said. “But you shouldn’t.”
“Oh, you just shouldn’t. That’s how I lost my faith.” A whisper of sadness hushed over her face, but instantly Natalie’s smile returned. “Would you like a coffee?”
We went to the kitchen. She hesitantly opened a new bag of coffee, placed the pat in the machine and pressed the button. The red light blinked.
“I think you need to put fresh water,” I said.
She smiled, clumsily removed the tank and refilled it at the tap. She spilled much while trying to place the tank back into its place, as if she had never done it before.
She laughed, but she didn’t speak. I drank my coffee, she didn’t even bother to make one for herself. Natalie just stood there, staring at me.
“You really have a good fai-thee.” She said.
After three awkward minutes with her I left the room. I really tried to make conversation, to continue the flirt, but all Natalie did was to stare at me. I sat down, drank my coffee, and stared at the screen.
At that point I knew I needed to see their smoking spot. I felt all my instincts screaming, but I knew I had to do it if I ever wanted to be accepted by the group.
Half an hour after my “conversation” with Natalie I got up and walked briskly out of my office – the chatter started just a moment too late. And I think in that moment I realized how wrong it all was.
I turned towards the fire exit door and heard the boss shuffling behind me.
“Hey,” he shouted. “I have more work for you.”
But I was quicker. I walked towards the door, ignored Natalie rushing towards me from the kitchen, grabbed the cold metal handle, pulled it open and stepped outside.
They were standing there, nearly the whole office. Their heads were first towards the window in the wall, and then turned to me.
It took me a moment to realize what the window was, to connect the dots between the shape of the mirror in my office and the transparent glass that they were standing at.
It took me a moment to connect the dots between window and mirror because I was staring at something else, at the smooth skin that covered what I knew as their faces.
It only took a moment, a tiny fraction of time – and their faces returned. I saw them pushing out of the smooth skin, to form features.
They stared at me; the lawyer was the first to begin running.
I rushed back through the door, saw the boss running from the side and Natalie from the front. I ran towards her. Matt’s hand missed me only by an inch.
Natalie opened her arms wide, as if she wanted to embrace me.
My fist was quicker than her. My fist pushed her features back into the soggy mass.
She fell to the side, I rushed past, heard the screams and footsteps behind me.
I sped out of the office, down the stairs, their feet hitting the floor closely behind me. I don’t know how, but I was quicker than them.
I was out on the street – they stopped inside.
When I looked back I saw Matt standing in the lobby with his face only half-formed – no eyes, no nose – only his wide smile.
The last thing I remember from running away is Natalie’s voice. She was screaming, loud and shrill, from a window.
“Stay here! I like you! You have such a good” – and this time I didn’t mishear the last word – “face.”
This is my story, originally I published it on Reddit.