“So, Greg, I just wanted us to have a little chat,” John said. He tilted back in his sleek Aero chair, fingers steepled under his chin. The silver threads in his hair matched the silver and black decor of his office, scattered with crystal monuments to his magnificence.
Greg shifted slightly, his khakis sticking to the leather chair. “John, look, if this is about the e-mail–”
“It’s not about the e-mail, Greg. The e-mail is over.” He waved a magnanimous hand. He had a man-manicure. Greg made a mental note to get one that afternoon. “This is just a chat, Greg. I like to get to know my salespeople. Get to know what drives them. What drives you, Greg?”
This was his chance. He could make his pitch.
“Well, John, I think you know I’m ambitious. In fact, I think we’re more alike than you know.” While the quiet part of his brain observed John’s smile change from fatherly to pained, his mouth blundered on. “I mean, not to be presumptive, but I think you probably see yourself in me, twenty years ago.”
“Really.” John’s voice was suddenly very flat.
Panic overwhelmed Greg. Wasn’t that the way it was supposed to be? The seasoned professional, taking the young up-and-comer under his wing? “I – I just thought –”
John’s smile came back. “No, I’m flattered. Honestly. But that brings me to my next question. What’s holding you back?” He clenched his fist, leaned forward, intense. “Business is war, Greg. Businessmen – salesmen – are warriors. I need warriors, Greg. I need men who have been hardened by battle. So I am going to make it hard on you, for your own sake.” He sat back, steepled his fingers again, and Greg thought he knew what was coming next.
“Last month you made 80% of your sales goals, impressive for you. But your 30-day cancellations are up 15%.” John made a distasteful face. “Now. The good news is, we’re trying something new here. We’ve hired a consulting firm that helps turn people around. They’re said to be creative, think outside the box. Let’s give them try, shall we? Otherwise, it’s time to find your inner warrior elsewhere.”
“Your inner what?” Kyle said over coffee in the cafeteria. They sat at their own table, ties thrown over their shoulders.
Greg shrugged sourly. He didn’t know what to think. A consulting firm. To fix him. He didn’t need some kind of shrink; he just needed a fair chance.. His voice raised in frustration. “Dude, it’s the leads. They suck.”
Kyle’s eyes shifted, and Greg knew what he was trying not to say – he didn’t have a problem with the leads. Kyle had been over quota consistently for the past three months. Greg knew it was only a matter of time before Kyle started avoiding him in case Greg’s loserdom rubbed off.
Kyle lowered his voice. “Speaking of leads.” He nodded at the entrance to the cafeteria.
Dude. Elyssa Harmon, acquisition marketing vice president. She came in alone, cell phone at her ear, a dark red suit and matching pumps showing off her long slender legs. Her brown hair was done up in a tasteful knot and her trendy glasses drew attention to her face.
Greg reminded himself to breathe. He could hear her conversation, which included monthly budget projections, when the doors swung open again and a man entered. Greg looked at him and forgot Elyssa Harmon.
He was tall, broad-shouldered, his blue eyes dark and piercing. His receding hair swept away from his face that wrinkled with crows’ feet around the eyes, as if the man had spent his days at the steering oar, staring into the westering sun as it set beyond Vinland. His suit whispered Saville Row, impeccable.
“Cyning min,” Greg said, and felt the world slip away from him. My king. He didn’t say it loud, but the man heard. He looked at Greg, and so did everyone else. Elyssa Harmon looked from the man to Greg and back again, one eyebrow raised, her lips parted.
The man came over and Greg stood.
“Greg, Larry’s son?” the man said, his voice quiet, unremarkable. It sent a shiver through Greg. I’m not gay, Greg thought, desperately. He nodded. The man fished in his pocket and came out with a card. He handed it to Greg. “Rheinhart & Ritter. Consultants. I am Scyld. We have work to do.”
Greg could barely hear him over the echoes in his head. Sea waves crashing, the clash of sword against sword, dark ships slipping through green waves, men shouting war cries. Mist drifted across barrows raised to the dead.
Kyle poked him in the back. “Dude,” he whispered. Greg took a breath.
“All–all right,” he said. “What do we do now?”
Breyer’s was a welcome den of comforting darkness. Greg took a sip of his beer. He felt daring, out for a beer in the middle of the day. Then he got a glimpse at his image in the mirror behind the bar. He caught his breath – he almost didn’t recognize himself. Red face, rumpled dress shirt with armpit stains, a young man’s paunch straining at his belt.
“Tell me about the e-mail,” Scyld said. He looked at Greg with the same measuring expression.
Startled, Greg came back. “What – oh. Yeah. They told you about that?”
He didn’t know what the big deal was. But the look he got from everyone the day after… Even Kyle. Dude, his friend had whispered, half-laughing. What were you thinking?
He looked down at the water rings on the bar, sick to his stomach. But the senior management team was paying this guy to fix him. He’d probably go back to them if Greg didn’t say what happened.
It was after the layoffs in the spring. Bloody Tuesday, everyone called it. Greg had been so sure that he was one of the doomed. He made Kyle listen to all the reasons why he wouldn’t be fired, but Kyle refused to say the words that would reassure him. Kyle refused to say anything at all, just flinched each time the phone summoned another victim to the conference room. Greg had been pissed off at him – why wouldn’t he just say it, just say the words? Dude, don’t worry about it, they aren’t going to fire you.
When the day was over, when he was still there, he looked around at the vacant cubes. Everything in the office building looked cleaner and lighter, the air sweeter, and he knew their decision had been the right one. Greg sat at his desk and wrote the email to the CEO and cc’d the rest of the company.
Is this the greatest company in the world, or what? I am so grateful to be here and be given this opportunity to work for one of the best organizations in town. It is such an honor that I would work for free, but don’t take me up on that, ha ha! But seriously, every one of us shouldn’t be worried about what happened today. We should only be worried about doing the best job we can to bring about our success.
“So why did you send that e-mail?” Scyld said.
It took him a long time to answer, struggling for the words. He couldn’t explain the pressure he had felt to – to what? To make everyone take part in his gratitude. To make it all right.
“I just thought they should know,” he said at last. He suffered a distant pinprick of shame. What the hell had he been thinking?
Scyld nodded slowly, judiciously. Finally he said, “Bright are the shields of the aethlings come home, gold is their armor in the setting sun. But they sing not of the joy of their living, but of the doom of the fallen.”
Greg laughed uncertainly. “I don’t – is this part of this whole thing? I guess I don’t get it.”
Scyld finished his beer and stood up. “No, you don’t.”
Scyld drove a late-model Mercedes with windows so dark it was like a hearse. On the way to the bar Greg had already chattered about the car’s price tag and why a BMW was a better choice. Now he sank without a word into the leather seat, pressure pounding at his temples with every beat of his heart. The car was dim and silent, the engine a contented purr. Greg felt the stress leak away from his bones. His own car, a poorly tricked-out Civic, was exposed for the cheap tin it was. When I make it, he thought, this is the kind of car I want. He had always thought a successful man’s car screamed status. But this was more – it was sanctuary.
“I like this car,” Scyld said, breaking the silence. “It’s like church.”
Greg was startled into a laugh. The guy could read minds now? “Yeah, I know what you mean.” He missed church. The last time he prayed – he couldn’t remember the last time he prayed.
You prayed on Nine Eleven.
Only he hadn’t. He watched television with everyone else at work that day. While the crowd watched the towers fall over and over, he stood up, folded his hands and bowed his head. But he hadn’t prayed. He just stood there, waiting for someone to notice.
The shame crashed in on him like waves on the shore. Greg struggled, drowning, trying to swim to the surface under the weight of his chainmail. His open eyes stared up through the green water at the spot of sun shining through the ocean, until a final wave drew him up and out of the water and tossed him onto the strand.
Greg gasped for air, and then turned toward Scyld in a panic. Had the man seen his struggle? His shirt stuck to the seat and he could smell his own sweat. Dude, get a grip. Scyld kept his attention on driving, his profile mild and calm.
“Hey,” Greg said, fighting for control. “Can we stop for a second? I’m not feeling so great.”
“No. And before you whine, I know you aren’t going to throw up, so forget it.”
Anger swept through him. “Fine,” Greg said. “If this is part of the whole deal, then fine. I think it’s bullshit, but you’re the expert.”
Scyld steered the car through a minefield of east side potholes and crumpled asphalt. Down-at-the-heels buildings rose on either side, blocking out the pallid city sky. He turned into a cracked parking lot overlooking the river, its banks lined with weeds and trash.
Scyld docked the Mercedes against the curb. “I think, Greg Larry’s son, that you are the only expert on bullshit in this car.”
“Don’t call me that,” Greg said. He pressed his forehead against the window. He could feel the summer heat seep through the glass.
“Larry’s son. He wasn’t my father. He was just some asshole my mother married after my father left.”
Scyld stared through the windshield at the river in front of them. A short path from the parking lot led down to an old camp of broken picnic tables, a tire swing, and a couple of rusted grills scattered among the weeds. Heart sinking, Greg recognized the place. No, he thought, Not here. A faded sign read Camp Opportunity beneath looping scrawls of graffiti. The sign got tagged regularly back then too, when the camp had been in business.
Back before that stupid kid drowned and ruined everything.
All he had wanted to do was something nice. Give back, right? Then that stupid inner-city kid had to jump in the river and try to swim. Didn’t take long before the paper got hold of the story, that a summer program run by the Future Business Leaders of America had tried to hush up a camper’s death.
The paper published a picture of the kid alongside one of Greg as president of the FBLA. The kid had the biggest, happiest grin on his face. It made you smile back. That was Greg’s first response anyway. Horror set in a second later, that and a cold sweat. But he couldn’t get the kid’s picture out of his mind. He was a real pistol, that one. The kind of kid you’d want to mentor.
Scyld got out and walked down to the river, silhouetted against the sun in his dark suit. Greg hesitated and then threw open the car door and followed him. Twisted trees leaned out over the shadowed water, their branches dipping into the current, a ragged rope hanging from one branch. A turtle pushed off a watersoaked log trapped by the shore. The air was thick with vegetable decay, warm and wet. They were silent for a while, listening to the droning insects and the peacefulness of a quiet river. When Greg spoke, he could hear the surrender in his own voice.
“He didn’t know how to swim. But the other kids were jumping from the tree, and he wanted to try. So he lied to the counselor and he jumped. Farther than all the rest, they said.” He imagined the dark-skinned boy captured against the sky, and the cool fast plunge into the water, and felt a keen, deep-seated sorrow.
“Bold is the spirit of small boys, bright are their hearts,” Scyld said. “Meet is it to mourn them, eager to be aethlings, yet fame is not their fate.”
“Yeah,” Greg said. He groped awkwardly with his next words. “Me either, I guess. Fame, I mean.” He waited, holding his breath, waiting for the words that would redeem him.
Scyld shrugged off his jacket, draping it over his arm, and loosened his tie. “True,” he said. Shocked, Greg stared at him. Scyld gave a wolfish grin. “If it were easy, Greg No Man’s son, every man could do it. The boy knew that. Why do you think he jumped? He cared only to fly — you care only to fall. To fail. You are no king’s aethling, you are naught but a churl.”
The insult stung harder for all that he hardly knew what it meant. “That’s not true.”
Scyld looked at the tangled rope hanging from the tree, and then looked at Greg. His silence was a challenge. Blood pounded in Greg’s ears.
“What, you want me to jump? I could kill myself!”
He had to watch Scyld’s contempt deepen. It made no difference to him, the man’s face said, if Craig died or not. A spark of anger burned away his fear.
“You mean you don’t care if I climb up there and jump, just like he did? Just go ahead and jump, even though I can’t swim? Hell, the water’s not even deep enough – I’ll probably hit the bottom and crack my neck. And you don’t care?” He was shouting. This is crazy, he thought. Crazy. He splashed over to the tree, his trousers soaked and awkward. He started to climb, sweating and panting. He scratched his face and tore his shirt and when he made it to the broken boards nailed across two branches as a launch platform he was sweating. His heart pounded. He stood clutching the trunk and looked down. Scyld looked very small.
“I can’t swim!” he shouted again. He meant it as a warning.
Scyld only spread his hands as if to say, what can I say?
Craig looked around – they were the only people there. He could climb down and walk away, and no one would be the wiser. Scyld would go away, and Craig would go back to work.
And my life will be nothing more than the narrow padded walls of my cube.
A great shout bellowed from his lungs, a mix of defiance, anger, fear, and exultation, and he flung himself into the air and out over the water. Craig windmilled his arms and legs, his tie flying, and entered the water with a huge splash.
They sat on the shore in the late afternoon heat, Craig sopping wet. He still felt the adrenalin rush of the jump, his fear and anger mingling in a heart-stopping leap. He played it over and over in his head, amazed that he had done it, that his courage had not failed him. He wanted to jump again, defy the fear again. He turned to Scyld, bursting to ask him to be his mentor. His king. But his words died when he followed Scyld’s gaze upriver and Greg saw a ship approach, her sails dripping with ice, northern lights dancing in her wake. Scyld smiled, a smile of relief and homecoming. The king stood. He took off his Patek Philippe watch and handed it to Greg. “Churl or aethling, the choice is yours. For any man, it is the only choice he has. Life is lean, but fame is always. Seek it with a bright heart and bold comrades, that you may come to heaven’s halls in your turn.”
Greg said, “My king.” And then his voice failed him and he could say nothing else.
The boat hove to, her dragon prow piercing the setting sun. Scyld stepped inside, splashing water up his legs, and stood at the steering oar. A gust of wind came out of nowhere, and the ship began to rock, her sails bellied with the wind. Greg felt a keen sorrow. Where Scyld was going, he could not follow, not yet, maybe not ever.
“Hey,” he said suddenly. “If you see the kid – I mean, make sure he’s not lonely or anything.”
“I will look for him,” Scyld said. “In heaven’s halls the tables are tall and high the seats, but I will find a low seat and sit next to him and keep him company.”
Craig watched until the ship was lost in the setting sun.
Craig went into John’s office the next day. When John tried to shoo him out, Craig reached down and cut off his conference call. Then he told John he was leaving and watched with satisfaction as John’s face turned brick red.
Kyle eyed Craig nervously as he cleared out his cubicle. Craig pitched his tchotchkes and other crap. Way at the bottom of his one drawer he found the faded newspaper clipping with the photo of the kid. He kept that.
“Dude,” Kyle said finally. “What happened yesterday? Who was that guy?”
At the conference room Elyssa Harmon walked out with the senior management team, talking animatedly, something about test campaigns. Craig watched her go with a pinprick of regret. Then he picked up his box of meager belongings and looked at Kyle.
“He was a good king.”