He thought the hard part would be laying off his friends, but they knew it was coming and made it easy on him. They told him it wasn’t his fault, and for a moment he felt things weren’t all bad. But that was 10 days ago when the last one hugged him goodbye and graciously left. 10 days that he’d been alone, desperately searching for something, anything to save his company.

It was over now. Two years of work and dreams replaced by a landing page. Even the t-shirts had been given away. He turned off the lights and lied to himself that he might have forgotten something. So he hit the switch and watched them flicker back on for one last look. For a moment he managed a smile. He remembered the note a buddy had sent him 23 months ago when they opened the office, “8 IKEA desks = $1,200, 8 Aeron chairs (used) = $4,000, Making your dreams come true = Priceless.” His smile quickly faded when he remembered his Mastercard was over the limit and past due.

The chairs were gone now, so he sat on a desk. One of the company stickers they had handed out at the launch party was stuck to the side, and he slowly picked at it, the glue sticking to his fingernails. He thought about how it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Every day the tech blogs screamed about fundings and acquisitions. The entire valley was a dream machine where nobody worked, because everybody was too busy crushing it. Nobody ever talked about the emptiness of failure. Nobody ever told him the hockey stick of user growth might look more like a baseball bat laying in an empty field.

When he started the company, he had a girlfriend. She was a sweet girl, who actually got his Isaac Asimov references. But she wasn’t willing to be an afterthought, pushed to the fading moments at the end of the day when the work of his startup was finished. So he convinced himself that the only relationship he needed was the one with his company. The morning she left, she didn’t run out. She lingered, waiting for him to give her an excuse not to go. As he lingered now in this empty office with no reason to stay, he suddenly realized the cruelty of his silence.

He opened his wallet and took out his business card. It said “CEO.” He realized that was another lie, that he was never really the boss. Math was the boss, the math of a shrinking bank account. The math of expenses bigger than revenue. Math was always in charge. Whatever his business card said was meaningless. He picked up a pen and crossed out “CEO” scribbling over it “unemployed.”

The corner of the sticker was peeled up now. He pulled it off the side of the desk, and it seemed to shrivel as it curled up into a sticky little roll. He heard the ping of his iPhone, someone late hearing the news sending a text to offer their condolences. He knew they meant well, but their encouraging platitudes filled him with contempt. What did they know of his pain?

This room that had so much activity, so much action was becoming a memory. The click-clack of keyboards was gone. The flowcharts on the whiteboards were gone. He tried to replay the lively conversations that took place here, but the voices were fading, and he could no longer remember the words. It was time to go. In a few days, someone with fresh dreams would be in this room. Someone with dreams untainted by failure.

He turned off the lights and let himself sink into the darkness.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]