Part Of The Jobbyemptyness©
I heard the talk from the hallway, indistinguishable words fading even before I reached the break room door. Inside, three of my co-workers shifted in the silence, sipping cheap coffee. They were like most of the people here, still shunning me as the new guy. I wasn't sure if I should hold it against them. I was brought in because of flailing production and of course they were going to reject the hot-shot upstart, if just out of human behavior. Or maybe they didn't like that I refused to wear the starched-up J.C. Penny's long-sleeves like the rest of them.
Missing out on the shop-talk didn't bother me much. It was probably about Jennings; he'd been escorted off the premises earlier that morning. It had been a spooky scene, one that I had never seen. I forget what drivel I was putting into the computer, but I caught on to the unusual hush in the office. I peeked over the wall of my cubicle to see two meathead-looking thugs bracketing a shaken man. He bowed under his quiet sobbing and looked around desperately, hoping to be rescued. He was led to the elevator like a shellshock victim, the thugs in David Ellis keeping hold of his arms. And, all the while, every programmer on the floor stood, quietly watching.
I think the guy's name was Jennings. It might have been Jenkins.
"How's it going?" I said in the break room. No one answered. I didn't expect them to and I chuckled as I fed my change to the soda machine. It was only my second week in the company and I was generally avoided like a case of monkeypox. Curiosity brought looks and whispers, but still too weird to get close to. I wasn't sure if taking the job had been the best move on my part; I was too used to the freelance business and having a sense of self. The pay here was better, though, and really the worst part had been buying more ties. The social leprosy didn't bother me all that much.
"So, why'd they give Jennings the boot?" I asked, taking a deep sip of my soda in the long pause that gave way to more silence. One guy granted me a half-shrug and I figured no one really knew why the guy was fired. "Okay, then," I said, giving up the pursuit of conversation. "Talk to you later."
The rest of the day was filled with the constant tapping of keys, punching in numbers and codes that didn't seem to make much sense. I suspected that we were given snippets of the same program, several of us working on the same piece at one time but not having a complete view of the end result. It seemed odd to me, and I missed the personal feel of dealing with accounts as a whole. But being a cog in a machine is different than doing work while home in your sweats, Springer on the TV behind you and an iced rum at your elbow. I had an idea that some of these accounts were government-funded but I had no straight way of knowing and I wasn't going to start peeking, least not until my 401k started up.
The room began to shrug off the superstitious silence and I heard quiet chattering through the walls of my tiny cubicle. None of it was very interesting and I dreaded the possibility of ending up as one of these mindless drones. I couldn't imagine talk of hedges and bathroom caulking coming out of my mouth, but I imagine very few do. The stigma I wore as an outsider seemed mostly a blessing.
Coming back from another break, I again saw the two thugs. For building security, they looked more like professional wrestlers. They didn't do much in the way of talking a whole lot either. Most likely, they were hired off the benches of college football, given a lobotomy and a nice suit, and probably kept on a diet of raw meats.
They were hunched over at Jennings' desk, carelessly tossing the man's personals in a cardboard box. Almost like they were planning on dropping it all in the dumpster anyway. I tried not to look too long as I walked past, but one of the thugs gave me a sidelong glance, as if he were noting my presence for later consideration.
I decided asking Fisher out for a drink after work would be a good idea. Matt Fisher was the only person in the company I actually knew. I met him at the University when I dropped my English-Lit major for computer design. He opened the door for me into the company, introducing me to several people and putting in a good word for me. We worked in different departments but on the same floor; he had an actual office. I called his desk and we agreed to meet up at the Napalm Lounge for a couple quick drinks. I was surprised he agreed; he has a wife and kid and I knew they both kept him on a short leash.
I was on my second rum and Coke when Fisher showed up. He ordered a beer as I made eyes at the bartender. I knew the girl and she had never given me the time of day.
"So, what's the deal with the secret service?" I asked Fisher, skipping over the how-was-your-day pleasantries.
"What? Oh, company security?" He picked at the label on his beer and glanced back towards the door. "I don't know. I guess Cliver gets a bit nervous about things."
He seemed hopeful that I would drop the subject, but he was the one who brought Cliver's name into it. The mysterious president. His name was on the checks, but I had never met the guy. "He scared about company espionage? Somebody downloading pictures of the Olsen twins?"
Fisher shook his head. "Look, just forget it. They run a tight ship over there. You get a bit of slack because they know your work and they know you're worth it." He drank down half his beer and leaned closer to me. "Don't mess things up for yourself, okay?"
Before I could respond, he stood straight up and stared hard at his watch. "I really got to get out of here, buddy. Marcie's parents are in town and she wants me home early." The whisper of intimidation from his earlier words vanished and his grin looked well-practiced. I imagined that was how he was when he went home every night. He tossed a twenty on the bar and gave my shoulder a slap. "Don't be late for work."
I watched him leave, wondering what I said that screwed him so tight. I lost the taste for my drink but I drank anyway. It gave me an excuse to call the bartender back over, and I wanted to think about Jennings a bit. I went home earlier than usual, not waiting for last call. Jennings' number was listed in the book. It was probably none of my business, but I wanted to ask why he'd been fired. No one around the office was going to talk about it. It just seemed weird to me, and Fisher's dismissal of the subject made it even more so. Maybe the rum was getting to me, but calling the guy up made a good kind of sense.
A husky robot voice answered at Jennings' place, letting me know that the number had been disconnected and won't I please try my call again. I tried my call again and the recording didn't answer. Instead, there was a soft whirling sound, like a tape recorder recording. I hung the phone up and stared at it, waiting for it to ring.
I kept my head down the next couple of weeks at work. Fisher avoided me most of the time, looking pale and tired when I passed him in the halls. A few people said hello to me, or good morning, but I was still on the outside. I figured it was better, better to just do my work and collect my paycheck and go home.
A month quietly went by, then one day there was an empty desk when I came back from lunch. I vaguely remembered a quiet woman sitting there when I left, pretty in that plain way behind her glasses and her curly hair, opening up plastic containers holding her lunch. The security guards stood in her cubicle, one of them dropping framed pictures of cats and assorted ceramic animals into a box. I was able to watch from my own little pen without looking conspicuous. The other guy was rifling through the drawers, picking out papers and glancing at a sheet he held in his hand. Other people were coming back from lunch and their faces went blank at the sight of the two men. Conversations stopped and one or three of them looked at their feet.
The mood for the day was spoiled. All the riveting talk was done and few people left their desks. I didn't bother asking anyone why the girl was gone; I knew no one would talk. Perhaps they were mourning her absence, but I thought there was some kind of fear filling the room. Fear, and relief. One guy went to the break room and I watched him walk the long way around so not to pass the empty desk. I couldn't stop glancing over to her cubicle, wondering what she had done to get fired. She didn't seem like a rabble-rouser and she was never late in the morning. She even said hello to me on most days.
"Hey, Fisher," I said, walking into his office without knocking. He looked up at me, then back at his computer screen. As he turned to face me, his finger hit a button on his keyboard and the screen went blank. "I got a question."
I noticed first the dark circles under his eyes, then the sweat on his face. But it wasn't sweat; he had been crying. He bit his lip as he looked past me into the hall. "How you doing, Sam? What's going on?"
His voice didn't waver. He sounded almost friendly, almost happy. I wondered if maybe he was on some kind of anti-depressant. "I know it's none of my business... the girl that got fired. She do something wrong?" I wanted to ask why everyone was so hush-hush and morose, why they all seemed more lost than usual.
He squinted at me before answering. "I really can't talk about it," he said without tone. "You should just not worry about it." On the desk, his hands played with a pen to hide their trembling. He glanced again at the door behind me. I was tempted to look myself, expecting to be clubbed from behind at any second. "You're doing pretty good though. Getting a lot done out there."
"It's easy enough."
"You keep it up and they'll probably get you off the floor pretty quick." He talked automatically, the words stiff. He looked down at his watch, reminding me of the last time he said more than three words to me. "You got time tonight for a drink?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I don't have a life anymore." The invite sounded desperate and I first thought it was just to get me away. I was grateful anyway; I hadn't been getting out much and I was glad Fisher still thought of me as a friend. "I gotta go shut down, meet you back here."
He gave a small shake of his head. "No, you go ahead. I'll meet you down there." He gave his watch another glance. "I won't be that long."
But he was. An hour or so passed before he showed up, his eyes redder than they'd been in his office. He sat silently at the table I'd picked out away from the bar and I signaled the bartender for a drink. She had forgiven me my lewdness from the last time I'd been in and brought the drink over with a smile. I smiled and thanked her, telling her to put it on my tab.
"You all right?" I asked Fisher, looking at how his eyes were still wet from crying and his face had gone further to a sickly color. I wanted to think he'd been fired as well, but somehow I knew that wasn't it. He wouldn't be here if he'd been fired. "You look like someone died."
He glared at me sharply, then looked down into his drink. Half a minute passed before he spoke. "The girl, her name is Lydia. We'd been.... we'd been having an affair for six months or so. It just sort of happened, you know?"
I nodded, wanting to laugh. Thinking of him getting it on with the office girl just didn't seem real. Cheating on his wife? The look on his face kept me somber. "That why she was fired?
He shook his head. Yes. No. It's hard to explain." He took a long gulp from his glass, grimacing as he set the drink down. "She's dead."
The words sat in the air for a moment. "Dead?"
Fisher looked over his shoulder, back toward the door. "It's a bad place. People aren't fired. They're killed."
He nodded tiredly. "You don't know what's really going on there, do you? You don't even know what you're working on."
I didn't like his condescending tone, like I was a helpless pawn. "What am I working on, then? Government defense programs? A better way to spam the innocent?"
Fisher waved his hand. "It doesn't matter. Cliver plans on having this country under his thumb in five years." He leaned over the table, whispering like a spy. "We're only the grunts. What he's doing, what he's into, it's far beyond what you can imagine."
Matt was losing it, I saw. Whatever he was talking about, it made no sense. His eyes were clear, though. Clear and afraid. "Call the police," I said.
He sat back in his chair. "Heh. They would never believe this. You don't. And Cliver's holding hands with more than a few people. You can't move against him. You can't stop him." He stood up. "I have to go. Keep quiet, but be careful. It'd be better for you if you got a new job. Better for a while, anyway."
I stared at him, not knowing what to say. Everything he told me repeated in my head but still didn't make sense. People had been killed? For what? What was Fisher's part, if the girl was killed because of him? I wanted to follow him, ask him what the hell. I paid my tab and went home instead. I wanted to look for a few things. To do a little snooping.
I logged on my computer, using a hidden account to get online. It was easy to open up the company files; I had been working there long enough to know my way around the security without sending up any flags. It was something I hadn't put on my resume, figuring they didn't need to know I had a small knack for computer hacking. I always kept on the clean side, bending laws but never really breaking them.
I was now. I peeked through payroll and found that the people fired were kept on file. Checks were still issued for them, being sent out to beneficiaries. Even the girl, her file had been updated. There were more than I would have thought, people being let go almost every month. Where had they all gone? I went into accounts, the walls there harder to crack but not impossible. I was right about government clients, from all over the world. It seemed like it was some sort of spyware, letting someone watch users whenever they wanted. A little more than that, too; lines of added program that seemed little more than babble.
I didn't find anything that really put the scare into me. No mention of killings or sinister going-ons. No big conspiracy outlined in bold face for taking over the world. I didn't think I would find any. I didn't want to admit that Fisher was maybe losing his marbles, but I couldn't think of anything else. He'd been acting kind of off the last few weeks, maybe this affair he'd been having was scrambling his common sense.
I laughed, switching off the computer. I really wanted to find some evil plot. People secretly dying and a madman behind it all, it seemed exciting. Far more interesting than this office life. I wanted some sort of adventure and I was filling it up with Fisher's neurotic babbling. And, in the meanwhile, I was hacking into my company's computers and risking my job. Sometime, I think I should have stayed an English major.
Fisher wasn't at work the next couple of days. I tried calling him at home, but Marcie said he wasn't in. She said it rather rudely, hanging up on me without even saying goodbye. I worried a little, but a peek into his office let me see all his personals still sitting about. He still had a job. He was still alive. I wanted to slap myself.
No one around the office talked about Fisher's absence. They avoided my eyes when I passed them. No one new moved into Lydia's desk. I did my work, finishing early. A couple times, one of the managers from upstairs caught up with me and told me what a good job I was doing. I smiled and thanked him. His eyes crawled over me, searching for something. I kept out of the company's files, keeping my head low.
Fisher finally came in to work on Thursday. He walked gingerly, as if he would keel over at any moment. He barely looked my way, barely raised his head at all as he shuffled through the hall. I planned on talking to him before leaving for the day, find out what was going on with him. There was a sense of agitation around the office, a queer sort of nervousness. The new assignment was too easy and I was finished before lunch. I figured I would talk to Fisher then instead of waiting. Most everyone on the floor left for lunch when I wound my way over to Fisher's office.
The lights in there were out, but I could see the shadowy shape of his back hunched over his keyboard. Through the window in his door, I saw him swivel around at the sound of my footsteps, the computer screen giving his face a sickly glow. He looked ready to flee, though the only other exit from the room was the window to his right. He didn't seem to relax as I opened the door; his eyes flitted from me to the hallway behind. I closed the door behind me.
"I would ask if you're all right," I said, standing behind the extra chair next to his desk. I felt safer with something between us. "That would probably be rhetorical, though."
He stared at me as if he didn't know me. The stubble on his cheeks looked to be three or four days' worth. His hair was uncombed and I recognized his clothes as the same he wore the last time I'd seen him.
"They're gonna take me," he said softly. "They're gonna take me to the basement."
I glanced at his computer screen, recognizing a few of the commands; he was writing a virus. His fingers tapped anxiously at the desk. "What are you talking about, Matt?"
He shook his head quickly at me, as though any explaining would be pointless. "This is my last day. You need to get out. Quit. Get out." He wasn't wearing his tie.
"Did Marcie find out about your thing? With, um, Lydia?" I thought talking to him would let me know something; I'd find some way to get through his babble. "I called over. She didn't sound very happy."
He chuckled roughly, sounding more like he had something caught in his throat. "She doesn't understand. She's more worried about stock options and health care. They won't take me." Anger darkened his eyes. I tried remembering what you were supposed to say to a crazy person to calm them down. Was there anything to say?
I gripped the back of the chair, just in case. "So, um, you want to get some lunch? Get some fresh air?" I judged the distance between him and myself, wondering if maybe I should call someone. Then his screen blinked twice and shut off. A soft beep sounded and Fisher whirled around in his chair.
"Damn!" he said aloud, his fist bouncing down against the desk. He looked toward the window, considering. "Sam," he said, calm with fear. "Sam, get out of here now. Go. They're coming now."
"Who?" I asked, the answer sliding through my head a beat later. Security. Hans and Frans. "Come on, then. Come on."
Fisher would not rise. He lifted a hand to his neck, groping for the tie that wasn't there. "This is what I have to do," he said in that eerie, calm voice. I preferred the frantic madman babble. "It's part of the job." He smiled weakly.
"Listen, let's just go. It's lunch--"
"Go. Get out!"
I stumbled toward the door, wondering what I was doing. Wondering what he was doing. I recognized how his computer blinked off. Remote power, someone else switching it off. He wouldn't get out of the chair. I should stay, I thought. The door squeaked open and I stepped into the hall. Was this really happening? I looked back at him from the hallway; he looked so small behind his desk.
Down the hall, the elevator whooshed open. I stepped into an open office and knelt behind the door. The two guards marched side by side, staring straight ahead, their arms barely swinging. They turned at Fisher's door. I could hear him protest, knocking something from his desk as they lifted him from his chair. I knelt and listened to his struggling, his curses and cries. I knelt, feeling weak and absurd.
The two men walked out of the office, dragging Fisher by his armpits. Fisher's head banged back and forth and he tried digging his heels into the cheap carpet. For one horrible moment, I thought his eyes focused on mine and I shrank back from the door. I wanted to do something, come to his rescue, be the hero. I shifted further back into the corner.