Read the Community Novel: Chapter 1 by Lissa Staley

The Friday afternoon before a three day weekend can drag on and on. That is, unless someone in the city offices downtown gets fired and escorted out by security. The whole office stays busy trying to pretend they are not sneakily watching two security officers packing up the office.

Not everyone masters the art of subtlety. Two women in dark business suits pass the open door at least eight times in an hour, busily shuffling papers as they get closer, and then staring openly inside the office, craning their necks until they pass. It wasn’t that watching two uniformed men wrapping knickknacks in newspaper was actually that exciting. The women loved to speculate about the surprising career news of the city’s Business Development Coordinator, and seeing the awards, family photos and vacation souvenirs disappearing into boxes fueled their already fired-up imaginations.

No one bothered to look in to the office next door. They generally didn’t bother, even without a scandal to distract them. The door was only halfway open. The sign outside read “Web Designer – Assistant” and didn’t bother to put a name to the face behind the computer. And that face, partially hidden by the two flat screen monitors and illuminated by their glow, didn’t mind that no one interrupted him.

On the ninth lap through the workspace and past the doorway, the office gossips were losing their discretion. They seemed to have slowed to a stop and their words filtered in through the barrier of the half-closed door, over the barricade of monitors and into the ears of the man sitting behind the screens.

“I can’t believe that security is just packing up everything. I mean, the embarrassment of having them handle all of your intimate possessions. I can’t imagine,” the louder voice said.

“I know, it’s like she’s dead or something. No one is talking about her. They are just cruelly removing all traces, like she was never here,” the quieter voice replied in a dramatic stage whisper.

“At least we know she isn’t dead. These HR things are always hushed up. Like they think we didn’t notice Evelyn shouting at the armed guard or something. I mean, the ruckus she made on her way out of here confirmed she has quite a bit of life left in her.” A sharp bark of laughter was quickly muffled.

“Speaking of embarrassing, seriously. I saw someone near the front door with a camera phone taping the exit. I sure hope that doesn’t end up on the evening news.”

“Or Youtube. I’m going to check there. The news doesn’t begin to tell the real story; too worried about advertising dollars. All of us with our mouths hanging open, we could be famous, if only in the background. It was certainly a surprise,” said the louder voice.

“And here I had been planning on a nice quiet day in the office.”

“Well, it is pretty quiet. Everyone is keeping their head down and looking busy, hoping that they aren’t next.”

“Speaking of which, I have some photocopies to make. I’m sure I’ll see you in the lunchroom.”

“Maybe someone will find out something more by then.” This last remark was filled with excitement.

Finally the two women moved on. Kevin Emile tried to ignore office gossip, as a rule. He was the kind of employee who kept his head down, kept his nose clean and tried to get the work done. Anyone who observed him could imagine Kevin might still be working at the same desk thirty years from now, carefully eyeing the calendar toward retirement.

Unfortunately, the one thing Kevin Emile didn’t want was to retire from the city. This had been the boring and predictable path of too many other people in his life. His father planned to retire in a few years from the Water Department, his mother had already retired from the City Clerk’s office, and most of his extended family had worked for the city at one time or another in the past fifty years. Working all their lives for the city of Topeka, Kansas, may be enough for most of his blood relatives, but Kevin had other plans.

Actually, plans might be an overstatement, as that implies that Kevin was taking action to change jobs or locales. Kevin had dreams of leaving Topeka and getting a cool job somewhere on the east coast; or the west coast. He wasn’t that picky really, anywhere but in Topeka, KS, being his main criteria for an ideal destination.

Kevin clicked out of the Monster.com job search page that he liked to browse during his breaks and refocused on his current assignment to update the city code online after the changes from the most recent city council meeting. On a good day, his job was boring and tedious. On a bad day, his job veered into the worse-than-awful territory of “other duties as assigned”.

Kevin both feared and hated the “other duties as assigned.” The explosion of multimedia online meant that instead of the solitary technical career Kevin had envisioned when he majored in web design, Kevin was regularly removed from the safety of his double-display-monitor to take photographs at city events, shoot video of ribbon cutting ceremonies, and then publish it all on the city website.

There, he knew for a fact, since he ran the monthly statistical reports himself, no one really looked at any photos or video.

Since no one in Topeka seemed to care enough about city events to show up in the first place, Kevin wasn’t sure what good it was doing to post photos and videos online that no one watched later either. But his job was not to question the pointlessness of his assigned tasks, just to get the work done and then get the next work done.

Despite what the job description had promised when he applied 4 years earlier, this job wasn’t fulfilling in a creative way. That was such a load a crap, and the things that had inspired him in his college coursework had long since changed beyond recognition as the web had evolved.

He looked up at a rumbling sound and saw the security guards pushing two metal carts of boxes out of the office next door. The door was closed and locked behind them, and the sound had finality. As much as Kevin didn’t want to be sitting behind his desk, he didn’t want to get fired either. Hopefully with the office door closed, the gossips would stay away as well.

Kevin clicked to save the city code updates and opened a new file to post the minutes from the city council meetings. This was just another mundane task to check off his weekly to-do list. His office phone rang, and the number flashed the extension of an internal call. He groaned inwardly and grabbed the phone.

“City of Topeka, this is Kevin,” he answered, even though he knew who was calling.

“I heard if I bring you a sledgehammer, we can double the size of your office.” A familiar voice rumbled in his ear.

“Since when do you listen to rumors, dad?” Kevin asked. His dad wasn’t a typical office gossip, but he’d been with the city so long that workplace news was equivalent to national news sometimes.

“Haven’t I always taught you to look for the kernel of truth?” his father asked, taking a fatherly tone that may have been copied from Leave It to Beaver. “Almost every rumor is based on some sort of fact.”

“Like the fact that people who are bored have active imaginations and like to run their mouths?” Kevin shot back.

“Well, son, when you put it that way…” his dad chuckled. “Maybe over here at Water we don’t have quite the same situation as you do downtown. Either way, news travels fast.”

“I don’t have any gossip to spread.” Kevin admitted. “Networking with the masses isn’t really my specialty.”

“Even so, how about I take you out to lunch? Get you away from the hustle and bustle of that fancy downtown office.”

“And get you some office gossip to impress your cronies down at the tanks?” Kevin asked.

“You’ve worked right next door to Evelyn Blackmon for four years. Surely you’re more of an expert on this topic than anyone down here.”

Kevin knew when he was beat, and he agreed to meet his dad at the Classic Bean on Kansas Avenue.

He had known from the moment he picked up his phone that he would probably agree to whatever his dad asked. Overly convenient lunch conversations with his nosy father were just one more reason to try to get out of Topeka.

On his way out of his office, a petite African-American woman in a peach business suit and tennis shoes beckoned him over to where she was hovering outside of the vacated office. Kevin knew her vaguely. She worked in the Communications office.

“Kevin, what’s going on?” she asked.

Kevin tried to think of her name before he replied, but gave up after a few seconds.

“You know as much as I do.” he said, hoping to discourage further conversation.

“But Evelyn had so many projects. And I heard she has grant money. What do you think they will do?” Kevin was surprised by the woman’s earnestness. Everyone else just wanted the juicy details of Evelyn’s removal. This was the first person who seemed concerned about the work that would go undone until the position was filled.

“Do you think that Communications is going to get the projects?” Kevin asked. He felt guilty asking, because this would be the kind of gossip his dad was most interested in hearing over lunch.

“My boss is seven months pregnant. She was freaking out about leaving the department unsupervised for her twelve weeks of family leave before this mess came up this morning. This will put her over the edge” the woman confided.

“Oh, man.” Kevin said, checking his watch with purpose to extricate himself. “I’ve got an appointment. Good luck with that.”

“Thanks, you too.” The woman waved as Kevin walked away. He wondered briefly what she meant. Their jobs didn’t overlap much, even though Kevin posted many of the city’s documents online, he worked for the IT department not Communications.

Kevin remembered her name just as reached the exit, and turned to find her still watching him.

“Bye, Tiana” he called, glad to have thought of her name finally. Her curious expression worried Kevin as he walked the short blocks to the sandwich shop to meet his dad.

In his four years at the city, office politics had passed him by. Hiding in his office and checking things off his task list was one of the things that made his job bearable, and made it possible to just keep showing up to work every day instead of pushing himself to figure out what he wanted to do instead. Kevin hoped that all of the attention at the office next door could bypass him completely. As much as he wanted to get his dream job outside of Topeka, he wasn’t ready to launch those dreams today.

Download and print Chapter 1 by Lissa Staley (5 page .pdf)
Keep reading! Chapter 2 by Diana Marsh

About the Author

Lissa Staley has written nine different first drafts as part of National Novel Writing Month, every November since 2003. Revision is not her strong point though, and this is her first published work of fiction.  In addition to serving as the NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison for Topeka, she also works as a Book Evangelist and Librarian at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. Contact her at lissastaley@gmail.com.