The specter of the previous week’s excitement still lingered in the office when Kevin arrived Tuesday morning. As he passed Evelyn’s office he paused to peek inside. It was less about curiosity than the simple, cubicle farm-inspired hunter/gatherer instinct: when the herd is culled, their office supplies are free for the poaching to ensure the survival of the others. Kevin remembered that Evelyn had requisitioned a new chair six months earlier. His own chair predated him and, possibly, his high school graduation. If no one else had laid claim to hers yet…
But luck wasn’t on his side. The vultures had picked Evelyn’s office clean, right down to her City-issued garbage can. There wasn’t even a paperclip left to be scavenged. “Late to the party again,” he said and shut the door before retreating to his own office.
As he sat his bag on the chair beside his desk, the weak blinking of the message light on his phone caught his attention. Five minutes to eight and he already had messages waiting? If it was his dad, mining for further rumor mill gold, he swore he would crawl under his desk and hide for the rest of the day. How much gossip could one firing cause? What did Dad expect, proof Evelyn sold City secrets to the Russians?
“I’m going to start making stuff up just to watch his head explode,” Kevin muttered as he picked up his receiver and punched in his six-digit passcode. His eyebrow curved up sharply over the dark rim of his glasses when Margaret Hallmark, the City Manager, chirped at him from the recorded message.
“Hi, Kevin, it’s Margaret. Could you please come to my office as soon as you get in?” she said in a warily chipper tone. “Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“What’s the look for?” Nora, the louder of yesterday’s pacing snoops, stood in his open doorway. Kevin recognized the look on her face – wide, expectant eyes, a suppressed smile, and a curious puppy tilt of the head. His dad wore it any time he said the ill-fated words “Well, at work today…”
The gossip-shark smelled blood in the water.
“There’s no look,” he said as he hung up the receiver and stood. Nora’s expression didn’t change and she didn’t move, either, when he took the three steps between his desk and door. “Can I get by?”
“Why? Been called upstairs?” Nora stepped aside, her smile becoming less easily suppressed. “I heard the carnage might not be over with yet. D’you think maybe you’re next?”
“Actually, I was going to go blow my nose, but thanks for the interest in my well-being and the state of the state of my sinuses.” As he passed, he muttered under his breath about finding her a nice puppy to kick if she needed a pick me up, and didn’t stick around to see if she heard him or not.
As he made his way to the elevator for the short ride to Margaret’s office, a kernel of panic started to form in the pit of his stomach. What had Nora heard to make her think his summons had something to do with getting fired? Had he done anything recently that would give management reason to want to get rid of him? He jammed his finger against the call button and reconsidered the past few weeks. His enthusiasm level had hovered somewhere around nonexistent, sure, but he finished his work, on time even, and never raised a fuss. They couldn’t fire him for lack of pep, could they?
Besides, he told himself as he stepped into the elevator and hit the button for Margaret’s floor, getting fired wouldn’t be that big of a disaster, right? Might just be the kick in the pants he needed to get out of Dodge. Listening to the jar and grind of the elevator gears, he pictured a new, happy, relocated life somewhere with an ocean view – didn’t matter which ocean – and a job that didn’t make him dread getting out of bed in the morning. Soon as Margaret finished sacking him, he’d pack up what few things he couldn’t part with and skip out of the office with a smile and a renewed sense of purpose.
He could taste the sea air already.
The elevator door dinged; Kevin stepped out of the elevator with a bounce in his step and a grin threatening on his lips. Margaret met him halfway to her office – nearly ran into him, in fact. Margaret Hallmark, on a good day, hit five foot, one inch if she wore heels instead of flats and wore the thickest, roundest glasses Kevin had ever seen. Given her eyesight and her vantage point, she usually ran into at least one person a day. Today she wore snappy red pumps that almost brought her to five foot two and a red skirt and black blouse that gave her round figure a ladybug-like quality.
“Kevin! Fantastic, I was just heading your way,” she said, staring up at him from her close proximity to his chest. “Come on back to my office.”
After five minutes of rearranging piles and notebooks to uncover a chair, Margaret gestured for Kevin to sit and dropped herself into an abused mauve and grey monstrosity that looked older than even Kevin’s prehistoric desk chair. “So,” she said, clasping her hands atop a haphazard spray of papers on her desk. “First off, let me just tell you what a fantastic job you’ve done for us up until now. How valued you are. You’ve been willing to take on tasks and responsibilities above and beyond what was listed in your PD and we’ve appreciated that so much. I have appreciated it, personally.”
Kevin felt the smile he’d tried to keep at bay widen despite his best efforts at restraint. Appreciated. Past tense. It was classic kiss-off terminology. As Margaret continued appraising his pros and ignoring his cons, he sat back and did the math: he had three weeks of unused vacation leave to convert. If he took out what he’d paid into the city retirement fund and managed to draw the maximum unemployment, he’d have enough for moving expenses and probably a down payment on a nice starter apartment. His car had enough life left in it to survive a coastal haul, but maybe just. He should look into someplace with a good public transportation system, anyway. Get rid of the car, embrace the fiscal and environmental prudence of mass transit. San Francisco, maybe. How did Seattle measure up in the public transportation department?
Kevin’s attention returned to the conversation when he noticed silence had settled over the room. Margaret watched him expectantly and he came to the startling conclusion that she’d asked him a question. What was it? What had he missed??
“I…don’t know?” It sounded like the best and most flexible answer to ping through his brain.
“Oh, of course you are!” She reached across the desk to pat his hand in a gesture that either said “there there, you’ll come out of this okay,” or “aren’t you just adorable in your modesty?” Kevin couldn’t tell which. “You’re a fast learner, I know you’ll handle the project like a rock star.”
Kevin froze, right down to the slowly deflating tips of his smile. “Project?” he said with an increasing sense of doom.
“Yes, project! The one I’ve been talking about for the last five minutes.” Margaret stood and crossed the small office. From one of the piles she’d moved previously, she extracted a two-inch three-ring binder stuffed past its own capacity. With a reverence he didn’t share, she offered the binder to him. “She’s your baby now. A little wobbly on her feet yet and not quite ready to hold her head up, but you’ll get her there.”
The cover, labeled in a precise hand, read “City Works Project 3A799-2.” Kevin opened it, dreading what he’d find. He recognized the handwriting; he also knew only one project had received approval lately – Evelyn’s. As he stared down at the title page, which proclaimed “Topeka is Awesome!” in 28 point, bright green font. His stomach dropped somewhere in the vicinity of his toes.
“Margaret, I’m not qualified for this,” he said. He kept his tone even and reasonable and calm. “I’m not a grant manager, I don’t know anything about marketing, and…”
“That’s fine! Because I’ve got every faith in you. Besides, you won’t be doing it alone.” Margaret dug through another pile and pulled out a manila folder with “Intern” scrawled across it in Evelyn’s sloping pen. “You’ve got an intern coming in to help. She should be here this afternoon, in fact. Her name is in here somewhere…”
“It’s a federal grant! They’ll want things reported. I don’t even-“
“All of that is in the notebook.” Margaret dropped the folder on top of the binder. “Deadlines, Evelyn’s original grant proposal, your intern’s application with her ideas and thoughts about the project, how they want the outcomes reported. And, of course, information on presenting a report on the project at the Public Works Conference in Los Angeles next April.”
“But I…” Kevin froze. “Did you say Los Angeles?”
“That’s the best part! At the end of the project, you’ll collect all those outcomes and goals and all the work you did and turn it into a presentation on how ‘Topeka is Awesome!’ how you transformed the image of our city and how all that federal money made it possible. Really get us on the map.” Margaret stood at his shoulder with that expectant look again. He was supposed to do something, and by the way she kept glancing at the Precious Moments clock hanging on her wall, he figured it had something to do with leaving. “I would love to discuss it more in depth, but I’ve got a staff meeting in five minutes and you have an intern arriving later you need to brief.”
“Brief? Kevin’s legs felt like lead as he rose.
“You know, give her the specs I gave you, share ideas, get her acclimated.”
“It’ll be great, just you wait. You’ve got my full support and faith, Kevin. I know you’ll do great things for us.”
Halfway down the hall Kevin’s head finally quit spinning. The counterweight holding him to terra firma was two words: Los Angeles. If he managed to make this project a success, if he pulled this off, he had the chance to escape. All he had to do was…well, pull off the impossible, he thought as he stepped into the elevator and banged his forehead into the wall above the floor buttons. He snapped his head up suddenly.
“Fine. If I have to make Topeka look awesome to get the hell out of it, that’s just what I’ll do,” he said to the closing doors and his twisted reflection in the metal. Then he sighed.
“I just don’t have the first clue how.”
Kate Sanchez stood on the curb in front of City Hall, staring up at the building through dark sunglasses and a generous helping of skepticism. It took her a minute to find the word she wanted. Ran a few through the filter in her head to try them out, then discarded them. Finally, she settled for the simplest and most obvious word to describe her general sense of being as she stood on the precipice of her new, exciting journey.
“At least that stupid mouse’s face isn’t stamped all over everything,” she muttered as she pushed the sunglasses onto the top of her head and tucked short, spikey brown hair back behind her ear. After twenty-two years living within spitting distance of Walt Disney World – or Crazy Town, as she called it – it was nice not to see the familiar, round-eared silouhette plastered on every inch of the city. Orlando had long ago sold its soul to Disney; the locals tried their best to ignore the blatant Mouse-ification. Kate had flown twelve hundred miles from home to get away from it the first chance she got. A post-graduation year in Dorothy and Toto land? Hey, it worked for her.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hotel first, ma’am?” A cabbie stood behind her with both of her suitcases in tow and her laptop bag slung over his shoulder. He looked no less put out than he had when he picked her up at the Ramada Inn, where the shuttle from the airport had dropped her off. One look at the two large suitcases, the laptop bag, and the large shoulder bag she carried and he’d frowned at her and mumbled something about a bad back and tourists over packing. There goes his tip, she thought.
Kate spun on a sandaled foot and fixed the cabbie with a glare. “I told you. They’re expecting me here. Expected me an hour ago, but the flight got delayed in Atlanta.” One chunk of midnight blue hair blew across her forehead and she attempted to force it back into place with a well-aimed puff of air from the corner of her mouth. “Don’t worry, I can take them from here.”
With a deep sigh, the cabbie dropped both suitcases and handed over the laptop bag. She handed him two tens and a five in exchange and he stared at her. “What, no tip?”
“Here’s a tip.” She hefted the strap of the laptop bag over her head and across her body, then reached for the discarded suitcases. “Yoga. Does wonders for old, out of whack backs.”
Once inside and past security, Kate pulled out her iPhone and the email the project lead had sent her with directions to the office. It didn’t look complicated when she first read it, but once inside, in the labyrinth of hallways and doors, she wished she’d asked for a little more detail. Map maybe. Interactive GPS coordinates.
“For such a small building, it’s sure a pain to get through,” she said. Around the next bend, she spotted the room number she wanted and gave a deep sigh of relief. Not to take the cabbie’s side, but the suitcases were getting a little heavy.
A departing suit with poor choice in tie colors held the door for her. She smiled her thanks, even as he stared at her tri-colored bangs. She quirked an eyebrow at him, but he ignored it in favor of a sprint to a waiting elevator. She shrugged. Maybe he objected to blue, green, and red being used together or something.
A smiling receptionist greeted her just inside the door. She, at least, attempted to be discrete as she checked out Kate’s hair. “Hi, can I help you?”
“I’m Kate Sanchez, here to see Evelyn Blackmon. I know I’m a little late, but blame Southwest Airlines. They’re the ones that couldn’t…” She trailed off as the woman’s quizzical look registered. She looked, just a bit, like she’d just spied a second head sprouting out of Kate’s shoulder. What, did she have something in her teeth? “Is something wrong?”
“Just…wait right here, please.” The receptionist rose slowly, calmly rounded her desk, and then speed-walked down the corridor toward some unseen destination. In her wake, Kate saw heads pop up over cubicle walls or around corners. Whispers she couldn’t make out passed between neighbors in the blue upholstered cube farm. When one woman stared a little too long and with a little too much interest, Kate grinned and waved. The woman, once noticed, ducked back inside her cube.
“Either nobody in Kansas dyes their hair or they’re all loco,” she said as she leaned the heavier of the two suitcases against the receptionist’s desk.
Five minutes later, the receptionist emerged with a lanky blond in office-issue khakis and Buddy Holly frames slouching along behind her. The guy reminded Kate of a seventh grader being led to the principal’s office and looked about as enthusiastic. And definitely did not look like Evelyn Blackmon.
“Miss Sanchez? I’m Kevin Emile. Would you care to-“
“Is there a problem? Did Miss Blackmon forget I was arriving today or something?”
Kevin rubbed a hand over the back of his neck and shot the gophering heads behind him a look. “See, Miss Blackmon isn’t…the thing is…”
“She got canned.” The receptionist offered the explanation with a grin. “Yesterday.”
Kate blinked. Kevin looked away, nervous or embarrassed or some mix of both that lacked a proper adjective to describe. Kate had a sinking feeling he had drawn the short straw during that five minute wait and “won” the opportunity to tell her the bad news.
She felt sick. “Does that mean I don’t have a job? I mean, if someone had called and told me this yesterday I could’ve saved myself the cost of a plane ticket. Shuttle. Cab. Three hours of my life in the Atlanta airport I’ll never get back…”
“No! No, no, no, that’s not…You still have a job. Your job is fine.” He stopped the nervous rubbing and ran his hand through his hair instead. Then his voice dropped and he leaned forward. “Can we move this conversation elsewhere? I don’t like feeding the sharks.”
“Gossips.” His head inclined incrementally toward the receptionist. Kate nodded.
“Right, gotcha. Well, why don’t you show me my office? Then I can at least put this stuff down for a bit before my arms stretch to my ankles.”
Kevin’s hand shot back through his hair again. Kate had a feeling he’d be bald before he hit thirty if he kept it up. “Office?”
“You’re a little new at this, huh?”
At least this time, Kevin laughed. “You have no idea.”
About the Author
Diana Marsh spends her days as an administrative assistant with the State of Kansas, and her nights plotting the torment and agony of fictional characters. She has put the latter skill to use as a participant of National Novel Writing Month since 2003, an activity that has given her nearly ten years of fun and five completed novels. If only that one pesky first draft from 2010 would end.