“Fired,” by Andrea Harsma

It’s raining. It doesn’t always rain, contrary to what some people think, but it is common. The clouds hang low in the sky. The Space Needle’s light isn’t visible, but neither is much else. Traffic crawls by on the 405. It has been said that every freeway called the 405 is at a standstill all the time, and that is probably true.

Umbrellas are everywhere. Some malls have public-use umbrellas at their entrances and exits. They aren’t generally stolen; people are too nice for that. Really, other than the snobbery, most people in Washington – state, not D.C. – are very nice. Granted, there are some ghettos in the state, but it just doesn’t seem as bad as places on the news. It’s almost as if the Pacific Northwest is isolated from the rest of the country.

The building, like most in the city, is nondescript. It’s tall, concrete, with many stories. Two people, a man and a woman, exit the front doors and walk down the stone steps. Both hold umbrellas, extended, that cover their faces and shield them from the rain. Their walk is nearly synchronized as they reach the bottom of the stairs and turn right. As they continue down the street, a third umbrella-toting figure comes out of an alley alongside the building and walks the opposite direction, posture slouched as he trudges along. The pair in tailored suits walks with a purpose, not talking, not caring to avoid the puddles. When they are a block away, the seventh floor windows of the building they left explode outward in a fiery shower of glass shards.

***

Bellevue was for rich kids. No, really. He was pretty sure if he tried to come downtown for anything but work, he’d be “asked” to leave. He couldn’t count the number of Lincolns or 5- and 7- series BMWs that rolled by pedestrians in perfectly tailored suits that cost almost his whole month’s pay.

Reuben hated suits – he’d hated them as a child, when he’d had to dress up for church, and he hated them now. The tie was like a noose around his neck, ever tightening. He leaned back in his chair, surveying the view before him. It really wasn’t bad; his seventh story office had huge picture windows that overlooked half of downtown Bellevue. Well, it did from an angle, if you leaned back far enough, as he was. Older buildings like the one that housed his office were closer to the outskirts of downtown; central Bellevue had been undergoing a facelift for the past decade and now boasted a variety of newer office buildings with modern designs. The rent in them was astronomical, though, even for downtown. The rain pelted against the glass, again, like most days. Reuben had learned to accept the rain, even though he didn’t care for it. It was as inevitable as the traffic that accompanied it all the way back across the I-90 bridge to his dingy apartment in Tukwila.

God, even the name was awful.

He glanced at the clock. Another hour, and this would all change. Maybe not the traffic that even now inched by on the streets below, but the rest of it.

He moved his hand to check his watch, then stopped. It wouldn’t do to look anxious. Instead, he slowly turned his seat to face his desk again and pretended to be very focused on cross-referencing something in the database with a client file. They hadn’t gone paperless yet, and this would work to their advantage.

He’d miss his desk most: a lovely, L-shaped mahogany wood, made to look handcrafted, that probably weighed more than a baby elephant. It was his favourite thing in the office, and the only thing that he’d ever really felt was his.

***

“Sam” got her interviews where “Samantha” did not. She knew – she’d applied as both, staggering application and resume submissions. As a child, she’d wanted to grow up to rule the world – or at least a multinational corporation with underlings to do her bidding. She’d found school easy, but boring. The boys hadn’t been particularly impressed by her dreams to have it all, and her teachers had given her a condescending smile and suggested she devise back up plans.

It took her years, most of her life to date, to discover that no one wanted her to be in charge because she was a girl. Over time, she’d learned to adjust her habits and word choices accordingly. She learned to cater to their egos, letting them think her suggestions were their ideas, and dressing more feminine on occasion to downplay the effects of her authoritative tendencies. She still wore pantsuits, but had invested in some skirt suits as well at her mother’s insistence. Her mother had long ago advised her to “play the game,” and it had taken Sam several years to understand what that really meant.

She blended in now: short trendy haircut with highlights, tailored suits, trim figure from spending her nights working off the frustration of dealing with them. Ugh. Men. Reuben was the same as everyone else. She let him think he was in charge – just like those before him. If they thought they were in charge and that everything was their idea, they became incredibly easy to manipulate. Reuben had been easy pickings; his power trip tendencies were easily exploited by mention of an overheard plan to replace him. Whether that conversation had ever actually happened wasn’t important; it gave her the out she needed to start over. Maybe the next company would be smart enough to see her potential and give her the position she deserved.

***

Edgar was nervous. He couldn’t help it. He was always nervous. His palms would get sweaty at the first mention of deadlines or crunch times. That was why he’d dropped out. He never told his parents; they’d have been devastated. Better to let them think it was the economy’s fault that he wasn’t doing anything with his degree…the degree he never got. Thankfully, he’d had Reuben.

Edgar and Reuben had met in college; they’d been in several of the same classes, and both sat in the back of the room, though for different reasons. Edgar sat in the back to keep his stress levels lower because no one would call on him in the back. Reuben wanted to screw off all the time, sleeping in class or trying to hit on the girls that sat too close. He’d thought himself one of the “cool kids” as though that didn’t die out in high school.

They’d kept in contact, though Edgar never knew why. It had saved him though when he’d found himself jobless and quickly running out of options to pay for a roof over his head. DSHS didn’t care for single, childless men like it did single mothers. Reuben had put in a good word for Edgar with the building manager, which was how he’d gotten the job in the first place. “Facilities Manager,” like it wasn’t the messy, god-awful job it’d always been when people called it “janitor.” At least there had been some honesty once.

Now, it was all layers. Layers of political correctness and fluffing covered everything. Reuben and Sam were right; he was underpaid. If he quit, he would be ineligible for unemployment. It would be so much easier if work just didn’t exist anymore.

***

The worst they’d be hit with would be negligence, but he had a feeling it’d really only be Edgar. Reuben wouldn’t be quite so willing to go through with it otherwise. Thankfully the building was the sort to have the anti-suicide windows, ones that didn’t open and were just there for decoration and to see the outside world but never touch it, which only served to add to the feeling of being trapped. Those windows would factor in nicely.

They’d planned carefully, allowing for even those that might be in the office late to have left. The one rule had been no deaths. They didn’t need that on their hands, didn’t want anyone looking too hard because they had a death to investigate.

Reuben had been very angry when he’d first caught wind of the home office’s plans to remove him from his post as boss of their local franchise. They didn’t know he knew, of course. He’d put so much of his own time and livelihood into this crappy job, to little end. He hated the politics of these rich people determined to cut everyone off at the knees in order to save themselves a few bucks. Selfish bastards. He’d show them, and they’d never know.

***

Edgar tapped his fingers on his janitor uniform’s khaki pants as he leaned against the wall in the supply room. It was a bit bigger than a standard janitor’s closet, but that was because the building had so much space to clean that they needed tons more space to hold all the stuff for it. He glanced at the clock on the wall, then at his watch, trying to gauge how accurate the wall clock was. He waited impatiently, expecting someone to walk through the door and ask him why he wasn’t working. Couldn’t waste even a few minutes of their time, after all. Time is money, and all that.

A minute later – he knew, he’d been watching the clocks – the door did open, but it wasn’t his supervisor. Sam poked her head in and eyed him expectantly.

“What’s wrong?” Edgar tensed immediately, heart pounding, eyes flicking over her shoulder to see if he could spot anything out of place.

“Are you ready?” Sam brushed a speck of lint off the shoulder of her tailored blazer as though the speck was his question.

“Yeah. Yes. We have thirteen minutes by my watch, but it’s more like twelve by the wall clock. Twelve and a half, maybe.” He glanced at his watch again, then at the clock on the wall. Sam blew out a breath, ruffling her bangs.

“Great. Don’t screw it up.” She turned, began to pull the door shut behind her.

“Sam?”

“What?” Her voice, like her movements, was impatient, clipped. Edgar recoiled slightly, took a breath.

“Are you…sure?”

She hesitated for just a moment before her face twisted into a smirk, eyes raking over his janitor’s cart.

“Oh, yes.” She shut the door behind her, leaving him alone in the room once more. He glanced down at the cart, at all of the bottles of fluids with warnings plastered on the labels.

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