In the weeks since my orientation with the indomitable Mr. Mullens, I had graduated from college and moved out of my parents’ house to an apartment just a few miles from the Standard Ink office. I had spent most of the holidays sitting on the floor of my sparsely-furnished living room playing video games and eating whatever I wanted, which consisted mostly of Cheetohs and Mountain Dew. Mullens had given me a thick volume on company policies and procedures before I had left the orientation, but I barely picked it up during the intervening weeks because there was too much going on, namely playing Red Dead Redemption 2.
When my first day at Standard Ink arrived a day after I welcomed a new year by playing video games for 18 hours straight, I struggled to get up on time. During my five years of college, I had purposefully scheduled my classes for late morning or the afternoon to avoid getting up early. I’m not a morning person. Nevertheless, I staggered out of bed with just 45 minutes to get ready and make the ten-minute drive to the office. I downed a couple of cold slices of pizza left over from New Year’s Eve and some Mountain Dew before I showered and threw on my suit, which really needed a good press.
My drive to the office was only a few miles, and at any other time of the day would only take ten minutes, but the moment I nudged my car onto the main street toward downtown I met a long line of commuters edging their way down the street one car length at a time. It took ten minutes for me to get to the pizza joint down the street from my apartment, the same one I had walked to on New Year’s Eve for a late-night snack. By the time I pulled into the long line to get into the parking garage it was already 9:30 AM. Surely Mullens would understand I had misjudged traffic on my first day and give me a reprieve for being over 30 minutes late on my first day. Or maybe not.
I wasn’t the only one who was late. I stepped onto an elevator filled with grim-faced people in the parking garage and followed the flow of unhappy people into the office building like a school of spawning fish swimming toward our imminent demise. No one talked in the elevator on the way up to the 15th floor. Everyone just stared straight ahead or looked at the tiny screen on one side of the elevator that evidently played Standard Ink’s greatest hits from the 1950s. I was sure nothing good had happened at the company since then, but hey, it was a paycheck, and I had proven my dad wrong about my being capable of making it on my own.
The elevator spat me out on the 15th floor with a slew of others who quickly disappeared behind the door next to the receptionist’s desk. I stopped before the desk and waited for the rotund woman with the headset to get off the phone.
“May I help you?” she barked once she ended her call.
“I’m Travis Potter. It’s my first day.”
She didn’t seem impressed or the least bit interested. “Please have a seat,” she said nodding to my left. I looked at the tired chairs next to her desk, which sagged under a faded floral print several decades past its prime. They felt about as comfortable as they looked when I sat down.
I had barely relaxed in the rigid chair when a terminally old man trudged through the door next to the receptionist’s desk. His head slowly swiveled across the room until his eyes met mine.
“Potter?” he asked in a gruff, abrupt voice.
“Yes.” I stood up and smiled at him, but he didn’t return the favor. I stepped toward him and extended my hand.
He looked at my hand and then back at me. “You’re late.”
“I’m sorry. I misjudged traffic.”
“We expect our employees to be at their desks at 9 AM every day. That’s stated very clearly in the policies and procedures manual. Did you get the manual at your orientation?”
I thought of the thick notebook sitting on the bar at my apartment where I had placed it the day I moved in. I hadn’t moved it since then. I had briefly looked at the first page of the manual in the elevator on the way out on the day of my orientation, but the densely worded pages had discouraged me from opening it again. It felt like that time my literature teacher had assigned Beowulf. I never read that either.
“I did, but I haven’t finished reading it.”
“Hmm, the attendance policy is in the first chapter.” His eyebrows arched and his eyes narrowed at me. He knew I was lying.
“I’m sorry, it’s been a busy few weeks. I graduated, moved into a new apartment, and then the holidays happened. I’ll read it this week.” I scrambled to regain his confidence, but his facial expression remained the same, gruff and uninterested.
He considered me for a moment before he stepped back and opened the door. He pointed his hand toward the opening. “After you.”
I walked through the door and stopped. He walked past me and I followed him like a student going to the principal’s office. “My name is Mr. Smith. I am your supervisor.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said to the back of his head as I walked behind him. We came to the end of the hallway and the floor opened up into a sea of cubes similar to the floor that I had been on for my orientation. The big difference was that this floor had people on it. As we walked down the corridor every cube had a person bent over an old monitor with a headset on talking quietly. The chatter rose and melded into a mere vibration across the low ceiling. I could only make out a few muttered words as we passed each inhabited cube.
Finally, Smith came to an abrupt stop at the end of one row of cubes and turned to face me. “This is your office.” He impatiently pointed me to the desk.
“You’re in luck today Potter. I’m in a generous mood, but going forward, you have to sign onto your computer by 9 AM every day. Today doesn’t count, but you get three late sign-ins and you’re fired.” He paused and looked at me, no through me. “Do you understand?”
“Yes. It won’t happen again.”
“It better not. This is the real world Potter. College is over. This is your life from now on.”
I smiled to try and lighten the mood, but Smith didn’t alter his mood in the least. “I understand.”
“I’ll let your trainer know that you finally obliged us with your presence.” He huffed as he walked away as if his annoyance wasn’t obvious enough. I put my bag on the floor next to my desk and sat down in the creaky, old chair, which tilted slightly to one side.
My cube looked like a yard sale from the late 1990s with a bulky monitor and an over-sized mouse and keyboard tethered to the boxy computer that sat under the monitor. It reminded me of some of the junk my dad kept in the basement, relics from the bygone days of his home office. I tapped the bulbous keys on the keyboard and they clicked loudly. I wanted to laugh because I felt like I was in a time warp, but mostly, I wanted to run from the building screaming because this nightmare was my reality now.
“Travis?” a feminine voice said behind me. I wheeled around in the chair to see Julie White standing at the entrance to my cube. All of my dread evaporated in her presence.
“Julie? I wondered if I’d see you here.”
She smiled, and appeared relieved that I remembered her. “Well, you’ll be seeing a lot of me this week. I’m here to get you trained.”
This excited me beyond any remorse I had about working in this dreadful, dying company. “Great! I can’t wait to get started.”
Her smile broadened revealing more of her perfect, white teeth. She had her long hair pulled back in a tight ponytail that really exposed her face. She had a soft, youthful face and piercing brown eyes that sparkled despite the dull fluorescent lights overhead. When I stood up from the chair, I was a good foot taller than she was. She looked up at me, and I felt my heart flutter. She was the only reason I was here. Why else would I subject myself to this misery.
“Do you want to grab some coffee before we get started?”
“Okay, I’ll give you a tour as we go.” She looked up at me and smiled again. I wanted to say something smart, but my thoughts tripped over each other in my head. I just smiled back at her.
She stepped out into the corridor and I followed her. She wore a white blouse and form-fitting black skirt that highlighted her taut figure. Fireworks popped in my chest when I caught the scent of her perfume, which rippled in her wake like a soft, summer breeze. She pointed out things as we walked down the corridor. I couldn’t recall anything of import she called out, but by the time we reached the tiny break room at the end of the floor, I knew I was in love.