The Party

Joe stood at the edge of the curb in anticipation of the cars arrival. He was heading to the yearly office party and the guys in charge allocated each employee a ride pass for a free round trip autocar. Not that this was his first time in one, he had taken a handful of them within the city rings but never one from all the way out at his apartment. He checked his phone for the little car icon to update, it was nearly there. The wind was getting cooler, not quite spring so nights required a jacket still. It had been a hectic day at work, one of the server arrays failed and they had to hurry to establish a backup only a couple of hours before they left for the day. Everyone in the office was looking forward to the event. Sure they had Christmas parties and all, but management felt that quarterly holidays proved beneficial to morale. His phone buzzed and a white Chevy rolled up to the public entrance of his apartment complex. Joe tapped his watch to the door and it unlocked, allowing him inside.

The heat had already been turned on and the music from his phone synced to the car. Joe took a moment to adjust his socks after locking his seat-belt in place. While at the office he could wear jeans and a t-shirt, but for public outings like this the boss put in a dress code of slacks and a button down shirt. The girls in the office always wore fancy little cocktail dresses, he couldn’t’ tell them apart from a more formal dress. Joe checked the map on the dash to ensure the car was taking him to the correct place. His office had chosen a somewhat upscale bar and diner combo that was a favorite of the upper management on the weekends. He figured they had worked out a deal after having had so many after work drinks there that they could get the cover charge down enough to let the whole office in under budget. Typically a place like this charged about one hundred dollars for the cover and then food and drinks were on top of that. For the event however, the company was paying for everything. They had received good marks with the business bureau and a tax break the previous year giving them extra cash to spend. Luckily for Joe, the CEO was a bit of an eccentric man who had grown up well off but not as much as his peers so he would always jump at the chance to spend on the employees before investing it back into the company or management. None of the employees complained about having a minimum bonus each year when they got free tickets to movies, food vouchers, and fancy toys in the office.

As the car made its way into the rings of the city, and past the usual buildings he visited he couldn’t’ help but watch in awe as shops became fancier and the people walking around grew more refined. People wealthy enough for dog permits walking their pets, folks younger than him and better dressed, and restaurants he couldn’t pronounce. Soon the autocar came to a stop and parked itself on a nearby street. The bar he was headed to was just around the corner but didn’t offer any parking whatsoever. People wealthy enough to go to it just had their cars drop them off and go park elsewhere. He got out of the autocar and headed around the corner of the square. The building to his right was some sort of apartment building, or hotel, he couldn’t tell which. One of his co workers waved to him, calling out his name as he turned the corner.

“It’s over here Joe! Come get in line!” They shouted.

Joe briskly walked to the end of the street where the line of his office mates was forming along the side wall. Each one had to be fitted with a wristband for the evening to give them access to all the floors and free food. Everyone was allowed four drinks for free, anything after that had to come out of their own pocket. Joe didn’t think he would need more than four drinks having not eaten much for lunch that day. The security team at the front doors was fairly efficient with the wristbands, checking ids against a tablet with everyone’s name on it. Once inside the room was surprisingly warm, and a coat check stand was positioned to the left of him. He decided to leave his jacket there rather than carry it around the rest of the night. His boss was already there making sure she had her keys in her purse. She had brought her husband along, each employee was allowed a plus one to any event, but Joe hadn’t been actively dating anyone in particular in the last month or so. Plus, he figured he might have a chance to chat with one of the girls from sales he had been looking for an excuse to talk to. Being a data clerk didn’t give him much of an opportunity to go upstairs to the sales floor.

The bottom floor of the bar was more of a lobby, complete with a large lounge area and various service kiosks. Rather than waitstaff having to hunt you down for food and drinks you simply ordered downstairs and it sent you up to a table on one of the upper floors. Due to the private event each employee was given instructions to simply bypass the kiosks and head straight to the fourth floor. Joe waited in the lobby for a couple of his co workers to arrive before going upstairs with everyone else. Charley, his deskmate was running late because his wife got off work late, Tabitha and Kyle who sat across the isle from him were already there and had been upstairs to get drinks.

“Hey Joe you made it! You should see what they have upstairs, come on.” Tabitha said, hooking her arm around his.

“I told Charley I’d wait for him.” He said, tapping at his phone. “You guys go on back up, he’s almost here.”

“Alright man, see you up there in a bit.” Kyle said, leading Tabitha back over to the elevators.

Charley and his wife soon entered the doors and met up with him. “Hey man, you got that array working before you left right?”

“Yeah yeah, I wasn’t going to leave till it was back up.”

“Oh good, ok.” Charley said, “Now I can enjoy all this.” He then looked over at his wife. “Oh I’m sorry, Joe this is my wife Meagan.” He said motioning to the woman beside him. She waved shyly as Joe returned the greeting. “Drinks are upstairs right?”

“Yeah that’s what Kyle said.” Joe said leading them over to the bronze coated elevators. The entire interior of the bar was decked out in dark green carpeting, brass fixtures, and creamy white lighting. If it wasn’t real art deco it was sure trying its best.

Upstairs they were met by the majority of the office, all enjoying cocktails and snacks. Dinner was to be served in a little over an hour and Joe didn’t want to fill up on junk, someone in reception told him that there was going to be meat at the event and he wanted to be able to eat every bite of it. He was soon approached by a waitress carrying an empty drink tray.

“Can I get you anything to drink?” She asked.  the question caught him off guard, it had been a while since Joe had been to a place that even had waitstaff like this. He fumbled for an answer as he frantically took out his phone to look at a menu. The girl smiled. “You can take your time, just come over to the bar area when you’re ready.” She said. Joe looked over to the bar area she was pointing to and noticed a small line of people waiting to order drinks. Since it was a private party they had to do everything manually. Joe walked over to the setup counter to order a beer, which should have been simple enough had the options been what he was used to drinking. Every beer on tap was from a microbrewery in the central rings of the city. Some had fancy German or Czech names to make them sound more authentic. Others were more modern, with understandable names but still no clue what the would taste like. The Bartender got to him and asked him what he wanted.

“I’d like a beer, but I’m not sure which one.” Joe said. The bartenders eyes lit up as he proceeded to give a micro lecture on each one available. In the end he went with the kölsch, making his decision with a standard “Yeah, that one.” answer. The bartender pulled him a pint and handed it over. By the time he made it back to the lounge area the VP of something he wasn’t a part of called for everyone’s attention on the small PA system. He began his speech with the typical thanks and congratulations. The company had increased growth by a large percent thanks to the sales team who all received applause.  A few stand out employees who had been promoted earlier in the year each received special awards from their higher respective bosses. A few other managers and such gave small speeches, followed by the CEO whom everyone cheered at knowing that the food was going to be brought out after he was done. Joe had finished his beer by the time the speech was over. The CEO thanked everyone again for coming and asked everyone to head to the dining tables provided to start dinner.

The table seating was all pre arranged. Joe found his seat via the chart emailed to them earlier in the day. He was beside Tabitha and Kyle, who were now several drinks into the event. A buffet line was starting on the other end of the banquet area, Joe sat his beer glass down at his seat and took his empty plate to stand in line. The food offered that night was a series of various salads, veggies, and bread but the main prize of the evening was at the very end of the line. A single member of the kitchen staff stood at the end of the table handing out each person four small pies stuffed with real beef. The line moved quickly enough, and before long he was back at his seat at the table with everyone else. He had picked up mostly mashed potatoes, gravy, and two kinds of beans, but left more than enough room for the pies to not touch anything else on the plate.

It wasn’t that meat was rare, it could be bought at nearly any grocery store these days. But the price for it was astronomical. Having a steak for dinner would cost you easily two hundred dollars for the most basic sirloin. There were, of course, ways of getting the tax reduced on it to the true cost but that involved being a student or having a government job. Joe could afford the odd steak dinner or two a year, so having free meat pies at a work event was a treat. A waitress came by and brought everyone water and took more drink orders. Joe ordered a whiskey shortly before devouring the savory meat pies. As he ate he noticed one of the sales girls walking past. He recognized her green dress from the awards speeches earlier, and watched as she made her way to the table of other sales workers, sitting down beside a guy he could only assume was her date. Joe didn’t recognize him from work, unless they had just recently hired someone. Tabitha and Kyle were having an excruciatingly loud conversation beside him about their odd trips to airports. Loud music had been playing since the dinner service began and now that folks were finishing up, the dance floor was beginning to populate.

Joe typically left once the dancing started. He would make his appearance, eat his meal and shake hands with the bosses in thanks for the evening. Getting up from the table he headed to the bathroom to get ready to leave and call over his autocar. The bathroom area was located towards a balcony with outdoor seating and a smoking area connected to the building next door via a long outdoor corridor. Joe made a quick trip to the bathroom and walked out to the balcony to escape the noise and heat of the party inside. He pulled out his phone to signal the car to show up. A notification popped up with a fifteen minute eta for the vehicle. Joe looked out at the city from the balcony, it was dark now and the lights from the buildings at ground level reflected off the brushed metal surfaces around the alleyway below. The street below was immaculate, and recently paved. The glass windows around him were all freshly cleaned. Joe took out his nic pod and took a full pulls from it leaning on the balcony railing.

He felt a tapping on his shoulder. Joe turned around to see what he expected to be someone telling him not to vape on the balcony. It was the girl in the green dress. Her eyes were red and her cheeks puffy as thought she had been crying.

“Hey do you have a spare?” She asked him, holding up her own empty nic pod.

Joe stood up and rooted through his pockets frantically trying to find the spare pod he knew was in his slacks. “Yeah Yeah, is maple ok?” He asked, retrieving the pod from his side pocket and handing it to her. She thanked him, and placed the pod in her device. “You ok?” He asked.

The girl shook her head, exhaling the maple scented vapor. “It’s nothing, just need to take a break, yeah?”  She said, and stood beside him by the railing.

Joe nodded and  watched as the wind blew her hair behind her neck, the lights from the city reflecting in the waves. It probably wasn’t as grand as he imagined it but after a few drinks. “Sorry, I’m Joe.” He said, catching himself staring. “I’m downstairs in data security. Congrats on the sales award.”

“Yeah, well I might not be there Monday.” She said, tapping the up button on her mod and taking another pull.

“They’re gonna fire you after all that?” He asked.

She shook her head, “The reason I won that award just broke up with me about ten minutes ago. Don’t cheat on people Joe, they’ll eventually find out and call you out on it in front of everyone the second they stop clapping for you.” She said, scrolling through her phone and typing something into it. Joe’s phone buzzed, a notification ran up saying he had been sent $15, reason: nic pod. “These are good where did you order them?” She asked.

Joe figured she was trying to shake off the subject of her wrongdoing and proceeded to tell her of the shop he got them from in the outer ring. Before he could finish his explanation of the shop his phone pinged him. “My ride will be here in a minute, I’ve gotta go.”

The Snowstorm

The notifications on his phone had been going off since before he left the apartment that morning. A blizzard was scheduled to hit the city later that evening and alerts had been sent out well in advance to keep people off the roads where all possible. Local schools and the university had closed down, as well as most restaurants and shops. The grocery stores put out social media updates about closing at noon the day before which lead to long lines and a huge swarm of delivery drivers out on the roads that morning. Joe passed many easily recognizable delivery cars as he made his way on the almost empty highway. The morning radio talked about the ice and snow storm as well. Not that it affected them personally, given they probably lived inside the city and could walk home after work or take the insanely expensive subway to their high rise condos. Many public figures and folks who worked for the government qualified to live inside the city like that. Joe even applied for a teaching certification back in college but failed to meet the unknown criteria for acceptance.

Joe soon arrived at the office parking garage, it was nearly half full seeing as most of his office had to come in that morning to ensure backups and security had been set up properly. With storms like this the office could be unreachable for a week as the snow would reach the sixth floor or higher. The city itself was fairly self contained and had tunnels and such to reach the subways but since they were for government employees, active/veteran military, or the extremely wealthy the majority of people would be stuck where they were outside the city center. Joe had asked his boss if he could work remotely since his apartments were so far from town, to which he was given the instruction to come in earlier should he need to leave earlier.

The storm was scheduled to arrive between three and six in the evening. Joe normally got off work at six. He had received several emails from the office building warning folks coming in today that the downstairs cafe and reception would not be coming in so be sure to bring your own lunch and don’t forget any security cards for your floor. There would only be light security on the grounds that day and none of them were the type willing to get you a temporary id card. Joe reached the bottom floor lobby, several paper notes were taped to the glass doors, warning visitors that the doors would be closing at 3pm. Joe walked in with his full backpack, and coffee thermos.

He had once been stuck at the office in a storm at his old job. A storm had hit earlier than expected and he had to stay two nights in a row until they could burrow out the rear doors so they could leave. So this time he came prepared with his camping backpack complete with bed roll, and electric stove. Last time he was stuck eating cereal bars and whatever folks left in the office fridge the day before. Joe came prepared for this disaster knowing his boss could ask him to stay as late as the upper management who could just take the subway home.

The office was in a mad rush at a time of day they would normally be taking their time, having a coffee or breakfast while checking email. Interns were physically running down the halls while on two phones getting things together. IT was making its rounds with home-approved laptops for everyone who needed one. Joe’s boss was pacing the floor by his desk. She needed him to go through the server clusters he was in charge of and make sure all the tickets were finished for them before noon. Most of the lower staff and interns were leaving at lunch so they could make it back home before the storm, as they lived up to two hours away from the office. Any work done after noon was going to be done yourself so they were being run rampant at 8am that morning getting small tasks done for everyone in the office. Joe sat down at his station and plugged in his laptop to the office LAN. The nature of the data they were dealing with meant he couldn’t access his work on the servers outside the office. He could only monitor the servers and move public files around for users. Most of his job this morning was going to be ensuring his current builds were working well enough to be remotely monitored from his apartment for a few days. If he worked quickly enough he could leave early but it had to be approved by his boss first.

The problem was Joe had recently implemented a brand new set of operations for a series of server arrays he maintained only a few days ago and it was giving him trouble. The client was constantly on the phone with him about missing data or data that should have been accessible showing up as read only. It had given him a headache the previous week and now whatever bug that was causing it had to be eliminated in only four hours. He wasn’t the only one in the weeds, most of the office was in a frenzy of clacking keyboards and mad dashes across the building to wrap up any loose ends.

A coffee trolley made the rounds of the building offering free energy drinks and coffee for anyone who needed it. That intern would also be gone after lunch so some people stocked up on their red bull’s for later. Joe grabbed two of the blueberry flavored ones, fearing he would be stuck at work for two days in a cold office. His boss came by to check on his progress.

“You get that kink worked out yet, Joe?”

“Almost, I think.” He said, pulling out one of his earphones to hear her.

“Counting on it.” She said, before no more than three interns rushed her for questions from other departments.

“I’ll be back in an hour Joe, we need that sever working before lunch.” She said, the small crowd following her around with tablets, begging her for answers to questions they didn’t exactly understand how to ask. She spent most of her time going to the office that sent the kid in the first place to see what they really needed.

The problem with this new office was that Joe was still relatively new to the job. It was nearly the same work he had done before but the admins over in the server floor weren’t friends with him the way the others were at his old place. He used to be able to just wander downstairs to ask his buddy the best way to go about bypassing something and they’d tell him or give him tips on the way they had set up everything to make his job more efficient. Not here, not yet anyway. He had only been downstairs to the server admins offices a handful of times and most of them were to ask basic questions like, login keys and other sensitive information he couldn’t ask through a ticket or on the phone. These server admins were hardcore. His boss told him one of the guys helped write part of some open source operating system, and another went to MIT after bypassing the demographics laws. Joe figured those were all stories told to his boss by someone else to scare everyone. Why else would guys like that be working in a mid range data storage company? But when he finally got down to meet them, he thought perhaps there was some truth to it. His old job had a team of server admins with their own peons to assist them. Ten of them total, he remembered. This new place had only these two guys and it was a bigger company. If you wanted any information from as server they were the only ones with clearance or the ability to get it to you. After three hours of getting nowhere with his code throwing him authentication errors right and left, he finally gave in and wandered downstairs to ask them what to do. Perhaps it was something as simple as a wrong port setting or a number out of place.

Joe cracked the tab on his blueberry redbull and made his way to the elevator. His watch constantly vibrating with weather alerts and news notifications. Apparently the storm was moving in faster than expected. “I’m gonna be stuck here for a week.” He thought to himself. The elevator doors opened and he walked into the security station. The attendant looked as thought he was asleep in his chair, but perked up at the sight of someone who he could scan into the area.

“Hey there, got your card?”

Joe held out his ID card and the man photographed it, a light turned green above the doorway and several locks could be heard disengaging.

“Reason for visit?” He asked.

“I need to ask the admins a few questions.” Joe said.

“Good enough for me.” The security guard said, and opened the door for him.

The inside of the server room was incredibly cold, rows and rows of servers were stacked within inches of each other all humming away. Heat was piped out through metal lines that ran to the roof of the building, an incredibly expensive endeavor. Joe walked through the claustrophobic hallway of computers to a rear office where the admins held up shop. He peered through the safety glass window and pressed what appeared to be a handmade button wired from the inside.

“Yeah what do you need Joe?” A voice asked from the other side of the door.

“Hey guys, I’m getting those authentication errors on the 723 array again.”

A loud buzzing sound went off and the door to the office opened up. The two admins were sitting on either side of a long illuminated desk. The lights were off in the room, which was lit mostly by computer screens, a couple of lamps and diode arrays under the table. On the left end of the table was a rail thin man wearing a full over ear vintage style headset, his face glued to the screen as Joe assumed he was working on something important. The admin on the right end of the table was only slightly thicker, as to the point his cheekbones didn’t stick out as far. He had longer hair pulled back in a thin ponytail and a ragged t-shirt that sported an incredibly old Haskell logo. This one actually looked over at Joe and asked to see his laptop. Joe handed it to him, and watched as the guy placed it carefully in his lap, scrawled a handful of lines into the text editor and handed it back to him.

“There that should do it.” he said, and got back to what was apparently a videogame he and the other admin were playing.

Joe couldn’t believe that the guy had fixed it that quickly, given he hadn’t even told him what the problem exactly was. Joe cleared a spot on their long desk and placed his laptop down, pushing aside various project boxes, broken computer parts, cables, and energy drink cans. He looked over what the admin had typed in and attempted to compile it. The admin smiled, “Don’t worry, it works.” Joe shook his head in amazement as he watched the troublesome code come back with a perfect wall of green and white text.

“But I didn’t tell you what was wrong.”

The admin pointed to another screen along the back wall, one that was scrolling through hundreds of lines of grey text. “Your ID has been pinging the 723 array for three days, if it weren’t one of our ID’s id have thought someone was wrong.”

Joe looked at the screen carefully, “So you can see whenever I do anything to it?”

“Nothing goes in or out of here that we aren’t logging. So don’t even try to mess with it from home, you hear?

He nodded and thanked the two of them before turning to the door to leave. The admin on the other end of the table chimed in, “You should go home now man, you won’t make it in time if you don’t.” Joe nodded and left the room, assuming the admins had also logged where he lived, where he parked, and what time he went to the bathroom every day. When he got back to the elevator he looked out the window to see chunks of snow falling from the sky. His phone went off before the doors opened to his office floor. It was his boss, “Go home Joe, whatever it is can wait.” That was all the confirmation he needed to grab his bag and turn his laptop over to IT before cramming into the elevators again with everyone else trying to leave. The parking garage was a mess of people trying to get out as quickly as possible.

Trucks had spent the night salting the roads and plows were already going through the streets but the snow fell at an alarming rate. Caravans of cars were being set up to follow a plow car down the highway in sets of about twenty. Joe finally wormed his way into one of the caravans via a series of flags and signs set up just for this weather. As the caravan of cars slowly made their way down the roads into the more open areas further from the town Joe could see the sidewalks filling with snow, bicycle handlebars popping up from the tops of the tiny white mountains. People outside had long gone home before it got to this point and only the last minute workers like him were stuck trying to evacuate. Not long outside the city’s outermost ring the snow had not quite caught up and the roads were more clear. The plows pulled off to the sides of the road and let the cars race out into the open highway. Joe made it back to his apartment in record time, managing to get his car parked and almost up the stairs before the same snow he saw from the office window started to fall outside his door.

The Layoff

It was a cool summer morning when Joe walked into the office. His buddy in HR had tipped him off about the layoffs the night before so it was no surprise when he saw his boss standing at his desk, casually sipping a cup of coffee. She walked towards him before he could even get near the chair.

“Joe, Joe, Joe.” She said, way too happily for the hour. “I’m gonna need to see you follow me down to HR.”

He nodded, and walked beside her down the hallway. She went on about how sorry she was for having to let im go, trying to make the blow less severe by naming a handful of his other coworkers who were also in the meeting room they were headed to. There had been some shuffling of management in the last few months resulting in a handful of layoffs for secondary departments. Mostly special project teams that whatever VP of some made up department decided to throw money into. When those VP’s got the axe after poor performance, their teams also were chopped up and shuffled around. Joe wasn’t too worried about his own position, but according to his friend higher up the ladder, some of the guys on the special dev team had contract positions that were not cheap. It was more cost effective to let people go on the data team and move them into there then to even attempt to pay the severance plus broken contract fees.

“You guys could have just called me, would have saved me the commute.” Joe said, disheartened.

“I wish that was the case as well, but there’s some stuff to sign first.” She said, opening the door to the meeting room across the hall from HR. It was a wide office with a huge fake wooden desk, surrounded by unused chairs and unconnected A/V equipment. Most of the seats were filled with some of his other coworkers, and a couple folks he recognized from the sales team. “You aren’t the only one on the chopping block today, Joe.” She said and took a seat alongside him at the table.

The director of his department, the sales department, and an HR rep were there with a stack of folders, papers, and pens. Gladys, the HR rep, was an older woman who had been at the office since it opened. She began the meeting by passing out the exit paperwork and various NDA’s. Due to a boatload of government contracts the company held, everyone at the table had to sign a contract saying they would not discuss any data they may have come across while working for the company. Being found guilty of possessing data outside the office or leaking it online could land any one of them in prison. Everyone quickly scanned the pages as Glady’s read aloud the terms of each contract, all signing in unison when she concluded a section. The whole process took a solid forty five minutes to complete.

Joe’s boss had extra forms to fill out, given she had real clearances. Those sheets were on fancy purple paper, which made it somewhat hard to read. Their final packet was a severance package, tailored for each employee. Gladys stood at the doorway along with the two directors and a couple of security personnel. She called each person up to the door and handed them their packet before being escorted back to their desk to collect any personal equipment. They had to be careful, since last year one guy had been tipped off about the firing two days in advance, and copied some client data to his own computer. The cops were at his house before he got back home from his exit interview.

Gladys called Joe’s boss up to the door, she took her packet and Gladys thanked her for time working at the company. The director walked her down to her office and Gladys called Joe up to the door. She handed him his severance folder. It was much thinner than the one his boss received but he was just an entry level data manager. She thanked Joe for his work and one of the security guards escorted him back to his desk.

Back in the office Joe loaded his various things into his backpack. One of the IT guys was also there to take over his work computer and make sure he wasn’t taking anything that wasn’t his. After cramming the last desk toy into his bag he handed the laptop over to the IT guy picked up a small desk plant from beside his monitor and headed down the hallway with the security guard. As Joe passed the reception desk he placed the little desk plant on the counter, as a gift to them. The security guard accompanied Joe all the way to the elevators, down to the front lobby and to the front doors where he collected Joe’s parking pass and door key fobs.

Joe made his way to his car, his backpack heavy with stuff he wished he could have taken home the day before. None of his other coworkers said goodbye to him. They simply continued working at their desks while their new boss hovered over them trying to get a grip of how the department worked. Joe unlocked his car and chucked his backpack full of desk junk into the passenger seat. He was angry now. He wasn’t angry the night before when he found out. In fact, he spent a few hours looking up other jobs. Joe glanced at his severance package, and opened it to see what he actually got. He ripped open the white envelope to see the paperwork inside. There was no actual check, of course, but a breakdown of his time worked and various percents and taxes. Three or four tables of numbers that didn’t really make sense to him at the time, followed by a “total” and the sum of $50k. Twenty years ago he could have lived for a year off $50k, but now that would probably only last him two to three months given his rent and electricity bills. He had gone ahead and cancelled his food delivery and tv subscriptions the night before. They both had a few weeks before their month ran out. Joe tossed the papers in the seat, threw the car in reverse, and drove home.

Back at his apartment, Joe contemplated what he should do. The obvious choice would be to find another job in the same pay grade as the one he had. With his degree he qualified for most entry level positions in his field. The problem was many data management companies were moving their servers and employees to cheaper states where they could afford to upgrade their hardware according to compliancy laws. Being in the city gave companies a wide pool of employees but upgrading their offices and hardware was becoming a burden. An office had to constantly update it’s computers and hardware to be energy compliant, but those new devices were so expensive and had to be replaced so often that many decided to move to lower populated states without these rules in order to keep the lights on. Joe couldn’t afford to move out of state. Down payments on apartments, paying rent upfront for the first year, utility deposits, moving his stuff, would all cost more than he could afford, even with his job.

He had to find work in town, close enough to keep his current place with his current roommates. Most apartments had two to three bedrooms, and each one could hold two people easily. Joe was lucky to have his own, half room, that was intended to be a child’s room. His two other roommates shared the master bedroom. Rent was about 10k per month, making the payments about 3k each. Joe had told his roommates about being let go when he got back to the apartment. They both worked remotely and were always there, typically working odd hours depending on their workload. One of his roommates, Rick, told him about some openings where he was employed pointing out that he wouldn’t have to drive to the city every day.

Joe hated being at the apartment all day and frantically worked to find a job in the city that would work out. He applied to three dozen places, all of which were offering less than he could afford. The few times he applied to lower positions or other types of work, the was turned down for being overqualified. Lower paying jobs were legally held back for students or those without certain levels of education. Things began to look bad as the weeks went on and his money ran thin. Joe talked with some friends of his that worked closer to the city in cheaper apartments. He could move in with them at the end of the month if the apartment approved it.

The cheaper apartments were much smaller than the one he lived in currently, and each two bedroom section was designed to house at least four people. He wasn’t looking forward to going back to dorm style apartments but he needed to save money. Joe drove down to the other apartment complex one morning to talk it out with their office and hang out with his buddies. They worked in restaurants, each managing a different bar or burger shop in the outer rings of the city. Working in food service was tricky as the tax rates could easily push you in either direction as far as housing applications went. His friends living there made just enough under the limit to stay there and accepted tips on the side to maintain a comfortable life. Joe couldn’t do that at a desk job. Once at the apartment office he sat down with the manager to look over his application. A quick glance at the numbers and a quick double checking of some public tax records, showed that Joe was overqualified -even while unemployed- for the cheaper apartments as well. To ensure enough affordable housing the city had to exclude some folks from being able to move in to any building they wanted. Joe figured this would happen, he had been working at the office for nearly three years and his tax bracket was set for at least another one. The manager apologized and offered to send him some other property listings that fit his bracket. Joe declined, knowing those places were all more expensive than his current place.

He walked up the stairs to the apartment to hang out with his old buddies, play a few games, and have a beer. Knowing that one beer would turn into seven or so, he took an autocab to the apartment complex. The guys caught up on stories about the old days when they all waited tables during college, about the fun they had staying up all night playing video games only to have to go to work a few minutes after finishing some raid boss that took them all night to get to. Joe had a few more beers and stood out on the balcony for a few minutes to watch the fish swimming in the little decorative pond fixture between the units. His phone went off and he answered it. It was his old boss.

“Hey Joe, I just wanted to touch base and all. You find a new job yet?”

“No, still looking. Things are a little thin in my area.”

“Well, I just got a spot at DataForge over on the west ring. They’re looking for more database guys. Same pay as BaseTech. If you’re interested I can set you up with an interview next week.”

Joe thanked her profusely over the phone, almost to the point of tears. Actually, he did cry after he hung up. He figured it was because he was drunk, but in reality, he had no other options left. She set him up with a 9am interview for the following Tuesday and told him to get a haircut. Joe walked back into the apartment and had another beer with his buddies before taking an autocab home.

The following Tuesday he arrived back at his own apartment, and greeted his roommates with an entire large pizza for dinner. Not individual slices, not from a delivery chain, but a real whole pizza from an Italian restaurant across the street from his future office building.

“Guess who is going to be able to pay rent in two weeks!”

His roommates cheered, turning their attention away from their computer games long enough to see the pizza.

The Doctors Office

It was the fourth day in a row Joe had woken up with a sore throat, and the first day he had woken up with a fever. The assistant on his phone automatically made him an appointment when the fever kicked in during the night. His watch vibrated, displaying a reminder for the doctors visit that was only two hours away. Any other time he could just do a virtual visit like everyone else, but once a fever set in his insurance required he make a physical trip to the doctor.  An automated email had been sent by the doctor’s office to Joe’s boss to let him know he wouldn’t be at work today. It wasn’t as invasive as the free insurance he had as a student, which would keep and send records of his health to the government health offices. His boss knowing he was sick wasn’t nearly as bad as some intern at the health department selling his STD history to a corporate partner and thus making half the ads on his phone for embarrassing creams and pills for almost two years.

Joe rolled out of bed, the back of his throat was so swollen and his mouth so dry he could hardly swallow. The sun was still not quite out. He turned on a lamp and stumbled over to the bathroom to get ready. It would take him at least an hour to get to the doctors office mentioned in the message. He quickly showered, brushed his teeth, and got dressed in some more comfortable jeans and sweater as opposed to his normal work slacks and button down shirt. Joe pulled an old red hoodie from his dresser and laced up his boots. The vibrations on his watch told him someone was trying to get his attention but he knew it would just be his boss telling him to let him know if he was coming into work after the appointment or not. He thought about making a cup of coffee or eating something but after checking the time he figured it was best to just get something after the appointment was over.

He turned his car on from the kitchen so the heater could warm up. The notifications on his phone were relatively constant so he gave up and checked them. It was, in fact, his boss telling him that he really needed some sort of reports sent to him by the end of the day if he was feeling up to it after he saw the doctor. Joe remembered that he was supposed to send in the report data the day before but fell asleep on the couch after eating dinner. He responded with a canned option to let him know it would get done that day. After he got back from the doctor. After he had breakfast. And after he actually compiled the reports in the first place. The cold air outside cooled his throat as he went down the stairs to his car. His fever cut the chill for the most part but sitting down in his warm car made him want to curl up in the seat and take a nap.

Joe took his time driving to the doctors office. Since it was past rush hour it didn’t take nearly as long as it typically did, leaving him time to sit in the parking garage nearby and check his work email on his phone. His buddy had sent him a funny pic, and his boss sent him another check-in about work but had sympathetically flavored by including a link to some holistic website that gave tips on how to cure a sore throat naturally by putting river stones in your mouth or some other nonsense. He checked a few games on his phone and updated his status online as “At the doctor’s office.” followed by a sad face emoji.

He walked down the sidewalk to the entrance of the purple painted building. The clinic was attached to a large hospital and a lab where elderly people were coming in and out of that morning for blood work and 6am appointments. Joe entered the lobby of the building and checked the screens on the wall for what floor his doctor was on. He had been once before but this office liked to hop floors once a year. Luckily it hadn’t moved from the last time he came in and he headed to the steel elevators at the back of the room. Hospital elevators seemed much slower than ones in offices or hotels, at least he felt they were. He got in and pressed the button for the sixth floor and waited for the doors to close. There was never music in a hospital elevator, what music could you possibly want to hear while at the doctors office? He thought. The elevator paused at the fourth floor to let a doctor in. Joe assumed she was a doctor, considering the hospital-issued mint green surgical scrubs and hair tied up in a matching cap. She was also wearing hilariously expensive Nike cross trainers, something a busy doctor would be able to not only afford but actually need. She answered a call on her phone, and got off on the fifth floor, where the maternity ward was. He knew this because the poster on the wall when the doors opened had a framed photo of a mother in full makeup with a new baby taken in impossibly soft lighting.

The bell chimed at the 6th floor and the doors opened. Joe walked out into the carpeted hallway and headed down the long corridor. Another notification rang on his phone, this time telling him he had fifteen minutes to get to his appointment. He signed, and turned his phone to silent. The office number was 402, he checked each doorway tag to make sure even though he knew which one he was supposed to go to was at the very end of the hall. He pushed the glass doors open and walked across the false wooden flooring to the lady at the counter.

“Yes, can I help you?” She said, not even looking up from what she was doing on the computer at her station.

“I’ve got an appointment at 8:30?”

The woman, eyes still glued to the screen she was frantically trying to input chart data onto, handed him a tablet and asked him to take a seat.

Joe thanked her and walked over to one of the plastic red seats bolted to the floor. It looked more like a retro futurist bus stop than a waiting room. There were several elderly patients waiting, reading the magazines from the wooden side tables. A mother with two kids was trying to wrangle a little boy with a runny nose. Someone’s husband was asleep in a chair in the corner, clearly too early in the morning for him to be taking someone to an appointment. He sat down and looked over the tablet, he filled in his name and birthday and hit send. A full page of medical history and current symptoms showed up for him to verify. He hit send again and double checked his insurance information. The final button instructed him to return the tablet to the front desk. He got up and left the tablet on the counter. The woman at the front took it and placed it into a charging station, still hammering away stats into her computer.

There was an old TV mounted to the corner wall that was playing a local news stations morning show. The presenters were dressed like they were going to a dinner date at 8am, and were entirely too energetic for anyone at this time of day. Anything one of them brought up was simply amazing to the other as though they never heard of holiday baking before in their lives. A local chef was on showing the two how to make Christmas cookies. The volume was plenty loud, but the TV still had subtitles turned on, because anyone who was this hard of hearing would totally be able to read tiny white letters flashing on the screen at a million miles an hour. Joe rubbed his throat, the dry air in the building was causing it to feel dry and itchy.

A nurse opened the door to the waiting room and called out his name. Joe followed the nurse down the short hallway, got his weight and temperature checked, and entered the small exam room. The nurse then proceeded to ask him what was wrong. Joe told her about the sore throat, and his watch caught the fever and made him come in. The nurse laughed, saying the automated “watch doctors” were keeping their office busy all the time now.

“The doctor will be in shortly.” Was the last thing he heard for nearly twenty minutes. Joe could hear someone talking in the exam room next to him for a long while. He sat on a long exam table that was covered in thin tissue paper that crinkled loudly as he shifted around. The walls were covered in old posters with anatomical drawings of the workings of the inner ear, the colon, and several government posters promoting healthy eating of vegetables and drinking more water. There were anti-smoking posters that showed an elderly woman smoking with the words “Cessation products work at any age.” followed by an image of nicotine gum and an vape pen. There were youth posters reminding teens to get std immunizations and such. The typical doctor’s office stuff

Finally there was tiny knock on the door. An older thin gentleman entered the room, and apologized for the wait. He asked how Joe was doing, knowing full well he was sick, as it was common courtesy. The doctor held a tablet that he was skimming through, asking him some basic questions about his medical history to verify he was talking to the right “Joe”. He pulled out some instruments and checked his ears, and throat. “Ah yep there’s our problem right there.” He said, looking in Joe’s mouth. “Let me do a little test here but I think I know what I’m looking at.” He said, walking over to the little counter by the wall, grabbing a swab kit and unwrapping a tiny white paper tipped stick. “Alright, you’re going to feel a little tickling in the back of the throat but it should only take a second.” He said, and tapped the back of Joe’s throat with the paper. Joe’s throat was so sore he couldn’t really feel the paper touch him. The doctor took the paper stick and placed it into a grey plastic device. “Takes about thirty seconds, but I’m fairly sure…” He said as a little green light lit up on the device. The tablet he was holding lit up with the results. “Yep, you have strep. I’m sending you a set of antibiotics and a fever kit.” He said tapping away at the tablet, “You still live at 903 Inwood apartments?”

Joe nodded and the doctor sent his medications to his building. “They should be there by the time you get back.” he said, and asked Joe if he had any other questions for him. Joe said no, and thanked the doctor before he hopped out to the next exam room. Before Joe could hop down from the exam table the doctor lightly tapped on the door again. “We just got these lozenge samples in this morning, have a few, should help with the pain till the meds kick in.” Joe thanked him again and took the little paper bag of throat drops. He left the office and went back out through the waiting room. Joe checked his watch, the whole ordeal took only twenty minutes but seemed like an hour. The guy was still asleep over in the corner.

The drive home seemed quicker than the drive to the doctors office. Joe was going to order some soup to be delivered to his apartment but none of the restaurants were open just yet for lunch. For a moment he thought he would quit his job to start a breakfast soup delivery company for sick people, but gave up and pulled into a coffee drive thru for a drink and a kolache. Anything warm was going to help and he had to eat something before taking antibiotics. Joe pulled into his parking spot at his apartments and walked down to the main office. The notification for his prescription delivery came way before he arrived which meant they left it in the lobby for him. He went inside the office where the door guy was helping a guy with some faulty keys. There was a wall of lockers for secure deliveries that could be opened with your apartment key. “Hey Joe, it’s in 7b. You just missed it.”

The Comic Book Store

Christmas was only four days away and Joe still hadn’t found anything for his youngest brother, James. One of his coworkers had told him about a shop that sold vintage comic books and magazines in the outer edge of the city. James was a fan of Batman and had all the latest issues on his tablet. Only the indie comic publishers still put out paper trades these days. Ever since the price of a single comic reached $15 for ten pages folks just stopped buying them all together. All the major titles had moved to digital only and simply put out a large trade volume when the series concluded. Joe figured a copy of one of the vintage single issues from the teens would be a great gift. He looked up the shop on his phone and added a tag to it to drive there the next day.

It was sunny for once, bust still freezing cold and windy as Joe climbed into his civic and drove down towards town. The outer ring of the city had all manner of shops and buildings. Most were once used for other purposes and had been reclaimed by mom and pop shops for various things. Most of these were niche restaurants, private offices, and resale shops. It wasn’t always worth the effort to return an item so much of the stuff in resale stores was unworn or still in the box it came in. The address to the comic book shop was buried in a block of Euro restaurants. The smell of smoking sausages and aged cheese wafted through the streets as he looked for a parking spot. This far out there were still street parking spaces available, one simply parked and a sensor charged you via the chip on your license plate.

Joe bundled up in his jacket, and put his wool hat on to brave the wind. The front of the building had thick pained glass, and what appeared to be a dropbox embedded in the brick of the exterior. It had clearly previously been a bank of some kind. He opened two sets of glass doors to enter the building and was met with a very dry and slightly cool atmosphere. Since they were dealing with old paper, the store had exquisite climate control installed. Along the walls were black wood framed posters of various superheroes, and large format recreations of famous issues. There were wooden bookshelves around the outer edges of the shop and a long glass display case at the rear where the owners were helping a customer. The man at the back of the room waved to Joe, given the small space it was quite obvious when someone walked in.

The store had hard wooden floors that creaked when one wandered around the bookshelves. You couldn’t be silent while shopping in this place. The walls were covered in soft textured wallpaper that absorbed much of the rest of the sound and kept dust to a minimum. Joe walked over to one of the bookshelves marked Detective Comics Comics in large steel letters. The issues were encased in protective plastic backings meaning one couldn’t open the books to look inside and had to rely on a verified grade placed near the top. Comics had grades from 0.1 to 10. There were no 10’s out on the shelves. Most of what he looked through were old issues of X-Men from the 80’’s to the early 2000’s when comics were overprinted and over collected. They were still a hefty 60 dollars each.

Just then the man behind the counter called out to him, “Can I help you find anything?” He asked. He was a thin older man with a thin beard and hair combed forward nearly covering his eyes. Nearly matching the bank theme he was wearing a nice suit and tie as well, something that told him nothing in this store was going to be cheap. Joe peeked out from behind the bookshelves.

“Yeah, I was wondering if you had any Batman issues?”

The man nodded and motioned for Joe to meet him up at the counter. Joe stood and watched the man disappear into the old bank safe behind him and quickly return with four encased comics. Two were some of the last issues to be printed, each nearly $200. One was one of the New 52 singles that was nearly $400, and finally a Jim Lee variant of Batman 608. The lack of orange price sticker on this one made Joe nervous.

“How much is the Jim Lee?”

The man tipped it over to check the back of the protective plastic cover, “This one is $1200 but it’s a 7.5. You can look them over if you want, no rush.” He said as he waved to a new customer who just walked into the store. A thin woman with scraggly hair rushed up to the front counter, almost in a panic, looking back at the door to see if anyone else came in after her.

“You’se guys buy old comics right?” The woman said, opening up her large purse and pulling out a dirty old yellow envelope.

The store owner shook his head, “I only buy graded comics right now I’m afraid.”

The woman pinched the prongs on the folder and pulled out the ratty old comic inside, nearly tossing it onto the glass counter top. Grungy brown pages from the inside spilled out as it slid towards the store owner. His eyes went wide as he recognized the comic from the back page. “Look man, you want it or not?”

“Where did you get this?” The shop owner asked in shock, reluctantly taking the comic and carefully turning it back over to see the cover.

“My dad died last week, and my brother and I was going over his things and all, you see. Dad got this from our granddaddy and kept it up in the attic in a safe. He passed suddenly, no will or nuthin, so we’re at the house and my brother is fighting with us over who gets what. Now, I wanted the kitchen table. That’s all, just the table, don’t care about nothing else. He goes in about how he wants it and most of the rest of the stuff too. Then I remembered dads comics up in the attic and while my brother was busy stealing my kitchen table I stole his precious comic book.”

“Do you know what you have here? I mean, are you sure you want to sell it?”

The woman nodded, “Look, I don’t care about it. I know it’s worth something cuz it was in the attic. I also know if I sell it somebody who actually cares about it will buy it and that’s better to me than having my brother keep it up in the safe again.”

Joe looked over to see the comic book in question. There was Spiderman on the front, holding a man in a green suit. He was confused because the comic wasn’t titled Spiderman at all, and it looked absolutely terrible.

“I can give you 300 for it.” The man said.

“That’s all? It’s pretty old right?” The woman said.

“300 thousand.”

Joe nearly dropped the Batman issue he was holding. What on earth was this woman doing with a comic worth that much money and how was this ratty bit of stapled paper worth this much? Joe took out his phone and looked up the title while the owner set up a payment for the woman, it was Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider Man. It took several minutes for the shop owner to handle the payment for the book. The limit for most p2p wireless transfers was 100k so he had to dust off the old physical check book and hand write the woman a check for the comic.

“It’s been a while since I had to write one of these out.” The man said.

The woman nervously checked the front entrance, and would move off to one side of the counter when anyone walked in. Her nervousness was making Joe nervous. What if her brother were to suddenly burst into the building and demand his grandfather’s old beat up comic book? What if they physically got into a fight in this fancy comic shop and the police had to come break it up? Joe watched her as the store owner ripped the long slip of paper from the huge spiral checkbook and handed it over to her. She quickly stuffed the check into her purse, thanked the man, and bolted outside.

The store owner looked down at the old ruined comic book in front of him. “You find one you like?” He asked Joe.

“Um, yeah I’ll take this one.” He said handing the Jim Lee issue over. The store owner was still looking down in awe of the Spiderman comic. “You have any others of those?” Joe asked.

“I’ve only seen one other in person and it was in a plastic case just like you’ve got in your hands there.” He motioned to Joe to move in closer to see the loose pages. “I never got to see inside of one before.” He said, flipping through the brittle sheets of yellowed paper.

“Is it really worth all that much?” Joe asked looking down at the pages while the man rang up his purchase on a tablet nearby.

“Almost twice what I paid for it, but she clearly didn’t know that.” He said, winking. “In far better condition they go into the millions easily.” The man then tapped a final button causing a payment notification to go off on Joe’s phone. Joe accepted it and the man carefully wrapped the comic, case and all, into fine white tissue paper and a thin wooden storage box with the stores logo on the front. He thought this was all a little much for a comic book but didn’t object to it being treated like a fine bottle of wine. With his comic case in hand, he waved goodbye to the shop owner and thanked him for his help.

“No no, thank you. I just sent her all the money I had in the bank. You just bought me food for the week.”

“I thought you were going to sell it for twice what it was worth?” Joe asked.

The shop owner, still reading through the comic, slowly turning through the old withered pages just smiled at him, “Oh no boy, I could never sell something like this.”

Joe walked out of the shop and slowly let the glass doors close behind him. Before he began to head back to his car he looked inside the shop one more time. The man was still at the counter, smiling away, reading every panel of every page of that old comic book. He went to his car and unlocked it from the sidewalk.

A man came rushing up to him in a panic. “Hey man, you seen a thin dark haired woman come by this way recently?” He asked, looking down at the wooden box Joe was carrying. “Was she in the comic book shop by any chance? Did you see a woman in there just now?” He panted, attempting to catch his breath. There were six other comic book stores on this road and he had apparently hit each one. “She was carrying an old Spiderman comic.”

Joe figured this was the woman’s brother, he was sweating profusely clearly not having run down a city street, much less walked down one, in a long while. He wore a very expensive suit and jacket that was overheating him even on this cold windy day. Joe thought for a moment, he really didn’t know where the woman had run off to to even give him a hint of where she might be. Then he remembered the look of the shopkeeper who was most likely still gleefully reading through the issue this man was about to try and take from him.

“I think I saw a woman with one over at Galaxy Comics two streets over, I was looking for this Batman issue and they didn’t have one. You should try there.” Joe said.

The man thanked him, waving his hat in the air as he backtracked down the opposite end of the street. Joe watched as he opened the door to a red convertible Mercedes.