Code Red

Nerdy, New York based programming genius Dave Velasquez leads a quiet existence. He's well-liked at work but lacks a social life. He's loved by his family but lives on the other side of the country. He's brilliant at his job but has little to no ambition. At least not until a unanimous vote at work lands him the offer of head of the programming department in California. The promotion comes with a sweet apartment, a considerable raise, and driving distance to his home town and family. But it also means leaving behind the woman he is in love with and the friends he's finally starting to make in New York, and it turns out more challenges await him when he arrives on the West Coast.

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5. Chapter Five

May 8th, 2014

Everybody was in pre-Friday mode after the weekly briefing Carol had asked me to host at noon, and so when we all returned to our desks, conversations broke out across the floor, much to Tom’s annoyance. My co-senior groaned demonstratively a few times before shutting his computer down and stalking out of the room with an air of indignation about him, slamming the door. I suspected he was probably going for a smoke and would be in a better mood once he returned smelling like a mixture of tobacco and chemicals.

But since managing my coworkers would be my new job in a foreseeable future, I felt obligated to do something about it, so I stood up slowly, trying and failing to wipe the grin off my face, “Guys, I don’t particularly mind that you’re goofing around as long as you do what you’re expected to be doing, but clearly it’s bothering Tom so can we turn the fun down just a notch?”

Leon, whose cubicle was closest to mine and neighboring Helen’s, spun on his chair and looked up at me. “Lately it seems like everything we do bothers Tom,” he remarked rudely but truthfully.

Tom had been more than usually irritable this week. Even though he’d been at NewTech longer than I had, he’d always treated me with respect but this week I’d received more than one snarky e-mail despite him sitting straight across from me. Everything I did, too, seemed to get on his nerves, so I understood where my colleagues were coming from.

“Yeah, I’ve noticed,” I said, not mentioning my own struggles with him. “I don’t know what’s going on. Maybe he’s having a rough time at home. In any case, we should try not to give him a reason to become even more frustrated.”

Leon and Archer, both from the group of new hires Helen had come with, exchanged glances, and I saw Archer’s lips curve upwards in a sly grin. Helen was spending the time her neighbor was distracted typing away, her fingers dancing on the keyboard and her eyes locked firmly on the screen. For some reason it bothered me that she seemed completely oblivious to the fact that I’d been trying to catch her eyes since Monday.

Something Archer whispered made Simon, who was sitting next to him, cover his mouth and bend over in an attempt to conceal his laughter. I felt my lips twitching and rolled my eyes, “Clearly, Archer and Simon aren’t quite done yet so here’s what I suggest: you can keep talking and doing whatever you want until Tom comes in, but as soon as he does, you’ll have to be completely quiet. If you need to reach each other, you can use the chat. It’s there for a reason. Does that sound fair?”

There was a slow, collective “yeah” from across the floor, and as I sat down, things went absolutely silent for a moment or two before Simon couldn’t keep his burst of laughter in any longer. Well and truly distracted, I turned in my chair to look at the pair of them and crossed my arms over my chest.

“What’s so funny?”

Simon shook his head, doubling over with tears rolling down his cheeks; Archer sat up straighter and shot me an innocent smile. “Your California’s showing,” he announced, making Leon pause to laugh as well.

I raised an eyebrow, genuinely curious. Nobody ever seemed to notice – or at least never seemed to comment on – the fact that I was from the west coast. There were so many international people in New York that being from California was hardly perceived as being different than the commuters coming from upstate NY or Jersey to work. “Really?” I asked, intrigued. “How so?”

“Even when you’re frustrated, you speak in this slow, casual way. Do you also say hella?” Archer asked cheekily.

“Uh, have you ever heard me say it?” I asked, well aware that I only really used it if I was making fun of someone.

“Not that I can remember,” he admitted.

“Probably because I’m from SoCal. We don’t say it there,” I explained.

“Oh,” interjected Simon who’d regained the ability to speak and wiped the salt water off his face. “Where in SoCal are you from?”

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Helen’s eyes sliding from her screen and her hands leaving the keyboard as she turned her chair to listen to what was going on. I wondered why; where I was from couldn’t possibly be of interest to as many people as were actually listening right now. They were probably just bored.

Feeling a little self-conscious, I scratched the back of my neck. “Er… Santa Barbara County,” I said eventually, feeling no need to specify where within the region my childhood home was located.

“Cool,” Leon said, drumming excitedly on the armrests of his chair. “Do you surf, then?”

Again, I felt like that was a pretty dumb question, and my eyes slipped to Helen who was almost visibly cringing at her colleague’s stupidity. The flush in her cheeks made me feel a little better.

“Nah. It was pretty far from the ocean,” I volunteered as if that was the primary reason I hadn’t tried the popular sport. “I can ride a horse, though, and herd cattle.”

That last remark earned me a few gasps of laughter throughout the room, and I was satisfied with my distraction strategy. At least the presumably unexpected mention of livestock had prevented anyone from asking about my obvious disability.

“Why the hell do you know that?” Archer asked curiously.

I figured I might as well tell them. “Life on an old ranch will do that to you.”

Before anyone got a chance to ask me about that statement, Tom came stomping in again, an odor of cigarettes in his wake and a sour look on his face as he sank into his chair opposite my cubicle and buried himself in work. I caught Archer’s eyes to make sure he’d understood the agreement before I spun around and returned to the coding I’d been looking at before the little break.

To my relief, the office fell silent, the only sounds audible those of fingers on keyboards and computers processing the long, encrypted commands created by the hands. The fact that my colleagues listened to me was a comfort and gave me some hope that maybe I wouldn’t be completely useless as a manager after all. The briefing earlier had gone reasonably well, though with a lot more laughter than usual. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom had already sent Carol a complaint message about the way I’d done things.

I never used to dislike Tom. He and I got along just fine as long as I adhered to his rules and respected the warnings his body language emanated through the room. But since the announcement on Monday, Carol had been busy trying to manage things on her end, and he’d taken it upon himself to look over my shoulder anytime I did something. If I’d felt like it was only about the quality of the work I did, I’d have been fine with it, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that anytime I exchanged a word with anyone within the office, he was eavesdropping.

It made me happy that he was supposed to stay here and have a bigger role in the management of the department rather than going to California. If things didn’t change, at least I’d be rid of him within a couple of months.

Half an hour or so into the deep, focused silence, Tom looked over the cubicle walls at me and cleared his throat. I glanced above the rim of my glasses, “What’s up?”

“Melanie’s got her hand up,” he said as if that was self-explanatory. And in a sense it was, because I got the message: he wanted me to deal with it even though he was technically the one who was meant to assist.

Rather than just following the implicit order, I glanced once at my screen and the unfinished line I’d been in the middle of typing. “I can deal with it, but I need to finish this first. Otherwise I’ll forget.”

I could tell from the way he angled his face that he wanted to roll his eyes at met but daren’t do it. “Sure,” he muttered as he disappeared behind the wall again.

I glanced over my shoulder to locate the hand and smiled quickly at Melanie, mouthing that I’d be there in a second. Irritated, I finished what I’d been doing when Tom decided I should be doing his job and then rose to do as I’d been told. Helping Melanie took about as long as it had taken Tom to make it understood that he wanted me to assist: no more than a couple of seconds.

Because I was already standing, I went to the bathroom to take a leak and collect myself. While I sat in the booth, I considered my options. I could tell management about Tom’s unacceptable behavior but they’d leave it for Carol to deal with. I could tell Carol but Tom was her minion and had his nose so far up her ass that I didn’t think she’d care about my opinion. I could talk to him about it myself but there was a chance he’d feel sufficiently superior to not give two fucks.

And then of course I could ignore it like I always did. Despite my many daily sarcastic comments, I’d found that I was pretty good at avoiding clashes between my coworkers, and it was a skill I prided myself on.

Back at my desk, a message from Helen was waiting on the internal chat system: Care to elaborate, cowboy?

I did my best not to let my amusement show and only discreetly singled her out through the corner of my eye. My hands were already on the keyboard, typing, If you add me on Facebook, I’ll tell you outside of work hours.

For a moment, it looked like she was typing and retyping the same message, so I waited a beat before stealing another peek in her direction only to find that the screen was full of green coding on a black background. I closed the chat window, ran a hand through my hair and turned back to what I’d been doing before.

Working focused, however, didn’t last much more than a couple of minutes before Tom stood up and knocked on the top of my left monitor. “Can we talk for a moment?”

Sensing that I didn’t have much of a choice, I stood up, left my glasses on my desk and followed him into the corridor where Carol’s office was located. Tom had this almost snotty attitude about him as he closed the door behind him and turned toward me, clearly not meaning to meet my gaze and averting his eyes as soon as we established eye contact.

My thoughts were still circling around Helen’s message and whether or not she’d actually fulfill my request. I very rarely used social media for chit-chatting but I told myself I’d make an exception if she actually contacted me there.

“What were you doing?” Tom demanded and something minty snuck into my nostrils when his mouth opened, probably chewing gum to conceal the undercurrent of tobacco.

I straightened up ever so slightly, my hand wrapping tighter around the handle of my stick. “What do you mean?”

“When I came in. You weren’t looking at your screens. Neither was anybody else,” he pointed out, not entirely truthfully but also not over-exaggerating.

“Nothing was getting done,” I told him point blank, “so I told them to take five and finish chatting so that when you came back, they could work focused for a while.”

His eyes narrowed with displeasure but I didn’t care so I stood my ground and kept my face neutral while he said, “That’s not really your judgment to make.”

“Is it yours, though?” I asked. “Because the last time I checked, Carol was the manager and as long as everything’s done on schedule, she doesn’t give two fucks how time is distributed.”

A look settled on his face that told me that if he’d been taller than me, he’d be glancing down at me with a smirk on his face. “Yeah, well, Carol’s quit. I’ll be her replacement so technically, it’s more my call to make than yours.”

Carol had what? I was tempted to stomp into her office and demand confirmation myself, but instead I remained where I was and tried to grasp the scope of this news. I’d always been under the impression that Carol thoroughly enjoyed her position in which she could discourage suggestions for change and exercise her power over her obedient subjects. What could possibly have made her want to give that up – other than perhaps an even better job – was beyond the limits of my imagination.

And Tom was to replace her? Interesting.

“Congrats,” was all I could say, and I hoped my face looked happier than I felt. The thought of leaving my coworkers in Tom’s hands was something that’d be eating away at me simply because I knew how much of a handful he could be. And now there’d be no one besides the big top to pull him from his horse.

“Thanks. I guess you and I will have to keep in touch to make sure our processes and our management styles are streamlined,” he continued in the manner of someone making negotiations on behalf of a giant corporation, arguing from a position of power.

I shrugged. “The point of having me transferred to Cali is to try out a different leadership style,” I informed him, unwilling to bend to his will so easily. “It won’t be top-down; it’ll be collaborative.”

He raised an eyebrow and his eyes scanned me from head to toe as if he was looking for something. A hidden camera maybe? Something that would indicate that I was lying? Then his gaze settled on something close to my face, his eyes dark. “That sounds … idealistic. Let’s see how long it lasts,” was his final comment on that subject. “In the meantime, though, you can come to me if you have any questions.”

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t trust my tongue not to drip poison, but Tom was the last person I wanted to be taking leadership advice from. He might’ve convinced himself that he’d been doing it all along – he’d certainly been acting like he was the manager – but that wasn’t actually the case. I’d much rather have been working for Carol than for Tom, especially now that his ego had gotten a bit of a boost.

Since there was no reason for us to be standing around, we went back into the main room and sat down at our desks. The rest of the shift felt like the minutes were dragging on and on in the awkward, tense silence. The newbies put their hands up, but contrary to what I’d expected of Tom’s new position, he tended to them himself, leaving me to run checks and type in codes with my earbuds blowing music into my skull.

 

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