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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6. Chapter Six

June 6th, 2014

“Is something wrong?” my mom asked as we hit the 101 North, her hand ruffling my hair as if I was a shy ten-year-old who needed a little push into conversation.

“No,” I replied simply, watching the dry landscapes swing by outside. Despite the obvious drought that was turning the grassy hills yellow and dusty, the climate here was milder and less boiling than in New York where I’d come from. “Why?” I asked with a slight delay.

My mom’s hand retreated from the top of my head while she leaned back into the seat behind my dad’s. “You’re just a little quiet.”

I was about to remind her that my being quiet was nothing out of the ordinary, but before I got to wording my thoughts, I’d remembered that first of all, she was used to my sister’s unusual chattiness, and second of all, this was the first time I’d seen my parents in person since my promotion was announced. I should be filling the car cabin with information and trying to compete with the loud humming of the engine and the roaring of the wheels on the uneven asphalt.

“I’m just tired,” I admitted. In their heads, dinnertime was only just approaching but with my normal routine I’d already be in bed by now. Besides, I’d had a long day.

It had started, as usual, with my shift beginning at six that morning. At noon I’d left the office and gone to the airport from which I’d had first a flight from New York to Dallas and then another one from Dallas to Santa Barbara. And now here I was, in my parents’ car on my way from Santa Barbara to my childhood home just east of Lompoc.

Traveling to San Francisco and staying at a hotel closer to where I’d be going the following day might’ve been the most logical thing for me to do, but my parents had insisted on seeing me during the roughly fifty hours I’d be spending in California, so I’d agreed to fly to Santa Barbara and stay with them instead to preserve peace. I’d even offered to find a way to get there on my own so they wouldn’t have to pick me up at the airport, but they’d been dead-set on spending as much time with me as possible, even if that meant having my grandparents look after the restaurant for the evening.

“Maybe you should’ve come out yesterday,” my dad interjected after a moment’s relative silence.

I glanced at him, then grinned at the challenging look he shot me before turning his eyes back to the road. “I had to work today as well, so I came straight from work to the airport.”

“There’s this thing called time off, Dave,” my mom pointed out, sounding like she was trying not to show her annoyance. “Maybe you should make use of it one of these days?”

I cringed inwardly because I knew I had plenty of hours to take from, but there just never seemed to be a good time for me to spend them. One project usually fed into the next, so there was never a gap between them in which I could pack up my stuff and leave for a few days without feeling guilty. And if I was being entirely honest, I knew I’d be expected to come home if I had more than forty-eight hours off in a row, and I didn’t always have the energy to travel across the country for a couple of days.

“Yeah,” I hummed, a yawn pushing against the back of my throat. Swallowing it, I continued, “If I like this place, I’ll be moving out here in a few weeks, and I’ve requested a week off to get settled.”

“Not sure I’d call that time off,” my dad said. “Moving is hard work.”

“Yeah, well, having the time off to do so is a lot more convenient than doing it between shifts,” I pointed out, slightly irritated that they didn’t seem to get it.

Not that I’d expected anything else; my parents had always been way too laid-back and freedom-loving to understand the functioning of corporate employment. Their own business was small, had been family-run for generations, and the economic results of it were a drop in the ocean compared to the dizzying amounts of revenue NewTech and Hammond & Sons generated. They spent their mornings waking up, having coffee, having a look at the herd, selecting the best meat for slaughter and then went to prepare it for their guests. It was the simple life, and the few employees who worked there had always seemed likewise simple-minded to me.

We drove in silence for a while, the golden sunlight lighting our way. As we neared Lompoc, my dad would occasionally raise a hand to a pedestrian or another driver and get a friendly wave in return. The car swung onto the dirt road that would lead up to the ranch on the hillside, and I enjoyed the familiar rattle of hard dirt and little rocks under the tires as the pick-up climbed the slope. When I was a kid, I’d always fallen asleep when we drove on this stretch, and even now I felt a strange calm settle in my entire body.

At the familiar, old gate I stepped out and cleared the passage for the car, hitching a nostalgic ride in the trunk. The still-warm air rushed over my skin as I looked around, finding that the pastures looked slightly more yellow for June than I remembered and that my grandparents’ cabin in the distance looked exactly the same.

Finally, we came up to my childhood home. It was a two-story building in faded wood that I’d been wanting to paint white since I was a teenager with a large front porch lined with mosquito net for the comfort of dining guests who sat at small tables on one half of it. The building had colonial bar windows, a black-tiled roof with solar panels on one side, and a Californian flag hanging limply from a flagpole at the two steps up to the front porch. When my dad killed the engine, I could hear cheerful chatter from the dining guests, some of which were casting curious glances in my direction as I climbed out of the bed and landed in the dirt, my feet kicking up a bit of dust.

Our home had always been a lively one with guests visiting to try the food they’d heard about down in Lompoc, and my family had always taken enormous pride in maintaining their reputation as the best dining place around. The somewhat remote location meant only few actually took the trouble to drive up, making for a more intimate and warm atmosphere for those who did visit.

“We’re back,” my mom announced happily as she slammed the car door and came around the back, handing me the duffel bag I’d stuffed two sets of clothes and my laptop into.

Oldie, a former teacher at Vandenberg Middle School who’d been retired for as long as I could remember, gave the brim of his cowboy hat a little flick as a greeting and his wife, Beth, told him off, reminding him that he had a tongue for a reason. I couldn’t help laughing as I made my way up to the front porch in much the same way I’d done it every day after school for most of my upbringing.

Just then, my grandmother swung out, balancing a tray of plates on one hand and holding a carafe of cold water in the other. When she laid eyes on me, she stopped, handed the orders to my mom and spread her arms excitedly, exclaiming, “David!”

I smiled, a little embarrassed and unused to hearing my actual name. But I was genuinely happy to see my grandmother again, so I took a step closer to show that I was willing to enter the hug. She covered the rest of the distance just like I knew she would and wrapped her arms tightly around me, kissing my cheek and most likely leaving a bright magenta lipstick stain.

“Christ, boy, you get thinner every time I see you,” she declared, pulling me out at an arm’s length. I had to take a little step sideways to catch my balance at the sudden movement. “And taller,” she added, eyeing me mercilessly.  

I laughed then. “I’m pretty sure I haven’t grown much in the past ten years,” I pointed out. In fact, I was pretty sure I hadn’t lost much weight since then, either, with the exception maybe of when I first moved to Massachusetts and away from homemade food three times a day. Even the typical student diet of pizza, Coke, and other processed foods had done little to my physical appearance besides bringing back a few of the zits I’d gotten rid of during puberty.

My grandmother gave me a little squeeze and scrunched up her tanned nose. “Smartass.”

I winked, meaning to make a comeback, but as soon as she released me, someone wrapped their arms around me from behind. The initial flash of panic I felt as my hand tightened around my crutch faded quickly when I realized where I was and who it must be.

Tamara was giggling into my ear, so I turned around to properly return the hug. Although my sister was undeniably the one I talked to the most, she was also the one I missed the most. Only two years apart in age, we’d been close since the moment she realized I wasn’t the one who made her stay home to watch me while her friends were hanging out at the mall. Once she’d screamed at me that I needed to grow up so she could have a life, and the sting of that had sent tears streaming down my face because I’d never asked for a babysitter but I enjoyed our afternoons together.

“What the hell happened to you?” she whispered into my ear.

I frowned, trying to straighten up and away but she wouldn’t let me. “Nothing. What do you mean?”

“You look exhausted.”

“Why thank you,” I said, a chuckle making my voice vibrate. Ironically, I could’ve said the exact same thing about her but I never would have because I’d found that commenting on my sister’s or mother’s looks wasn’t a good idea unless it was in the form of a compliment.

She released me then. “Sure you’re okay?”

I nodded eagerly. “I’m fine. Just a little tired from the trip is all.” My mom’s eyes narrowed, and I realized then that telling people I was tired was probably not the way to avoid them worrying. Especially if it happened twice within an hour.

“Well, let’s get some food in you, then,” my grandma declared enthusiastically without asking if I’d already had dinner.

And what Grandma wanted, Grandma got. Flanked by my sister who launched into a quick recap of events since the last time we’d talked, I took a seat in the indoor dining area where my presence and my family being unnecessarily fussy wouldn’t disturb the customers. My grandpa poked out from the kitchen to say hi, and my grandma waddled out a few minutes later with a plate full of homemade sweet potato fries and a large, medium steak.

Because I was about ready to go to bed, I ate the meat first and shared the fries with Tamara, who was still telling me about how excited Jayla was to see me the following day. Jesse, it turned out, had fallen asleep when he was tucking their daughter in, and probably wouldn’t be down to greet me, she added in a regretful tone.

I didn’t mind. While Jesse and I got along great and I didn’t mind hanging out, being the center of attention was exhausting and I’d really rather be sleeping than trying to participate in a conversation.

Satisfied that my plate was empty, Grandma kissed my cheek again and ruffled my hair, and I said a quick goodnight before hunting for my duffel bag. Someone had relieved me of that burden while I was entering the house, and I’d half expected it to be somewhere near the entrance, but it wasn’t.

The air was cooler outside when I stuck my head out in search of my parents. “Mom?” I asked, leaning against the door frame as well as my stick.

She was picking up plates from an empty table and looked up at me as if I had just made her the happiest person in the world. “Yes, honey?”

“Have you seen my bag?”

Just as I asked that, my phone started buzzing in my pocket, startling me. Outside of the people I was currently with, nobody ever called me except to sell me stuff and that usually didn’t happen this late at night. So with an apologetic smile at my mom, I fished out the little device and found an unknown caller ID.

Pushing the Answer button, I made my way to the side of the porch that was meant for private use.

“Hello?”

There was noise on the other end, cars honking and loud music playing and slivers of conversation in the distance. Nobody replied right away and the thought that it might just have been a butt dial struck me right before a vaguely familiar voice said,

Hello? Hellooo?”

“Hello,” I repeated, equal parts amused and uncomfortable. I hated talking on the phone.

Who’s this?” The voice, contorted by its loud surroundings and the static of the line, still sounded familiar to me. Like it was someone I should probably recognize.

“Er… Dave,” I said, looking out across the hilly landscape to the north. The ocean fog was creeping in between the mountains in some places, glowing an eerie white under the pale sliver of moon on its dark backdrop.

Oh, thank fuck. Hi. It’s Leon.”

I raised an eyebrow at the mountains. None of the people from the office had ever called me unless it was on the work phone to report sickness. “Uh… Hey, what’s up?” It would be around midnight in New York by now, so partying was probably up.

I was wondering if you’d heard about what happened this afternoon,” he said, slurring a bit on the s’s.

Had something happened that afternoon? “No, I haven’t. What was it?”

WellafteryouleftTomtookoffaswellanddidn’tcomebackand–”

“Woah,” I exclaimed, backing away from the banister and taking a seat in one of the patio chairs. Glancing back over my shoulder, I shot my mom a quick smile that I meant to be reassuring. “Slow down. Tom left because he had a meeting at one. What happened then?”

I could hear him taking a deep breath before explaining, a little more soberly, “Well, he didn’t say how long he’d be gone and Sarah was busy, so after an hour I asked if anyone could help me create the menu for the illumination function. Helen got up to do it and was explaining it when Tom came in. He completely freaked.”

My chest tightened automatically. I didn’t want to be dealing with this right now, or at all. Telling Tom off was not my place, but I couldn’t just ignore it if he’d been unreasonable. “What did he do?” I asked nervously.

He started yelling. Said all she ever does all day is sit around and stare at you until you do her job for her. Said she was lucky he isn’t officially the manager yet or she’d be long gone. Told her he didn’t know what moron had hired a dumb bimbo who hadn’t even finished her studies yet to do this kind of work,” Leon elaborated, and it actually sounded like the effect of the alcohol he’d unmistakably consumed was decreasing with every word.

I wanted to punch something. More specifically, I wanted to punch Tom. One thing was thinking those things, another was to tell them to the person in question, and a different one entirely was to shout it out loud for the entire office to hear. If that had happened while I was present, I would’ve snapped, so I was both sad and happy that I hadn’t been there.

“Shit,” I mumbled, fumbling for my crutch and dropping it on the floor with a loud clatter. “Sorry,” I told the remaining dining guests.

Why are you apologizing?” Leon inquired.

“Oh, that wasn’t to you,” I said dismissively, abandoning my project of getting up. “What happened then?”

Helen left. Just shut down her computer, packed up her things and walked out without another word. Tom said that was a breach of her contract and she’ll be fired.”

Technically, it was true that if anyone just stormed out of the office without permission before the end of their shift, that was grounds enough for firing. I’d know; I’d spent the past few days trying to learn what it was I’d be asking future employees to sign. But harassment was also a reason to fire people, and in my opinion, harassment was exactly what Tom had been practicing lately.

“Not sure he can actually do that,” I told my colleague bluntly, “but I don’t know if she’d want to continue working there after that.”

That’s what I was thinking. I called her after work to check up on her but she didn’t pick up, and she just texted me back to say she was fine, but I’m not convinced.

“Nah, me neither,” I admitted. “I can try to call her if you want? To make sure she knows that I don’t agree with what happened.”

Probably a good idea, although I don’t think any of us think you’d agree with that.”

I smiled, then felt horrible for appreciating having my ego stroked in this situation. “I’ll do that. Could you send me her number?”

Will do. Thanks Dave.”

“No, thank you for letting me know. I’d hate to find out when I got back,” I said truthfully.

No problem. See you on Monday.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

He hung up and I just sat there for a while, the cold evening air creeping underneath my T-shirt as I thought about what to do. Not only would I have to make sure that Helen was alright, I also felt obligated to contact Wilkins about this. There was no way I could leave the New York office without knowing what was going to happen. Surely, Tom wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a managing position from today on.

Leon texted me Helen’s number and I tried calling, but after ten rings she still hadn’t picked up, so I left a message telling her to please call me back as soon as she heard it and hung up. Then, because I was too frustrated to go to bed, I just sat there and waited for a while, hoping that she’d still be up and in the mood for talking. I even debated giving Wilkins a call so explain the situation and demand some sort of solution but eventually let that thought go because it was the kind of thing I could still do in the morning when my head was probably clearer.

The last of the guests paid, shouted quick goodbyes at me and left, the flash of red of their tail lights vanishing down the dirt road. I leaned back, glaring at the display on my phone until the next thing I noticed was Tamara shaking my shoulder and pulling me to my feet. She handed me my crutch and I was too groggy to protest when she slipped my arm over her shoulder and guided me to my old bedroom, letting me crash on top of the sheets fully dressed.

 

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