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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3. Chapter Three

May 5th, 2014

When I left my Jersey apartment that morning, I’d had no idea what to expect of this day, but this certainly wasn’t it. The day had started completely normally with my subway ride to work, being too late to get decent coffee, and being greeted by the empty lobby and department respectively. I’d sat down and read through my significant increase in unread e-mails and then started working like I usually would. At seven, the first of my colleagues had started showing up looking like zombies in their half-awake state. At nine thirty, I’d taken my first break and refilled my coffee mug for the third time that morning, and Carol had poked in to remind me of something I’d already done the day before.

But at noon, everything changed. On the walls above our maze of cubicles were television screens which had last been turned on when the merger had been announced. At twelve on the dot, the screens turned on of their own accord, and my face appeared on every display along with a written announcement that I’d be relocating to California to lead the new programming division there.

At first, I hadn’t believed my own eyes, so I’d taken my glasses off and set them aside in the hopes that they were deceiving me. I’d known, of course, that the public announcement would be made today, but I hadn’t expected them to make this big of a deal out of it. Over the past few weeks, I’d had frequent meetings with Wilkins about the vision for the products that were to result from the merger, so I knew that alongside this announcement, they’d be revealing the plan for a completely new software and interface. I’d expected that to be bigger news than my displacement.

The entire floor had exploded, and I’d ducked into my cubicle in the hopes of not becoming the center of attention. But of course my colleagues soon enough thought they were obliged to congratulate me, so I shook their hands and returned their well-meaning hugs with mixed emotions. Sarah gave me a little nudge before wrapping her arms around me, telling me she was offended I hadn’t told her in advance.

To be fair, I hadn’t told anyone, not even my own family. Part of the contract I’d signed said that I was not allowed to disclose any information to the public without permission from the board, and I hadn’t even asked for that. It would still be another two months before I actually moved to California and a lot could happen, so I’d figured my loved ones might as well find out the same time as the rest of the world. I had planned on calling my mom and dad after work, though, to tell them myself.

That plan soon proved impossible. Within ten minutes, my phone was getting so full of texts, Facebook messages and posts, and missed phone calls that I had to switch it off to keep it from distracting me. The reason: while the screens went live inside the building, Wilkins and Hammond were holding a press conference to explain the changes they were planning and my new role within the expanded company.

Tamara sent me an e-mail with a picture she’d taken of her TV. It showed my wide-eyed face – the very same picture as was currently glaring at me and my colleagues on the floor – with the hint of a smile. The caption read, New Hollywood celebrity coming to town ;). I smiled involuntarily at that, finding that I actually missed her.

One good thing about moving to California would be that I got to see my family a lot more frequently than I had since I’d embarked on my graduate degree in Massachusetts. Even though they lived south of where I’d be working and living, there’d be opportunities for them to come see me by car or the other way around, and that, to me, was exciting. It meant I actually got to get to know my nephew and niece, both of whom had been born within the past three years.

After the madness had settled down a bit, Carol swung into the room, gracing all of us with her presence, which had been a rarity for the past month or so. I heard her high heels clopping on the floor even with my back turned to her and so was prepared when a hand with bright red fingernails dropped to the surface of my desk. The vibration in the surface sent my stick rattling to the floor, so I looked up.

Her face looked tighter than usual, not a single unwanted line showing on her taut skin, and her eyes were looking down at me both literally and figuratively. “Dave,” she said, distaste pouring out of her mouth with what was probably supposed to sound like a happy greeting, “congratulations.”

I rolled backwards so I wouldn’t pull a muscle in my back because I was twisting to see her. “Thank you,” I said humbly, as usual doing a much better job of hiding my reluctance to talk to her than she was.

Ever since my evaluation with the board, I’d had a hard time stomaching my boss unless it was absolutely necessary. Bringing my disability up as a hindrance to my job was, in my opinion, unacceptable unless she had anything to support that claim, and it didn’t seem like she did. I wanted to forgive and forget, but I’d done my utmost to act professional and not use my personal challenges as an excuse not to show up for work, and the fact that she had completely disregarded that annoyed me to no end.

She kept glancing down at me along the planes of her cheeks as if she were a goddess ready to pass judgment on me from her heavenly home. Then her manicured hand found my shoulder instead, weighing down on it like a block of lead. “You deserve it,” she told me without sounding like she meant it.

“Thank you,” I repeated dumbly. There was no need to be rude to her; she’d still be my boss for a while longer and I’d prefer staying on civilized terms with her than starting a war right before I left.

“I’m sure you’ll have lots of questions at the beginning,” she said, removing her hand and discreetly wiping it on her pencil skirt as if she was afraid of my germs. “If you need any help, I’m no more than a phone call away.”

I’d never say it to her face, but I highly doubted Wilkins and Hammond would want me going to her for help with the management style I’d be practicing. At most, I’d consider it if I really had no clue how to make ends meet, but it would be my last resort. Out loud I said, “I’ll keep that in mind,” with what I hoped looked like a genuine smile.

Carol lingered for a moment, then nodded to my monitors. “But for now, don’t let all of this go to your head. I still need you working on the floor for as long as you’re here.”

Because of the strange inflection in her voice, I chuckled softly and turned back to what I’d been doing before. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

To my surprise, she let out a little huff of laughter, patted my shoulder twice, and left.

My fingers went back to the keys, dancing with renewed energy on top of the conversation I’d had with my boss. I’d give her no reason to complain that I’d grown lazy after the news had been rolled out. Knowing what I now did, I figured she’d soon enough find other things to complain about regarding my work ethic.

So with the exception of getting another cup of coffee, I remained at my desk for a few hours and answered any questions or best wishes coming my way without taking my eyes off my screen. Typing and looking busy had the added benefit of making me seem unavailable and thus preventing me from accidentally becoming the center of attention. My face was already on the screens; if people wanted to see it, they needed only look up from their cubicles.

Spotlight was something I avoided at all costs unless I knew what I was doing and was confident doing it. For me, spotlight was something most kids yearned for and learned to attract, but in my case it had always been a daunting presence, a threat in any situation where other people were around. I’d been stared at enough to know that not all attention is good attention, and while I didn’t blame my audience for their curiosity, I’d rather they’d been taught some manners before being let loose in society.

Someone stumbled past my desk, arms flailing for balance as their foot caught on an unexpected obstacle. Equal parts worried and surprised, I retreated from my mental hiding place and looked up and past the cubicle sides to find Helen smoothing down her shirt with bright red cheeks and an apologetic look on her face. She was standing no more than a few feet from me, then squatted easily and picked up whatever it was that had disturbed her progress.

I groaned inwardly as she held my crutch between her hands, heat surging up through my neck and cheeks. “Sorry,” I said lamely, wanting to tell her Carol had pushed it off my desk before but deciding it didn’t matter. “Are you okay?”

She batted a hand dismissively at me, giggling as she set it where it had been before Carol’s arrival. “Yeah, yeah. Nothing happened.”

“Good,” I said, meaning it. Then I noticed she was already holding her jacket. “Where are you off to?”

“I think a better question is why you’re still here,” she said, tapping a slim-strapped watch on her wrist to indicate what she meant.

I squinted through my glasses at the numbers at the bottom of the computer screen. It was already three thirty, not an unusual time for me to still be here but definitely way past average shift length. “I didn’t know what time it was,” I admitted and pulled my spectacles off, placing them in their case.

“And even if you had, you’d probably still be here, wouldn’t you?” she asked, the flush fading slowly now.

“Probably,” I conceded, “but maybe this is a good day to finish at a normal time.” To illustrate my point, I shot a disapproving look at my own face bouncing off the screen above my desk.

When I looked at her again, she was still smiling. “I think you’re past that in any case,” she informed me, half-turning for the door near the tea kitchen.

“Helen,” I called out, not too loudly but loudly enough to make her whip back around, “if you can wait five minutes, we can leave together.”

Apparently, she wasn’t in any rush because she nodded eagerly and followed me around at my own pace while I cleaned up after myself. Cleaning up technically only meant making sure none of my notes were loose on my desk, rinsing off my coffee mug, and making sure my computer was shut off before I left, but I appreciated the patience she displayed.

I liked Helen. She did her job well, asked questions when she was in doubt, and didn’t kick up a fuss whenever there was something she couldn’t figure out. Some of the other newbies from her training group, by now, had realized that they no longer needed help every day, and that was making them cocky. More than once, one of them had accused our systems of being faulty when in fact their coding had just been plain wrong. Helen didn’t make that mistake.

For reasons beyond me, though, she always seemed almost afraid of me. Not in the way or the words she spoke, but her body language changed. She became a little fiddly, her cheeks turned red, and whenever I had a correction for her, she’d apologize for mistakes she’d almost made instead of being relieved that we’d gotten to it in time.

“Ready?” I asked when I was done, and she bounced towards the door in reply.

Laughing, I went ahead of her and held the door open, calling a quick “See you tomorrow, everyone” out to the rest of the floor. It was a habit I’d gotten when I’d first been asked to assist the new hires once they got on the floor. After a while, Tom had told me to announce it when I left because too many people didn’t look at the chalkboard and came looking for me after I’d gone home. Whether or not it helped, I had no idea.

We headed into the hallway together, almost colliding when, automatically, she twisted towards the stairs and I continued ahead for the elevator. Her gray eyes drifted to mine, and I returned the gaze with a smile as I stopped and held back in case she wanted to take the stairs. “Go ahead.”

She flipped the blonde strands framing her face backwards. “Nah, I’ll go with you,” she said, her words confident but her inflection uncertain. “If you don’t mind, of course.”

“Definitely not,” I assured her, starting again for the elevator and pushing the summoning button, “I just figured the stairs might be faster if you wanna get out of here.”

“I’m not in a hurry.” There was a hesitant pause at first, then, “I’ve been wondering… if there’s a fire here, would you be able to take the stairs?”

Even though she was very determinedly looking at my face, I knew she was asking about my leg and the stick I brought with me everywhere, and I appreciated the way she’d phrased the question, even if the outcome was the same. I couldn’t blame my colleagues for being curious – I’d have been curious, too, if I were them – but I preferred it when they didn’t ask or at least made an effort not to stare.

Because she looked like she wanted to dig her own grave there and then, I shot her a grin. “Yeah. The question is more whether I’d make it to the lobby before there was no lobby to reach.”

She giggled, then covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh, that’s a terrible thing to say. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing.”

“I wouldn’t have made the joke if I didn’t expect you to laugh.” I rolled my eyes impatiently at the elevator. There was probably a group of self-important marketing people blocking the doors so they could finish their private conversation without anyone missing their ride. “But I will say this: being dependent on an elevator in this building is not ideal. Too many people who don’t actually need it seem to think it’s their private property.”

“Oh, you mean like me right now?”

“That’s different. Nobody’s ever using it from down here to the lobby.”

“Hypocrite,” she said teasingly.

I made a face at her. “I don’t see you heading for the stairs.”

“Well, I’m not the one who’s complaining,” she pointed out cleverly.

“Touché,” I chuckled just as a noise inside the long shaft revealed that the elevator was finally on its way.

The doors slid open and we stepped in side by side. Helen stuck her hands in the pockets of her summer jacket, and I wrapped my free hand around the steel bar that circled the inside of the cart. I was pleasantly surprised by the way she’d handled a topic that was otherwise very awkward not only for me but for many of my conversation partners to discuss. Most people avoided asking and instead just stared at me as if I was an animal in a zoo, and I felt obliged to ignore their lack of manners even though it made me feel constrained.

So because I knew she must still be curious and because she’d dared bringing it up, I said, “You can ask if you want. I’m not going to bite your head off.”

She blushed, leaning back against the mirror casually. “I don’t wanna make you feel uncomfortable.”

“You won’t,” I lied, then followed up with a truth, “The withheld silence is worse.”

A sigh filled the empty space between us, and the corner of my mouth quirked upwards on its own. “I guess you get a lot of that, huh?”

“Too much,” I corrected her. “You know what my grandma calls it? My little issue.”

As expected, a few giggles poured out of her, and again she covered them up by lifting a hand to her flushed face. “No way?”

“Yes way. It’s like she thinks that if we euphemize it, it’s probably not as bad as it seems.”

The cart stopped and the doors opened to the lobby, which was relatively empty for once. I tightened my grip on my crutch and went ahead of her, pausing once I was standing on the marble floor to let her catch up. In five minutes, I’d be at the metro station on my way home to an empty apartment and the phone call I knew I should’ve made before the announcement went live.

If I was lucky, Tamara hadn’t told Mom and neither of my parents had turned on the television, but even though their lives were busy during the daytime, I thought it was unlikely. I also had to find the time to go through my phone before calling home to make sure I hadn’t missed a message from them.

“Okay, so since you said I could ask,” Helen began, heading for the large glass doors to the sunny streets outside, “Isn’t it annoying? Having to use a crutch, I mean?”

I shook my head, smiling. “One crutch is progress.”

“What did you use before?”

“Two,” I said and winked teasingly at her. “And a leg brace, too.”

Her brows furrowed. “What happened, exactly?”

I gave a light shrug. “Nothing happened. I was born this way, as Lady Gaga once sang.”

Again, she giggled, and I was pleased with her willingness to accept my lame jokes. We headed side by side through the automatic doors and plunged headfirst into a windy, noisy Manhattan scene. Traffic was flowing as smoothly as traffic possibly could in the chaotic urban center that was New York City, and the angry yells and tortured whines of horns rose between the skyscrapers which amplified the racket.

The tops of incredibly tall skyscrapers poked into a clear, blue sky like needles from a pin cushion, and I already knew that as soon as I was out of the grid of wind tunnels that formed this part of the city, it would be a warm and pleasant day.

Helen had paused a few feet away and was looking at the cars rushing by, her face blank. Because she was standing in the direction I needed to go, I moved closer and this seemed to catch her attention. At least she turned back to me with a smile on her face, then practically skipped a few paces forward in the same direction as I was going.

“PATH?”

“Of course,” I said, coming up to a crossing and waiting patiently for the little neon man to turn white.

Helen followed my eyes to the little icon across the street, then looked up at me instead. “Have you ever jaywalked?”

I shifted my weight onto my left foot and gave her a little nudge with my crutch. “That would be breaking the law,” I told her in a mock-horrified tone.

“I know,” she played along.

“Do you take me for a criminal?”

At this she burst out laughing, her eyes and nose scrunching up childishly. “Just answer the question.”

I put the crutch back in place and started through the intersection as the lights changed. “Of course I have, just not here.”

Despite probably already suspecting what my answer would be, she covered her mouth with a dramatic gasp and stared at me with eyes that were even wider than her usual deer-in-the-headlights look when I spoke to her. “So you are a criminal,” she laughed. “Where did you do it? And when?”

We’d reached the other side of the street and the station was coming up. “Um, in my home town when I was a teenager.”

“So that’s a while ago, then?”

A snort of laughter found its way out of my nose and if I hadn’t been walking, I’d have made a melodramatic gesture to accompany it. “I’m not that old.”

“No?” she asked, then cut herself off as a set of escalators declined into the foundation of the city right before us. “You getting on here?”

“Yeah.” For some reason, I’d assumed she’d be going the same way but that clearly wasn’t the case.

“Alright, well… I’ve gotta go meet a friend but I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?” She was wringing her hands, and I was wrecking my brain trying to figure out why her cheeks were turning a peachy, darker shade than usual.

I nodded. “Yup. I’ll be around.”

She gave a quick, awkward wave and bounced on the balls of her feet, then moved along as I placed my foot on the first appearing moving step, wondering why I was still smiling. There was really nothing to be smiling about now that I was alone and all the suited gentlemen and women emerging from the dark depths of the city must think I was crazy. 

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