This is a work of fiction inspired by the Everyday Inspiration writing course from WordPress.com. The one-word prompt was “choice.” It was published in six blog posts, and this page is the whole, which is the same as the sum of the parts, but maybe more convenient.
What to do? She looked at the clock. It was 9:24 p.m. on a rainy Saturday evening in April. Take a chance, accept his invitation, or pretend his e-mail didn’t exist and go back to life as usual.
She looked from the clock to the tiny, glowing screen of her cheap netbook. It was for personal use only, and up until today, it had been uncluttered.
Her brief glance at the clock hadn’t made his message disappear. The screen was so bad, it was hard to read, but if she worked at it, she could make out the letters. She already knew what it said anyway.
It’s Matt from work. I overheard you talking to your mom. I know you probably didn’t mean for me to hear you reminding her of your e-mail address, so if you don’t want me to use it, you don’t have to worry; I’m only going to send you one message.
That, Rita thought, was one very good reason not to talk to Mom in a room full of nosy strangers, AKA colleagues. Why was she even bothering with this? The answer was plain and simple, the choice wasn’t a choice, there was no way she should actually consider his offer. She kept scanning the screen, although the message was playing in her head more than it was scrolling in front of her eyes.
I watch you at work and I see how unhappy you are. I see the daily grind eating holes into the fabric of your self-worth. That probably wasn’t very poetic, but what I mean is I see how miserable the job makes you. I want out, too. The problem is, I can’t do it alone.
Rita tried to think who Matt might be. The older guy with sallow skin who would probably drop dead if he didn’t eat some vegetables soon? Or maybe Matt was the thirtysomething black guy who looked like he really enjoyed working out. What was the point of trying to guess who he was? She should just delete the e-mail and forget about him.
I think we’d make a great team. Together, I believe we could make a better life for ourselves. If you’re interested in talking to me about this, please let me know and we can arrange to meet for discussion over coffee.
Was it some kind of marriage proposal he was making, or did he just want to be friends who could help each other leave a career neither of them liked? He sure was right about how miserable she was advertizing bad products for unscrupulous clients. Just press the Delete button. That was all there was to it. Move the e-mail to the Trash, and then empty the Trash. Gone. Over. Finished. Bills needed to be paid, and now wasn’t the time to quit her job, especially not for this guy Matt. Her finger hovered above the little key.
The phone rang. She jumped. She answered it.
“Hi Rita, did you get my e-mail?” Mom said. She pulled the phone away slightly, wishing Mom would learn that she didn’t need to shout to be heard.
“I haven’t really looked yet,” she said.
“Can you check, please? I sent you three cute photos of Fluffy.” She tried not to groan; Mom was obsessed with her new terror of a kitten. The pics probably showed her climbing the curtains and getting tangled in electrical cords. It was a miracle Mom’s computer still worked.
“Okay.” She touched the trackpad carefully, the thing was so sensitive, and managed to open Mom’s e-mail without messing anything else up. “I got it. Thanks.”
“Well, isn’t Fluffy the cutest cat ever?”
She sighed and said, “Yes, but I’m tired, so I’ll look more carefully tomorrow. Good night.” She replaced the receiver, sent the Fluffy pictures to the Trash, reopened the e-mail from Matt, and clicked Reply.
Rita asked Matt to meet her at a Starbucks the next morning. He replied almost immediately, confirming that he’d meet her there at 7:00 a.m.
She tossed and turned all night long. At five, she rubbed her eyes and paced around her home until it was time to leave.
When she arrived, the place was pretty much empty, and she was fifteen minutes early. She got a caramel macchiato, even though she really didn’t need an even worse case of the jitters than she already had.
She sat down and looked around. There was only one man in the place. He was wearing a blue suit and had his head bent over a sleek laptop. A cup of something stood on the table to the right of his computer. Nobody she worked with dressed like that. They couldn’t afford to; the thing probably cost $3,000. She looked away from him to the door. It opened, and two women came in. She looked at the watch Mom had given her for her tenth birthday. Five minutes to go until the meeting. She sipped her coffee, and the slight tremor that had started in her hands a few minutes ago intensified. Any second now, the door would open and she’d see the old guy, the guy who loved to work out, or some other guy who would have a plan to improve both their lives. She sipped more coffee. She tried not to look at her watch, but couldn’t help glancing at it every thirty seconds or so. Was it slowing down? Maybe it needed to be repaired. She looked at the time on her phone, and it agreed with the time on her wrist. Her left foot began to jerk back and forth against the chair leg. Then her right foot started to do the same with the other chair leg.
Come on, come on, hurry up already.
Somebody tapped her on the shoulder. Good thing her cup was on the table and not in her hands, or it would have wound up on the floor.
She turned and came face to face with the man in the blue suit.
“Hi, Rita,” he said. “May I sit across from you?” His voice was pleasantly smooth and he was smiling. She nodded. He put a laptop bag down on one of the empty chairs and his cup on the table. His suit matched his eyes beautifully.
Rita looked into Matt’s clear blue eyes and wanted to ask a million questions, but didn’t know where to start.
“How are you feeling, Rita?” His words were soft, mellow, and yet very clear.
How long had he saved up to buy that suit? Was he really going to propose to her, right then and there? She picked up her cup and discovered that it was empty.
“D-do you m-mind if I g-go get another c-c-cup of coffee?”
“Not at all.” She tried to get up, but found it difficult. She had to brace herself using the table, but finally, she was upright. She walked toward the line, which was now six people long, glancing back every few seconds to make sure he was still there. Each time, he smiled and gave her the thumbs up. She got in line behind a woman who smelled like she worked in a perfume factory and waited. She spent the next ten minutes glancing at Matt, who took occasional sips from his large cup and smiled reassuringly at her each time she looked.
Finally, she made it to the front of the line.
“What would you like?”
“I don’t know!”
“Well make up your mind, some of us have to work,” a woman behind her said.
“Sorry,” Rita said. “I’ll have what I just had.”
“Which was?” the barista asked.
“Um, that drink with the funny name.”
“Come on, hurry up,” the same woman said. “I have a meeting.”
“I’m trying to remember,” Rita said.
“Oh, was it a caramel macchiato?” the barista said.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“The biggest one, please.”
She managed to pay without dropping her wallet, and then waited for them to make her drink. Finally, she got it and took it back to the table. Matt smiled.
“So, how are you feeling about work these days?”
“I can’t stand it,” she said. “I hate how we’re being asked to advertize all these bad products, and I just feel so drained, I mean, when I go home, you know what I mean?” He nodded.
“Go on, please.”
“I want to quit, but I need to pay my bills.”
Matt’s smile went out. It was like a light being turned off, and it plunged his face into utter darkness. His eyes became cold, indifferent, blue stones.
“I thought so,” he said, his voice still the same as it had been. “You’ve never met me, so let me introduce myself. My name is Matthew Taylor Hargrave Reid.” He got up from the table, and for a terrible instant, she thought he was going to extend his hand for shaking, but he picked up his bag instead. “I watched your job interview from behind a one-way mirror and I have cameras and microphones in the work areas, so I had no trouble hearing your conversation with your mother during morning break. I’ve been watching you, Rita. Do you know who I am now?” She nodded. “Say it.”
“You’re the CEO.”
He nodded, turned and took three steps toward the door, looked back over his shoulder, and said, “You’re fired.”
Rita watched Matt walk out of the Starbucks and get into a dark gray car. The engine came on and he roared away.
She took a sip of coffee but it tasted awful. Might as well go home, where she could cry unobserved. At least Matt hadn’t stayed to watch her reaction.
The door opened, and a beautiful woman came in. She had strawberry blond hair, a heart-shaped face, full lips, and was smiling. Rita recognized her right away from the picture on her blog. Maybe she’d listen. She left her cup on the table and walked over.
“Excuse me,” she said, “are you Gloria?”
“Yep, that’s me.”
“Do you have time to talk?”
“Sure. On or off the record?”
“You have a nice house,” Gloria said, as they got out of their cars, each with a cup in her hand.
“Thanks.” It wouldn’t be hers for much longer, what with no job and the outstanding mortgage payments.
She showed Gloria into the kitchen, went and got her laptop, and came back and sat across from her. While the computer started up, Gloria sipped coffee.
The desktop finally materialized out of the electronic gloom, and Rita opened up the e-mail from Matt. She turned the computer to face Gloria, who put down her cup and began to read.
After a minute, she said, “Thank you for showing me. Do you mind if I read your reply?”
“Sure, go ahead.”
Gloria clicked the trackpad and said, “Oh, I’m in Trash. Those cat pictures are so cute! Is that your kitty?”
“No, that’s Mom’s new kitten, Fluffy. That trackpad jumps around as much as she does.” Gloria laughed.
“Got it. Here we go. Okay, I’ve read everything. So what happened when you met him?”
“He’s the CEO. Matthew Taylor Hargrave Reid. He’d been watching me all along. He fired me.”
“What a dirty trick! I wonder if he’s done it before. Have others been dismissed that you know of?”
“Yeah, maybe, but I don’t know if they were fired or if they quit, but three or four women have left in the last year.”
“Would you like me to write a story about this?”
“For your blog?” She nodded. “Won’t he sue me?”
“If you published information about his company, he could certainly take legal action, but I would publish his e-mail and the fact that he fired you. I won’t say anything bad about him, and his e-mail doesn’t say that you shouldn’t tell anybody.”
Rita took a sip of coffee, smiled at Gloria, and said, “Thank you. Let’s do this.”
Matthew’s phone rang. Good, his new client would be ready for him. He lifted the receiver, but didn’t speak.
“Good morning, Mr. Reid,” his secretary said. “Your nine o’clock has arrived and is in conference room one.”
He looked at his watch and saw that it was 8:55 a.m. Good. That meant he had twenty more minutes to drink his coffee in peace.
At 9:15 a.m., he left his office, which took up half of the top floor, and unlocked his private elevator. The doors opened, and he stepped out. He turned left and walked down the hall, turned the corner, and stopped in his tracks.
Stretched across the full width of the hallway was a banner with a picture of a gray kitten printed on it. The animal had been photographed in mid-leap from floor to bookshelf, and a speach bubble had been added, which read: “We quit.” Standing under and behind the banner were the six women and four men who worked in cubicles and who had no business there, especially not when he had an important meeting to attend.
The conference room door opened, and his secretary came out.
He heard her say, “Mr. Reid will be here any minute now.” She closed the door and joined the group behind the banner. “Good morning, Mr. Reid, please take this as my resignation. Your client’s becoming rather edgy without his dose of caffeine, so I suggest that you go to the kitchen, if you can find it, and brew him a pot of coffee.”
“Hi Matt,” somebody said behind him. He turned and saw Amelia, his wife. A tall man stood beside her. “I’ve always wanted to go into business, and after talking to Rita, I know we’ll work well together. Don’t worry, we don’t plan to compete with you. Oh, and let me introduce my lawyer, Mr. Jasper. After reading that despicable e-mail you sent, I want a divorce.”
I’ve had a ton of fun writing this. For more, visit Fiction and A Letter to Short Fiction.