Reading Time: 6 minutes

In the late morning, Henry walked to Audrey’s station to obtain a paper binder. He found her engaged with another girl in an inane discussion about child care centers. They continued chattering back and forth as he stood there, politely waiting for them to reach a stopping point and turn their attention to him. They could plainly see he was standing right next to them, Henry thought.

But there was no stopping point, and no turning of attention. The subject changed to favorite recipes, then to restaurants. Five minutes later, when their conversation began to segue into the subject of Mothers-in-law, Henry cleared his throat.

“Excuse me Audrey. Mr. Williamson said to see you if I needed anything. Do you have an empty 3-ring binder?”

Both girls swiveled their heads toward him and looked him up and down. The enmity in their flaring glares was both palpable and blatant.

“I don’t do binders,” Audrey snapped. “Administrative Assistants don’t do binders. You need to go down to the office storeroom and fill out a requisition for one, just like everybody else in the department does. Now, do you mind? We were talking, here. Before being interrupted. By you.”

They turned their heads back away from him and continued chattering where they left off. Henry could not bring himself to interrupt Audrey again to ask the storeroom’s location. He slunk away. Behind him, he heard a snide comment, spoken just loudly enough for him to be sure to hear it.

“Oh, he’s that new hire, whatsisname–Henry Hassleflop. Rude old fart, isn’t he?”

He wandered around the office for awhile, trying to find someone who would tell him where the supply storeroom was. He finally came upon a worker kind enough to grunt “basement” in reply to his question. He found a stairwell and descended into the depths of the building.

The basement seemed to be deserted. At length, he found a locked, caged storage area that looked like it contained office supplies. Searching further, he stumbled across a teenager sitting in a half-hidden niche behind a boiler, studying a men’s magazine. Henry turned away as the kid zipped up his pants, and asked him over his shoulder how he could go about requisitioning a binder.

“Oh, I can’t give out office supplies to employees, only to the department Administrative Assistants. That’s the rules,” the teenager said. “You need to tell your AA what you need, and she’ll requisition it, pick it up down here, and deliver it to you. On Thursdays only.”

Henry trudged back up to his cubicle. Piles of loose paper were okay, he decided. Piles worked.

Breathing a silent prayer to the engineer who had invented the mouse interface, Henry opens his word processing program and begins to compose his plea for help. Slowly, his quivering finger selects “Insert” and “Symbol” from a pull-down menu, and glacially moves the screen cursor to hover over the first letter in the message. Each succeeding click brings him closer to salvation, and gives him the motivation to continue.

Highlighting the completed message is by far the most difficult task he has attempted since his stroke. Henry’s vision is narrowing further, and he is sweating profusely. His breathing is becoming more and more labored. At last, he copies the message to the email field, and sends it to Williamson’s text pager: “ILL NEED HELP.” The PC clock reads 4:55 P.M.

Henry stares at the email screen and listens to his co-workers power down their workstations, lock their desks, and leave for home. No one says goodbye to him. He hears one of them talking to another as they walk out about Brandon having quit the company that afternoon.

At 5:05 P.M., a reply from Williamson pops up in his incoming mailbox. Henry’s finger twitches uncontrollably as he tries to open it.

“tied up in late mtg. ill get back to you tomorow am. btw dont use all caps in yr msgs its annyong too read.”

Tears of rage and frustration stream down Henry’s face. its annyong too read. . .

At 5:35 P.M., he hears a noise nearby. A man is humming; he sounds old. Henry realizes it’s the janitor, emptying wastebaskets. He listens to him working his way closer and closer, then he hears the man at the opening of his cubicle, pulling the wastebasket out from under the desk panel near its entrance.

“Workin’ late tonite, huh? No future to it. Be the death of ya, y’know, heh heh. . .”

Henry screams inside his brain, trying to do something, anything to get the janitor’s attention. But his back is turned to the cubicle’s entrance, and there is no way he can physically signal his agonizing situation. As far as the janitor is concerned, Henry is just another unfriendly, uncommunicative desk worker in a large office chockfull of unfriendly desk workers–none of whom had ever bothered to acknowledge his existence before.

“Heh, all done. ‘Night now.”

Henry hears his emptied wastebasket being slid back under his desk, and listens to the slowly vanishing sounds of the janitor’s humming as he wheels his garbage cart away from the area.

I’m not going to make it, Henry thinks. He sits and waits for the end to come. The memory of lunchtime insidiously works its way into the forefront of his mind.

“What’s that, there?” Henry pointed to a stainless steel pan behind the glass panel on the cafeteria hotline. It held sloppy looking mounds covered in a red sauce with stringy yellow streaks running through it.

The gum-chewing cafeteria server looked up at him. “Beef enchiladas, hon’. Just like it says up on the menu by the entrance. Or maybe you don’t read so good. You want one, or not?”

Henry shook his head no, and shuffled on down the line. At least the chocolate cake looked good. He walked over to the drink dispenser and pulled a styrofoam cup out of a holder. Five unwanted ones came along with it, falling to the floor.

The cashier yelled over to him. “Gotta charge you for those, you know. You ruined ’em.” The other employees in the cafeteria line stared at Henry as he awkwardly stooped to corral the rolling, wayward cups. The employees snorted and murmured to each other. Fortunately, the embarrassed ringing in his ears prevented Henry from hearing what they were saying. He filled up his cup with ice and diet cola, then moved to the checkout cashier.

“Two-seventy five,” she said. “Including the cups.”

Henry reached in his wallet. He had no small bills, so he pulled out a twenty.

The cashier eyed the proffered bill with disdain. “This ain’t no freakin’ bank, you know. Got anything smaller?”

Henry said no, and she grudgingly gave him his change. He walked into the main dining area and looked over the sea of faces in front of him. There were a few empty tables, but Henry was determined to make the acquaintance of some of his co-workers. He studied the diners. Christ, it’s like this whole company is nothing but kids. I might as well be eating in a high school cafeteria. He spotted a table occupied by what he judged to be the oldest people in the room–three men in perhaps their mid-thirties–and walked over to it.

“Mind if I sit down here, fellas?” he said, placing his tray on the table.

The nearest of the three looked up at Henry. “Not at all, Pops. We were about to leave, anyway.”

The three got up and left Henry sitting alone at the table. They hadn’t even given him the chance to introduce himself. He slowly ate his chocolate cake and thought about how long his afternoon was going to seem.

Henry’s thoughts race through his mind like wildfire as the last of his life essence steadily leaks out of his body.

Goddamn it, I’m dying. I ought to be thinking about God, or the disposition of my soul, or the meaning of life–or even about my blood-sucking ex-wife, who took me for everything I ever managed to scrape together. She’s why I’m in this fix in the first place. I could’ve been retired and relaxing on my back porch, sipping a Martini. But no. I’m sitting here dying alone, and all I can think about is how much I hate this shitty company and the shitty people who work for it!

The overhead office lights had been turned off, and the only source of illumination is coming from Henry’s PC monitor. The screen clock reads 7:49 P.M.

Henry’s vision has shrunk to a small circle in the center of his field of view, and he is having to struggle to breathe. His two right fingers twitch. They seem to move with a volition of their own, pushing the screen cursor up to the file display menu. It’s there somewhere, Henry thinks: the company’s central database. Password? Yes, I remember it. I can compose and copy it there, just like I copied my help message.

Henry had been hired on the basis of his IT data security experience. A big part of his skill-set is knowing who the data thieves are, how they operate, where they lurk. If its secure client data files ever become compromised, he knows that a company like Reliant Data Services is ruined. Its managers’ careers are destroyed, and its employees end up working in fast-food restaurants. Henry has seen it all happen before, first-hand.

It is not until 9:14 P.M. when Henry manages to access the company database, and, with a single triumphant stroke of his left mouse button, commences the outbound data stream. Reliant’s client files begin to fly off to a hacker website where the worst and most voracious of the data criminals will be overjoyed to find the boon. The entire transmission will take two or three hours to complete, but it will proceed on its own.

Henry feels his face break into a sardonic grin–possibly a little droopy on the left side, but it feels good anyway. Before he expires from pulmonary failure at 10:03 P.M., Henry has the time and the resolve left to compose one final email message, addressed to “Send to All”:


*** THE END ***

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