Authors: Daphne Lamb
His eyes flashed wide. “You’re the one who took my book?” he asked. He withdrew it from under his arm and held it close. “Never touch my book. Someone could have stolen it.”
“It’s a book on risk management,” I said. “No one’s going to want it.”
He gave me a deadpan stare, then walked away, but continued to talk.
“There are golden truths in this book!” he shouted. “Our world hinges on what’s in this book!”
Robert had since given up his top-floor office with its spectacular views of citywide death and destruction and had set up shop in the now vandalized break room. For the most part, he seemed unfazed and rarely bothered looking up from his Blackberry, which didn’t hold any reception.
“Have you been able to reach anyone from the Chicago team on the phone?” he asked without directly looking at me when I walked in to use the cleanish water to rinse out my mug.
“Which phone should I use?” I asked. “The one by my desk that doesn’t work or the one at your desk that doesn’t work?”
He mashed his fingers onto the tiny keys. “Nothing here fucking works,” he said. “Supposed to be the best technology out there.”
“We really don’t have technology anymore.”
“See what I mean?” he asked. “Million-dollar company. All of it crap. And where the hell are the lights?”
I shrugged. “The lights from the power that doesn’t work?”
“Bet you anything the folks upstairs have it.”
He stared at me. I stared back, daring him to blink first. Which he did. He always did.
“I’m getting really tired of you not being a step ahead,” he said.
“The power’s out,” I said. “The elevators aren’t working, and I don’t want to get locked out of the office again. Where it’s really dark and creepy, I might add.”
“Fucking useless,” he muttered as he went back to his office. “I’m using the bathroom.”
“The bathroom’s not on this floor,” I said. “You insisted all the sick people go to the floor with the bathrooms, remember? Or does your risk management wisdom have a better option?”
He gave me a withering glare. So I took a deep breath and changed my tone.
“There’s two options,” I said. “You can get stuck in the dark stairwell and feel around corners until you can turn left or you can use one of the corners behind any plant you see.”
“So no one’s getting any dignity out of this, are they?” he asked.
I shook my head and stared at the floor.
“We got any food around here?” he asked.
“I’ve got a bag of Funyuns and there’s some leftover Raisenettes that I found in the back of the break room.”
Underneath my desk, I had made a makeshift bed out of two emergency blankets and an ugly oversized hooded sweatshirt that had been the company Christmas present the previous year. I shoved my feet under it for warmth, and it was oddly comforting for something I had made fun of just six months before.
I heard a voice calling from in the darkness.
I stood and tried to peer into the darkness. I saw movement, but wasn’t sure who was coming.
“Who is that?” Robert asked.
“I can’t tell,” I said. “I don’t know who else is living in this building.”
“Well, find out,” he said, annoyed. “I don’t have time today for people stumbling by my office.”
“You mean the break room?” I asked.
“Whatever,” he muttered as he stared at his Blackberry. “If it gets me no view of what’s going on outside, I’ll take it.”
“Who’s there?” I asked.
“Tell her I’m not here,” he hissed.
I reached over and shut Robert’s office door as Debra, late 40s, perky and cultishly corporate, got close enough I could see her in the limited light the window offered.
“Hi, Debra,” I said, smiling broadly. “He says he’s not here.”
“Jennifer!” she said. “You’re still here?”
“I’m Verdell,” I said. “Jennifer was the receptionist. Emphasis on the word was.”
“Of course,” she said. “I can never keep up with the turnaround here.”
“Did you check the group of sick people downstairs?” I asked. “She might be one of them.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” she said. “My assistant died three days ago. I’d ask HR to get me a new one, but god knows how helpless they are.”
“I think everyone’s pretty helpless these days,” I said. “Probably to save their own lives. My regards to Denise, by the way. I heard she was nice.”
She shrugged calmly. “What are you going to do,” she said. Then she stopped to think. “Of course. How silly of me. Funny.” She cleared her throat. “Where did you say Robert was?”
“Uh, in a meeting.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Really? Who’s around that he’d be in a meeting with?”
“Like he ever tells me anything.” I laughed with as much fake enthusiasm as I could during times of corporate fallout.
I gestured at his darkened form in the break room. “Maybe you’d like to help yourself to some picked over Raisenettes or Funyuns.”
She sighed. “You lower level entries and your carbs.”
She plopped herself down onto a nearby desk and folded her hands. Despite having been locked away for a week with no change of clothes and limited resources, Debra looked fantastic. Her pencil skirt was short and unwrinkled; her blouse perfectly coordinated with her chunky jewelry and platform nude heels. It was dim in the room. I couldn’t tell what the makeup situation was, but I was going to just assume it was perfect.
She leaned forward as if we were girlfriends at lunch.
“While I’m waiting, I have to tell you something.”
She pulled a small bottle of nail polish out of her skirt pocket. “Did you hear about my makeup party I’m having next week?”
I shook my head. “Now where on earth would you be having that?”
“Originally, it was going to be at my home, but now it looks like it’ll be in the break room,” she said. “Unless they get all this,” she motioned to the carnage lying on the freeway below us, “cleaned up. I’ll keep you posted, though.”
“Yes, anyway, there’s going to be games, prizes, and best of all, you can order the entire fall line. And my gift to you is one of the shades of nail polish.”
I held it up to the light. “It’s pretty. Like a magenta color.”
“Not magenta,” she said. “It’s called Candy Doo-Wop.”
“I don’t think I can say that with a straight face.” I handed it back to her.
“It’s going to be the hottest color this year. You’ll see.” She pushed the bottle back at me. “Please. My gift to you.”
I looked at the bottle. “Color of the year? I would have thought it’d be a murky grey or crusted blood burgundy. But thank you, Debra,” I said.
I set the bottle to the side. She sighed, looked wistfully at Robert’s door.
“Do you want me to find you when he comes back?”
She playfully shook her finger in my face. “No one ever gets back to me. I know it’s a joke with everyone.”
“He’s busy. You know that.”
She stood and smoothed down the fabric of her skirt. “I’ve got a hunch I know where he’s meeting.”
She walked up to his door and knocked gently. “Robert?”
There was silence for a moment before I heard the sound of Robert clearing his throat, his shadow moving around.
The door opened by a crack, which Debra immediately shoved her beautiful platform heel into it.
“The bosses upstairs are on me about these numbers,” she said, trying to push her way in.
“I don’t have numbers for them,” he snarled. “Nobody has numbers. And now nobody has power.”
It was at that moment the main doors of the floor were kicked in and a SWAT team swarmed us. I was startled and jumped backward, gripping the wall for balance.
“This is not a drill!” they shouted. “Everyone down on the floor!”
Debra rolled her eyes at them. “We are in a meeting. Can’t this wait at least fifteen minutes?”
They were forceful and humorless. We were being evacuated, and I barely had time to grab my belongings. My hands shook, but I grabbed my purse, an emergency blanket and that really ugly sweatshirt from a team building exercise last year before someone grabbed my arm and hoisted me to the emergency exit.
“I-I’m sorry!” I stammered. “Am I in trouble?”
“You apologize and then ask if you’re in trouble?” the SWAT guy asked. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry?” I offered.
The SWAT member shook his head. “You’re building’s getting demolished, and we’re under orders to get you all out.”
“Can I at least get my car out of the garage?” Robert asked. “It’s a black Mercedes C Class. I left it near the stairwell entrance.”
“Just keep moving!” the SWAT guys shouted.
Robert grabbed random things while Debra continued to point to numbers on a piece of paper at him. He made a grand sweep of his desk into his gym bag.
“Change my voicemail, would you?” he asked me. “Say something about how I’m out of the office but can be reached on my Blackberry.”
“No, I’m not saying anything like that,” I said, voice quivering as a SWAT member shoved me forward.
Debra fought against the SWAT team as they had grabbed her by the arms and tried to steer her toward the doors.
“No!” she said. “My office is downstairs. I have lotion in there!”
“Ma’am!” one of the SWATters said. “Your life depends on it!”
She struggled against their force and was only able to manage to slightly flail her hands. “This is police brutality!” she cried. “Would you treat your mother this way?”
There were loud protests from other people being brought down so I couldn’t hear the rest of her commotion, but she did manage to kick the guy in the groin with those upsettingly tall stiletto heels. He howled in pain but kept his grip on her.
Frankly, I don’t know if she was allowed to get her lotion, but at that point, she certainly had the right do-or-die attitude that might be necessary for survival, which I wondered if I might need in the future.
into school buses that waited outside. I walked up the aisle, searching for a seat, only to see weary fugitives in dirty suits and skirts. Finally, I sat next to a small, nervous-looking man, his fingers shaking as he clutched a briefcase.
“Are you okay?” I asked. “You’re not…” I hesitated, thinking about what I’d seen with virus-stricken coworkers and how to diplomatically find out what my chances were of now acquiring it. “…sick are you?” I slowly finished.
“I need the back row,” Robert announced, standing over me. “Make some room.”
Without a word, the small, nervous-looking man stood and moved farther down the bus. Robert happily took his seat.
With that, we were driven to an abandoned junior high, which now serviced as a quarantine station about ten miles away. I stared out the windows, taking in the demolished cityscape. I can’t begin to tell you how depressing the trip was. So many things were gone, or were in stages of crumbling. I saw people standing around, lying down, maybe they were dead. I don’t know.
There were people in yellow hazard suits, walking back and forth with sensors. We stopped at a traffic light long enough for me to notice one of the yellow-suited men lift his sensor arm and had it come down savagely on a homeless man. I turned away and checked to see if there was a signal on my phone.
* * *
We were one of several vans that pulled into the quarantine unit, which looked as if it had been quickly assembled, by way of stacked cinder blocks and a loosely tied down tarp, possibly the day before. As soon as the van stopped, we were quickly ushered out. One of the men shoved Debra forward, and she broke down and started to cry.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry,” the man said. He held out a hand to help her up.
“You should be!” She sniffed. “I’ve never done anything wrong and you treat us like dirt! Ever heard of civil rights?”
I had never felt bad for her before, but I did now. She was so put together and made so much more money than I did. It was a weird feeling. I kept my gaze down on the ground and pretended as if I didn’t notice anything.
It was freezing for December in Los Angeles, but no one was actually used to how cold it was. Usually, this was a time of year when people complained about the temperature, but it was never actually jacket weather. This winter was different from any other than had ever come to the city. The sky had a greenish tint and a light drizzle that stung your skin.
I heard a familiar voice and frantically looked around. Bruce stood in a nearby line, and our gazes locked on one another. He waved and smiled, wearing a black hoodie I had purchased for him for the Christmas before. I waved back, but not as enthusiastically.
I had bought him a generic black hoodie as a gift out of sheer panic from our third Christmas together and no idea what to get him. I smiled back and waved again, momentarily pleased that his hoodie was one of the only things he had chosen to take with him. I took a mental picture of this event and added it to my pros column on the Bruce list. My mind wandered to my apartment and the scattering of gifts from him shoved in a closet that I could have brought with me, but I didn’t think twice about it.
Poking the person in front of him, he asked, “Save my place, would you?”
He strode over to me with his stocky legs in dirty jeans.
“Hey, sweetie,” he said, putting his arms around me, kissing me on the cheek. “What has it been, like a month?”
It had been a month. I thought back to our last conversation.
“Traffic’s going to be murder getting back,” he’d muttered back on that day in the break room. “Maybe we can just hang after my rehearsal instead.”
“But karaoke,” I said. “And Tatiana thought it might be fun to—”
He’d held his hand up. “Please.”
And then he’d taken off, heading quickly to the elevator. I knew he had made it back because he texted two days later, asking if I wanted to go to his roommate’s wedding that weekend. I’d looked out and saw dark fiery clouds and had simply responded back, “Let’s see what happens.”
“You’re here!” I said. “You’re okay!”
“I know,” he said. “Probably should have texted you. Or you could have texted me. I was around.”
I shook my head. “You could have called. For all I knew you were buried under that naked girl painting your roommate was so damn proud of.”
“Oh, I never went home,” he said, then suddenly stopped and looked up at the ceiling. “I wonder how Matt’s doing.”
“Excuse me?” I asked. “Where did you go?”
“They wouldn’t let anyone leave your office, so I’ve been hanging out on the tenth floor this whole time.”
I stared at him. “You couldn’t come upstairs? Didn’t people know you didn’t actually work there?”
“We were all living in a lot of fear,” he said. “But it’s so good to see you now. So glad you made it.”
I thought about that pros and cons list Tatiana had made me do and mentally marked that sentence as a con.
“You know what burns me up the most?” he asked. “I was in play rehearsals too. Opening night was supposed to be two days ago. And I really liked my part.”
I smiled coldly. “You would have been really great in it as that one guy.”
I didn’t even know what play he was in. Had the Incident not happened, I would have gone to his opening night and applauded when the show was over, but after three years of his trying to break through the glass ceiling of the acting profession and getting nowhere, all I could really offer was blind encouragement.
“Thanks,” he said. “Your support is what keeps me going.”
“Move along!” shouted someone in a hazmat suit.
“Sorry!” I said. I turned to Bruce. “What are we standing in line for, anyway? No one’s answering any questions.”
The guards came up behind us and a whole group of others and ushered us into the gym. We were shoved past a wall of lockers, which made me wonder if kids still had their things inside, hoping they’d come back to school to get them.
He grimaced. “We’re being put in color groups,” he said. “And that’s how they decide which quarantine camp we all get shipped off to.”
“Quarantine?” I asked. “If they kept our building, they could’ve just left us.”
He took me by the shoulders. “Don’t say that, sweetie,” he said. “There were mutants or sick people living in your building. You were lucky to escape.”
I made a face, then felt a tight urgency coming from my bladder. “Mutants?” I asked. “Says who? Which floor?”
“Everyone,” he said. “Well, I heard it from three people. You’re just lucky they got you out. You could be one now. And then we’d have to break up.”
“So I’d be available to date other mutants?”
He shrugged with puppy dog begging. “You know I would still love you,” he said.
“So what’s the deal with the color groups?” I asked. “Do they mean anything?”
“Here’s what I can figure out,” Bruce said. “You don’t want to be yellow. That’s for people who look a little lower class.”
“We’re all dirty and forlorn,” I said. “I don’t think that’s a healthy indicator. And I would give any color group anything to find a bathroom around here.”
One of the SWATers handed Bruce and myself yellow bracelets.
“Move along,” he said.
“Excuse me?” I asked, pulling on his sleeve. “What’s the deal with the color classification?”
He sighed. “Tenth time today I’ve had to explain this,” he muttered. “But at least you’re not asking me where your aunt is.”
He shook his head, rolling his eyes. “There should be some kind of rules sign on the wall that’s all.”
He pointed to the yellows. “You’re a yellow, got that?”
We nodded simultaneously.
“Means we got you from an area of high danger. People who are soft and aren’t used to hardship.”
“So kids and people rescued from offices?” I asked.
“Exactly,” he said, then pointed to a group under a blue arrow. “Those are the blues. We rescued them from labs and tech headquarters. We need their brains so they’re going off where they’ll be preserved.”
“Are you sure there’s no better way to phrase that?” I asked.
“Not on a day like today, ma’am,” he said, then gestured to a group of rather beautiful-looking people under a green arrow. “That’s our green group. I don’t want to say VIP, but they’re more noted people who we’re taking to a special place where they should get better treatment than everyone. I think I saw Tom Hanks over there somewhere.”
Bruce folded his arms. “Clearly this is the category I was meant to be in.”
I smiled at him. “Thank you. Can you tell me how I might get in touch with a family member?””
“Move along,” the guard said.
Bruce gave him a fake smile and then quickly stashed the bracelet under his shirt. He nodded calmly. “Oh well, we tried.”
“You heard the man,” I said. “We hoped for better, but in the end, it’s the yellow group. Does this mean I get to find the bathroom now?”
“I’m not going to be a yellow,” he said. “I am an actor. Actors choose who they are, and today I am green.”
I patted him on the back. “Well, if a better color means a path to the bathroom, then I’m in,” I said. “Whatever it takes.”
He smiled. “It’s so great to have you back.”
I considered this moment, here and now, to utter the words,
Bruce, I think it’s time we saw other people
, when an official poked me. I turned and faced him.
“Yellow, maybe?” I shrugged. “Can you direct me to the nearest bathroom?”
“Depends on what color group you’re in,” he said. “Yellows are all the way over on the other side, but there’s a line. Greens get to use this close one.”
He pointed to a smaller line leading to a unisex bathroom.
I gave him my best smile. “I must be a green then,” I said. I went to turn toward the bathroom, but he stopped me, pointed at my pants.
“What’s that sticking out of your pocket?”
My yellow bracelet peeked out, damning me. “Oh. This yellow thing.”
I laughed awkwardly and then set out on a trek for the bathroom with a line that snaked the length of the floor. I went to the end of it and closed my eyes, trying to think of other things to distract me from the pain in my bladder.
Bruce ran up to me. “What are you doing here?”
“I have to use the bathroom,” I said as the line shifted slightly forward. “They won’t let me use the green bathroom.”
Bruce rolled his eyes. “This is stupid. It’s green or nothing. What’s the bathroom like? Any of the cast from
“I didn’t get a chance—”
He grabbed my hand, and we rushed over to the other side of the quarantine where they handed out those green bracelets.
“Excuse me,” I said to a covered guard, breathing hard. “We were supposed to be in the green group, but it seems there’s been a mistake.”
I stared at that bathroom. I just wanted to go in and have one less thing to worry about already.
The guard took off her covered helmet, revealing a surly woman wearing a lot of makeup. She shrugged. “Your point being?”
I handed her the bracelet. “May we please be green?” I asked. “And may I use your facilities?”
She snorted. “Y’all out of luck,” she said. “Move along.”
She waved us away before I thought of something. “Wait!” I said. I reached into my bag and pulled out Debra’s bottle of nail polish. “It’s the hottest color this fall.”
She pointed at it, her eyes wide. “Where’d you get that?”
I shook my head. “Does it matter? I’d be willing to part with it for a place in the green group.”
She snatched the bottle and my yellow bracelet out of my hands. “Get over to the distribution line. Tell them Donna sent you.”
“Thank you!” I said, pulling a bewildered Bruce along.
“What was that about?” he asked.
“You heard the woman,” I said. “Doesn’t matter.”
We went up to the distribution line that was moving forward and then someone handed me a green bracelet and one to Bruce.
“Weren’t you and your sister registered in yellow?” the man in the hazmat suit asked Bruce.
“Donna sent me,” he said.
“We’re not brother and sister.” I said. “We don’t look that much alike.”
“Do we?” he murmured.
Bruce and I nodded simultaneously. Just in case. They pushed us along, and Bruce stared wistfully at the other groups.
“Maybe we should aim for the blue group,” he said.
Debra came up behind us, out of breath. “Whatever you do
go into the bathroom set aside for the yellows. There’s no toilet paper, and I had to impale someone’s foot with my heel just to use the sink to wash my hands.”
“Noted,” I said, uncomfortably switching my weight between feet.
“What are we doing?” she asked.
“Getting our green bracelets,” I said.
She made a face. “Ew, do you know who’s a yellow?”
We caught a familiar sight no more than ten feet away from us. Steve Harks, an A-list celebrity seen in movies where things exploded. The only reason I remembered Steve’s name was because as soon as Bruce saw him he whispered madly, “Steve Harks. Steve Harks, Steve Harks.”
I’ll say this—even with a week of hardship and whatever misfortunate circumstances—the man was drop-dead gorgeous. My jaw dropped a little as I tried hard not to stare. Debra, on the other hand, made no secret about it. She looked like a fourteen year old, eyes wide and shining. She jabbed me with her chipped and polished fingernail and heavy cocktail ring. I turned to her.
“Should I go introduce myself?” she asked. “This is how people come together, meet and fall in love, right?”
“Can’t hurt,” I said. “Who knows where we’ll be tomorrow.”
“Oh, my god,” she said, fanning herself with her hand. “What do I even say?”
“You could say hello,” I said. “Or tell him about how you were in high school when he was born.”
She covered her mouth. “I really liked him in that one thing,” she said. “The one where he played that guy…what’s it called? You know the one. He wore a suit.”
I turned to Bruce, thinking for some reason that he would find Debra just as amusing as I did. But he gawked just as hard at Steve Harks as she did.