Thursday, September 15, 2011
Tina stopped at the QuickFill near the freeway exit for gas and doughnuts on the way in. A couple years ago, she had started bringing doughnuts for her department on Thursdays and it turned into a habit. The others took turns bringing bagels on Friday. Since this particular station was closest to her house, and Kelly worked here two days a week, this is where she usually got gas and doughnuts.
Merging onto the freeway, she noticed the white pickups right away. If anything, there were even more of them on the road than yesterday. To Tina, it seemed like they represented every fourth or fifth vehicle on the freeway. Even so, she might have missed them if she hadn’t been looking — they all seemed to be ideal drivers, giving plenty of room, signaling lane changes, and generally being polite. It was always the tailgaters, the rocket sleds, and the weaver-birds that stood out (and caused most of the problems when things got away from them). Then she thought about the QuickFill stop, and couldn’t remember seeing a single white pickup at the pumps. Had any gone by on the street? She couldn’t remember. Hell, there might have been three or four of them, but she’d been preoccupied.
Chirping from her Blackberry interrupted her train of thought. Traffic again was moving well, and she had enough room in front of her to risk stealing a glance. Email from a client; not marked urgent, so it could wait until she got in. By this time, she would usually be stuck in traffic and checking her phone risked only the ire from people behind her wanting to get moving again, but —
Some moron in a grey Prius cut right in front of her and across three lanes to make the off-ramp; Tina cursed and laid on the horn as she saw the guy yapping at his cellphone all the way across. Two white pickups were between him and the ramp, but one sped up and the other slowed down, giving the idiot room to make the exit and another day to live. “Now that’s more like Atlanta traffic,” she grumbled as the adrenaline rush subsided, “except for the trucks with manners.”
The other oddity was pulling into the Maxcom parking deck 20 minutes early. On a whim, she cruised the deck, looking for white pickup trucks. There was only one to be found: it was grimy, identified itself as a Ranger, and sported Braves and Thrashers stickers at either end of the rear bumper. She entered the building, dropped her doughnuts on the table outside her office and got to work.
After a couple of hours of answering emails, Tina noticed that things were unusually quiet: Jaya, the contractor, hadn’t been by to get her time sheet signed, and there had been only two interruptions (Frank needed a priority check and Adam was having trouble with the Client from Hell). She checked the table; she saw doughnuts and stood to count the survivors. They were usually long gone by 9:30, but just past 10 there were still four. Walking through the cubes, Chi, Jaya, Sara, and Thakor appeared to be no-shows; their computers were off or showed a login screen, and no jackets warmed the chairs. None of them had called in or emailed, and they were among her most reliable workers.
She noted the apparent absentees, double-checked her email and voicemail to confirm none of them had called in, then called HR to ask if they knew of a flu bug. “No,” the admin told her, “but it’s got us all worried. We have several people out here too, no call — and none of them ever stay out without calling in. If it’s like this tomorrow, we’ll probably send everyone home early.”
“Thanks. What about job fairs in town? Have you heard anything like that?”
“No, I don’t think anyone is staffing up yet. There’s talk about it starting mid-Spring, though.”
“OK, thanks. Is there a problem with me calling their cell numbers? I have them here with me.”
“No, just pitch it as concern rather than anything else.”
“I understand. Actually, that’s all it is — it’s been pretty quiet today anyway. But if you’re having the same problems… well, thanks again.” Tina thought a moment, then dialed another extension.
“Morning, Tina,” said Connor. “What’s up?”
“Hey Connor. Does Tech Support have a lot of no-shows today?”
“Oh, hell yes. I’m guessing about a third of the crew went AWOL on me. Even Kumar’s out, and he never stays out without calling at least twice and emailing once, and offering to help anyway. You think it’s a virus going around?”
“I don’t know. But your call volumes — how are they looking?”
“Hell, if anything they’re down even farther than my staffing. That’s the only reason I hadn’t called you begging for mercenaries already.”
Tina laughed. “I’m missing a bunch of my own staff, and the most reliable ones at that. You don’t think they’ve all bolted for a start-up or something, do you?”
“If there was a startup looking for that many bodies in Atlanta, we’d have both heard about it. Hey, it’s almost 11. Wanna grab an early lunch downstairs?”
“I’m not that hungry, and I want to call my own AWOLs first, but I could go for a cup of tea. See you at the elevator in about 20 minutes.”
“Did you get anyone?” Connor asked as Tina sat down. Café Eclipse was in the basement, so the owners decided to work with the lack of light and decorated the place in an astronomy motif. A total eclipse replica burned from the corner.
“No. They all went to voicemail.”
“Same with my guys. So… how are things at home?”
“Pretty good. Kelly’s getting good grades, works at the QuickFill on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The usual freak-out artists on the HOA are flipping out over the two walk-off houses, but we’ve got a plan to keep them maintained and trimmed until they sell.”
“Oh, sure. I meant… you know.”
“Charles? We don’t talk much. He keeps in touch with Kelly, and she spends a weekend with him every month. If he’s available. Charles and his — boyfriend — have been having problems lately, so Kelly skipped the last visit. How about you? Still married?”
“Yup. Kids are doing well, and Jayne and I have managed to work out our differences for now. The counselor hooked us up with a financial advisor, so we can make an honest assessment of our responsibilities. It’s really up to her, now — she still has to go to her meetings, and probably will for life. I go with her for moral support, but I mostly zone out. Those guys have got the fever or something, but I guess it’s better than the addictions they had before.”
“Yeah. Charles can put the booze away, but I don’t think he lets it control him. Maybe he’s gotten a little better about it since the divorce.”
“Could be. What about you? You seeing anyone yet?”
Tina sighed. “I’m kind of demoralized about the whole dating thing. I can’t stop thinking that maybe I made Charles… what he is. I’d be devastated if it happened again.”
“Don’t think like that, Tina. Charles was always gay, he just denied it until he couldn’t deny it any longer. If you want to cast blame, blame Charles for not facing up to himself sooner. Or blame society for making him think he had to hide it. You’re not to blame.”
After lunch, Tina checked some news sites; she found a couple of “breaking” articles about mass absenteeism but no explanations. By three, she sent the rest of the staff home, logged out, and left. There were even more white pickups this afternoon, but she barely noticed. Arriving just behind the bus, she watched Kelly jog up the driveway in front of her.
“Hey, hon,” Tina greeted her daughter. “Feeling OK?”
“Fine, Mom. But almost half the kids were out today, and we had lots of subs. They’ll probably close school tomorrow if the teachers don’t come back.” She paused a moment. “Mom… have you noticed anything — weird — on the road?”
“The white trucks?”
“Yeah! You see it too? They’re like, everywhere.” One rolled down the street. “Are they electric? I don’t hear a motor.”
Tina sighed. “I don’t know. I’m not even sure whether to be relieved that I’m not going crazy, or terrified that the world is.”
“It’s spooky, Mom. I don’t think I’m relieved.”