And now for a little apocalyptic fiction: The Grind

The Grind

Maybe this is some kind of vindictive spin-off of karma. The world ends and there’s life saying, “See? You really didn’t have it so bad, did you? You should have spent less time complaining about your dull existence and more time being thankful you HAD a dull existence.” Karma can kiss my ass. Work did suck. There was a collective understanding that it was the thing you did because you had to, hoping that you’d be able to save enough money in time to stop and enjoy the final few years of your life. We certainly didn’t expect those years to look like this, though.

Somehow, I’ve ended up spending most of the apocalypse at my former place of employment, in my own cubicle no less. This is the truest example of insult added to injury. We always called ourselves corporate zombies, which is so not funny right now. We hated our jobs, we hated our bosses. We wrecked this place in our Glassdoor reviews, despite the fact that it paid our bills.

FYI, right now? This is the grace period. For the uninitiated, that’s the term used to describe the time immediately following an apocalyptic event, when the supplies and products from before are still useful, good, and available. The couple of years before canned food expires, and before metal tools dull and rust. Before the gas goes stale. “Grace period” is a funny thing to call hell on earth.

My favorite films and video games always made the grace period look, well… fun. You know, looting cans of beans, raiding vending machines, grabbing all the first aid kits and pill bottles from the pharmacy? Obviously, stopping by the liquor store, heading straight to the case where they keep the good stuff, the stuff you could never afford, and cleaning that freaking thing OUT. And maybe leaving your credit card on the counter as a symbolic middle finger to capitalism. Taking what you want without any concern for what you can afford, only limited by how much you can carry.

It’s not fun for very long. People often daydream about these scenarios because they want freedom from all the rules and constraints of society. Or at least think they do. The truth is, most of us don’t know the first thing about surviving, and wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves if we didn’t have a clock to punch every morning, meeting reminders throughout the day, and traffic lights to obey every night on the way home.

I worked in a large office park housing several companies. There was a computer manufacturer, a gym, and our company, a global SaaS provider. Software as a Service, which in essence meant we sold nothing. Nothing tangible anyway. But that was the beauty of modern times, you could make a living at that.

Even better, I worked in marketing, where we’d spend the day concocting campaigns to lure people to our website to buy our nothing for use by their companies that also often dealt in the nothing trade (we were B2B). Hell, they didn’t even have to buy; they just had to give us an email address and a name. We were the proverbial foot in the door, the camel’s nose sticking under the tent. After we did our part, it got passed to the sales teams to try and finish the job. That could take over a year, so it was some seriously fuzzy math trying to figure out what we in marketing actually contributed to the whole thing. And we got paid for that.

Granted, it was a nondescript weekday when the world ended, and a lot of people wound up stranded at their day jobs, but I always imagined I’d somehow collect my family and make it back home. We’d fill the truck with necessities and then be heading north to find some remote abandoned cabin. That’s not how it worked out. You’re always the hero in your own apocalypse fantasies, but in reality, most people don’t even make it. If you’re alive to tell the tale, you’re already lottery-grade lucky.

So now I pass down the dark halls of my old office building, walking the winding empty road down to the organic and over-priced lunch place we used to go to. About a mile further down is the main retail strip, featuring a large mall, several car dealerships, a big box store, and of course the ubiquitous Home Depot. And let me tell you, that’s one place you should avoid. If you’re thinking in your own little fantasy that you’ll be the first one there… trust me, you won’t.

There are actually plenty of us still here at the office. There’s safety in numbers, but not numbers too large. Large numbers use up resources, and also draw attention. In many ways, that’s more dangerous than being alone. Make no mistake, there’s a certain segment of the surviving population that’s violent. Those guys behave exactly like in the movies. Fear the living, right? Sad but true. I suppose their type was secretly looking forward to this day. They’re armed to the teeth, eager to shoot first and ask questions later. Or not at all.

I honestly wouldn’t have thought hunger would be this much of an issue. Of course, I pictured being one of those people holed up in a big box warehouse, surrounded by piles and piles of canned goods. Safely barricaded in. Well like I said, the people who are doing that were the ones quick enough to stake their claims immediately (probably worked there) and they’re not in a sharing mood. I’ve been reduced to eating squirrels. Like I’m not even kidding. Squirrels. God I miss takeout. I guess I should be grateful, learning to take advantage of alternate food sources. I’ll be one step ahead when more civilized food runs out.

Civility itself is definitely running out. I was shot at last night, crossing the highway near the Audi dealership. I’ve been spending more time around there lately because it’s next to the Home Depot. I know, I specifically said to stay away from there. It’s well fortified, and so dangerous, but you never know. Something could happen to the current tenants. Anyway, it was a new moon, and whoever fired wasn’t a great shot. I think they lost sight of me among the cars, or maybe just got bored. Or maybe they realized that spending a finite ammo supply in the dark is fifty shades of stupid. Maybe something got them, making all that racket. Can’t say the thought kept me awake at night.

It’s cold, by the way. I know… as a New Englander, I’m not supposed to whine about that, but I also used to be able to turn a dial and fix it. Heat and hot water is one of those “don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone” things. I don’t miss paying rent, but paying rent that includes heat and hot water? I’d give anything to be doing that again. But none of us will be doing that again. Which works out, since none of us will be getting a steady 9 to 5 paycheck again, either. Look, I’m not saying I miss paying bills, but yes, karma, I didn’t appreciate everything I had, and now I have an eternity to think about all of it. Can we agree, lesson learned, and I wake up and all of this was a dream? No? Well screw you.

I do think over time it’ll get easier. Our memories of what we lost will slowly fade, and we’ll get used to how things are now. I really hope the first thing I forget is coffee. That’s maybe one of the most painful losses right now, and I don’t mean the headaches from caffeine deprivation. I miss the ritual. The ritual of morning coffee. My mug is still there in my cubicle, with a dark dried-up residue in the bottom that used to represent life. The best part of waking up.

Are things getting worse? I feel like there are fewer people out there, but that the ones left are getting more desperate and dangerous. I was attacked in broad daylight today, just down the hill from the office. That was a first. A friend came to my rescue, but we were lucky to get out of there in one piece.  He was hit pretty hard, and sliced across the shoulder. In a world without medicine, stepping on a nail can kill a man. It’s not like we can stop by the local clinic, though, so there’s really no option but to hope for the best. We spent the next few days at the office, and did not venture out.

The inside of this place is a typical cubicle farm, with gray fabric walls – why did they always have to be gray? Were they TRYING to make it as dreary as possible? But the outside grounds are contrastingly beautiful, with a couple miles of pleasant walking trails. There even used to be a pair of turkeys living here. It was a welcome escape to see them during my walks, and they were almost always there. I was thinking of those turkeys more than anything today. We don’t see them anymore, and while I’d like to think they’re out there somewhere, doing fine… well. Yeah.

I finally got some food today, but I had to kill a man for it. That was definitely never part of my apocalypse hero fantasy. The worst thing is, I don’t even feel guilty. It actually just makes me think about those guys in the Home Depot. I guess when it comes down to it, I’m no better than they are. Morals are a luxury that you can’t always afford in the face of survival. And the thing about morality is, it erodes when tested for any extended time. Like a sand castle. Once the first few grains have been lapped away by the oncoming waves, it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing collapses. If I’m no better than them, they’re no better than me, and it’s just a matter of who can take from who with the greatest rate of success.

I hate to admit this to myself, but I like being in my cubicle. I guess I spent as much time here as I did at home. When you think about it, we often knew our cube neighbors a lot better than we knew our actual neighbors. There are many times I find myself just sitting here, staring at my work things. My pencil holder and notebook. A book on data analysis for digital marketers (I never read it, but perception is reality). The keyboard I used to slave feverishly over, when it used to drive the large paperweight it’s plugged into.

My favorite times were when I had spreadsheet work to do. A mindless heads-down project where I could spend uninterrupted hours entering numbers into cells. It really doesn’t sound appealing, but those kinds of tasks where you could just zone out and listen to music and nobody would bother you… those were nice.

My wall calendar is still here, too, and if I’ve been keeping count correctly, it’s April 15th. Tax time! Haha. Sorry, tax man, but for some reason my employer hasn’t sent out our W-2s yet. I’m flat-out with meetings today, but I’ll try and find some time to stop by HR and see what the hold-up is. Last time I checked, though, there was nobody in HR. Must have all gone out to lunch at the same time. Typical.

Today I was walking the trail that goes around the back of the building to the outdoor patio. It’s a beautiful little spot, overlooking a pond, although it’s increasingly overgrown in the absence of maintenance staff. My co-workers and I used to have lunch out here. I wonder what happened to them, at the same time knowing what probably did. They mostly left, and I haven’t seen anyone I know return. We couldn’t wait to get out of here, at the end of every work week. And now, it’s just the type of daily repetition that’s changed. The apocalypse is just a little more honest about its brand of daily grind.

I suddenly realize I’m not the only one on the patio this time. There’s a man here, back turned, looking out on the pond. Probably someone like me, who used to come here for a welcome few minutes of fresh air. Maybe he even worked for the same company. Hard to tell from here. He’s sporting the requisite uniform of khaki slacks and a button-down shirt, but those were practically prison-issue in their conformity in the corporate world. Who didn’t wear them?  

I creep up slowly, not breathing. He doesn’t hear. In fact, I’m within arm’s reach before he even starts to turn around. Our eyes meet, and though he’s definitely surprised, his expression is primarily vacant and resigned. I actually recognize him. It’s Bruce, the web developer who used to work two cubes down from me. He was a fan of the turkeys, too, and had jokingly named them “Thanksgiving” and “Christmas”. We were friends. But not anymore. Now… he’s the enemy.

His eyes are sunken, his face gaunt. Jeez, I thought we were burned out before, but he looks 10 years older than the last time I saw him. If he recognizes me, he’s probably making a similar assessment of my appearance. Conversational small-talk is a thing of the past, though, and we share one single, unspoken mandate; kill or be killed. The corporate world remains dog-eat-dog.

And as much as I loathed work, I feel some level of ownership and entitlement to this location. Like its existence somehow keeps a piece of my own past alive. My office park. My lunch patio. Bruce is, in theory, just as entitled. More, really; he worked here about 4 years longer than I did. Unfortunately, the world’s undergone some restructuring, and I’m sorry to inform you, Bruce, you’re being terminated today.

The stories got one thing right; it all comes down to destroying the brain. But getting at a human brain isn’t as easy as the movies lead you to believe. Obviously it helps if you’re armed with something, but what if you’re bare-handed?  The skull is a formidable barrier. That’s what it’s there for, after all.

We engage, struggling like geriatric wrestlers. Our physical strength is equally waned at this point. It’s going to come down to who wants to see tomorrow the most. Perseverance. Determination. Did I mention my wall calendar is one of those motivational ones with pictures of mountains and eagles? Let me tell you, I am NOT dying today. I use the only weapon I have; my teeth. There’s a lot of blood, but at this point, intestinal fortitude is driving my actions, and I barely notice. It sounds barbaric, but I bite, tear, and break my way to survival. My opponent’s struggles ceased at some unnoticed moment prior.

What’s the point of going on, when one day is just a mirror of the last? It’s a question the worker drones of the corporate world have been asking ourselves for years, but right now my only consideration is feeding the hunger. This is the grace period, after all, and we won’t be able to get human brains forever.

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