Back | Next


I was hoping the familiarity of my cubicle and the tedious morning routine would settle me down a bit, provide something solid I could hold on to today. But even though I’m staring at my computer monitor, I’m not really seeing it. My eyes aren’t focused and everything seems quiet, like I’m the only one here.

Monday mornings aren’t what I would call productivity’s sweet spot, but right now I don’t even know where to begin. To be honest I was already becoming disillusioned with this job before I began to hallucinate. Now there doesn’t seem to be any real point. For instance, on the monitor right now is an Excel spreadsheet, a list of terms commonly typed into the search box on my company’s web site. Part of my job is to review these terms and figure out which of them are underutilized in our online marketing. The idea is to gather information about your Internet search habits and use it to sell you stuff. It’s one facet of what we call Search Engine Marketing. I run reports to see what words you type into our search box, and then I instruct our site to point you to the products I want you to see. The most profitable products, for instance. Or maybe we have a batch of discontinued items we’d like to get rid of, so I nudge you in that direction.

But it’s hard to care about the Internet shopping habits of thousands of people I’ll never meet when I’m not confident about my own existence. So I just sit here, watching my inbox, waiting for Dick to send that link to that Ant Farm simulation. When it doesn’t arrive right away I minimize the spreadsheet and log into Facebook instead.

There was a time when I thought social media sites were playgrounds for bored teenagers, but eventually I figured out they worked just as well for bored adults. Actually what happened is a filmmaker friend talked me into joining MySpace. He said it would be good for networking. I rolled my eyes the whole time I was setting up my profile, but to my surprise I was immediately hooked. Eventually I migrated to Facebook, and in my time online I’ve met several other screenwriters and even a couple of indie directors, people I would probably have never known otherwise. I’ve never seen any of these people in person, of course—they mostly live in L.A. (like Sophia) or New York, but I’m online so much these days that I talk to my Facebook friends a lot more often than my local friends. We trade witty comments, read each other’s blogs, we have conversations about pop culture and entertainment and the screenwriting process. This interaction is usually the highlight of my day because it helps me feel connected to the world in a way I could never feel in this office.

Sometimes I wonder what the point is of physically spending time here, when the work I do occurs almost exclusively in the online medium. Nobody enjoys sitting in a gray box. I can’t be the only person who feels like I spend half my life in jail. Imagine how much money the company would save if it sent everyone home to work. We could schedule teleconferences in place of actual onsite meetings. With the economy the way it is, you would think all ideas to reduce our cost structure would be on the table, but so far, despite occasional rumors of impending layoffs, no one around here has even mentioned it. Especially a guy like my boss, William. He thinks the only way to properly manage you is if he can walk by your cubicle and see you sitting in it.


I look up, startled, and find William standing in the doorway of my cubicle. What a coincidence. I look down at my monitor and see a Facebook message from Sophia still on the screen, which I think William must also have seen, but I pretend otherwise and make the window disappear. Then I look at the spreadsheet of search terms, as if that’s what I’ve been working on the whole time.

“Thomas?” he asks me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry. I zoned out for a minute. I was thinking about new ad campaigns and went off track there. You know how us creative types are.”

“You were looking at Facebook, Thomas.”

“Right. Facebook ads. I was thinking it might be interesting to devote a portion of our search budget to Facebook and see what sort of click-through rates we get.”

William is everything you would expect a corporate drone manager guy to be. Balding. Oversized gut. He thinks “business casual” means wearing a dress shirt with no tie, tucking it into a pair of pleated tan Dockers that are a size too small. He says things like “thought leader” and “low-hanging fruit” and “bleeding edge.” Sometimes I play buzzword bingo in team meetings to entertain myself, and with William there is never any want for material.

But despite his keen grasp of MBA-speak, William sees no value in social media marketing. William’s mind is stuck in an old business model, so he expects the rest of the team’s to be stuck as well.

“Didn’t we go over this once already?” he asks.

“Yes, we did. But even if you don’t want me to build a Facebook fan page, we could still leverage the site’s gigantic audience to place ads. It’s the same concept as Google except you can be even more targeted with your marketing.

“I already told you this once, Thomas. I won’t say it again. I’m not paying you to play on Facebook. Don’t let me see you on there again. Got it?”

“Yes, I get it.”

William looks at me as if I don’t get it at all.

“So,” he says, “I came to see you because I wanted to interface with you about the Google report. I know we talked about having it ready Friday, but I have a meeting with Kurt on Wednesday, and I’d like to include some talking points from your report in my PowerPoint deck. Do you have anything I can use?”

I haven’t even begun the Google report yet. And Kurt Truman, you might remember, is our jackass vice-president of marketing.

You should also know the Google report will probably consume ten single-spaced pages and require many hours of research just to compile the statistics and necessary background information. I will have to build charts and graphs. I feel like that moment in a dream where it’s the last day of my senior year, and I’ve forgotten to study for the final in the most important class in my major. How in the hell did I forget I was supposed to have that ready this week?

William’s teeth are brownish and pointy like a dog’s. And judging by the look in his eyes, I think he knows I have absolutely nothing ready.

You have probably already figured out I’m on thin ice with William. I haven’t exactly been on the ball as of late. But it’s difficult to impress a man so blindly earnest that he’ll do whatever is asked of him, whether it makes sense or not. He’ll stay at work hours after everyone has gone home, hoping his own boss will believe he’s burning the midnight oil, when really William spends hours in his office playing Hearts and Minesweeper on his computer. And when I get ready to leave—on time—he’ll come over and ask passive/aggressive questions about my work and my priorities and my career goals. You get the feeling he was a nerd in high school, and now he thinks he’s having the last laugh at everyone as he claws his way into middle management. And here I am, having forgotten to begin a basic (but important) project that he instructed me last week, very clearly, to make my number one priority.

What I wouldn’t give to stand up and point my index finger at him and yell:

“Why don’t you stick your Google report up your ass, you pedantic ladder climber?”

But last year I earned $65,536 sitting here in my cube, staring at these spreadsheets, generating these reports. If I quit before I can earn a living writing films, I would have to find another regular job anyway. And let’s be honest: Williams are everywhere. You can even find them in Hollywood, except there they are called studio executives.

So I can’t quit. Not yet.

Regarding the Google report, I say, “I’m not quite ready with any talking points. Can I get you something tomorrow?”

William smiles thinly.

“Tomorrow should be fine,” he says, and vanishes as quickly as he appeared.

After a time I look back down at my computer. I’ve got a new email, but it’s not from Dick but rather a woman named Rhonda. Rhonda is the coordinator for our online catalog. She wants me to bring statistics from another search engine ad campaign to our meeting at one o’clock.

Shit. I forgot I had a meeting at one o’clock. The day’s work continues to build, minutes stretching into potential hours, even days. It seems like I will never get out in front of it, that I will never be caught up enough to actually enjoy anything, like my life, and I wonder if the powers that be set it up this way on purpose. Just like the debt I owe—thirty years to pay off my giant mortgage, credit card debt with low payments and high interest designed to keep me paying forever. Maybe this is why I feel like I’m being chased all the time, like I can never rest, because even though I’m stuck in middle-class hell, I’m always one paycheck away from epic collapse. And I can’t imagine a way out of it, not ever.

I look down and see the email from Dick has finally arrived, There is a link, as promised, which I click on. The page that pops up is white, and at the top, the words Ant Farm 2.0 shimmer in large, silver letters. Below the name is a photo of a miniature Mayan temple with ants crawling on it, and beside that photo there is a quote that says Play God.

Farther down the page there are two more sections. One is a list of blog entries in reverse chronological order with names like Player Feedback — Chapter 31 and Player Feedback — Chapter 30 and so on. Thirty-one chapters of player feedback means a lot of people are playing this game.

The other section says: Download Ant Farm here — Large file size, high speed Internet required!!

And beneath the text is a graphic, a round, nebulous, object drawn to look like a sphere. It appears to be rotating, like a planet on its axis.

By now you may have guessed, but I’m going to say it anyway.

The sphere is blue. It looks exactly like the orb I saw in church yesterday.

I’m not kidding.

For a moment I can’t do anything but stare at it. Paranoia creeps down my spine and shrivels my balls.

With a shaking hand I direct the mouse pointer toward the orb, and the arrow dances a jerky dance across the screen.

The orb is the link to download the file.

I want to click the link, but I don’t, not yet.

Because surely you can agree this graphic is proof that what I saw yesterday really happened. Maybe no one else in the church saw the blue orb, but I sure as hell did, and now here it is on the web site Dick sent me. It can’t be an accident. It looks exactly the same.

Something important is happening. Something so important that I am apparently being fed clues and hints. The guy in the bathroom started it, and now Dick, who went into a trance and told me a secret about numbers, about pi, has pointed me toward a computer program that uses a blue orb on its web site.

I have good reason to be freaked out, right?

For a moment I just sit there, staring at the computer monitor, my hands still shaking. The cooling fan in my computer hums. My hard disk whirs. Conversations from other cubicles float toward me, a few words here, a chuckle there. Footfalls and swooshing pants as someone walks by in the hallway behind me.

The synthetic smell of microwave popcorn.

The surreal and contrived florescent light.

And in my head, distantly, maybe I’m imagining her or maybe she’s real…a woman reciting numbers.


Slowly, carefully, I stand up and peek over the wall of my cubicle. Everywhere I look, 360 degrees, I see the grid outlines of other cubicles. Seven or eight rows over, someone else is also standing up, looking right at me.

She quickly sits down, and I quickly sit down.

Someone is watching me. I can feel it. But who are they? Where are they?

My skin is gooseflesh, so prickled with energy I may as well be plugged into an electrical outlet. Is anyone else besides me being watched? They must be. Certainly I can’t be so special that I’m the only one who has ever been chosen. I mean that’s the sort of thing a paranoid schizophrenic believes, right? That the world somehow revolves around him?

But this is different. This is really happening to me. I have proof.

In front of me, the blue orb hovers on the screen.

I’m about to click on it when I hear hushed footsteps, and then once again William’s face peeks around the corner of my cubicle. The rest of him is still on the other side of the wall, which makes it seem as if his head has somehow become disembodied.

“Thomas,” he says. “Could you join me for a quick meeting in my office?”

“Sure. Right now?”

“Yes, now would be great.”

William’s face disappears and the sound of his footsteps quickly recedes. Obviously he isn’t too pleased with my procrastination on the Google project, and I can already tell I’m going to hear another speech about how my mind hasn’t been in the game lately. But I don’t have time for this now.

I grab my notepad, which I always bring to meetings with William, regardless if they are five-minute “huddles” or twenty-minute “brainstorm sessions” or hour-long “staph meetings.” My teammates and I spell it staph instead of staff because long, pointless meetings make us feel feverish and lethargic, like a staph infection might.

Anyway, the notepad is usually there to record whatever random ideas William stumbled across after watching a webinar or reading an industry blog or reviewing his old MBA textbooks. Today, though, he’s probably going to assign some new targets to my project plans, to make sure I stay on task and get my work done on time. But I can’t believe the timing of this. I need to be sitting in front of my computer. I need to be downloading that Ant Farm program and trying to decode Dick’s strange message.

I have to admit, though, that William’s concerns are well-founded. My productivity has been shit lately. I can’t remember the last time I spent all day working on anything. As I trudge down the cubicle hallway toward William’s office, I rack my brain to remember what projects I was working on last week, when I was ignoring the Google report. But I can’t think of anything. All I can think about is that damned blue orb.

I don’t realize until I reach his office that the door is closed. William never closes his door when he’s just invited you in for a meeting. This is highly improper.

I’m not sure what do, so I knock.

“Yes, Thomas,” William says. “Please come in.”

I open the door and find my boss sitting behind his desk, looking even paler than he usually does, his face slack and uncertain and frightened. The next thing I notice is Brin Finneley, our company’s senior legal counsel, sitting in a chair across the desk from William. Seeing Brin in here causes my heart rate to immediately double. It causes my hands to shake. You don’t want to see Finneley, not ever, unless maybe you bump into him in the cafeteria. And even then, while he’s spooning pasta salad into a Styrofoam container, and you’re standing next to him, waiting for your chicken sandwich to be ready, you half-expect Finneley to look up at you and yell “BOO!” Because Finneley is the company’s Grim Reaper. He sits in on all dismissals to ensure fired employees know their rights, and to protect managers like William from saying something that could lead to a lawsuit.

“Have a seat,” William whispers, and gestures to the other chair.

There is a brief but terrible moment where I’m afraid my eyes are going to well up, or that I might lose my temper and say something cutting to William about how awful his people skills are. Instead, my mind simply blanks out. In place of the usual thoughts and images that take place in there, I just hear static.

“Bzzzzz,” William says. “Bz bzzz bz bzz bzz bzzz bzzzz bzz bz bzzz bzzz bzz bz bzzzzzz.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “What did you say?”

“I said today will be your last day of employment here. Thomas, are you feeling okay?”

I’ve worked in this office for twelve years. It’s the only company I’ve ever known. I’ve always dreamed of the day I’d sell a screenplay and be able to quit, yes, but I haven’t actually sold a screenplay yet and I can’t afford to quit. What the hell is Gloria going to say when I break the news to her? I haven’t even told her about what’s going wrong with my head. How the hell am I going to bring this up?


“Are you sure?” is all I can think of to say.

“Yes,” says William. “Thomas, your performance over the past several months has been far below standard. I have repeatedly asked you to step it up or at the very least complete the projects assigned to you. And during this time you have demonstrated almost zero ability to complete any task on time, or at a minimum level of quality.”

“I know my attention has waned lately,” I tell him. “But it’s one of those temporary things. I’ve worked here a long time. Sometimes the monotony gets to me, but I’m going to do better, William. I promise. Give me another chance.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. The economy has hit this company hard, and we’re looking for areas to cut costs. One way to do that is to eliminate dead weight. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but that’s what you’ve become in recent months, Thomas. Dead weight.”

“That isn’t fair,” I say. “I usually do a pretty good—”

“Tell me the status of your five primary projects. Generally. Not including the Google report we discussed this morning.”

“I’m looking through the search terms. I was doing that this morning when you stopped by my desk.”

“You were doing that before you switched over to Facebook?”

“Right. I was only on Facebook for a few moments learning how their ads work.”

“Okay, so on the search terms, where are you? What’s the project status?”

I open my mouth to answer, and that’s when I remember I have no idea. This morning I told you I was reviewing the terms to figure out which ones were underutilized in our online marketing. But I have no clue what I was actually doing. I was just sitting there waiting for Dick to send me the Ant Farm email.

Beyond that, I can’t remember any of my other projects. Not their statuses, not their names, not even the concepts behind them. Nothing.

What on earth is wrong with me?

“Thomas, sometimes I wonder if you do anything at all in that cube of yours. I checked your Internet usage and you don’t appear to be wasting time on web sites. So what do you do? Just stare at the wall and daydream all day?”

“William,” Brin Finneley says. “Let’s stick with the facts. Perhaps it’s time to talk about the severance package.”

“Okay,” says William. “Certainly. Thomas, your severance package is generous. You’ll receive one week of pay for every three years worked. That adds up to a month’s pay.”

“That’s not generous,” I say. “That’s company policy.”

“Oh, it’s generous,” William tells me. “Some companies offer far less.”

“Yes,” says the Brin Reaper. “Quite generous.”

“And,” William adds, “you’ll have the opportunity to retain health benefits through the Cobra system.”

“I think that’s the law, right?”

“Also quite generous,” says the Brin Reaper.

“I don’t believe this. I’ve worked here for twelve years. Don’t you give out warnings? Like a probationary period or something?”

“Anyone who has ever built an empire sat where you are now,” William offers.

“One month?” I say. “I’ll never find a job in one month. Not in this economy.”

“Maybe you can use the time off to write a new screenplay,” he answers.

I just sit there, staring at him, dumbfounded. All my thankless whining seems pretty stupid right about now, doesn’t it?

“Sure,” I say. “That’s what I’ll do.”

“You’re welcome to go back to your desk and gather your personal effects,” Brin says. “Someone from the mail room will bring you a few boxes. William will remain with you until you have finished, and then he will escort you from the building. Your building access has been terminated, so from this point forward you won’t be allowed back inside.

“Nothing personal,” he adds. “Just company policy.”

Back | Next