They sat on opposite sides of the room, the hush of the evening unfurling between them like a dissatisfied sigh. In the stillness they became aware of new signals, ambient hums from deep within the walls, noises drowned out the rest of the time. Yet even with all activity suspended, every monitor save their own powered down, the room refused to transform. Desks still lay scattered with the day’s debris—stained mugs, papers no longer important, pictures shining from out of their frames. Everything they had built persisted.
On the wall across from them, six windows were glazed with setting sun. From thirty stories up the city glittered like a jewel box, baring its splendors. Unknowable lives passed far below, inconsequential as insects. One could see past the longest streets, all the way to the golden hills beyond the bay. The day they had moved into the space, when everyone arrived together for the first time, the office still unformed and fresh with possibility, their CEO told them not to look at that view and conclude that they had made it, that their work was done. But it was impossible to gaze out those windows and feel anything else.
Sometimes, when everyone else had gone home, Miles pulled a chair up to the windows and simply watched, letting his mind expand to the dimensions of the vision sprawling out before him. He would remove the orange he had brought that day from the refrigerator, uncap the penknife he kept in his pocket, dissect the peel in a single elegant segment, place it aside, and slowly eat the flesh, savoring how the tartness seemed to match the lush, strangely tropical light. He felt he had been waiting a long time to experience such symmetry. But tonight his orange sat untouched. Jordan was still in the office with him.
Jordan did not work late often. In fact, he was almost always one of the first employees to leave. Jordan was a few months out of college, young enough to have grown up in an entirely different world, with its own set of cultural signifiers, even its own language. A child, really. Miles assumed that he left each evening to take advantage of everything a city built for people exactly like him had to offer, a pleasure-dome for the young and stupid. Of course, Jordan could have had any reason to leave—a sick mother to look after, a gig at the local orphanage. But each morning he arrived with a red fog in his eyes, and so Miles had his suspicions.
The sun continued to set. They glanced up from their screens occasionally, blinking away the LED haze, refocusing their eyes on everything in the room but each other.
Miles used a special vertical monitor that allowed him to see one hundred and thirty-seven lines of code at once. He worked at a standing desk, stretched every thirty minutes, and leaned against the wall in the rare instances when he felt tired. He had been a forestry agent in Hawaii, where he was born and raised, and was used to being on his feet, performing far more vigorous tasks than coding programs to track digital revenue streams for lifestyle companies. Every day he marveled over the disconnect between his time as a ranger and the present, the unlikeliness of the events that bridged the two. He knew it was silly to think of all that as a different life, even if that was exactly what it now seemed to be.
Jordan stood up. He ambled over, yawning theatrically, chummy after so long a silence. There was a grin on his face that Miles could only read as disingenuous.
“Why do you always work so late, man?” Jordan began.
“There’s too much noise during the day. I get more work done when everybody is gone. More peaceful.”
“Guess I better go, then.”
Miles smiled a bit too tightly. “Oh, no. No, I didn’t mean it like that. You’re welcome to stay. It’s still pretty peaceful with just the two of us.”
“Yeah. A real ghost town. Like school after hours. Kinda spooky.” Jordan cast a look around, as if to assure himself that they were, in fact, the only two people around.
Miles was silent. His best work always occurred on nights like this, in wild bursts of inspiration. Before this intrusion, he had been engaged in one last push on a particularly difficult project, and now worried about any potential loss of momentum.
“Truth is,” Jordan continued, needing no prompt, “I gotta be headed out soon anyway.”
“Oh?” The sky was rich with the dying fires of an overwarm September. Miles could sense that Jordan wanted something from him, some oblique validation. “Do you have a date or something?”
“Something like that.” Then, a split-second later: “Can you keep a secret, Miles?”
There were few things Miles enjoyed less than other people’s secrets. They were unfailingly sordid things, more trouble than they were worth to keep. Time and again they found their way to him without his ever lifting a finger to summon them.
Jordan checked once more that they were alone. The cleaning woman had come and gone an hour before.
“There’s this girl who works four floors up from us at Gaffney & Donaldson. Once every two weeks, I go up there and bang her when everyone else is gone.”
Miles doubted his ability to provide the reaction Jordan desired. “Nice,” he managed at last. The word seemed suitably noncommittal.
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s nice.” Jordan’s voice faltered, the wheels of his passion spinning in place. He had to talk himself back into a rhythm. “Real nice. She’s not, like, super hot or anything, but she’s cute enough. Little, y’know? Small-boned. She wears glasses, keeps her hair up in a bun. Like a librarian. Real professional-like. But when the glasses come off and the hair comes down, it’s a whole different story.”
“That’s really something,” Miles murmured. “I thought you were just working late.” Under the desk, he squeezed one hand with the other until his fingers began to tingle with pain.
“We met in the elevator, can you believe that?”
“I just took one look at her and knew she’d be down, even with the hair and all that. You can always tell. I gave her my number and she met me for lunch that day, and the rest is history. We’ve been doing it for like two months now.”
Jordan had only been working at the company for two months. Incredible, the things that people did with their lives.
“She’s into bondage, scratching, you name it. Some real kinky shit.” His voice trailed off to let Miles’ imagination fill the silence.
“Wow. Good for you, I guess.”
“Thanks, man. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty sweet.”
Miles made a noise in the back of his throat.
“We do it in a handicapped bathroom,” Jordan continued, as if conducting a press conference. “We’re not, like, out in the open or anything. I tried to convince her to let me fuck her right there at her desk, but she’s worried about cameras or whatever.” He rolled his eyes at such a ridiculous notion.
The light was draining out through the windows, escaping over the crest of the earth. Miles felt that the quiet in the room was too loud, was more like a pressure building in the outer ear and working its way down to the brain, a constant noise falling softly all around them, like snow, or layers of dust.
“Well.” Jordan’s voice cracked, startling them both. “I told you something about myself, so now you have to tell me something about you. Fair’s fair.”
Miles regarded him closely. The parts of his face didn’t quite match. It was a young man’s face, not yet itself.
“Fair? I didn’t ask you what you’re still doing here. I didn’t ask to hear all that stuff.”
“Come on, man. I just told you some pretty crazy shit. We’ve got to balance out the scales a little here, you know? Get some dirt on each other.”
“Mutually assured destruction.”
“Never mind. Look, I don’t have anything that can top that. I’m sure you’d just be disappointed.”
Jordan ground his heel into the carpet. His voice, when it returned, was soft and slow. “Y’know, you never really talk to anybody, Miles. Nobody here knows anything about you. I’m just trying to get to know you better.”
A final pink cloud cut across the sky, trailing twilight behind it. Miles sighed and leaned his elbows against the desk. It was not another life, he thought. It was not even all that long ago.
“My first job was in forestry on the Big Island of Hawaii,” he said, staring straight ahead. “I started out laying fences in the nature reserves out there. Kohala, Upper Waiakea, Kau, Kapapala. They’d helicopter us into a remote area and we’d get to work. We’d be out there for days at a time, a week at most. Just us and the forest.”
“That’s really cool, man.” Jordan looked genuinely amazed. It was almost enough for Miles to begin liking him.
“We didn’t just do fencing, though. We were also population control. We handled invasive species that were overbreeding and upsetting the ecosystem. Mostly boar.”
“You killed them, you mean? You and your team?”
Miles sucked a gust of air through his teeth. “Yes. I don’t like telling people. I’m never sure how they’ll react.”
“I mean, it was for the good of the forest, right? Circle of life and all that?”
“Still. People might take it the wrong way.”
“People in the office?”
“Not just them.” Miles checked the windows. Night was beginning to fall.
“So, is that the dirt then? That you killed animals for the government? Because I gotta say, compared to mine, it’s not so bad.”
“No. That’s not the dirt.” He reconsidered briefly, then pressed on. His voice was level, steady. He did not dare to endow a single syllable with any more emphasis than it deserved. “Sometimes, if a boar we had killed was big enough, and if it wasn’t raining, we’d get a fire going and roast it. Highly against protocol, but management looked the other way. The meat was gristly, full of bristles. Usually it was still raw in the middle. But you weren’t supposed to enjoy it. The whole thing was about bonding with each other. It was a kind of ceremony.”
“That’s definitely weird, but still. A bunch of guys alone in the woods, weird shit is bound to happen.”
Miles shook his head. Kids these days. “Once, we killed a pregnant boar. We didn’t know until it was already dead, not that it would have changed anything. We only realized when we cut the thing open and found the fetus. It was a football-sized lump suspended in all that muck, a few stubby legs sticking out. Ears. It even had eyes. They had probably formed just a day or two before. They were still closed.” He glanced at Jordan to gauge his reaction. A queasy look had dripped across the younger man’s face. Miles found himself perversely pleased by the effect he was having.
“One of us,” he continued, “said something about eating it, as a joke. We were roasting the rest of the meat over a fire. ‘Why not throw that on, too?’ you know? That sort of thing. Nothing serious. When I said I would eat it, everyone stopped laughing. They looked at me like you’re looking at me now.”
Jordan closed his mouth and coughed. “But why did you want to eat it?” he asked, trying not to seem particularly interested in the answer.
“Why not?” That was truly all there was to it, the reason in its entirety. There had been no underlying motivation, no need to be met. Only the act, and the chasm separating Miles from its completion.
“Damn, dude.” Jordan’s hands wavered ever so slightly. “That’s so gnarly. A fucking pig fetus? I had no idea you were such a savage.”
“That was life in the woods. Things happened.”
“What’d it taste like?”
By now he could no longer bring the taste to mind. Even then, it had barely registered. He only remembered the faces flickering with firelight, looking on with amusement or disgust, a row of masks in the night. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Like nothing. Pig-flavored jello.”
“I bet nobody fucked with you after that, huh? I wouldn’t mess with the guy who ate a pig fetus.”
“I didn’t work that job too much longer, actually. I injured my back laying some fence, and couldn’t get out in the field anymore. They moved me to a desk job. I started using mapping software to track our operations. I never thought I’d be good at something like that, but I picked it up quickly. That was the first time I saw a life for myself outside of the woods. Beyond Hawaii.” Another glance at the windows revealed six fragments of a sky streaked with purple, fading swiftly to black. “I went back to school, learned how to code, and never looked back.”
“And now here you are.”
“Here I am.” Miles rapped his knuckles on the desk. A hollow sound echoed through the room.
“Do you ever miss it?” Jordan asked. “That life?”
Miles pretended to think for a moment, so that the answer he had long since memorized did not appear to come too quickly. “I miss the stars. There were so many that you could see everything around you. Night was like a second day. There aren’t any stars here.”
On cue, they looked out the windows. “You’re right,” Miles said. “No stars.” It was as if he had truly never noticed before.
Whatever was supposed to pass between them had completed its transfer. Jordan’s eyes dimmed as he shuffled from one foot to another, unsure what to do with his own weight.
“Well,” he said, “can’t keep my lady waiting.” He turned to face Miles. “All that shit stays between us, right?”
“My lips are sealed.”
“Good, good.” He nodded his head once, twice, and kept nodding until Miles lost count. “You take care of yourself, Miles. Don’t work too hard.”
“You too. Go easy on her.”
Jordan’s laughter floated back to him from the door.
Alone at last. The evening spread itself out before him, his for the taking. The cursor hovered on his monitor, arrested in its journey across the screen. But Miles took one look at the code and knew that he would forge no further that night.
He dug his orange out of the fridge and plopped himself in front of a window. There was only a thin glimmer of light left at the horizon, squeezed to near-nothingness between the land and the sky. The orange peel tore into several pieces when he tried to remove it. He discarded the fragments into the compost, clenching and unclenching his hand around the penknife as the fruit grew bitter in his mouth.
Miles looked down at the world and reflected on the strangeness of his encounter with Jordan. He had not been able to express the truth of why he had enjoyed that time in his life. None of the men in his crew had ever given it voice, not to deceive each other, but because it was unnecessary to hear in speech what could be heard so clearly in spurts of blood, in tortured squeals rising to an unholy pitch. The sound of knives plunging into flesh, sinking toward a sensation thousands of years of civilization had tried and failed to take from him.
He decided not to use the elevators. They rose like rockets, leaving his head feeling scooped-out, scrambled. Inside each one was a little TV that told occupants the day’s major headlines, the progress of stocks, which buzzwords to say or no longer say. Instead he took the stairs. He felt more at home there, deep in the ugly, unvarnished guts of the building, surrounded by tons of industrial concrete and steel. It was the only space in his new life that no one made to look like something other than itself. In the event of an earthquake, fire, or active shooter, it was the safest place to be. One could even survive up to sixteen hours in the stairwell following a nuclear event. Someone from the building had told them that soon after they moved in, during a mandatory presentation which had ended with the man from the building giving the CEO a bright orange vest to wear during emergencies. It still hung in the closet, forgotten amidst everyone’s coats.
The burst of light, the awful silence that would follow. One last noise before a new age of silence. He thought about how unprepared someone like Jordan, someone who knew no unvarnished surfaces, would be for whatever came next. If the two of them survived, somehow, and met years later, out on the road that was the only life left for anyone, what would they say to each other? Would they fall weeping into each other’s arms?
The thirty-fourth floor was much like their own. Even the seating plan was virtually identical. The view through the windows was an evil twin of the one he knew so well. The same buildings and streets framed at a steeper angle, shifted just enough off their axes to no longer seem real. Miles found the handicapped stall on his third sweep of the space, in a narrow hallway just past the front desk. The names Gaffney and Donaldson were branded on the wall, bronze letters glinting from some unseen source of illumination. Only then did he realize that he was still grasping the penknife in his hand.
He approached the stall quietly. There was no noise he could detect save the muted swell of his own breath, the plasticine tapping of his shoes on the floor. He thought perhaps he had come to the wrong place, and put his ear to the door.
From the other side, faint but unmistakable, he heard a low sobbing, a single tearful note neither rising nor falling, increasing nor decreasing in intensity. It was impossible to tell whether it issued from a man or a woman, whether it was born of pain or pleasure, or when it would stop. Miles listened for a long time, crouched in the gloom of the hall. The noise was easier to stand than he would have guessed. Soon he even found it oddly soothing, like the rolling white noise of a distant sea. His free hand perched on the doorknob, savoring the cool kiss of static on his skin. Every now and again the hand would twitch, seized by a phantom motion to grip and twist, to break the lock, to throw the door wide open and see what happened next.
Miles took an elevator on the way down. The screen conveyed the progress of the Dow, the S&P, and the Nikkei in a series of red and green arrows. An artificial wind rushed in his ears. His stomach lurched. Perhaps he was standing in the very spot where Jordan and the girl had met, hurtling through space, toward the darkness of the stall. He could not tell whether the notion comforted him or sickened him further. It seemed all at once that the floor of the elevator had evaporated, leaving his legs thrashing above miles of empty air.
He wondered yet again what the point of it all could possibly be. Surely everyone wondered sometimes. It must have been be this universal uncertainty that kept them all going, secure in the knowledge that their same struggle was shared by everyone else.
Miles didn’t think he could bear a life in which he didn’t believe it.
alex rawitz is a native New Yorker and graduate of Stanford University. He lives and works in San Francisco.