Harmless

It was ten minutes to eight and she was late. As always. The front door of the house opened as she scurried out, locking the door behind her. She followed the walkway across the driveway where her beat up Ford Contour sat stewing in the mid-summer sun—not nearly as hot now as it would be later in the afternoon, but hot enough for early morning. Her worn sneakers scuffed over the pavement, the ragged hem of her pants dragging because they were too long. She was dressed nearly all in black. Black pants. Black tank top. She carried a tote which held a pair of shoes which were only slightly nicer than the sneakers—these bagged shoes were also black—and a cardigan sweater, which she wouldn't dream of putting on in this kind of heat, but would don the minute she got inside the air conditioned building she worked in. The sweater would keep her warm in the air conditioning, but she even wore it in the building when she was hot, because it covered her tattoos.

She unlocked and opened her car door, turning her head away as sticky hot air greeted her. She threw her tote and purse onto the passenger's seat, then lowered herself into the driver's, pressing the buttons to lower all four windows as she closed the door. She plucked up a pair of sunglasses from the dashboard and set them on her face as she stuck the keys into the ignition. Loud music poured out of the speakers as the car groaned to life. She began to back down the driveway, picking up the song that played and singing along. She drummed her fingers on her steering wheel as she pulled out onto the street, the chipped blue polish on her nails flashing as they tapped to the beat of the song.

She glanced at the clock and swore. The clock said 8:06. It was exactly fourteen minutes fast. Which meant it was actually 7:52. The bus would be at the stop at exactly 8:05. She prayed she would make it on time.


At just about eight o'clock, he was early, waiting resignedly in line at the coffee shop. He knew he still had plenty of time to pick up the 4 coffees—one for himself, the other three for his three bosses—and still be at his desk before 8:20. This fact, however, did not make up for resentment he felt for even being at that coffee shop to begin with. He was an attractive man, in dress pants and a button down shirt. He was in his early thirties, but still looked like he was in his twenties. And most importantly, still held the kind of job he expected in his twenties. He was teamed up against a kid just barely out of college, assisting three of the most pig-headed, asinine brokers in DC. But he was the one going for coffee.

The line suddenly shifted and he was jostled by a man behind him bumping his shoulder. He looked back, frowning, but the man wouldn't so much as glance at him (let alone apologize). He might as well have been invisible. He sighed, then turned forward again. The customer in front of him was taking up her order and leaving the counter. In turn he stepped up the counter, flashing a smile at the cashier. The girl, who was probably in her teens, reacted much the way he expected, smiling back shyly. Too small an offering to brighten his otherwise monotonous and depressing morning. As the teen worked to fill his order, he glanced down at his watch again. Still plenty of time.


She pulled into the bus lot only a few cars ahead of the bus. She had seen it in her rearview mirror. She rushed to park and scrambled out of her car as the bus pulled in behind her, slowed to a stop, and opened its doors. The bus was air-conditioned and much cooler than the sticky air outside. She shivered as she climbed the stairs and made her way towards the back. The seats were filling up, but there were still a few empty rows in the back. People looked away as she made her way down the isle. Not a single one murmured a "good morning". She didn't know them anyway. And they were all much older than she was. She found a seat and slouched down by the window, placing her purse and tote on the seat next to her. She pulled out her sweater, unsure if she wanted to put it on yet, and also pulled out her book. She began to read as the bus jerked into motion and pulled out onto the street.

Not five minutes later, the bus pulled into another lot, its last stop before getting onto the highway towards Hartford. This stop was bigger than hers and more people got on here than any other. She pulled her attention from her book to keep an eye on the seats as they were filling up. When she saw that there were no more empty rows, she pulled her bags off the seat next to her and set them on the floor by her feet. She buried her head back in her book. As more people filed in, strangers had to sit in the aisle seats next to strangers. Some people even had to hunt for seats, since not all of the commuters would move their personal belongings off an empty seat like she did.

A few minutes later, the bus began to move again. She cast a furtive glance around and found that nearly every seat in the bus was now taken—except the seat next to her. She told herself that she was not offended, then picked her bags up off the floor and set them back on the seat.


As expected, he entered the office a few minutes early. He offered the receptionist a warm greeting, which she returned. Then he made his rounds delivering coffee to the brokers he worked for. The first didn't even acknowledge his presence. The second wasn't in his office yet. The third only spoke to him to ask for any messages.

After that, he went to his desk. A stack of files sat on the corner of his desk waiting to be filed. They had not been there when he left yesterday. But of course, he had left at three in order to get to his second job at the restaurant. He ignored the stack for the time being, having a seat and taking a sip from his own coffee. He checked his voice mail as he waited for his computer to start up, then opened up his e-mail.

A glance to his right confirmed that his child co-worker was not in yet. He wasn't surprised. It was a miracle the kid ever got to his desk by nine.

He suddenly heard one of his bosses calling his name. He sighed and stood, counting in his head how many hours it was until the end of the day.


It was payroll day, so she was busy all morning. She was in charge of entering timecards, so the morning before the payroll transmitted was usually spent checking the interoffice mail and fax machines frequently and entering all the last-minute submissions to ensure that everyone was paid.

As she was finishing up the batch she was working on, she glanced at her list of all the hourly employees she was paying that week. That's when it caught her eye that there were zero hours entered next to his name. She sighed, tapping her nails on her desk. It was not her job to chase after employees to submit their timecards. The payroll ran twice a month, leaving him over two weeks to send in his timecards. And if he sent in a timecard every week, like she constantly urged him to do, he would never have to worry about being paid. But if she didn't remind him, he wasn't going to be paid, and it would be another two and half weeks until the next payroll. And he had already gotten in trouble for not sending in his timecards about a month ago.

She pulled up the company directory on her computer to look up his number and dialed it.


His phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID. No name came up, just a number that usually represented someone calling through the VPN. So it was not someone in the building, but the call was company internal. He picked up, announcing his name.

The response he received was, "Hi, it's your favorite payroll person." And at the one line, he grinned, pleasantly surprised. She almost never called him. It was usually the other way around.

"Hey kiddo! How are you?"

"I'm good, how are you?"

She had a nice voice. Sugary sweet. She was 20 but sounded even younger, yet her voice seemed to match perfectly to the picture he had seen of her on the company intranet introducing the HR and Payroll team. Cute all around.

"I'm good. What's up?"

"You need to send in your timecards. We're transmitting payroll today. If you don't send me your timecards, you won't get paid on Wednesday."

Shit. He had known he was forgetting something. "I'll send them right now. You can still get them in?"

"Yes, but you need to fax them now."

He was nodding while pinning the phone against his ear, already sifting through the papers on his desk in search of his timecards that still needed to be signed by one of his bosses. "I'm faxing them right now. You'll make sure I get paid?"

He could hear a suppressed sigh on the other end of the line. "Yes, I'll go wait by the fax machine. But I mean it. You have to sent them right now."

"Done. Thanks, kiddo. You're the best."

He hung up and hurried to get his timecards approved, the payroll girl's pleasant voice forgotten for the time being at least. He was not above ignoring most aspects of his job in order to waste a few minutes on the phone with her, but there was one thing that was more important and that was his paycheck. He could not afford a missing paycheck this week. Rent was due on Wednesday, which was payday, and he wouldn't be able to pick up his lousy check from the restaurant until Friday.


Payroll was transmitted at noon, ending the morning rush. There was little to do until the next day when the checks and reports arrived, so she usually took this time to do her filing. The filing cabinets were in a big closet at the back of the department. There used to be a stopper that propped the door open, but it went mysteriously missing. So the door was always closed. She liked wasting time in the filing closet. There was a little cheap clock radio singing at the back. She would go along, file by file, sliding papers into their appropriate hanging folders. And she would daydream about anything and everything besides work. It wasn't that her job was bad, by any means, but certainly boring at times.

Mid-alphabet, she saw the name of her Sales Assistant friend peeking amongst the row of manila folders. She smirked, then pulled out the file, leafing through his papers. He claimed single on his W-4. She knew that. He made less money an hour than she did. She knew that, too. He was 32. All things she had already seen on his record in the payroll system. But here was something she hadn't seen: a photocopy of his license. It was a black and white copy of a colored picture, so it wasn't the best quality. But she could kind of see his face. He was cute. Nice smile. She rolled her eyes at herself, then returned his file to its place.

She decided to take a quick break from filing to check her e-mail and phone messages, so she gathered up her pile of papers awaiting to be filed and headed back to her desk. The message light on her phone was lit up. There was also a note written on a sticky placed on her computer screen. The note was a message written from her co-worker that her Sales Assistant buddy had called. She picked up her phone and dialed the number to retrieve her messages. She had just heard the familiar greeting of that same guy when someone called her name behind her. She turned around, seeing one of her co-workers.

"Did you see the message I left on your desk?"

She laughed. "Yeah. I'll call him back."

"He called twice wondering where you were. He was worried about you." She could clearly hear the teasing tone in her co-worker's voice. "You better call him back. I don't want to talk to him again. I can't stand that guy."

She laughed. "I know. I know. That's why he calls me. I'm the only one who can deal with him."

"I think he's got a crush on you…"

She rolled her eyes and looked away. "He does not. I'm just the only one who is nice to him."

"He likes you!"

"No way," she replied. "He's like…old! And he's in Washington, DC. It's not like I'm ever going to meet the guy."

"He flirts with you. He won't even talk to anyone else in the department. He only asks for you."

"So what? It's harmless. He may be annoying, but at least he's always pleasant to talk to. He never yells at me like most employees do. He just likes to talk."

She opened her mouth to say more, but her phone began to ring. Her co-worker smirked and cocked an eyebrow. "Better pick it up. It's probably him!"

She rolled her eyes and shooed her co-worker away as she picked up the receiver and spoke her rehearsed payroll greeting. She smiled quite unintentionally when she heard the returned greeting. "Hey you," she said. "I was just about to call you. I heard you've been looking for me."

"Yeah," he said. "I called your phone, but just got your voice mail. I was wondering where you went."

"I was in the filing closet."

She heard him snicker. "Oooh, sounds exciting."

She grinned. "Oh yeah."

He cleared his throat. "So I just wanted to make sure you got my timecards. You paid me, right?" There was a subtle hint of desperation in his words.

"Of course. Don't sweat it. I got your timecards. You'll be paid on Wednesday."

He exhaled a sigh of relief. "Oh good! Gotta pay rent, you know?"

"Well, you know if you just sent your timecard every week, you wouldn't have this problem."

There was a pause before he asked, "Really?"

She rolled her eyes. She gave him this speech twice a month. As much as he talked to her, it was like he never actually listened. "Yes, I keep telling you that. Just fax your timecard to me at the end of the day on Friday. You don't have to wait until payroll day to fax over two or three of your timecards. If you send it every week, then you don't have to worry about forgetting to send them."

"Huh." It was the same response she always got, as if this was an epiphany he had never heard before. "That's a great idea. I'll start doing that from now on."

No you won't, she thought.

"So when will my direct deposit hit?" he pressed on. "Tomorrow?"

He asked this question every payroll and the answer was always the same. She thought to herself that she should just record her answers to this conversation and play it for him every time he called.

"Pay day is on Wednesday, the 15th. You should see your deposit by that day."

"But I always get it the day before."

"I know," she said, trying not to sound annoyed. "But that depends on your bank. All I can tell you is that pay day is Wednesday. Some people see it the day before, some people don't. I never see my deposit the day before, so I just couldn't tell you."

"Fair enough. Fair enough. So hey, I wanted to ask you a question."

"Shoot."

"Can you tell me if you've received any paperwork to change me to full time."

She frowned, leafing through some papers around her desk. She didn't know why she was looking, because she was sure if she had seen his name on a change form, she would have remembered it. "No, not yet. They're making you full time? That's great!"

"Yeah, probably starting next month."

"Hey, then you won't have to send me your timecards anymore!"

He chuckled. "Oh no. Then what will I bug you about? I'll have to find some other reason to call."

"I'm sure you'll come up with something. You can always bug me anytime."

The laugh she received sounded genuine. "Anyway," he said after clearing his throat, "my girlfriend will be happy when they make me full time. I can stop working part-time at the restaurant."

She frowned, missing a beat before replying with some blasé response like, "oh yeah?" It was the first time he had ever mentioned he had a girlfriend. She didn't know why she should care. She would never met the guy and secretly thought he was kind of dumb. And besides, she had a boyfriend.

"She's always giving me a hard time because I don't make enough money."

"That's horrible!" she blurted out.

There was an awkward pause before he replied. "No, no. I mean, she wants to be with someone who is successful. There's nothing wrong with that."

She bit her lip, trying to think of the right thing to say. "I don't know, that just doesn't seem right. I mean, she should like you for you not for money." She shook her head, scrunching her nose. "I mean, it's none of my business. I guess I'm just not like that. I don't care about money like that."

"Until you get rich being the next American Idol, right?"

The tension was finally broken and they both laughed.

"I keep telling you I would never be on American Idol," she said. "I'm not a pop singer. I'm in a band."

"Right. Right." There was a thoughtful pause. "So me and this friend came up with this great idea. We're thinking about starting a company. It's such a great idea, it's gonna be huge. I haven't told anyone else our plan yet, but you wanna hear?"

His voice had become hushed and intimate on the phone and she puzzle over it, smiling. "Yeah, of course."

"So we had this idea for debit cards. People use debit cards all the time. What if when you used your debit card, it rounded everything off to the next dollar, and the change was moved from your checking account into a high-yield savings bond? I mean, think of how many times you use your debit card. People would be making money without even knowing it. Isn't that a great idea?"

She shrugged, a gesture she knew he couldn't see. What the hell did she know? She was a 20-year-old college drop out in an entry level job she only got because her mom worked for the company for like a million years. She didn't know anything about saving money or high-yield bonds, and quite frankly, she couldn't really care less. She was living in her dad's basement! A few months before, she had barely enough money in her banks accounts to keep them open.

"Yeah, I guess," was her reply.

"So my friend and I are going to start a company," he went on. "You know, you should come work for us."

She laughed. "I live in Connecticut, remember?"

"Then you'll just have to move to DC for this exciting entrepreneurial opportunity!"

"Yeah, yeah. We'll see, okay? You let me know when you have a position for me, okay?"

There was the slightest pause then that almost seemed awkward, but it was gone so quickly, she couldn't be sure.

"Definitely. Well, kiddo, I gotta go. You take care. Talk to you soon."

"Of course! Always a pleasure talking to you."

"You, too kid. Hey, thanks for your help."

"Anytime."


He entered his apartment just after six. It was a tiny thing in a bad neighborhood. He could hear his upstairs neighbors arguing loudly as they stomped on the floor—the same neighbors that he would probably hear having sex later at night. He shuffled his way inside, kicking off his shoes at the door. His place was a mess. Plates, empty glasses, cardboard Chinese take-out containers all littered on his coffee table and kitchen counters.

He went to his bedroom and changed his clothes from the dress shirt and pants he wore to sweats and a tee-shirt. Then he went back to his living room and slumped on the couch, turning on the TV. Amongst the garbage strewn about his coffee table was an overturned picture frame. The photo, which now just faced the tabletop, was one of him and his girlfriend, the one he had mentioned to his payroll friend earlier in the day. The one that he should have referred to with a prefix of "ex".

She had dumped him about a week ago. He probably would have been more upset if he hadn't expected it. She was kind of a bitch (but totally hot). She would never get off his case about only working part-time at the investment firm. Plus, she was spending an awful lot of time with a male co-worker with whom he was pretty sure she was cheating on him. So good riddance anyway. She was probably with that same co-worker now.

At that moment, he suddenly thought of the payroll girl, which her cute voice and pretty face. The girl who didn't even want a full-time job, but dreamed of being a rock star. The girl who didn't even care about money and thought a woman should like him just the way he was. It was stupid and utterly bizarre that she would even cross his mind. And he couldn't even explain why.

He picked up the phone and hit he speed dial to order Chinese delivery.


It was quarter after seven and she was curled up on her couch in her basement bedroom at her dad's house when she heard the familiar tone of her cell phone ringing. She was pissed.

It was her boyfriend. He was the only one who ever called her (besides her mom sometimes), and he was certainly the only one that called her every night. He lived about an hour away, so she only saw him once a week. It wasn't that she minded talking to him. But did he have to call right in the middle of Jeopardy?!

She grudgingly turned the sound of the game show down and crossed the room to pick up the call right before it went to voice mail. She exchanged mundane pleasantries with her boyfriend as she walked back to her couch. Then she asked him about his day and let him talk while she attempted to watch the Jeopardy clues without him knowing she was ignoring him.

She was not a bad person, and she did love her boyfriend, but she specifically asked him not to call her until after nine when minutes on her cell phone were free. He purposely called her earlier than that every day, then offered to pay for her phone bill when it was outrageously high. But she didn't want him to pay for her stupid phone bill. She wanted to pay her own bill! She just didn't want to pay for ridiculous charges because he couldn't be considerate enough to call two hours later.

During a commercial break, she joined the conversation more and told him things about her day.

"My buddy from DC called me today."

There was a pause where she could almost sense the mood of the conversation changing. "That guy who's like stalking you?" Her boyfriend's words were bitter.

"He's not stalking me!" she replied with an audible eye-roll. "I've never even met him. He lives in Washington DC. He just calls me to ask questions and I'm the only one who's ever nice to him."

"It's weird. It's creepy. I don't like that he calls you all the time."

Suddenly, she wished she hadn't joined the conversation at all. She hated it when her boyfriend acted all jealous like this. It was just stupid. So she started to tune him out again. He rattled on and she watched TV, straining to hear the soundtrack that she had turned down so her boyfriend wouldn't hear. It was still the commercial break. There was some commercial for a bank and their new debit card program. Apparently, every time you used your debit card, the charge was rounded up to the next dollar and the change was moved from your checking account to your savings account to help you save money.

She just shook her head slowly, sighing to herself.

It didn't matter. She had long suspected that her DC friend liked to stretch the truth. And why not? They would never even meet. Just a few harmless lies exchanged between strangers that sometimes felt closer than friends.