Fiction: Shelter in Place

(A firsthand account from a whistleblower who really opened the floodgates.)

I work at the Ministry of Culture, albeit in the Financial Reporting division. Ask me what it is I do there and I’ll point you to a spreadsheet. Weekly grant dispersal figures for government cultural promotion programs need tabulating, proposals need documenting. I got a master’s for this. Spreadsheets are so important that I give up one full day a month to training, that is, learning how to make spreadsheets prettier, or sometimes just to do basic math functions. I work past six most days, passing the extra hour by doing the sudoku. Tina says face time is everything.

“Marina,” types Boss Tung over instant messenger, “are those grant dispersal figures I asked for ready yet?” I’m still not sure if that’s his name or his title.

I attach the appropriate spreadsheet and send it back with an emoticon, sheepish because I should have sent it to him this morning. When Boss Tung wants a report, Boss Tung gets the report. I think because I’m still the new guy (girl) he doesn’t trust my work, which might explain the constant checking up. Boss Tung is a yeller. Boss Tung has been to the North Pole.

Right about now is when I would surf the Internet if every site but the Ministry’s wasn’t blocked. Instead, I get up to get a drink of water. Our cooler is empty again. I have to go to the one down the hall.

Something is different.

Instead of there being water inside the jug the water is outside the jug, on the carpeting, soaking into the wall. No, it’s not instead of being inside the jug. That water is still where it belongs. Where did all of the rest of it come from?

“That’s some hurricane we’re having,” Walter remarks. He calmly wades through the puddle and fills his mug from the tap.

I try to recall the memory of closing my bedroom window this morning. It isn’t there. Let’s hope Walter is kidding around. That’s what I like about the office—my coworkers are always there with a joke to lighten the mood.

“Maybe Tina had another accident,” I say, trying to lighten the mood right back.

Tina is in Accounting. Once, before I started at the Ministry, Tina’s mom came to the office to bring her a folder she forgot at home, and when Tina left the room to take a call, her mom told everyone a story about the time Tina wet her pants during the first grade pageant, and how the school made them pay for the dandelion costume afterwards. I take extra care not to leave spreadsheets at home.

“Tina? Do I know any Tina?” Walter says.

Walter and Tina broke up my second day here, in the middle of my welcome to the Ministry meet and greet icebreaker. The cake didn’t look too great anyway, even before landed on Walter’s afro, so it wasn’t a big loss. Boss Tung later had me add the whole thing to the expenses spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets, spreadsheets, bedsheets. I’m sure I left the window open. But it doesn’t matter, because Walter was just kidding. I look out the window. A motorbike sails past, followed by a palm tree. Walter was not kidding.

I just bought those sheets. So what if they get wet? They’ll dry. I can sleep on the air mattress tonight.

“Do you want me to fill that up for you?” Walter asks.

He takes my mug and dips it in the floor. Part of being the new guy (girl) means not throwing the carpet-tainted hurricane residue in his face. Really, I like most of my coworkers, I really do. I don’t even casually mention that Tina looks great in the skirt/boot combination she’s wearing today, partly because, well, she doesn’t.

Tina walks up in her skirt/boot combination looking about as sexy in it as a plump giraffe.

“Hey, you. Marina? Martina?”

“Hello, Tina.”

There is a pause during which the third person present and Tina would exchange greetings if that third person felt plump giraffes were worth being civil to even if they were cheating hussies. How do I know this? The cheating hussy part? Tina never shuts up in the bathroom. All I want to do is check my hair and makeup. I feel that she is not entirely not at fault here. Maybe I’m too conservative.

The postcards are on my bed. I should have put them away. The window is closed. I must have closed it. It’s open.

I say, “That’s some hurricane we’re having.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Tina snaps. “Some idiot probably put the water jug on wrong.”

She stares straight at Walter without looking at him. He flicks her off with his middle toe, or so I imagine from his expression.

A gust of wind blows at such an angle as to douse me with rainwater. I slosh through the carpeting and shut the hallway window.

“Oh, that hurricane.”

I hope the postcards are okay.

Does the government close down in hurricane situations? Who do I ask about that? Larissa might be at home. I could steal away and call her to check the windows. I say I’m going to the bathroom to get cleaned up.

“I’ll come with.” I would almost rather it was Walter who said this.

In two minutes I finish pretending to clean up. While Tina complains that so and so will never leave so and so no matter what he promises, I sneak a text message to my sister.

“Who are you texting?”

I’m not good at sneaking.

What can I tell her? If I say “nobody,” she’ll ask if he’s married. I could lie.

“Nobody,” I say.

I’m not good at lying.

“What’d he say?”

My phone beeps its reply beep. I read the message. I can’t help it. It says “which window?”

Tina edges closer.

“Walter says he shut the hallway window if we want to come out now,” I say.

Tina snaps back to smoothing her hair in the mirror, stiff and uninterested. We soon go back to our own desks via the other hallway. I am suddenly very thirsty.

Why was it that I didn’t get a drink just now? Unsure, I lick my lips and enter a few columns of data into the grant dispersal spreadsheet. Before I can activate the tabulate function, Boss Tung sends me an instant message. He wants the grant dispersal spreadsheet. Unfortunately, his message overloaded the junky computer I know for a fact there’s money in the supplies budget to replace, and now it’s frozen.

Frozen. Ice. Water. The hurricane! The postcards!

I yank my phone out of my pocket and text my sister back, “The one in our bedroom.”

Even if I did forget to close the window, it’s not like the bed’s right next to it. Maybe the postcards weren’t still on the bed. I’m sure I put them away. Why do I care? They’re just postcards.

My phone vibrates with a new message alert. It’s Boss Tung wanting to know why I haven’t answered his instant message. I need a drink. Of water. I don’t like alcohol—it makes people do crazy things and then get a headache.

What I really need is to go home. My father said he was coming home tonight. He said so in his latest postcard. My mother says tonight she refuses to cook his favorite, Salisbury steak, just because the last two times I made her leave a plate of it out on the table for a week in case the problem was that his flight had been delayed. Since I know he is coming I practiced cooking Salisbury steak myself recently. The fire extinguisher ended up becoming the main ingredient. Why does cooking seem so simple when someone else is doing it?

My job is like cooking in that it is simple looking, but not like cooking in that it is also simple doing. I try using complicated formulas to make it look hard, make it look like I’m working hard, so Boss Tung won’t scold me. But when I tell people at parties what I do, they ask how come it takes until six every day to do it. That’s just face time, I tell them. If I was in the Cultural Promotion Policy division, maybe I could do something about it. As it is, I’m in Financial Reporting. Grant dispersal figures come in, I report them in a spreadsheet. What you have to realize is that it’s a very complicated spreadsheet, or so I do my best to make it seem.

Tina taps on the wall of my cubicle as if it were a door.

“Who is it?”

“Do you think Walter would take me back?”


“Walter is looking for you in the back. By the supply closet.”

She’s gone before I can say thanks for delivering the message. That was a close one. I like my coworkers, but I don’t like to get involved in their personal matters, nor let them involve themselves in mine. Take the postcards for example. I’m sure they’re fine, and if not, he might send another one. He might even come in person this time, like he promised. I’m still planning to go shopping for Worcestershire sauce and ground beef after work.

My phone beeps the text message received tone. Larissa says: ummm…now it’s closed. Think dry thoughts.

Oh shit.

There is a something in my stomach. It’s right there, below the belly button, on the right side but inside. It wants to say something. It wants to say, “Screw it all, how can this be worth it?” I don’t want to listen, but it is there pressing against my insides—not unbearable but not ignorable either.

I don’t answer Larissa. These spreadsheets aren’t going to tabulate themselves. Well, not until I active the proper functions, that is.

He’ll write another postcard. I’ll write him back if he gives a return address. We’ll be pen pals.

My stomach speaks, “murgle bup”. Maybe I just need to use the restroom. But I just went. Boss Tung keeps track of those kinds of things.

“Did Tina say anything about me?”

“How’s the hurricane going, Walter?” I say without turning around, then, after deciding it’s not his fault he won’t shut up about Tina Tina Tina, turning around after all.

“The—oh—it’s fine, I guess. Thanks for asking?”

I take three deep breaths, one, two, three. Stupid Walter, stupid Tina. Their potential future children don’t know how lucky they are to be able to all be together, to go to the beach or to the park together or to have dinner as a family.

I say, “If you love her that much, just tell her.”

“No, no, I don’t think—“

“Love who? Tell what? How about this hurricane? I need that grant dispersal spreadsheet right now.”

Boss Tung has joined Walter in blocking the entrance to my cubicle.

He is standing in an inch and a half of water.

So is Walter, I suppose, but I didn’t notice until now.

So am I. Well, I’m sitting, but the water is there creeping over the top of my power strip. Pop sizzle sizzle nada. So much for spreadsheets.

“I really needed that spreadsheet,” Boss Tung says.

What can I say? “I’m sorry?” “Who needs a spreadsheet at five in the afternoon on a Friday?” “Do you think this pool of water might also deserve our attention at the moment?”

Walter says, “It’s probably Tina crying in the bathroom. I’ll check.”

Walter departs. Boss Tung asks what his deal is, and I just shrug.

“You’re all right, Marina. A few more years and you might be looking at a merit increase. What the heck, you can get me that spreadsheet tomorrow.”

My phone vibrates. We’re not supposed to use personal cell phones on government time. It could be from my sister.

I say, “I think my computer is broken.”

Boss Tung says, “Take that up with IT,” and walks away.

My phone is out and my fingers are on the keys. I curl my legs up onto my chair to get them out of the water that is now just above my ankles.

“We’re flooding. Fast. Going out for help.”

“Get the postcards off my bed.”

“Sorry, left already. Didn’t see any postcards.”

“Check again?”

“Do we have any sandbags?”

I sit shivering for a minute without replying, wondering what to do. Didn’t I bring a jacket today? I need to go home. I could fake a stomachache. The spreadsheet’s already done, presuming our data is backed up somewhere dry.

“The bad news,” says Walter. Don’t these people have their own desks to stand in front of? “Is that the streets are flooded. It looks like we’ll be here awhile.”

I ask, “How will we get home? If we’re sick and need to leave early?”

“The good news,” he continues, “is that Tina is all right after all. It was just water leaking through the windows.”

“The other bad news,” he continues, “is that she is still a bitch.”

A hand reaches out from behind the cubicle wall and smacks him in the face.

“Listen, Walter. We’re broken up. I can kiss whoever I want.”

“How will we get home?” I ask. “I don’t feel well.”

“Try drinking some water,” says Tina.

“Try drinking Liam from Cultural Promotion Policy,” says Walter.

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“You’re right. I don’t get it either. I mean, Liam? Really?”

I climb over my cubicle wall onto the desk on the other side. The desk dips under my weight, and I realize that it’s floating. I’m not even sure whose desk this is. Maybe the person left. Maybe I could just leave.

Lying on my stomach, using my arms as oars, I paddle out of the cubicle, past Walter and Tina sharing a bobbing chair trying to swallow each other’s tongues, and down the hallway.

I’m caught behind the water cooler in a traffic jam of office furniture; the refrigerator is hogging both lanes, a laptop and what looks like my desktop computer try to squeeze past the conference table, and the still-functioning fax machine on top of it emits beeps of anger.

I am sinking.

He’ll write another postcard. He’ll judge my Salisbury steak to be the finest east of the Mississippi. We’ll exchange email addresses after dessert. It’ll work out.

“You think this will work out? We’re ruined, or at least my leather pumps are.”

A woman I vaguely recognize but haven’t met has climbed onto the conference table and is wringing herself out. Her shoes and the rest of her are soaked.

“Climb aboard,” she says, shoving aside the no-longer-functioning fax machine.

I have no choice but to jump. The woman reaches out to catch me and drops her shoes into the current as she does. I grab for them but they’re gone.

“They were knockoffs,” she says, “I’m Sandy.”

“Hi, I’m Marina.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too.”

I think I feel my phone vibrate. I take it out to look, but it’s just a low battery warning. It vibrates again, this time a text message from my sister.

“The good news is,” it begins, “I found a flood guy to drain the house.”

End of message. I’m in the middle of replying when I get another message.

“The bad news is I can’t find the house. I think it floated away.”

With that the battery goes dead. I fling my phone past the communications division and it skips across the water like a $299 rectangular, electronic stone before disappearing in a sea of binders.

“Do you need to use my phone?” Sandy asks.

“Who would I call?” I say.

She shrugs and helps Tina aboard. I’m going to ask something but Tina’s look says I shouldn’t.

This isn’t what I thought I was getting into when I accepted the offer. I’m not really sure what I thought I was getting into, but it wasn’t this.

“Join the club,” says Sandy with the knockoff shoes.

“I quit, right after I get my merit increase,” says Tina.

I ask, “Do you know where Maui is?”

How many people live there? Would I be able to find him without an address?

“I can’t quit,” says Tina, “I need the health insurance.”

“Where would you want to go?” Sandy asks.

“To the front door,” says Boss Tung rowing up on a credenza, “all staff report to the front door for an emergency meeting.”

The front door is under water. The first floor is under water. Pretty soon I’ll be under water if I don’t find a way out of here.

“I could be a plumber,” Tina says. “Walter was just telling me the other day that—”

She interrupts herself by sobbing. I reach out to pat her on the shoulder then change my mind and pretend I was reaching up to fix my hair instead.

“No crying,” Boss Tung yells back from the mouth of the stairwell which is now a swirling rapids, “you’ll only make things worse.”

He disappears over the banister.

“We’re going out the window,” Sandy says.

I nod and try to help her paddle. She doesn’t even lose a stroke when Tina suddenly yells that we forgot Walter and have to go back and jumps off the table and Sandy catches her in one arm and sits her back down and says, “Honey, you can’t worry about him right now.”

Now I’m crying and I don’t know why but I don’t have time to think about it because she keeps on paddling and because we’re at the window and it’s open and water’s spilling in and water’s spilling out and we’re at the edge and then whoosh!

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