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Image by Richard Lund

Human Resources
by Jennifer Springsteen

            Mr. Diamond rounds the corner in the empty stairwell between G and 2. His briefcase hits my thigh, pushing me backwards, the stair rail hard on the small of my back.

            “We're going down,” I tell him, “everyone must evacuate.” He keeps going up. I can hear his foot stomps in the stairwell, his sighs, the puffs of his breath, the keys in his pocket.

            I was the last to leave the fifth floor because I felt it was my duty to lock the confidential HR cabinet files and to unplug the microwave and coffee maker and the fridge in the break rooms on four through six. We really don't know what to expect, but we've read the twitter feeds and seen the photos of bombings at banks here and in Chicago and Seattle. This is our third evacuation, and I fear the worst.

            The war has gone on a year now, too long. It wore people down with evacuations and worry about evacuations and bombs going off killing people or lopping off their legs or ripping out their eyes. After every bombing, people are shaken up, afraid to take the train, afraid to send their kids to school. Now, a year in, we worry for a few days, maybe a week, then we pick up and keep going. 

            I hear the heavy metal door open from somewhere above. The fourth floor? The fifth?

            “Mr. Diamond,” I call, “Where are you?” I supervised the evacuation myself, everyone from our firm took only what was necessary and filed down the stone steps in as calm a fashion as possible under the circumstances. What on earth would possess the man to return?

            There are only thirty minutes by my watch before the shelters are locked down. Five minutes ago all the staff should have reported to their posts on the ball field at the park across from Beech Street. Then they will move in groups to the shelters.

            Donald Diamond works in budgets. If there is something he must retrieve, I should have been told. It is my duty to secure the offices.

            In all my forty years, I have never broken a bone. It's what I think every time we hear about a bombing or another possible evacuation. And then I knock on wood. If I'm not near wood, like in the metal and porcelain bathroom, I rush out fast, back to my desk or to the break room and rap one, two, three. Able to breathe again. Safe.

            I want to follow Mr. Diamond. He's on the fourth floor, or the fifth. Employees are instructed to take their personal belongings with them, their purses and laptops. In an evacuation, Jodi French and the older one, Tom something, in IT take the most recent backup from our servers on small devices which they take with them in a locked case. They are always the first ones out of the building after Mr. Erikson, of course. They go immediately with him to the shelter. The rest of the employees must lock their file cabinets; no client documents should be left on desks. I have been requested to conduct a final sweep on our three floors to insure Erikson, Riley and Smith, LLP remains secure, and client confidentiality is honored. During our last evacuation, Margret Harney left an ExCorps case file right on her desk. Clumby work, bombs or no bombs. She took some heat for that mistake. I know Mr. Erikson will have something to say about Mr. Diamond coming back into a secure building. It is important to look out for the business above my own personal safety; certainly, I'm due another raise.

            I open the door on four and look into the beige maze of cubicles. A person could crouch down and hide anywhere, or in the break room, or one of the partner's offices, or in the men's bathroom.      “Donald Diamond!” I call out. “Are you in here?” There isn't an echo. My words are absorbed by the spongy carpet and the cubicle walls where employees tack up pictures of loved ones, to-do lists, evacuation routes.

            I hear a thud above me. He's on five. I take the stairs two at a time. I don't want to think about broken bones. About the hard edges of the building around me. How the metal can splinter and cut into my arms. Forget that the cement would push deep into my lungs and tear the last of the air out.

            Now it's 10:43, and we should have been at the park ten minutes ago. The groups will begin moving into the shelters, no one should be out in whatever mayhem follows. Last time they put out the fires before the whole city block collapsed. The north wall on the top floor of our building took the impact of a missile and had to be rebuilt. No one was allowed back into the building for two months; we worked in the shelters, and then all fifty-five employees from Corbin Hicks Architects, Incorporated, on six and seven were scrunched into make-shift cubicles on the first five floors until after Christmas break. It was a difficult time for everyone. 

            There is movement somewhere on this floor, I can feel him here.

            “Donald Diamond,” I say.

            “Who the hell is that?” He puts his head up, and I can see the tips of his jacketed shoulders, his long brown neck, his round bald head, like a puppet behind the cubicle wall.

            I say, “We need to get down to the park, into the shelters. I have already secured these offices.”

            He shakes his head, and it disappears again.

            Outside, an explosion. Did the building shake? Are we hit?

            I march through the main hallway and into the cubicle cluster that outfits the Budget Department. His laptop is on, plugged into the shared drive cable; he's standing there at his desk with his hand on the mouse turning in tight loops. He shifts his eyes once when he hears me at the door, but then he simply ignores me and keeps doing whatever it is he is doing.

            “What on earth are you doing?” I say, “IT has already backed up the system. Anything you do could be lost.”

            He stretches his foot out behind him and catches the leg of his chair, rolls it under him and sits down. He's typing fast and swishing the mouse around on the pad.

            “It isn't safe up here,” I say. Broken bones, I think. The smooth white ceiling concealing thick metal cords and hard-sided plastic.

            “Then get out,” he says. He double clicks and then sits back in his chair, watches the screen I so badly want to see. “What are you waiting for?” he asks.

            I don't know. I don't know why I've followed him or why I feel like I need to wait for him. Maybe because of Margret Harney's file. The raise.

            He snorts at me and shakes his head. Like I'm some busy body.  It angers me to see him dressed in that blue suit with his square-toed shoes and his legs swung wide open the way some men do. He has his hands on the sides of the chair and his chin turned to the left. How this man, only three years employed, can make more money than me is an outrage. He opens his mouth, but the computer catches his attention, and he turns away from me again. “That'll do it,” he says. He clicks the mouse and initiates the computer's closing song. He slaps the top of the laptop closed and reaches behind to unhook the cords. With his laptop in his bag, he stands up facing me in the doorway.

            “Excuse me,” he says.

            “What did you do?”

            “Aren't you in HR?” he asks.

            “I am the Director of HR.”

            He looks at his watch. “Guess you know we have less than ten minutes to get to the shelter.” He pushes past me and strides down the main hall and turns right at the cubicle cluster for the Construction and Design case managers.

            I rush to follow him. “Mr. Erickson will hear about this, Mr. Diamond, you can count on that.” I  hear the elevator's rumbling rise, and I get to him right as the green arrow pings. My face is hot. I feel the sweat under my bangs and my armpits are wetting my blouse. “Are you crazy? You can't take the elevator in an evacuation.”

            The elevator doors open, and he walks in just like that. Both hands holding the briefcase in front of him and looking not at me—he won't look at me—but at the place above the doors where the floor numbers light up four, three, two, then G, T.

            When the elevator doors close, I hear a blast from the street and see the smoke rise up past the large lobby windows. I swing open the door to the stairs, my fear so heavy it pushes into my sternum. The sirens wail from far away and then closer, closer, all the way down Beech Street. Crack-Crack. Shelling. I'd once thought the stairwell was the safest place, but that was before. All that metal and concrete. All that heat.

            I wear good shoes. My hand on the rail is hot friction. Down ten and around, down ten and around. I'll have to run across the street into the park, make someone open the shelter for me. We aren't supposed to open the shelters after lock down, but we've done it before. For mothers with children. Old people. A man who'd gone back to the car for his dog. This time for me and Mr. Diamond.

            The stairwell surges in a violent explosion; I'm pushed forward on my knees. I lay down my hands and wait like an animal for the shaking to stop. Up and knocked down again. I see the red inking through my panty hose. Something pulls in my neck, deep between the shoulder blades. I'm on two, Lord help me, I'm almost out.

            I hear him when I push open the door to the lobby. The glass doors to the street are shattered. Debris scatters the sidewalk, people are running through the noise. Mr. Diamond is knocking on the elevator doors and calling, “Can you hear me?”

            There is a blurred reflection of me in the elevator's metal doors. Wider than I am normally, my face split down the middle, eyes asymmetrical. “Mr. Diamond?” I ask with my mouth close to the seam. Of course it's him. I see the blood on my leg and my blouse, too, at my shoulder.

            “I'm stuck,” he says. Nothing smug in his voice now.

            “That you, Mr. Diamond?”

            “The goddamn doors won't open. I fell two floors. Jesus Christ.”

            I pull my face back and look at my empty hands, at the empty lobby. Behind the reception desk, the monitors flicker and buzz, shorted out. In the drawer there are key cards and lip gloss and Altoids and black pens. There is nothing to pry open the elevator doors. The sirens holler in the street. I remember the ax in the glass box and head back to the elevator swinging it.

            I put my face to the seam again. “I've got the ax.”

            “Thank God,” he says, letting go a cry.

            I wedge the metal head into the seam and wiggle the handle side to side, but absolutely nothing is happening as a result of this effort. The place between my shoulders sends a ripple of pain down to my low back. “Oh!” I say and arch my back.

            “What? What is it?”

            “I can't get the doors open,” I tell him.

            “Try again.”

             “I can't. I'm hurt,” I say.

            “Wait with me,” he says.

            I shake my head. No. There is a crash outside, men with black boots and guns strapped on their shoulders run down Beech Street with smoke billowing behind them. I need a clear path into the park and to the shelters where certainly someone will open the doors to me.

            I lean against the elevator door, take the weight off my left knee. “What were you doing up there, Mr. Diamond?”

            He waits for a minute. “You bitch.” Now he screams at me, first everything he can think of and then just hollering and kicking the doors. 

            “There's nothing I can do,” I say, but I don't say it loud. He probably doesn't hear.  I grip the little ax and walk to the front doors with a limp. The streets swim in smoke, papers, plastic bags, and whatever else people dropped and left to chance. I hear the womp-womp-womp of helicopters, but I don't see them.

            I run across the street into the park hunched over because that's how they do it in the movies when the bombs explode all around them, and also because of the terrible searing down my back. The muscles tearing at one another, pulling at the bone.

            People lay on the park grass with their hands on their heads. People and tree limbs, downed by the fight.

            I get to my assigned shelter and hit the metal door with the back head of the ax.

            I jam the speaker button, “Let me in.”  I can feel them moving down there, deep under the earth. I think, I'm going to have Donald Diamond fired. That laptop will be subpoenaed.

            The ax makes oblong dents in the shelter door. Buzz buzz buzz. I know they can hear me.

            Mr. Diamond might even be thrown in jail.

            “Open this door!”  The smoke is thick in the park, scratches my throat. “Mr. Erickson, please!”

            I imagine Mr. Erickson's you must be kidding eyes when I tell him about what happened. When they open the door, I'll go to him in the sectioned off back room and sit before him in a brown leather chair. I'll take the tea Mrs. Todd offers and tell them about my back. About Donald Diamond.

            And that will be the end of him.

Bio

Jennifer Springsteen graduated in May with her Master of Divinity and serves as the ministerial intern in Vancouver, Washington. She is represented by Joanna McKenzie of Nelson Literary Agency, and her writing has received several awards including an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship and two Pushcart Prize nominations. Jennifer lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter. www.jenniferspringsteen.com

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