If he had to be honest, this was not where he had thought he’d be at age thirty-three.
That is to say - Toronto.
Standing at the corner of King and Spadina trying to pretend he wasn’t freezing to death in the middle of January, Josh clutched at the strap of his messenger bag, and wondered if Elliot would hate him if he didn’t bother showing up for his first day of work.
All around, his fellow pedestrians were tsking in annoyance as they sidestepped him to reach the crosswalk; the polite ones anyway. The rest of them pretty much told him to ‘move or fuck off’.
“I swear to Odin, do you have to stand right in the middle of the sidewalk?” a young woman muttered loudly as she shouldered past him. “Like, what the fuck man,”
“I’m sorry, I’m…”
Realizing she was already gone, Josh stopped speaking. Working his jaw, he took a deep breath and quashed down that stab of something that might have been homesickness.
Which was ridiculous - after all, he was born and raised in Toronto. There was nothing in Halifax for him, no reason for him to miss it in any way, shape or form.
Making a decision, Josh took a firm step forwards...only to slip on a patch of black ice.
Gazing upwards at the overcast sky, he sucked in a deep breath as dirty ice water started soaking into his hair.
By the time he arrived in the elevator lobby of Alchemy Blueprint - an austere space shared with Blue Jay Publishing - his hair was at least partially clean thanks to the downstairs coffee shop bathroom. While his impromptu hair wash made his hair an unkempt mess, he supposed it was better than having snow melt dripping down the back of his neck.
Staring at the reception desk, it took him far longer than it really should have to realize there was no receptionist manning the station. There was only an iPad.
Perhaps, he realized as he approached the tablet slowly, he shouldn’t have rejected the earlier opportunity to get flown into the city for an in-person interview. Perhaps it might have been a good idea to meet his new peers and managers in person…
In all actuality, he reflected, he would likely have accepted a job based out of anywhere at all. Five weeks ago when he had started his desperate search, he hadn’t cared at all where he’d have to relocate, as long as it got him the hell away from Halifax. Heck, he had even interviewed for a role in an obscure data centre somewhere in rural Manitoba.
The only thing he knew about Manitoba was that it was west.
In hindsight, perhaps he ought to have applied a little more forethought towards his next steps. There was a time not so long ago when he wouldn’t have been as careless with his life choices. Hell, he used to spend forever reasoning with himself and Lauren about every last decision. It didn’t matter if it was the purchase of a home entertainment system, or a frying pan - every decision was subject to extensive discussion, analysis and internet research.
These days, he supposed he had Lauren to thank for his newfound ability to make snap decisions at a moment’s notice. After all, she was the reason he was back in Toronto.
Reaching for the Receptionist-iPad on its swivel stand, Josh wondered for a split second if this was all some massive prank Elliot was playing. Maybe there was no job. Maybe the Zoom interviews he’d sat through had all been part of some elaborate prank, created by sadists to win imaginary internet points on YouTube.
“Don’t touch that tablet. We’ve never disinfected it. Ever.”
Exhaling in relief, Josh turned on his heel to find his old roommate bouncing towards him with a beaming, excited smile.
It had been years since their days at Dalhousie. Elliot however, still somehow resembled his young student-self. True, his spectacles had evolved over time, from rimless lenses to thick dark frames. Yes, he was apparently into faded button-up cardigans, as opposed to the marijuana-leaf hoodies of his youth. There were also fine lines by Elliot’s eyes that hadn’t used to be there. But time had done little to dim his energy and enthusiasm, it seemed.
“I don’t think anyone has wiped that thing since the pandemic started,” Elliot added, extending a welcoming hand. “It probably has some super evolved Covid variant on it,”
Feeling vaguely awkward at the idea of shaking someone’s hand, Josh accepted Elliot’s proffered gesture anyway. Considering he’d spent the last few years living in literal deathly apprehension at the notion of touching anyone who wasn’t his girlfriend, it was quite a post-pandemic milestone.
“Did you have any trouble getting here?” Elliot inquired. “Or did you forget how to use a streetcar?”
“No, I didn’t…” Josh sighed, pulling back. “I didn’t forget how to use a streetcar Elliot,”
“Fine Halifax-boy,” Elliot’s voice was warm with amusement. “Are you ready for your first day at the only startup in town that’s forcing all employees to work onsite five days a week? We’re bucking the super reasonable trend of going partial, or even full remote. Yay us for pioneering this strategy in the face of popular opinion!”
“Please don’t call me Halifax-boy,” Josh sputtered by way of response to his friend’s monologue.
“If you say so,” pressing his glasses up, Elliot gestured towards the securely locked door leading into the main office. “Hope you’re ready for battle. Just so you know, a few grenades got lobbed into the trenches this morning and we’re all up in arms,”
Shortly after he had graduated with a degree in History, Josh somehow found himself working at Prophet I.o. as a Project Coordinator, which was confusing since his degree had nothing to do with his work. Still, he hadn’t looked a gift horse in the mouth, considering his student loans, his rent, and his new, hot girlfriend who had somehow agreed to go out with him.
In those days, he still wasn’t quite sure what Lauren - slender, blonde, gorgeous Lauren - saw in him, and he wasn’t quite ready to challenge that perception, whatever it was.
Prophet I.o. specialised in data analytics, promising their clients that their technology could help predict all sorts of things. They promised that they could forecast the rise and fall of microeconomies specific to every industry, that they could grow revenue exponentially year over year, and that they could decimate all competitors no matter the size.
The fact that Prophet I.o. had existed for roughly ten years by the year 2021, and that they had never become exactly profitable, never seemed to faze the company’s paying customers. Granted, most of their clients were small corporations who had only recently discovered the wonders of Microsoft Excel.
Still, it hadn’t been a bad place to work, and Josh had spent ten years in the same place, transitioning between vaguely shifting roles, salary bands and titles, Every day, after his morning coffee, he had worked with his client contacts telling them what they wanted to hear as he scrolled through Reddit subs. By the time he left Prophet, Josh could have delivered the product his clients wanted, when they wanted without documenting so much as a single note.
Which, in the end, was the basis by which he had sold himself to Alchemy Blueprint.
Stepping into a cluster of desks filled with panicking fellow Customer Engagement Managers, a horrible suspicion that he had bitten off more than he could chew began to grow in Josh’s belly.
“No, we’re not saying we’ve lost all of our prod data,” someone said to his left in a cheery tone, which did not actually disguise the sheer panic in the woman’s voice. “All we mean is, we’re currently looking to load the last back-up into the empty database as we speak, which is why you’re not seeing anything come up on your screen right now in prod,”
Wait, weren’t those roughly the same problem?
Ahead of him, Elliot waved his hand at an empty spot on the open floor. The desk was bereft of anything other than a Macbook and a sheet of instructions.
“Here’s your desk,” his friend informed him. “I need to get on a call right now, but I’ll show you around in a few. Are you going to be ok on your own?”
Before he could respond, a loud voice interrupted his train of thought.
“What do you mean you don’t know how this happened and you can’t be sure it won’t happen again later tonight?” another voice demanded a few feet away. Tejinder, Josh recognized.
Judging from the man’s frazzled demeanour, his new manager was having some sort of meltdown.
As Elliot dashed back towards his workstation, Josh decided the best course of action was for him to lay low until someone noticed his existence. Shucking off his winter coat and messenger bag, he settled into the black swivel chair and opened his new laptop.
“Hey new guy,” someone said from the other side of a translucent workspace divider. Green eyes popped up and regarded him with some amusement. “Sorry I yelled at you earlier,”
“What?” he asked in confusion.
“Earlier, on the street,” the woman before him stood up to her full height of probably five feet. Her long, dark hair was tucked into a messy bun that seemed on the verge of unravelling at any moment. “You were having some sort of existential crisis in the middle of the sidewalk, I told you to get out of my way,”
“Oh,” he nodded as understanding dawned. “Sorry about…”
“My name’s Avi,” she stuck her hand out. “I promise I’m a lot easier to get along with when I’ve had some coffee,”
“Hi,” he took her hand and squeezed. She squeezed harder. “Josh Reynolds,”
“Huh,” her eyes lit up further even as his own watered ever so slightly under the pressure of her grip. “Like Malcolm Reynolds,”
“Browncoats forever,” he said automatically, surprising himself by smiling.
“Ohmygod yes. Also, I’d really rather be talking about Firefly, but I have to jump into a meeting,” she released her hold on him. Dropping back down in her seat, she disappeared once again behind the divider. “Talk in a bit, assuming I survive this next call,”
Across the room, Elliot could be heard repeatedly apologizing to someone or several someones.
Blinking into space, Josh fought the urge to make a mad dash for the door. Taking a deep breath, he resumed his quest to remain unnoticed for as long as was humanly possible.
That strategy worked until sometime around noon, which was when Tejinder stopped by his desk. The man seemed dazed, mildly confused and exhausted.
“I haven’t forgotten you, I promise,” he ran a twitching hand through his dark, curly hair. “Welcome to our team. Sorry for not stopping by earlier…”
“All good,” Josh stood up. “Sounds like you have a lot on your plate,”
“You have no fucking idea,” Tejinder informed him bluntly. “Our server provider accidentally wiped our production data overnight because a fucking DBA on their end hit the wrong fucking button,”
The last company Josh had worked at, people barely expressed themselves outside of brief chats about the weather or food. The most emotional anyone ever got was when they spoke about the lobster dinner they ate the previous night. Even then, the adjectives used were always fit for a baptist preacher’s ears.
Hearing his new manager swearing so openly was as surprising as it was - strangely - welcome.
“Come on,” Tejinder grinned, sticking his hands in his pockets. “Let’s go introduce you to a bunch of people whose names you’re not gonna remember,”
One o’clock found him wandering down the frozen sidewalk of King Street West, peering around dejectedly at his food choices.
Not that the lunch selection was bad - most of his dissatisfaction stemmed from his urge to dredge out his iPhone, simply so he could log into Instagram to see if there were any updates. At the back of his mind, a little voice kept urging him, whispering that it couldn’t be that bad to just take a peek, see if she had posted anything in the last four hours…
Stepping into a nearby Pizza Pizza, he ordered the first thing he saw on the overhead menu. As the guy behind the counter warmed up a greasy pepperoni and mushroom slice, Josh lost the internal battle which had been waging within him. Drawing his phone from his jacket pocket, he opened Instagram...only to regret his decision immediately.
Another gloomy day, another great cup of coffee #seattle #caffeineaddict
Tracing his fingertips over the shape of Lauren’s slender hand - the only part of her that appeared in the image she had posted - Josh could feel himself slipping into an abyss which had only recently opened up under him.
“Hey. Hey,” the server behind the pizza display said impatiently, shoving food in his direction. “Your order is ready,”
“Right,” Josh shoved his phone back into his coat pocket. “Thanks,”
Promising himself he’d stop the self torture, he grabbed his food and marched back towards the office.
The rest of the day passed at a slow crawl, what with everybody else being too busy to pay him much attention. Despite the fact he was now part of what was apparently one of the most exciting and prominent startups on the continent, Josh found himself incongruously bored.
Skimming through extensive pages of product documentation, he found his vision blurring from sentence to sentence. At one point, to his horror, his eyes began to droop and his head began to nod.
<We have a nap room> Elliot slacked him.
Glancing briefly at his former roommate, Josh affected an air of nonchalance as he shrugged.
<Beer after work?>
<You never did tell me what went down with Lauren>
Wincing and fully awake, Josh hovered his hands over his keyboard. Drearily, he wondered what he had to say on the subject that wouldn’t leave him a despairing mess.
<Maybe another day. Gotta do some stuff after work> he typed back eventually.
Closing his chat window, resolutely, Josh started reading another product guide.
On the Spadina streetcar, Josh tried his best not to think about how Lauren might have enjoyed shopping at Sonic Boom Records as he passed the massive music store. Consciously, he steered his thoughts away from the notion that she would very much have enjoyed exploring Kensington Market and Chinatown, with all its varied eclectic shops.
Determinedly, he also did his best to ignore the homeless man who stood two feet away from him his entire journey to the Subway station. The dude unfortunately smelled like pee, and he was ranting loudly about alien terrorists who were trying to steal everyone’s brainwaves. Frankly, Josh wasn’t sure what bothered him more - the fellow’s ragged clothing (which didn’t leave much to the imagination), or the fact that the man’s argument seemed disturbingly well thought out.
Regretting the fact he had left his cordless headphones back in Halifax, in an apartment he had barely bothered to actually clear out, Josh stared stoically out the streetcar window. Silently, he wondered how a person’s life could collapse in a handspan of weeks.
A life which had been built over the course of an entire decade.
By the time he had let himself into his mother’s house, by the time he was laying fully dressed on a small futon staring up at the ceiling of what had once been his childhood bedroom, he still couldn’t work out the answer.
Turning on his side to stare at piles upon piles of dusty books and boxes, a single thought repeated itself in his mind like a particularly grating litany.
This was not where he had thought he would be at age thirty-three.
The A.I. soldiers were messing with the wrong Ronin warrior.
Avi bit her bottom lip as she snuck onto a thatched roof. Well, more accurately, as her on-screen avatar snuck onto a thatched roof. On the ground below, several NPCs wandered back and forth, oblivious to the fact that their digital existence was about to be wiped - in a manner of speaking anyway.
Before she could press a button to send her enemies off into a binary afterlife, an arrow flew straight into the neck of her character.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, again?” she growled, tossing her game controller aside; it bounced against her couch cushions and settled in a corner.
Picking up her phone, she saw that Scott had texted her, telling her he was just about finished at the bar where he was having drinks with the team. Unlocking her cell, she ignored his message. Instead, she opened her browser and began to browse for a very specific game walkthrough.
It was going to be a long night.
If anyone had told Aviana Murphy at age eighteen what she would be doing with her life in thirteen years, she’d probably have told that person to fuck the hell off.
That is, after she told them never to call her Aviana ever again. God knows, she didn’t need to be reminded that her name sounded like a pretentious brand of bottled water, one that without fail, always tasted faintly off.
Aviana? What had her parents even been thinking?
That was what happened, she supposed, when people with names like Susan and David were given the chance to name another human. Those types of people were most likely the ones to pick what they considered ‘exotic’ - or in her case, vaguely pretentious. Although they were generally decent people whom she loved very much, throughout the years, the woman had never quite forgiven her parents for that one crime.
Which was also why she was always so carefully militant about having people refer to her simply as Avi.
She supposed that knife cut both ways. Back in high school, she had known a girl named Jane. Her parents? They were named Honoria and Aloysius. Likely, they had witnessed firsthand the horrors of having terrible names, and had no wish to inflict that same suffering upon their progeny.
Regardless, conscious name deflection aside, eighteen year old Avi had made other decisions for herself.
For one thing, she had a whole plan to travel the world by the age of twenty three, with nothing but a guitar and a duffel bag for company….
For another, she had no intention of following in her parents’ footsteps towards a career in corporate law. As far as she could tell, those careers required far too much attention to complex documentation. Moreover, it was apparently a job requirement for corporate lawyers to have to work with boring people in boring companies, leveraging minute technicalities to prevent contractual conflicts. Altogether, the very thought of doing what her Mom and Dad did for a living bummed the hell out of young Avi.
At age thirty-one, working a job that required her to enforce contractual obligations signed by corporate clients whilst maintaining libraries of documentation, Avi was dimly aware that she might have accidentally taken a wrong turn. Indeed, she might have accidentally ended up in her parents’ careers with far less pay.
It didn’t help either, that she never did learn how to strum a guitar.
In a rented loft in the middle of Kensington Market (a loft which admittedly most people her age would kill for), playing video games set in countries she had always meant to visit but never did, she wondered if perhaps she ought to do something about the state of things.
Finding a playthrough guide she could actually understand, Avi reached for her playstation controller. Mustering her concentration, she started the game encounter again. On screen, her character snuck into view, creeping along the walls of what was supposed to be a sacred temple.
Just as she was about to re-attempt the assasination of the same NPCs as before, keys rattled at the front door of her apartment. Distracted, her right thumb slipped, which resulted in her avatar once again getting brutally murdered by a stomp to his head.
“I give up,” she said aloud, staring desolately at the screen.
“Hello to you too. I can leave if you want…” her boyfriend said from the doorway, as he unwound his gray scarf and shucked off his winter coat. His dirty blonde hair seemed faintly damp, owing to the snowfall outside.
“No, I mean, I literally can’t get past this stupid portion,” she grumbled as she slumped back into her couch cushions.
Crossing the room, Scott deposited himself beside her.
“I assume you haven’t, I don’t know, started dinner,” he observed astutely after he kissed her in greeting.
“Can we just order a pizza? I had a really long day,” wrapping her arms around Scott’s neck, Avi curled up against him, burying her face in the crook of his neck as he loosened his tie. “Also, we have a new guy at work. I didn’t know he was the new guy, and I kinda yelled at him outside the office…”
“Babe, we can’t just live on delivery,” Scott interrupted. The scent of stale vodka was heavy on his breath.
Irritated, Avi drew back. Working her jaw, she pushed herself off the couch and stalked away towards the kitchen. As she reached for a pack of dried pasta in the cabinet, strong arms wrapped her into a comforting hug.
“I promise, next time you come over to my place, I’ll make you the best dinner of your life. Probably, anyway,” her boyfriend yawned, before he grinned down at her with that heart-melting smile of his. “Though I’ll probably just buy you dinner at Aloette,”
Smiling tightly, Avi turned and kissed him on his scruffy cheek.
“Dinner at Aloette?”
“I promise,” he pronounced, blue eyes wide with earnesty.
Watching as he returned to his spot on her couch, Avi fought off a frown. For some odd reason, she felt as if she was trying to solve a puzzle, one she couldn’t actually see. Shaking her head, she continued the chore of getting dinner together.