In “Children,” Devan Goldstein puts his protagonist, Marty, in a corner of his own making. This is the kind of corner that lets us see into the truth of a character; that is, a human truth. Marty isn’t a bad person, in my opinion. The panic that comes from finding out your (in this story) fiancee is pregnant, is a real panic. Trust me. And not everyone would sleep with a coworker in that panic, would tell off a client, but some would. Marty would, because the point in his life at which we find him is the essential point in all good storytelling: it is the point at which one is forced to make a choice that will put one’s previous choices into perspective. Marty, however, doesn’t know that he has to make this choice, yet. — Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor.
Thursday night, after the building emptied, Marty and Kate ordered pasta, Kate got high on the heated smoking deck while they ate, and then they fucked in the jasmine-scented nap room on a couple of towels from the basement showers.
That morning, Marty had texted Brynn, his fiancée, 11 weeks pregnant, to tell her not to wait for him for dinner. “Sorry,” he wrote. “Project work’s a bitch.”
Meta4 Communications’s content migration team worked into the evening, alone on the third floor of a brick row house that had been a dentist’s office. The team had shrunk from nine people to just the Content Manager, Marty, and two Migration Specialists, Arn and Kate, both recent college grads.
At four-thirty, Marty looked at Kate, and she winked at him from her desk. She would stay late tonight and have sex with him, that meant.
“See you tomorrow,” Marty said as Arn vanished down the stairs a little after six.
Kate stayed, pasting page after page of copy from Word documents into PageWrangler, the system that would run the Melridge Law School’s new website.
Around quarter-to-eight, the firm’s Creative Director, Chuck, called up the stairs, “Anybody up there? I’m taking off.”
“See you tomorrow,” Marty called back.
Marty had started at Meta4 as a Junior Designer under Chuck, moving into migration a few years ago because he was the only one who had done it before. Chuck still promised him design work from time to time, if Migration was slow and Creative was busy. But Creative was never busy enough.
In the nap room, Marty looked at Kate’s young body and came quickly. After she left, he took a shower in the basement and threw the towels into the oversized canvas hamper. He got home a little past ten.
“How do I add a child?” Kate asked Marty Friday afternoon, for the second time that week.
Marty turned to look at her. Skin color was the hardest to figure out, but he guessed Kate’s face was PMS 155, a little paler than her usual, closer to 156. Naming Pantone colors the way the designers did would help keep his creative eye sharp, he often thought.
“You click the plus sign to show the ‘New Child Page’ box,” he said to Kate. She had been working for him almost two months, since they started migrating Melridge, but she still struggled with PageWrangler.
“Then what?” Kate asked.
Marty set his status to, “Helping a grunt. Back in a minute,” and walked to Kate’s desk.
“Here,” he said, resting a hand on the back of Kate’s chair. She smelled good, like microwave curry. He was glad she’d stayed after lunch. It meant there was a chance they’d have sex tonight. She’d been going home sick a lot lately.
He reached for her keyboard, brushing her naked arm, cold and soft, with his wrist. She flinched, and he flinched. He made sure Arn had his headphones on, and then whispered, “Sorry. I just can’t wait.” Sometimes he thought he liked the flirting even more than the fucking.
“Just fix this thing, OK?”
“Not in the mood?” Marty said. Kate said nothing.
He looked back at the screen and filled in the form’s two fields, title and subtitle, with “Let’s do it” and “Tonight.” He searched Kate’s face for a smile.
“Voilà,” he said, still searching.
Later, Brynn called, and Marty exiled himself to the smoking deck.
“I took the dog with me after all,” she said. She was driving to see her mother for the weekend. “So don’t freak out when you don’t see him tonight.”
“Thanks for letting me know,” he said.
“Have I ever let you down?” she asked in a mushy, sweet voice.
“Not even once,” Marty said, and he meant it.
When Marty sat back down, he saw a new IM window flashing its title bar.
New IM from: Katherine Miller, the title bar read.
Kate had typed, “I think I’m just gonna go home tonight.”
Marty had told Kate that Brynn would be gone for the weekend, but he hadn’t invited her home, even after two months of sleeping with her. She didn’t understand how risky it was. Brynn knew things about their domestic routine that Kate couldn’t know, like how she and Marty never closed the mouthwash all the way, because they both hated squeezing the cap to get it open. And Kate was always distractedly touching things, moving them around, knocking them over. Last week, they had tried the felafel cart on campus, but they couldn’t go back because she walked off with the squeeze bottle of tahini in her hand. She didn’t notice she had it until they were back in the office. Besides, Kate always smelled like weed, and since Brynn had been pregnant, she could smell the jasmine in Marty’s hair even after he showered.
“You know why we can’t go to my place, right?” he typed.
“I don’t want to marry you,” flashed the IM window. “I just want to see where you live.”
Across the room, Kate’s blue blouse hung over her shoulders; she kept her eyes on her laptop. She looked small, he thought, the way Brynn’s cat did just before it died.
“Let’s talk about it when Arn’s gone,” Marty typed. He could hear Kate exhale.
Marty passed the afternoon coming up with keywords for the Melridge website’s search engine. At four-thirty, as he typed, “open house, admissions, prospective students,” Anna Hastings, Melridge’s Communications Director, called in from Halifax, as she did every Friday. Status calls like these were meant to be simple affairs, the agency telling the client how much progress had been made during the week. But Anna liked to break the rules, as she often said. Chuck called her “Anna Wastings,” as in, his time.
“Hello, Martin,” Anna said. “Before we get started, I have to change the launch date.”
“Oh?” Marty asked.
“We’re going to the CLEC conference on one and two December, and we want to show our beautiful new website off to all the other schools.” Anna sang the word “beautiful.” Marty knew what she meant: The website had better be a showpiece for the conference, or we’ll find another agency for our spring print campaign. He smiled big, because he’d read on careerism.com that smiling on the telephone makes you sound more confident. “Anna, that’s just over a week away. I don’t know if we can make that deadline for anything but top-line content.”
“The problem I have with what you’re saying—” Anna paused. “It’s just that when one needs more people, one hires more people.”
If clients ran Human Resources, Marty thought, he’d have a new staff every week.
“Here’s the thing, Anna.” Marty heard his voice echo in the room. He was pleased with how aggressive it sounded. “If we had a week’s notice, we could hire more people. But when do you want me to hire them now? Over Thanksgiving?”
“No, here’s the thing, Martin,” Anna snapped. “Your holiday’s not my problem. And I don’t expect to be spoken to like this when I call my agency for a status update.”
Marty had been rubbing the outside of his right ankle across the metal leg of his desk, and the bone felt bruised through his jeans. He knew Anna would keep making demands if he backed down. “If you were really calling for a status update,” he said, “you wouldn’t be spoken to like this.”
Marty could hear Anna smacking her keyboard with her pudgy fingers. He looked down at a brochure in Melridge red, PMS 194, halfway from burgundy to blood. “Paying for Melridge,” it read in white block letters.
“I’ve emailed Chuck about our conversation,” Anna said after a moment. “I expect you’ll hear from him soon. So unless you can tell me you’re about to finish my website, I think we’re done for today.”
Marty pounded the phone into its cradle.
Marty looked at Kate, her sad brown eyes reflecting blue from her laptop screen. He felt like fucking her, like it would make them both feel better, so he messaged her, “Chinese at my place?”
Arn left at five sharp. Marty ordered dinner online, for delivery to his house at seven-thirty. By six, everyone had gone home. Marty packed up his computer and left with Kate, kissing her and grabbing her ass as they walked through the empty parking lot.
“You mind getting down until we pull into my garage?” he asked as they got into the old Acura Legend—PMS 428 Metallic.
“No problem. Anything else I can do while I’m down here?”
He was glad Kate was in a better mood; if he could keep himself from worrying, he might even enjoy being with her at home.
When he opened the door from the garage into the house, Kate squeezed past him. She went straight into the kitchen, looking at the pictures of Marty and Brynn on the refrigerator. She lifted a magnet that said “I HEART MY” and had a headshot of a chihuahua, and pulled Brynn’s first sonogram down from behind it. She huddled around the tiny black-and-white printout, holding it close to her eyes with both hands.
“Hey,” he said. “Put that back.”
She turned into the living room and collapsed onto the fuzzy black couch.
“Do you mind taking a shower first?” he asked. Kate smelled less like weed than usual, but better safe than sorry.
Kate asked, “Do you want to fuck me in the shower, Marty?”
“I don’t see why not,” he answered, after a moment.
In the shower, he had her from behind, his hands pinned between her soapy breasts and the plastic wall.
Marty got out after Kate, cleaning the mess from the drain and flushing it down the toilet. He toweled off quickly. He worried Kate might smoke up in the living room or absentmindedly rearrange Brynn’s collection of glass angels without him there.
Instead, he found Kate sitting on the white carpet, Chinese food spread out on plastic bags in front of her, frantically rubbing a napkin over some noodle grease on the hem of Brynn’s pink cotton robe.
“What the fuck, Kate?” he said, walking toward her. “Why would you put on my fiancée’s robe?” He meant to put her in her place, but when he got closer, he saw that she was crying.
She looked up, her head teetering on her shoulders and a slug of snot on her lip. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Her ears turned bright red, and she raised her voice. “Just don’t yell at me.”
“Take the robe off so I can wash it,” Marty said. “I knew something like this would happen.”
Kate stood up fast, nearly falling backwards onto the couch, and pulled the robe off her shoulders. As she stood there, white and trembling, the robe bunched in her arms, Marty noticed the snot turning red.
“Kate, hey,” he said, reaching for her face. “Are you all right? Your nose is bleeding.”
She wiped at it with her wrist, then looked at the smear. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just take me home.”
“You’re not fine. Your nose is bleeding. Let me get you a Kleenex.”
“Just forget about it, okay?”
While she pinched her nose closed, Marty looked again at the streak. Nosebleeds and a zero-to-90 temper like that? Maybe Kate didn’t smell like weed because she wasn’t smoking weed; she must have been on cocaine. He wondered how often she’d done it around him. Had she snorted every time they’d had sex? He tried to remember when she’d gone to the bathroom that night, and all the other nights, but she interrupted him.
“Okay?” she said nasally, shoving the robe into his gut.
PMS 217, except for the dark stain. “Alright,” he said. “Get dressed.”
While Kate went to the bedroom to put on her own clothes, Marty started a load of laundry. She slept most of the way to her apartment, or pretended to, and Marty hummed nervously along with the jazz on the radio.
Marty worked on migrating Melridge’s content for most of the weekend, intermittently trying to figure out what to do about Kate. He hadn’t even made his peace with the idea of messing around at work with a cute, stoner underling from the college around the corner, and now when he thought about it, he knew he was cheating on Brynn, really cheating, with a moody, reckless cokehead. Saturday morning, he typed, “family rights clinic, extracurricular activities, prospective students,” onto page four of LegalClinics.docx, and felt grateful that Brynn’s robe had come out of the wash clean. Sunday night, he formatted the headings on the “Alumni Services” page, and wondered why Kate couldn’t figure the system out. When Brynn came home, Marty was working and watching football. The front door swung open and the dog pranced in, shivering even in the sweater Brynn’s mother must have knit for him. Brynn came in a few steps behind the dog, carrying a brown paper bag full of groceries. She kicked the door shut behind her.
“Hey, Hon. Should you be carrying that?” Marty asked. He looked back at his laptop.
“It’s just one bag,” Brynn said, sliding it onto the counter. “Do you want to help me put these groceries away, though?”
“Sure. I’ll be right there,” Marty said, pasting the “Joint Degrees” copy into PageWrangler. He took a few steps toward the kitchen, then knelt down to scratch the dog behind the ears. “How’s your mom?” he asked.
“She’s good. She’s got a boyfriend.” Brynn tucked a head of lettuce into the crisper.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” Brynn said. “A lot of people think my mom’s a catch.”
“It’s not that,” Marty said, even though it was; he hated Brynn’s mother, mostly for the dog sweaters and the unfailing optimism she’d passed on to Brynn. “She just doesn’t seem ready yet.” He rummaged through the bag on the counter, opening a box of cheese crackers and popping a couple into his mouth.
“You haven’t seen her in three months,” Brynn said. “Besides, some people don’t know how they feel about something until they try it. Gimme those, you,” she said, grabbing the crackers.
Marty’s chewing slowed. He hadn’t known how he would feel about cheating before he tried it, and he felt worse about the immaturity than the infidelity. He reached for the last brown paper bag, doubled it over against his stomach, and tucked it away under the sink.
“Thanks, asshole,” Brynn teased. “Couldn’t have done it without you.”
When Marty got to Meta4 on Monday, he went straight to Chuck’s office to deal with Anna’s email. Once he got through that conversation, he would try to figure out what to do about Kate.
Marty walked past the designers on the second floor, jealous of their huge monitors and the culture of creativity that populated their desks with tiny Japanese figurines and plastic found art from the dollar store in neon PMS colors he couldn’t even guess.
He sat down in the director’s chair across the desk from Chuck, about a foot too low. He had to sit erect to see over the row of empty Red Bull cans lining the desk. “I got an email from Anna Wastings on Friday,” Chuck said.
Marty studied the yellow canvas on the arm of his chair: PMS 107.
“I just need to ask you—is everything cool for you around here? Because we need you to be all right. You’re an important cat in this old alley.”
Marty couldn’t stand Chuck’s talk-therapy approach to management, or his smarmy hipsterisms. But he did like to hear that they still thought of him as important. “I guess I have been a little stressed out lately,” he said.
“Talk to me, amigo.” Chuck took a sip from a silver juice box.
“Melridge—Anna keeps changing her deadline, and I haven’t had time to hire anyone to help Arn and Kate, and Arn’s great, but Kate’s having a tough time with PageWrangler.”
“So you’re picking up the slack for Kate?” Chuck asked.
“Yeah, I guess I am. She’s been sick a lot, and I worked 14 hours this weekend,” Marty said, padding a little. He knew he might get Kate fired, but suddenly he felt so relieved he was surprised he hadn’t thought of it over the weekend. Getting fired might even spur Kate into getting help and quitting her coke habit.
Chuck looked out past Marty’s head through the glass. He took a deep sip from his juice box, and, when it was almost empty, sucked hard until it collapsed. Without looking down, he tossed it toward the trashcan in the corner. “You’re on Chuck’s team,” he said. “You get to have a life, too. We can’t move this Melridge deadline because Anna’s on the rampage already. But I can’t have you working weekends to cover your ass, you know?”
Marty nodded slowly, like he was just beginning to understand.
Back at his desk on the third floor, Marty thought about how to fire Kate. He wanted to wait until the end of the day, until the building cleared. But as bad as she looked, he worried Kate might go home sick at lunchtime.
At 11:30, he IMed her, asking to talk on the smoking deck. He followed her to the sliding door. As he closed the door behind them, he found the hiss of the hanging gas heaters deafening.
“What’s this about?” Kate asked.
“Melridge,” he said.
“Really?” Kate said, surprised.
“Look—I got a call from Anna Hastings on Friday—maybe you heard some of it, I don’t know. Anyway, she’s really pissed that we’re as far behind as we are, and Chuck needs to show her that we’re doing something about it, and the truth is, you have been working really slow, and IMing all the time—”
“I’m IMing you,” Kate said.
“The point is, we can finish this project on time without you.”
“The point is, you don’t know how to break up with me without firing me,” she said.
“Break up?” Marty wanted to hurt her like he had Friday night. “You have to have a relationship to break up with someone.”
He watched as her face untwisted, her cheeks dropping and turning red.
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
Impossible, Marty thought. Too much of a coincidence. He dropped his gaze to the peeling boards of the deck, PMS 181, or 1815, maybe, a red that looked like burnt cedar. It was true he hadn’t used condoms, but Kate had told him they were safe. He didn’t remember her having a period since they started sleeping together. He looked back up. “Is that why you’ve been leaving so often lately?”
“What about your nosebleed?”
“My doctor says it happens to a lot of women.”
“Shit.” Marty imagined telling Brynn, how calm she’d be as she said goodbye. Brynn always made such good decisions, and she knew it, and he knew it.
“You’ve been getting high a lot lately,” he said. His stomach clenched. He had to say it. “I mean—you’re getting fired. Do you really think this is the best time?”
Kate slapped Marty hard across the cheek. He was surprised how much it hurt. As his eyes watered, he saw Kate crying.
She wiped her tears with her sleeve, and after a moment, she said, “It’s not yours.”
His cheek pulsed. He wanted to believe her, but her eyes seemed pleading, like she wanted collusion, not distance.
“Am I fired, or not?”
He didn’t say anything.
Kate turned and went back inside. Marty walked toward the edge of the deck, holding his abdomen with both hands, the way Brynn had started to a few weeks ago. He remembered how, a month after he proposed, she’d rushed out of the bathroom smiling and waving the positive pregnancy test at him. He looked at the wood shingles of the house next door, a strange, shallow blue, maybe PMS 543. Or maybe it was a different color. He didn’t know.