Michael K. stood at the edge of his lawn with his front door left wide open. His neighbors peered out through their blinds and around their curtains. He knew what was in front of him, but he also knew what was behind him. This was the end; he had decided this was the end.
Three months earlier, Michael was working from home, having moved out of his office several weeks prior. Like any man working from home, Michael took certain privileges, and he would never deny that he did. But he did his part for the company, he kept the production moving at an adequate level. He never left his house, of course, and whenever he ventured within his own walls he made sure to bring his laptop with him. As soon as he received an email, he responded in a hurry. His attentiveness to corporate communication had greatly increased since working from home, and Michael was proud of himself for this. He worried though that this would set a new precedent which would have to be upheld when he returned to his office. So Michael decided it was best, whenever he received an email asking him to forward along some information or to acknowledge his approval over a certain document, to wait at least seven minutes before responding.
There was a new normal in his life, or so he allowed himself to think. For just as he had settled all his routines, i.e., when he made coffee in the morning, what table he worked on, how he would spend his lunch break, he received an email from the figurehead of the company, which read as follows:
Dear Valued Employee,
Mr. Arnolds and I are greatly dismayed to inform you that we have come to an unfortunate and terribly ill-timed decision, one that will cause great distress for many, but not all, of the employees of our high-esteemed and unshakeable business. Within a reasonable amount of time, many of you will be informed of your being furloughed. Now this does not mean that you are fired, necessarily. But in these uncertain times, we cannot promise that we will ever ask you to come back.
Furloughed? Would Michael be one of them? He immediately reached out to his direct report who promptly said he had no information and the message caught him completely by surprise. He said that he had just called his own direct report, who had the same experience as he. Upon calling his direct report, that man explained how he had heard a whisper between two men in the men’s room not too long ago that this whole situation was going to be “like Noah’s Ark” for the company. This was not reassuring for Michael to hear.
For the rest of the day, Michael tried to discern whether he was going to lose his job or not. It seemed inevitable that he was. And yet, he was not the worst of employees. He was certainly doing more than his long-time coworker, Chris S., who had not replied to a single email from Michael, and who hadn’t even bothered to dress up his top half for their weekly video conferences. Every Friday at 1:00 p.m. Michael was forced to see Chris’s stained white t-shirt and his empty bag of chips laying across his bed in the backdrop which either was new each week or just something Chris didn’t bother to throw away. At least he might not have to see that anymore.
The end of the day came around, and Michael had not heard anything. The next day he got ready for work and continued his job. But the emails were slow, and there was not much to do. Michael persisted in keeping up appearances of a productive, responsible employee, but eventually the boredom overcame all other intentions and Michael stepped away from work. Plus, he was bound to be let go, at any moment, so why should he continue working?
Days turned into weeks, and Michael had not worked a minute. Yet, when payday came around, Michael saw the usual sum added to his bank account. Was this some mistake? He considered that it must be, he was such a low-level person, so low that he likely did not even need to receive any official word that he had been let go. But of course, he had. Just the mere mention that it might happen was confirmation that it had happened to him. Yet at the same time, he had not heard anything definitive. Michael decided to not say anything and wait until the next paycheck.
Michael was thrilled. He read a pile of books he had bought impulsively two Christmases ago. He watched every perfect game ever thrown, since they had been made available online. He finally watched all episodes of the X files, and then he watched them a second time. He would have liked to try to learn baking, but grocery stores had closed long ago and there was a special service that delivered a few days worth of food to one’s living place on Mondays and Fridays. Baking supplies were deemed unessential. At first, Michael would wait until he heard the sound of their truck taking off around the corner before he went outside, but after a few weeks he would go out almost as soon as they dropped the bag, just so he could see another person’s face.
Weeks turned into months, and the money kept coming in. Every once in a while, Michael would check his work email. It had been weeks since he had received anything from anybody, and even that was just a notice from the IT department that there would be a test power outage in the building that day. Michael hadn’t realized they were still in the building. Had not the government mandated that every last person stay inside?
The news channels reported, albeit according to online-forum based rumors, that, in the dead of night, government officials had gone and planted electric fences along the sidewalks, so that anyone who tried to leave their houses would have to face painful consequences. It was a matter of societal life or death.
Or perhaps it was a movie that he had seen that in. There were too many shows about this whole thing that imitating real life, and the real news seemed to intentionally mimic the drama of movies. He could not tell them straight anymore. He believed almost nothing he saw or read online, and he grew to despise the books he had on his shelf. Everything in his house had been ruined for him, precisely because he had the time know them. The mystery of the ordinary things in his house was a sentiment that had long since passed away in Michael. And in having nothing else to learn about his home, he grew to hate it.
How bad would it be if he just stepped outside? Would he really be shocked if he stepped onto the sidewalk? His hearing about the danger outside did not at all compare to his experiencing of the boredom inside. And so he decided this was the end, for him anyway. Michael opened his door, and he walked across his yard.
His neighbors, like him, had long since forsaken their TVs in favor of their windows, yearning for outside life once again. He saw them looking at him standing on his yard; he lifted his foot, and thought to move it forward. A woman across the street gasped, and a child in the distance hollered out a window. And then he took the step.
Nothing happened. There was no invisible fence; there was no shock. And after pacing along the sidewalk for a moment, Michael turned back to go inside, leaving the door open.