Martha knows her career is ending. She’s known it for years. But when the meeting is called, and she sees that everyone in the conference room is over fifty, she knows she’s out of time.
“A generous severance package,” Mr. Walker says. “Mandated by the company,” Mrs. Butler says. “Gratitude for your years of service,” Mrs. Siglar says.
“Screw you all,” Leonard says. “I quit.” And he gets up and leaves, slamming the door as he goes.
Later, in her cubicle, Martha reads the informational packet they all received. The severance package actually is quite generous—thirty years at the station means sixty weeks of pay, plus the choice to buy medical benefits at the employee rate, means Martha will have plenty of time to find another job. And unlike some of her co-workers, she actually bothered to keep up with technology over the past thirty years. She knows she’ll be all right.
Martha freshens her lipstick and adjusts her sweater, then gets up from her ancient desk chair—she wonders if they’ll let her keep it—and walks down the hall to the ingest station. Downsized or not, she still has a job to do.
Martha’s last day of work is a Friday. Her co-workers throw a party for all the veterans who are leaving, and on the air that night, Brian and Henri say something nice during the 6:00 news. After all, everyone being downsized is a true veteran of the television business, with 25 years or more spent at the same station. Martha enjoys being recognized for her work in such a public way, and she appreciates that the parent company—going through quite a financial upheaval of its own—is going to pay her salary for an entire extra year.
After it’s all over, after Dave helps her bring her boxes out to her little Toyota, after hugs goodbye and promises to keep in touch, Martha walks alone, past the edit bays and the graphics suite, past the empty offices and the old training room, and stands at the door of the tape library. She can hear the shelves rattling.
The library is not happy.
Martha steps inside and closes the door gently. The automatic lights flicker on, illuminating row upon row of narrow walkways and high steel shelves. Up close to the door are small blue boxes, no bigger than her hand, with digital tapes. Farther back: containers full of beta tapes. Farther still are canisters with old reels. The station has been around for a long time, almost seventy years, and they never throw anything away. Why should they? There’s plenty of room.
The rattling dies down, but Martha can feel the heaviness in the air. “This is it,” she says, her voice soft. She steps into the nearest aisle and strokes the spine of a binder of DVDs. Her fingers tingle. “This is good-bye.”
One of the televisions against the wall flickers to life, and the deck below it glows softly as it powers on. A tape—an old beta, the date close to when she first arrived—floats down the aisle, and she reaches up to take it. She slides the tape into the deck, punches it up on the router, and presses play.
At this point in her life, Martha is no longer surprised by anything her library does—and it is definitely her library. The other editors are almost afraid to come in here, but now she supposes Dave is going to have to learn how to be a librarian. The library has helped her these past few years, as she’s grown older and more easily tired; on bad days, when her knees ached or the young reporters haven’t been respectful, it had picked up on her moods and left her little presents in the tape decks: stories about kittens rescued from trees, or the first baby born in the new millennium.
But this gift is something else. The library has never actually created something for her. This is definitely a creation: from the decades of file footage, the library has created a message for her. She watches, her heart breaking just a little, the thin veneer of “it’s all right” cracking around the edges.
When it’s over, after she’s dried her tears on the edge of her sweater, Martha dubs the tape onto a blank DVD. In her precise handwriting, she labels it “Library Farewell” and drops it into an envelope. When she ejects the tape, it floats back down the aisle, to its shelf.
“Thank you,” she says. She touches the door handle, then looks back. “Good-bye.”
The shelves rattle long after she closes the door. She takes the back exit out of the station, gets into her car, and drives home from her library for the last time.
Josh Roseman (not the trombonist; the other one) lives in Georgia and makes internets for a living. His new collection, The Clockwork Russian, contains stories published in Asimov’s, Escape Pod, Fat Girl in a Strange Land, and StarShipSofa, among others. Find him online at roseplusman.com, or on Twitter @listener42.