Alex’s first job out of journalism school was to report from a 50 square-foot box at the edge of a suburban intersection in Johnsonville, Maryland. Down the road to the west of this box was a fashionably overgrown runoff marsh at the dead end of a lane of houses, and behind her in the other direction was, eventually, a very nice cul-de-sac. But she was to ignore these areas. Her job was to stay in the square at all times. One of the ladies who dropped her off in the van (the Director of HR, if she remembered correctly) had taken a long spraywand and marked each corner boundary with green paint to make sure she understood.
“Green’s a fun color,” this lady had said, before pointing out to Alex that just because the lines did not connect didn’t mean they were not there.
“It’s aesthetic,” the woman said, “and meant to lift morale, but please do not make me regret it.”
This was her beat, Alex was told, and she was meant to take it seriously.
“Hyperlocal,” he had said during the interview, arranging an imagined square between his hands into smaller and smaller dimensions. Her now-editor had asked her to sit cattycorner from him at his desk, so that her knees smashed up against the side panel and there was no convenient place to rest her hands. He said it was so she could see the map that he kept pointing to, but she recognized a Googled power-move when she saw one. He also made it a point to lean back into his chair whenever she answered any of his questions, back and back until the springs croaked.
“I’ve actually put together a couple of samples,” Alex said, pointing in towards the folder that he’d briefly nodded at. “Since I’ve been asked before to write a range of things.”
“I think the news,” the editor said, “can be broken down into three types. The literal, the suggestive, and the deduced. There hasn’t been a cent in deduced since the 60’s. I’ve done a talk about this, you might have seen it?”
Alex said that no, she hadn’t.
And he nodded, considering this information, before grinning to himself. “Well,” he said, visibly revving up for the mild play on words to come. “My plan is to corner the literal market.”
On the first day, nothing of note happened within Alex’s square. Near the end of the lane a man ran the front wheels of his Firebird over a handful of masonry nails and then screamed at his neighbor for over an hour, but this occurred well to the left of her, and she took care not to seem too outwardly interested, in case a supervisor was watching. Jobs made her nervous, to be honest. During school she’d worked part time for the function caterer, unveiling plates of asparagus and herbed gamebird to provosts, which was nice for the free leftovers. But she was screamed at almost every night by her boss, a powdery smelling woman who would corner Alex behind the refrigerator carts and tug at every strand of hair that had dared fall loose across her face. There was no greater offense in the catering business, apparently, than tucking your hair behind your ear in front of guests, and Alex quit after five months, preferring to take on the extra loans instead.
A line of ants crossed the northwestern edge of her square at exactly 10:46am, and Alex worked herself into an anxiety wondering whether or not she should write it down. In the end, she decided that she’d better. They appeared to have found a bag of potato chips, and were carrying the pieces home, pieces of all sizes, still oily enough to catch the sun, which meant they were likely only recently lost. Fresh. A rare find for ants, she bet, who would be used to scavenging whatever was at hand. She caught herself editorializing and bracketed the sentence off, making a note to have some research done on the general eating habits of ants. Maybe after her own lunch, if there was time.
For lunch she brought her usual, a tuna sandwich disassembled into the various compartments of her lunch box. Her editor apologized for not being able to take her out anywhere for the first couple of days on the job, but promised that he’d have the time on either Thursday or Friday. This time of year is busy, he’d said, but hence the aggressive hiring, hence her immediate start date, etcetera. Alex sat in her square, eating her tuna, texting with her mom about the job and tempted to send a little something to her ex-boyfriend then, too. The breakup was recent, and the fact that she got work before him, in their field, no less, really did a lot for her. It didn’t even end that badly: they grew apart, were reasonable, raised on so many social media aphorisms about self-worth and the magnanimous nature of incompatibility that their breakup was actually the most intimate and affecting conversation they’d ever had. But still. She felt good about this victory, from right at the base of her ribs. She decided not to text him though.
At 4:03pm a kid rode his bike through the square, slow enough that Alex heard him coming and could move herself out of the way, but fast enough where she could only just catch the basic details of what he was wearing. Cuffed jeans, Terps hoodie, shoes with a lot of brightly colored mesh all over. She didn’t catch his hair color or the make of the bike, and second-guessed herself out of his race enough times that she decided to leave it out altogether. A boy wearing clothes rode his bike through her square. He turned neither left nor right, entering at 4:03pm and leaving at the same. The end. Alex had brought a very large notebook from home, since her editor said that he would not be able to bring her provided supplies until later in the week, and its page’s relative emptiness bothered her.
But she knew not to embellish. She knew the readers would come to her with a certain amount of innate trust for the format, for her title, and the choices that she made. The ethics class was only last semester.
Nothing else passed her way, so around 11 she got her laptop from her bag and filed her stories. The upload portal was finicky, just as she was warned, but she managed it after a few tries, and was rewarded with two yellow check marks to indicate that they would still need to be reviewed. They would not be her first published stories, and the school newspapers did have a decent circulation, she was told (with robust letters in to the editor and all), but they’d be her first nationally available ones. A reader would have to click “Eastern Seaboard,” uncheck the overwhelming NY metro area, and then narrow by state, county, municipality, and then cross streets, but they could find her. And she wanted to do a good job.
She had neglected to put up her tent, however, in all of her excitement. So, by only the orange light of the streetlamps, she unwound its straps and propped it up and found some weathered chunks of asphalt by one edge of her square to weight the corners down. The ground was hard but there wasn’t much wind, and she had brought her favorite pillow from home, the one with faux fur. As close to home as she could get, she thought, before deciding against trying to read her book and then rolling her flashlight aside.
The next morning she woke to an email from her editor, wondering exactly two questions about the ants: what flavor of chips did the ants have, and why hadn’t she found out? After the initial shock of panic, Alex decided that this more or less counted as an assignment, and steeled herself to tie her hair back, step out of the square in the direction she remembered that the ants had come, and begin on her follow-up piece. It didn’t take long. About three houses up the street, flattened into the iron slats of a gutter, was a shredded bag of sour cream and onion chips, the crumbs lining a good few feet down the curb. She contemplated tasting them, just to be sure, but she was being watched by a woman from the front window of the nearest house, and thought better of it. If they wanted more they would ask for more. Who had lost the chips? Why hadn’t they eaten them all? For all she knew these were questions being answered from another square.
One day she noticed, from higher up the main road than even the chips had been, that another journalist had appeared. A woman in an olive-colored shirt rolled-up at the sleeves, who didn’t move much, who paced in small circles and held her hands on her hips for very long stretches of time. Alex waved to her, trying to get her attention, but couldn’t catch her at the right moment, and felt too self-conscious and too far away to try and yell out. It would be nice to make a work friend. She wondered if there were any rules about other journalists in close proximity. In normal conditions they were not supposed to leave their squares unless assigned, but they were also legally mandated to take their lunches and their breaks, and did those count as well? Could she walk up and say hi if there was coffee involved, if she had made a pot of coffee on her little camping stove and brought two mugs to share? It would be hard to coordinate their breaks together, at the very least. Alex decided to keep the coffee to herself until she could be sure, and the morning was otherwise uneventful.
At lunch, however, her editor arrived in his two-seater Mazda to take her out for Chinese food.
He asked, “How are you getting along with everything?” and if she’d noticed her new neighbor up the road. They were expanding, he said, expanding expanding expanding, each time holding his hands a little bit wider until he hit the wall of their booth.
“Should I be getting to know her?” Alex asked.
And her editor shrugged, saying, “It’s just like any other job, you know? You do or you don’t.”
“The squares, though.”
“Yes, you’ll have to mind that.”
As they ate, a few of the other diners near the front of the restaurant all got up and began peering out the window, pointing and pressing their faces up against the glass, one side and then the next. Approaching sirens grew in volume and then settled in across the street. The electronics store across the street had caught fire, apparently, and the entire facade was engulfed.
“What are you doing?” Alex’s editor asked, catching her eyeline after she’d craned to one side to see around him.
She said, “I think something’s going on.”
And the editor turned towards the front of the restaurant briefly before turning back to her.
“So?” he said.
“I think it’s a fire.”
“Never mind that. Fires happen, don’t they?”
“I like the instinct, but try to keep it confined within the square.”
“The curiosity, the instinct. That’s why you were hired after all. But this? This looking around business? You’ll wear yourself out, that’s not sustainable. Focus.”
Alex thought for a moment, trying to decide whether she was getting too defensive or not. She said, “I was just noticing what was going on, is all.”
But he let the subject lapse. He said, “These scallops are something else. Something else. You should give them a try.”
And she didn’t make to speak of it again.
Arriving back at her square, Alex found a broken bottle in the southwest corner by her tent. She looked around but there were no suspects in the immediate vicinity—the other journalist up the road was stretching her arms above her head but wasn’t making any kind of gesture to alert Alex that she had witnessed anything. It was all just her luck. Alex kneeled down to the bottle: beer, no label, only sticker residue, and brown glass that had shattered primarily into two distinct sections. Twist off. The spot of ground beneath was still wet and a tiny amount of the beer was caught in the base of the bottle, and as Alex touched at the spot to verify she was overcome with a wave of guilt and caught herself about to cry. Over what? What would she write about this bottle? She didn’t yet believe in simplicity.
After another several weeks, Alex was visited abruptly by the HR Director, who emerged from her van with her hands clapped together in front of her face.
“I’ve just been loving your stories,” she told Alex, circling around the front of the van to the sliding door.
“You’ve read them?”
“I read everybody’s! You ever play with tessellations in school?”
“Those little tiles? Sure.”
“That’s what it feels like, you know, in my head. I read your story, slap it down, clack it into place. Clack! If I get everybody’s stories clacking around together well then it’ll all add up to the shape of, you know, this. Everything around. Reality. That’s not nothing.”
Alex was sitting cross-legged in the center of her square, amazed, watching as this woman opened up the van’s sliding door before leaning in to root behind the single row of seats, legs kicking a little as they rose up off the ground. Like a little child, Alex thought.
Like she’s just a little dumb. But she didn’t want to judge this woman too unfairly; no one, after all, had ever admitted to her that they’d read a single word of what she wrote. And she was touched by the idea, honestly. Here’s this woman, appreciating her work, and here she is judging her. The woman was sweet, she decided. Harmlessly enthusiastic. Just a member of an office cult. Like anybody else.
The HR Director levered upright out of the van with the spraywand once again in hand, showing it off to Alex briefly before testing it with a few clicks into the street.
“Aha,” she said, and then walked the perimeter of the square a few times without stopping.
“What are you doing?” Alex asked.
But she didn’t respond. She only sprayed another mark into the square, and then another, before entirely collapsing the square’s perimeter by about a foot on each side with a different shade of deep green paint.
“The calculations have been redone,” she said. “But now we’re futureproof.”
“Oh no, congratulations to you. That’s job security. That’s everything. I’ve got an update to your paperwork in fact, right here, for you to sign.”
That night, Alex found the video of her editor giving his talk that he’d mentioned. And it turned out that he wasn’t just the editor. He was the publisher, too. The owner, and an angel investor in his own right, whose father had held several patents for a specific kind of rotary engine and then died of heart disease.
But on stage the man’s skillset all seemed to coalesce, finally make a little sense. He wasn’t a newsman. He was a salesman. He talked through a slideshow of line graphs like it was Dickens, he walked the stage with authority, he slid his mouth along the little yellow microphone at the corner of his mouth like a lover or an instrument.
When the audience began applauding, Alex wanted to shout that all he had done was re-describe a newspaper, and then when they all began to stand, she did shout.
She shouted, “It’s a newspaper!” and was answered quickly by a howling dog from one of the nearby houses. This howl was met with other howls, from one house down and then another, until every dog in the neighborhood seemed to be shouting her down for her disapproval of the guy. Like she was the one who didn’t get it.
There was a day when one man chased another out of a nearby house and then gave him a little push as he walked down the stoop. The fight began immediately. At first it was mostly more shoving, more shouting. One man would hit the ground into a sloppy backwards roll before popping back up onto his feet, and then the other would too. Shouting and shoving again. They continued in this way until their fight arrived into the street, where the punching started, wild misses, though Alex didn’t care. She was now at the edge of her square.
With every blow and stumble that brought them more her way, Alex internally cheered. She was gripping dents into her notebook. The closer man was losing and was spitting bloody fucks into the pavement and oh how she wished to write that down, urging him to get up, to swivel on his good leg and catch the guy in the solar plexus. To take his wind, and get him stumbling downhill her way. To keep it going. What punches that did hit were the palmsides of fists down onto each others’ shoulders or maybe elbows, nothings really, and then sometimes they would try to kick, snap kick, to catch with the toes of their sneakers. They didn’t seem to know what they were doing, or were drunk.
By the time they got close enough for Alex to hear the huffing way they breathed their energy had flagged, and she was worried that they would call it off soon, decide it wasn’t worth it. But instead she got exactly what she was hoping for. As one man kicked again, much weaker, the other caught it and pulled him tumbling down almost on top of himself, and then they literally rolled into her square, hands up each others’ necks and chins and ears, pulling earlobes, digging into earholes with their ring fingers, focusing suddenly all about the sides of the head and oblivious to the world otherwise. Alex nearly tore her notebook open.
Jeremy Houseman, an internal auditor from Frederick, MD, maintained a general control of the fight, using his slight weight advantage and overall superior leg strength to continually drive Collin Givens, owner of a local plumbing company, into the roughest part of the concrete. Collin, who had recently celebrated his 46th birthday, found himself with a second wind, however, upon hearing the back of his shirt begin to tear, caught on a risen crack of the sidewalk. The shirt, yellow and blue gingham, was a gift, and Collin was able to deflect Jeremy’s clawing hand and pin him over his body by the armpit in order to complain and to warn him about it. He emphasized how new the shirt was, and implored him several times to stop, to chill. And, after a moment, Jeremy did. Sitting back on his heels, flushed, hair slapped out of place, Jeremy chilled and watched as Collin stood and spun in place, looking back over his shoulder, grasping an arm backwards at the tear that crossed between his shoulder blades.
“Is it bad?” he asked, just once.
And it was, certainly.
The next day, Alex woke to find that dozens of new squares had been painted over the neighborhood, up the hill and down the road and through the sidewalks, yards, and streets. And in each one of those squares was a reporter, with a computer and a tent, a few drinking coffee that they’d boiled on camping stoves and staring out across the pleasant morning.
“What’s going on?” she said, to all of them.
And the closest reporter, a woman about her age with her hair tied back with cloth, instantly turned around, wide-eyed.
She asked, “What?” and thumbed at a pen in her hand.
“No, you, what are you doing? What’s going on?”
The woman said, “Oh,” before letting out a calmed breath. “Did you get here overnight?”
“They woke me up about 2 a.m., yeah,” the woman said, scratching her neck before pointing up over the runoff marsh. “I used to be in West Virginia.”
“They reassigned you at 2 in the morning?”
“Yeah, crazy huh? Guess something must have happened.”
Alex paced her square and tried to decide how she felt about this. There were now two other squares between her and where the fight had begun yesterday, meaning it would have been a lost scoop, lost completely.
“What’s your name?” Alex asked, turning again to the woman with the hair tie, but she wasn’t listening. She had squatted down over something and was clicking the end of her pen against the ground.
“Huh?” she said. “Sorry. Have you seen these ants? They’re on to something. Wild,” she continued. “Hannah.”
Hannah’s beat was maybe ten feet away from her into the road, covering three types of ground, and visibly more interesting. Hannah’s beat included a long seam of wildgrass that had pushed through the asphalt, the concrete, and the hard dirt of an improvised bike trail, sprouting through all three, finding every weakness.
There wasn’t any news that day for Alex to report, though there were a few triumphant shouts from the others, and that night she had trouble falling asleep. She knew exactly one of the reasons. Outside her tent the glow of vape pens flickered across the neighborhood expanse like a thousand-thousand fireflies, followed after with a wash of the jasmine, wildberry, and cinnamon scents that had already mingled by then unpleasantly on the wind.
Jon Chaiim McConnell lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Entropy, Yemassee Journal, and Blackbird, among others.