“Hey, do you have time for a quick meeting today?”

Ralph glanced at the innocuous-looking question in the subject line of the email that Tony, his supervisor, had just sent over.

He was partly annoyed that Tony couldn’t bother to tell him in the message what it was about. Too often they scheduled meetings that broke up his concentration, only to find out later the whole thing could have been dealt with in under a minute if Tony had just said it in the first place. But he wasn’t going to complain. Like all their supervisors, Tony was by-the-book and officious about everything he did. Ironically enough, he preferred all his communication be written, whether by email or their internal messaging system. He disliked in-person chats because it gave the potential for dispute over what someone said or didn’t say.

Ralph replied: “Sure, does 11:30 work for you?”

The answer came right away: “Works for me!”

He couldn’t resist throwing it out there: “What’s the meeting about? Do I need to bring my laptop?”

He rolled his eyes as he looked at the response: “Nope, just yourself!”

The possible topics were many. Did he want honest feedback on their current project? Did he want someone’s take on the new developing software they had installed on their computers? Was Tony finally growing tired of Jacqueline’s sloppy work and woe-is-me attitude that made it so difficult for their team to get projects done on schedule?

In a way, it didn’t matter what Tony wanted to talk about. Ralph knew better than to speak his mind. Last time, it had cost him a raise. Ralph had learned the game long ago: don’t rock the boat or sink it. Paddle your oar along with everyone else, and things will be fine.

Taking a short break, he went to refill his mug with coffee at the cafeteria in the center of their work floor. While waiting for the coffee maker to warm up, he couldn’t help sensing a strange vibe from the other people in there. It wasn’t that they were looking at him funny; they were looking everywhere except at him, as though it were deliberate.

Uncertain about it, when he saw Cassie entered, he went out of his way to say hi to her. She smiled nervously and nodded her head, but didn’t speak.

Although they weren’t close, they usually made a habit of making small talk whenever they saw each other. They were also both 34; that fact somehow provided them with a sense of camaraderie. She had initially hinted that she was interested in him, but he had always managed to prevent their chats from ever venturing into that territory. She was nice, but not his type.

Troubled by her reaction, he wanted to ask her if there was anything wrong, but a part of him was worried he would come off as paranoid or reading too much into people’s behavior.

Maybe they were all just preoccupied with their team’s latest projects and the short deadlines they had to complete them. He knew Cassie had worked at the office until 7PM for three days straight, while also caring for a one-year-old kid on her own for reasons that weren’t fully clear.

Shrugging to himself, he went back to his desk and continued working until around 11:25. He refilled his mug a second time, snatching a spare notepad and pen from his desk in case he needed it. He preferred to take notes, and there was no telling how long their “short” meeting might be.

When he got to Tony’s office, he was a bit confused to find the door shut: their company encouraged an “open-door” policy to foster better communication. He knocked and briefly waited until Tony appeared in the doorway with a forced smile apparent.

“Come on in,” he said.

Ralph entered, his confusion intensifying when he saw their human resource director, Kendra. He had only met her once: the day he was hired. She was sitting beside Tony’s desk with a bundle of papers in her lap.

“What’s going on?” Ralph asked.

“First, would you mind closing the door behind you?” Tony said as he sat behind his desk.

As Ralph closed the door, he sensed everyone in the vicinity outside the office staring at him. He then sat in the small chair in front of Tony’s desk, clicking his pen repeatedly.

“So, what’s up?” he asked.

Kendra and Tony exchanged uneasy looks, as if neither one of them wished to break the news. Finally, Tony cleared his throat as he leaned back in his chair. “Ralph, we have a bit of a situation here.”

“With me?”

“Well, yeah.”


Tony sighed again as he gave Kendra another anxious glance. “Ralph, are you currently seeing anyone?”

Ralph blinked. “Excuse me?”

“I know it sounds a little personal for me to ask, but unfortunately, I feel like we need to get to the bottom of this.”

“Bottom of what?”

Kendra spoke up in a matter-of-fact tone. “It would be best if you just answered the questions.”

“How is it any of your business what I do in my personal life?”

“Like I said, we have a situation here.”

Ralph frowned. He clicked the pen rapidly as he fought to keep his voice low. He had no idea where the conversation was going, but he had the feeling it didn’t really matter. Something terrible was about to happen to him.

“I don’t have to say anything,” he insisted. “It’s none of your business.”

Kendra raised her chin sternly. “It is when we are getting boycotted and attacked for hiring a predator.”

Ralph stammered for a moment. “A what?”

“There is a national women’s safety advocacy group that is calling for a boycott of our company.” She checked her phone quickly, then added, “To quote their exact words, ‘for employing toxic men who prey upon young girls.’ They specifically name you.”

“That is total bullshit!” Ralph yelled.  “I have no idea what they’re talking about!”

“It’s bad,” Tony said. “They’re posting this stuff about the company all over social media and posting negative reviews on all the business sites. They’re also reaching out to our clients and raising a fuss with them. I’ve already received five emails and two phone calls about it. What am I supposed to tell them?”

“How the hell should I know? These people are just making this up!”

Tony eyed Kendra briefly. She clasped her hands together as she leaned forward.

“Ralph, you need to answer our question: are you seeing anyone?”

He was so ruffled he couldn’t resist. “Yeah, so what?”

“A female, I presume.”

“Good presumption.”

“Ralph…how old is she?”

He turned his head as he stared at her defiantly. “What do you care?”

“How old, Ralph?”

“None of your business. Old enough.”

“This company’s reputation is our business, and it has been affected by your actions.”

“My actions? I’m not the one harassing our clients!”

Kendra opened her cell phone and showed it to Ralph. “Is this her?”

His mouth opened slightly as he saw a photo of him with Jaycee inside a restaurant just down the street from their building. The photo was attached to a social media post published by the women’s safety group that included his name, age, the city he lived in, and where he worked, along with his employer’s contact information.

It didn’t make sense. Who had taken the photo, and why? How they had discovered who he was? Had someone followed him back to the building? Even then, there was no online directory of employees. It didn’t add up.

Ralph wanted to lie, but a part of him wanted to just get it over with. “That’s her.”

“How old is she?” Kendra demanded.

“She just turned 23. What’s your point?”

Kendra’s eyes widened as she shook her head. Tony had a horrified expression he barely concealed with his hand as he feigned a cough.

“I don’t understand,” Ralph said. “This is no one’s business but mine. That includes this women’s safety group or whatever they are.”

“Ralph, you understand that they consider the age difference to be…inappropriate. As they see it, when a man is that much older than a woman he is seeing, it’s not really consensual. They think that in those situations, a woman is a girl and not really an adult, as far as the man is concerned. They and others feel it is inherently abusive.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means they consider you seeing her—especially when there are so many single women your age trying to get married—to be predatory behavior.”

“Why do you care what they say?”

“Because it makes us look bad,” Tony said. “We’re getting clients wondering why a women’s safety group is boycotting us. Nobody wants to be known as a business that promotes female exploitation.”

“How can you guys buy this bullshit! These people are psychotic!”

Kendra smiled. “No matter how you may feel about some of their beliefs, they’re trying to help protect women, and we’re not going to be among the companies they have listed on their website for supporters to boycott. Nobody will want to come near us. Thankfully, we have a solution that we think works for everyone.”

“What’s that?” Ralph asked.

Kendra handed him two pieces of paper. “Here is what we’re going to do. You’re going to sign this statement saying that you are not seeing this girl and that this was all a big misunderstanding. She’s a close friend, but you are not romantically involved. Any photos they have of you two in a seemingly romantic moment was just you two goofing around or whatever: you can decide how you want to handle that. The statement also makes it clear you support their work against female exploitation and wholly endorse their prescribed restrictions on allowable age differences between romantic partners. On your behalf, the company will also make a $1,000 donation to the group and offering matching contributions should anyone else here wish to give them money.”

“You’re going to give them money?”

“We’ll lose a hell of a lot more if we don’t,” Tony said.

Ralph waved the papers in the air. “And the second one?”

“It’s a non-disclosure agreement stating you will not discuss anything we have talked about today to anyone, including this girl you’re seeing,” Kendra said.

“This is the right decision, Ralph,” Tony said. “Sign both those papers, and you can get right back to your project. We’ll take care of the rest. Of course, we trust that you will exercise a little bit more discretion in the future. I won’t say more, but I think you know what you need to do.”

Ralph stared at the papers. He clicked the pen again. He wanted to believe it wasn’t all happening, that it was just a horrible nightmare and he was about to wake up. But as time passed slowly, he realized there was no way out of it.

“Do I have to sign these?” he asked.

Kendra was stone-faced. “It would be a mistake not to sign them.”

Her tone said the rest. They lived in an at-will employment state. That meant he could be dismissed for any reason, or for no reason. Everyone would know why, but the company wouldn’t have to explain its decision to Ralph or to a judge.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. It was a text from Jaycee, whom he planned on having over that evening. He couldn’t help but grin, to the puzzlement of Tony and Kendra.

“Come on, just sign them and let’s get this over with,” Tony said.

Ralph stood up and approached Tony’s desk, placing the papers on top. He then took out his pen and began to write on both. When he was done, he handed them back to Kendra and then immediately walked out of the office and headed back to his desk.

He arrived to find everyone on his team doing their best to act like they were focused on anything other than him. He chuckled aloud as he sat at his desk and continued working on his project with a smile on his face.

A minute later, one of the security officers approached his desk. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to escort you out of the building.”


“You need to come with me right now.”

“What about my stuff?”

“You can collect them later. Right now, I need to escort you out.”

Ralph stood up and followed the officer to the elevator. As they were about to enter it, he saw Cassie out the corner of his eye. A sardonic grin on her face suddenly made it clear who had enlightened the women’s advocacy group about him and Jaycee. The week before, he had casually mentioned her in passing to Cassie.

In the lobby, the officer confiscated Ralph’s building access card and parking garage card before leaving him alone at the front door before any further explanation.

Of course, he didn’t need it. He had sealed his fate the moment he had finished writing on the documents.

The receptionist had a wary look, as though fearful of what Ralph might do. Maybe she had gotten wind of the boycott and all that.

He waved goodbye to her before he walked out the front door and paused on the sidewalk, like an escaped prisoner might once they reached friendly land. At that moment, he didn’t have a care in the world. Whatever happened next to the company, it wasn’t his problem.


Jaycee arrived at his home that night in one of her sky-blue skirts, carrying a bowl of homemade pesto. She was testing her skills after taking a culinary class at the local community college, but he liked to think she was also trying to impress him.

While they ate, he said nothing to her about work that day, other than the project was behind schedule, as usual. Fortunately, the women’s advocacy group hadn’t been able to identify her based on the photo, and he had also never mentioned her name specifically to Cassie or anyone else he knew.

“I was telling my friends about you,” Jaycee said playfully.

“I hope you weren’t honest; they might decide they want to steal me from you.”

“They can try. But none of them can make pesto like this.”

“Then you’re safe, at least until dessert.”

She laughed, but then seemed worried. “I didn’t say how old you were exactly, but they’re know you’re a lot older than I am, and gave me a hard time about it. Has that ever happened to you when you mention me?”

“They didn’t stone me, but I’ve gotten flak from some people.”

“What did you say to them?”

“What did you tell your friends?”

Jaycee blushed. “I told them I loved you and didn’t care what anyone thought. And you? What did you say?”

Ralph grinned as he sipped on his glass of wine. “I said something similar.”

“I just hope you’re not embarrassed to be seen with me. I know some people are really uncomfortable about relationships like ours and don’t always keep it to themselves.”

“They sure don’t.”

“It’s not like it’s against the law or anything.”

“No, but it might as well be.”