Reads: 148

The next morning, Hopper has company.  He seems pretty laissez faire about the whole thing, but it’s starting to creep me out.  Still, I’m not about to banish my possible familiar and all his friends, so I find food, toss it out the window, and shut it when they’re all diverted.  This does not deter Hopper.  I don’t know how, but he follows me to coffee – to school – and back to Emily’s house.  Emily is delighted, and I have to admit it’s kind of endearing. 

A week passes, and other than the one freaky graveyard experience, I’m doing alright with not seeing the dead.  However, this means I’m also missing Chas.  By Friday, it’s obvious even to me that Emily is missing him.  I want to ask, but I have no idea how to start the conversation.  Instead, we pass into an awkward weekend, and I find myself reading up on the care and keeping of crows.

Monday, after we take out typical walk through the cemetery and finishing up her homework, including work on a habitat box for said red foxes, Vera comes home a bit early and surprises us both.

“Hey,” I say by way of greeting, swearing quietly at the smear of paint that now runs up my sleeve.  She’s a little more frazzled than normal, but I don’t say a word as she gets her “home bearings”.  I’ve noticed it typically takes her half an hour to be ready to truly let me go. Today, she doesn’t even start in her usual routine.  Instead, she beckons me to follow her outside. 

“Something up?” I ask politely.

“No, not exactly,” she replies.  “But there was a bit of an incident at the office across the hall today.”

  “Like national news level or just office politics?’

  “More office politics, but the politics bled across the hall to my company’s suites.  It’s a long, twisted story, but at least part of it is over.”

“Okay,” I say, still not really sure where this is going.  “Anything I can help with?” I finally ask when it becomes awkward.

“Well…I might have said I could find a replacement for Suzie’s abrupt departure.”

“Ahhhh…and by the office across the hall, you mean my previous office, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she says uncomfortably.  “Look, I know you left, and there was a lot left behind, and I totally—“ She’s starting to get herself worked up, and I realize what’s required of me.

“Sure, what the hell.  Can’t be worse than last time.”

“You’ll do it?” she asks in surprise, completely thrown off her prepared arguments by my interjection.  I can understand – she’s a paralegal, arguments are her way of life.

“Well, I’m assuming that things have changed, and I won’t be on the front line, so to speak, with a boss from hell.”

“Oh, no, he left years ago.  Heather is much more reasonable.’

“Then why not?  It won’t affect taking care of Em will it?”

“I’m sure they’ll be flexible.  And you know the hours there.  They start early and end late, I’m pretty sure the job is a split shift.” 

“Yeah, makes more since that way.  No insurance premiums,” I agree.  “Sure, I’ll do it.  And I’ll still pick Emily up after school.’

“I would understand if you didn’t have time,” she starts, but I override her.

“I happen to like spending a little bit of time being a kid again.  I think it’s good for me.” With one last smile, I go back in to clean up our childish mess.  Vera finally makes good on her need to regroup, and by the time Em and I have put away the paint, she’s back with a few more particulars of what I’ve agreed to.   By the time I leave – and I end up staying through dinner – I am unofficially hired as a receptionist, and I have to start the next morning.  I’m so lost in my own thoughts, I barely notice that Hopper is in my room when I get back.  Luckily, my roommates don’t come in to do any cleaning, or they’d notice.  They’re pretty laid back, as things go, but I think they’d protest a wild animal hopping all over my furniture.  As I stare at my closet, I realize I might have a problem.  Even as a receptionist at a graphic arts studio, I need to dress to a certain degree and all of my clothes are my traveling wares.  If it isn’t black, it’s exotic.  I dig through the recesses of my clothes and finally find a plain skirt, the lone white blouse I own, and a jacket that only shows personality on the inside.  It’s not the most flattering look, and my dark hair is a wild mess, but it’ll have to do.  I look over at my companion. 

“You up for shopping tomorrow?  I hate shopping,” I answer for him. “Maybe Emily won’t mind.”  I sigh and set out what is left for me to wear before plopping down on the bed and absently petting my companion.  “I think I’ve officially lost it, Hop.  I’m talking to you more than human beings.  Maybe a job is a good thing.  It wasn’t like school was challenging.”  With a sigh, I pad over at my own reminder and participate in a few required online posts.  I had thought school was my answer – the direction I needed in life – but the longer I’m in class, the less certain I am.  I’m a little over a year from finishing what I started, but then…I have absolutely no idea.  I turn back for an opinion from the peanut gallery, and realize I must be losing it if I’m looking for life advice from a bird.

The next morning, I awake to the most god-awful alarm in the world.  Hopper has brought friends and they’re all croaking at me.

“Where is your snooze button?” I mutter, throwing a pillow, and this time it actually is a pillow, in their general direction.  I’m grateful, and not for the first time, that my roommates are probably sleeping together because it means I have free access to the upstairs bathroom.  I manage to get ready in an amazingly short amount of time, and by the time I have coffee and am at work, I can’t quite stop the utter shock to find Vera and Emily waiting for me.  Emily is half asleep in the back seat, but Vera is nervously standing by the front door.

“Thank you for coming, Rigan,” she says, letting me in to her side of the building.  It’s a dual set up, and surprisingly modern.  The two suites are separated by a hall, but each side has their own entrance. 

“Why are you letting me in?” I ask around a yawn.

“Well…” she glances back, makes sure no one is around and then leans in to whisper.  “It might be my fault Suzie left.”

This is news.  All the time I’ve known Vera, she’s been a model of respectability, and she’s clearly a great mother.  I honestly can’t fathom why anyone would quit because of her, and my brain isn’t running on enough coffee yet to formulate a question. 

“Well, thanks,” I say at last.  She is obviously relieved that I won’t be asking uncomfortable questions, and she gets me back to the office I left behind.  She knocks, and the door is opened by none other than the Olympia-mom I’ve met picking up Emily.

“Heather?  This is Rigan.”

“Rigan?  I’ve heard so much about you.  Come on in.”

I pause, slow bits of my brain turning on at odd moments.  “Can I say hi to Em first?”

Both women are a little surprised, but as mothers, neither thinks to stop me either.  “Of course,” says Vera.

“Mind if I walk with you?” asks Heather.

They surround me as we walk, and I can’t decide if I feel protected or trapped.  Emily perks up when she sees me.

“Where’s Hopper?” she asks right off the bat.

I glance around, rather surprised that my usual shadow is missing.  “No idea, he was my alarm clock this morning, maybe he decided to sleep in after all that.”

She giggles and makes a grab for her habitat box.  “Mom and I finished it last night, what do you think?”

“I think it looks great,” I say honestly.  “But where’s the fox?”

She digs around in her bag before pulling out her toy fox.  “Here.  I didn’t want her getting lost before class.”

“Smart move,” I say.  It occurs to me that I’m probably on the clock now, and I should stop talking.  “I expect to hear all about it this afternoon,” I tell her.

She nods, and her eyes widen as she realizes the audience we have.  “I will,” she promises solemnly, and we both know what is going unspoken.  We’ll share our days at the bench outside the cemetery with our Starbucks.  I grin at her.

“Good luck, Em.”  I turn back and smile at Vera.  “I’ll be seeing you,” I say conversationally, and I let Heather lead me back to where it all began.

Ten years ago, I had walked into this very same office, a raw, confused girl who didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life.  I’d dropped out of college, found a job, and decided to see if the real world was any easier than my own.  What I had found had been a small family willing to take in the odd stray who ended up in their office.  Chas had been the first to take care of me, but the rest of the office had followed, until the boss from hell came along.  Add to that stress the knowledge that the man I loved more than any other still tended to spend time with his high school sweetheart when I was too terrified to commit, and you have the perfect recipe for my departure.  The office has an odd schedule, with the office opening at seven and closing at seven and artistic and practical minds alike setting their own schedules.  The end rule is that the work get done, and sometimes that means people show up at five, and sometimes that means people leave at ten at night.  I had loved the variability.  I had loved the atmosphere.  I had loved my coworkers.  But I had run, seen the world, and for some crazy reason, I was right back at square one.  Heather seemed to know that I wasn’t a true novice, because she only gave me a cursory tour before plopping me down at reception.

“I know it’s not overly challenging,” she says by way of apology, “but all I need you to do is field calls.  You’ll learn what everyone’s schedule is and then you won’t even have to ask.  Some of us might need some creative help, some practical help, some errands run.  It’s not glamorous, but…”

“I’m perfectly alright with simple,” I interject.  “I’ve have enough complicated to last a lifetime.” 

“Oh, good.  Veronica mentioned you’d been here before, so I hope I’m not telling you what you already know.”

“It’s been awhile,” I tell her – feeling like against all odds, I might actually like it here again.  She’s a perfect blend of practical and good natured with enough common sense to fill a room.  I already like her better than my last boss…but I think I might like the devil more than my last boss.  I hear he’s charming.

“Well, in that case, I’ll have Flo show you a few more things when she gets in.  Make yourself at home here, and if you need anything, my office is at the end of row.”

It’s an open office plan in the center, but with plenty of true offices around the “grunt ground” as we used to call it.  I nod.  “No problem.  I can find my.”  Then, as if the words are foreign to me, I look back at her.  “Thanks.”

She seems just as startled to hear me say the word as I am to say it.  “Of course, but really, you’re doing me a favor.  Now, at nine is when most of the office will be here.  I will run you through introductions when there are a few more people around.  But Flo should be the next in, and she can help you out until then.”  With one last nod, she heads off.

I sit down at a desk I had once occupied, amazed to find that the same crack exists in the same corner of the wall.  I really would have thought someone would have patched that by now.  I run my fingers along old, familiar lines.  If I close my eyes, I can imagine it as yesteryear.  And as my fingertips touch the old crack, I feel something echo in my chest.  I would trace those familiar edges when I was on a long phone call – bored, or when I was on the phone with someone else…sometimes I would get calls from my coworkers, asking if I wanted coffee, and that was what I remembered most. Eyes still firmly shut, I suck in a sharp breath at the instant pain.  For some insane reason, I can feel memories in that crack, and they make me ache.  My eyes open in a flash as the foreign sensations threaten to claw their way into more than just my memories.  Looking up, I notice I’ve been watched.

The woman standing across from me has her head tilted ever so slightly, as if she’s trying to figure me out for my crazy memory trips triggered by a bloody crack in the wall. 

“You must be Morrigan,” she says at last.

“Yes, are you Flo?”

“Florence,” she agrees with a grimace.  “Don’t ask me what my parents were thinking.”  Considering she has to be close to a decade my junior, I’m wondering the same thing.

“Nice to meet you,” I say according to the etiquette script in my brain.  Thank God for normal interactions.  We go through the simple process of getting to know each other, and it slowly drags me back to reality. 

She sets all her stuff down in the chair beside mine, and I can’t help but notice that nearly everything is pink.  She is dressed conservatively, but every single thing of hers that can be accessorized is done in shades of pink.  And here I had been thinking with a name like Flo she and I might have a few things in common.  I hate pink.  She notices my expression, and grins.

“I can’t help myself,” she says, fingering her purse – which is black, but with a bedazzled F in pink rhinestones on it.  “Most of my life, I had to live down my name, and that takes some work.  But deep down, I’m a My Little Pony, Disney Princess loving girl.”

“Morrigan was hardly a cakewalk,” I say dryly.

“Makes sense.  What do you go by for short?”

“Depends.  I prefer Rigan, but if you’re related, chances are you call me Mori if you can’t get the whole thing out, or Wednesday, because you think you’re funny.”

“As in the Addams Family?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Well, I think we’ve both effectively summarized our childhoods.” She grins.  “And I think I’m going to like working with you.”

Surprisingly, I think she’s right.  And oddly enough, I have the suspicion that the feeling might be mutual.  If it were ten years ago, we could have been great friends – but then as the morning ticks on, I remember she’s probably not even legal to drink.  And with Emily in my life, and now a pet crow, I have enough children to look after.

At nine, give or take a few minutes, Flo and I are getting into an easy routine of job sharing when Heather shows back up. 

“Are you ready, Rigan?”

My head bounces up so fast it ricochets off the back of my seat.  “Ready?”

“To meet everyone.  Come on, nearly everyone is here.”

Luckily, I’ve been pasting on fake, but believable smiles for eighteen years.  This is no exception as I let her lead me off to the sacrificial altar.  I hate blind introductions, and as we bounce from desk to desk, office to office, I have to remind myself to breathe and not let my brain shut itself down.  It’s a minefield for introverts to maneuver, the whole getting to know the group thing.  I’m lucky, two of my coworkers were discussing their pets – I’ll remember Sura the Husky’s owner and Jack the cat’s pet by their animals alone.  Hell if I can remember their names.  It’s not a particular skill set of mine.  Luckily, I’m already certain that Flo not only knows everyone here, she knows details to help with the name association.  I can already tell that she’ll be a great ally.  In the meantime, I try to force my mind to the task at hand.  Heather strikes me as the sort who remembers everyone and their family details after a day.  She’ll probably expect something similar from me.  I’m struggling mightily after half the office.  Then we get to one of the rooms at the end of the hall.  Heather knocks and then walks in.

“Drew? Max? Are you in here?”

The room is clearly under construction.  And clearly shared.  Two desks are shoved into the center in a sort of emergency operating mode with filing cabinets taking up other expanses while a wall is remodeled.  My very first impression was one of appreciation for the man who pops his head up from the other side of mess.  He checks all of my boxes – dark hair (he even has a delicious amount of curl) and eyes that crinkle faintly at the corners to show the world his sense of humor even when he isn’t laughing.  The first surge of admiration is quickly replaced by the thought that I had no business admiring anyone – and, to be honest, I was always surprised when I did.  I knew, with my heart currently stuck between a five year old and the afterworld, I was at a strong disadvantage to begin with.  However, I hadn’t traveled the world for the better part of seven years and not noticed my fair share of men I found attractive.  My favorites always checked certain boxes, but nothing permanent ever happened.  Nothing permanent ever could.  In this way, I was always able to keep them at bay.  It’s easy to keep your heart safe from breaking when you don’t’ really have one.  Still…this one could have made life complicated.

“Hey Heather,” he says.  “Max is upstairs looking to see if anyone up there knows where his diverter cables went.”

Heather smiles, and I get the impression that Max is a bit more unique than the typical worker.  Good, maybe I’ll like him too.

“Well, Drew, this is Rigan.  She’s a friend of Veronica Hawke’s.  She’s filling in at the desk here.”

He nods to me, and the introduction is quickly over.  Heather notices how busy he is, and bustles me off to the next person.  My brain checks off three more coworkers that I find reasonably attractive, but even then, I keep circling back to Drew.  There was something out of the ordinary, perhaps even extraordinary and I just didn’t know what to make of it.

Emily was waiting for me at the curb when I make it to school.  We head off for coffee before swinging back to our bench.  At least her mother now knew that her errant daughter spent her afternoons with an adult.  I’m not sure she’d have been thrilled to learn what we did most days when there was no homework, but Emily was one sharp kid.  She wouldn’t slip with anything that would get either of us in trouble.

“So, how was your day?” I ask after several sips of silence.  We tend to just sit and watch Hopper for long stretches.  She’s developing a Starbucks habit, and I don’t know if that’s something I need to curb or if we’re okay.  I should probably ask her mother…

“Boring.  Mrs. Woods has decided we need to work on our math skills.”

“Rough.  But you’re years from the hard stuff.”

“But I want the hard stuff.  Addition and subtraction is for babies.”

“My bad.  You’re definitely not a baby.”  She’s glaring at me, so I hurry on.  “So, want to start fractions?”

Her expression is one that defies her age.  She looks like a little adult.  It never fails to make me nervous when she goes all adult on me.  That’s supposed to be my job.  “I’m only on multiplication tables.”

“Fair enough.” Crisis averted.  “Six times six?”

“Thirty-six”

“Five times eight?’

“Forty.”

“Nine times four?”

“Thirty-six.”

“You’re good.  I think you should have skipped a grade.”

“My dad said no after I was tested. He said it was better for me to be with kids my own age.”

“Sounds reasonable.  Doesn’t explain what you’re doing here with me, though.”

“You’re my babysitter.”

“Am now,” I agree affably.  She was watching me again and it made me nervous again.

“You started your job today.”

“Yes.”

“How was it?”

“Boring. We’re not much further than addition and subtraction either.  There were a lot of introductions.  I think I remember like two, maybe three, people.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why those two?”

“You’re a very perceptive child.’

“So you’ve told me.” She continues to watch me in that unsettling way. 

“Alright,” I say.  ‘Out with it already.”

“Why those two?” she repeats.  “When my mom doesn’t answer a question, it means she doesn’t want me to know something.’

“You honestly want to know about my day?”

“Yes.” She shrugs as if this is the most natural thing in the world.  And maybe to her it is.  “You know all about mine.”

“Fine.  I remember my boss – her name is Heather and it seemed important to remember my boss’s name.  I remember the girl that sits right next to me – her name is Flo and she loves pink. And I remember Drew.  Probably because he has the same name as my favorite football player…and I might have thought he was cute.”

“That was three.”

“So it was.”

”And?” prompted Emily.

“And what?” I replied, watching her warily.  Sometimes it was so easy to forget that she was just a child.  The way she was watching me was downright unnerving.  Every few moments, she’d go back to watching Hopper and I would breathe again, but then she’d turn back to me with that alarming intensity and I had to wonder if someone had lied about her age.

“And do you like him?”

“I’ve barely just met him.  Kind of hard to tell at this point.”

“But?”

“What is it with you?  You’re like a little inquisitor.  But nothing, and nothing.  I met over a dozen people today, I happened to remember two, no three, of them, end of story.  I get to go back tomorrow and the awkwardness of remembering only a few names will come into play.” I heaved a sigh and stared morosely at my coffee for a long moment before taking another sip.  “Introverts should really come with a flyer to hand out when we meet new people.”

“What’s an introvert?” she asked

“And introvert is someone who doesn’t necessarily do well in new social situations.  You know like on your first day of school? When you have to meet all those new people?  It exhausts introverts, and someone like me, we’re just not good at it. Which, of course, is sort of ironic that I have to spend so much time in the customer service industry when I’m clearly hating it.  Ah, the real reason I went back to school.”

She just sat there, absorbing everything I said, and I’m fairly certain she was getting most of it.  She was uncanny like that.  “Then I must be an introvert,” she said at last.  “I don’t like meeting new people.”

“Yeah, well, wouldn’t be a surprise.”

“But I liked meeting you.”

“Introverts can like people, just like extroverts, we just don’t…” I stopped myself.  Not for the first time I had to wrap my mind around how to present a topic to a six year old.  Good thing she was such a smart six year old or I’d really be lost.  “I like certain people, maybe even most people, but unless I can recharge, people in general exhaust me.”

“Oh, that’s why you come here.”

“Among other reasons.”

“Mom must be an extrovert.  She loves talking to people.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Was my dad?”

“You know, I don’t think so.  He was more like me.  He did well with those he was most comfortable with, but he was a hel…pful person when it came to dealing with others.  At heart, your dad liked to take care of others.”

“Oh.” She stared at her coffee cup. I had to wonder if she was starting to mimic me on purpose or not.  And like my slip of my language, I knew I had to watch everything around her.  She was a little sponge, and I was lucky that Veronica thought I was worth having around to babysit.  Otherwise I’d be up a creek without a paddle, or worse.  We continued to sit there in companionable silence, and I was surprised when I could just make out Veronica’s car pull up at the house.

“Your mom’s home,” I said.

She sighed and got to her feet, looking at her feet dejectedly.  “Then I suppose we need to walk home.”

“Yep, that time of day.”

“But I don’t want to leave,” she whispered, glancing over at the graveyard.  “It’s Thursday, which means that it’s PTA night.  Mom will be busy talking.”

“Well, no homework tonight, right?”

“Right?”

“Then let’s go back and watch a movie.  I don’t have cable, a DVD player, or anything since my laptop crapped out on me.  I’m pretty sure Veronica would understand.” I winced as I realized all I’d just said.  “Sorry, forget I said crapped, twice, and obviously I was referring to your mom.”

“I know her name is Veronica.  And she says worse when she thinks I’m not listening.”

“Yeah, well, unless I can say exactly what she says, you’re going to slip and say something around her she’ll have never heard, and then I’ll be in trouble.  No one ever said I was a great candidate for babysitting.”

“I like you.”

“Which is, no doubt, my only recommendation.  Come on, Em, you up for dragons?”

“I am,” she said, boldly stepping towards home.  She waited when I was a bit slower, and as we approached the cross walk, she slipped her hand into mine.  The oddest sensation flowed through me, a warmth that ran straight through to my heart.  Glancing down, I noticed that it was her charmed hand that was in mine, and what I was feeling could only be described as my beating heart. Again.  And this time I didn’t regret the sensation.  Suddenly, like a terrible cliché, I could honestly tell that the sun was beating down and that that made me happy.  It was so new, so wonderfully refreshing, and over all too soon.  As soon as we crossed the street, she let go, and I was immediately dropped back down into the abyss where I lived like some sort of ancient well spirit. 

“Hello Rigan,” says Veronica, opening the door to let us in.  “How was she today?”

“Same as always,” I reply evenly.  “We went for a walk after my coffee run, no homework tonight.  Any chance we can watch a movie now?”

I had to give her credit.  She only raised a single eyebrow at me and my ridiculous ways.  Most of me really, really did not want to like the woman whom the keeper of my heart had married, but the longer I spent around her, the more I came to realize we could have been friends.  Once, long ago.  Now I was the odd babysitter of her daughter and temporary receptionist at the office across from hers.  Not for the first time, I had to seriously wonder why she was putting up with me anyway.

“Sure,” she said, completely unaware of how my mind had wandered off on its own accord.  “I’m going to have a few friends over.  Why don’t you stick around?  We’re starting our plans for our school Halloween party.”

“Maybe,” I said ambiguously.  “But before then, Emily did promise me dragons.”

Veronica sighed and looked at her daughter.  “Really?”

“Hey, I’m here for free,” I said hastily.  “I don’t have any way to watch movies for the foreseeable future, and I love Hiccup.  You don’t mind do you?”

“Of course not,” she said, still watching her daughter.  “But I’m serious, about the planning, you seem like just the sort of person who would have flawless advice for Halloween.”

“It is my favorite holiday,” I agreed.  With one last tight smile, I let Emily lead me back to the TV room.

 

 


Submitted: May 09, 2021

© Copyright 2023 L.E. Gibler. All rights reserved.

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