The world is crap right now. So I’m going to throw this little story at you in the hopes it might make one of you smile. Warnings (if you’re used to some of my darker stuff): It is not fantasy. It is contemporary. It kinda sets up a potential for romance (in what a few thousand words can do.)
Have at it, and enjoy. 🙂
So That Happened
Rebecca ran towards the train platform, one hand grasping at the strap of her bag before it could slip off her shoulder. A few more seconds, she thought. A few more seconds and she would make it. Her lungs burned as she pushed forward, and she regretted all of the times she’d told herself she needed to get outside and exercise. But the winter had been so cold this year, and the snowstorms every few days hadn’t helped matters. That was what she had told herself, while sitting on the couch ensconced in fleece and drinking far too many cups of cheap hot chocolate.
A familiar whoosh of sound and Rebecca saw the doors of the train car slide shut. Even if she stuck out her arm, she knew she wouldn’t make it. As she watched the train set into motion, her bag finally slid down and landed in a puddle of some unidentifiable liquid.
“Son of a—” She bit down on her lip and snatched her bag up from the ground, careful to hold it with an outstretched arm in case any bit of the mystery fluid should transfer itself to her.
This was it. She would lose her job. And all because the universe had decided to conspire against her. The one day she’d been told she absolutely could not be late. Well, apparently the universe wanted her to live on a steady diet of Ramen noodles and tap water until she could find another means of employment, since there was no way Mitch would let this slide.
And she hadn’t even taken the time to shave her legs this morning. Stupid universe. Stupid stubbly legs.
Rebecca plunked down on the nearest bench, her shoulders hunched forward. From inside her bag, her phone bleeped. She pulled it out, glanced at the screen, and finally let loose the swear word she’d held back only a minute before.
8am meeting starting soon!!! Where r u???
Rebecca chewed on the inside of her lip and texted back to her cubicle-mate, Sharon.
Water leak in kitchen. Had to wait for plumber. Missed train.
A few minutes later, the phone bleeped again.
Mitch is LIVID. Said u r gone!!!
Rebecca thought about texting another reply, but couldn’t summon up the energy to do it. She tossed the phone into her bag, pushed her already-falling-out-of-its-crappy-chignon hair back from her face, and tilted her chin up until she saw the tiled ceiling of the train platform above her.
So she would be without a job. And her kitchen was flooded. And she had hairy man-legs. And for some reason, her cardigan smelled faintly of fried chicken. Brilliant.
Around her, the crowd shifted its way closer to the platform, anticipating the arrival of the next train. Rebecca stood up, reached down for her bag, and was knocked back onto the bench when someone bumped hard into her side. Her knee jarred against the edge of the seat, but she caught herself before she stumbled onto the floor. She looked up to see who had run into her, and noticed a man in a ball cap racing away from where she stood, clutching her bag in his hands.
In her head, she had always imagined that if she were mugged, she would spring into action and chase down the thief, latch onto his back, and heroically retrieve her purse and any other items the miscreant might have taken from others. Instead, she stood there, her knee throbbing and threatening to give out on her, arms still akimbo from trying to steady herself, and her mouth wide open as she watched someone run off with her belongings.
“Hey!” she shouted. The only thing she could think to shout. Her voice echoed off the walls of the station, and a few people turned their heads. The mugger glanced back long enough to lose his path through the crowd, run into someone else, and tumble down to the ground.
Well, then. Not exactly what she’d intended, but it would have to do.
She ran towards the bustle, limping slightly, her arms working in an awkward imitation of a jogging motion. By the time she made it to the other end of the platform, the mugger was up and on his feet again, scrabbling for her purse and something else he’d snatched from the guy he’d knocked down during his fall.
“Oh, come on!” Rebecca leaned against the wall for a moment. There was no use giving chase. Her knee felt like it was trying to escape from the rest of her leg, half the contents of her purse were now scattered across the floor, and behind her, the next train roared into the station and squealed its way to a halt.
Had she broken a mirror recently? Let a black cat cross her path? Opened an umbrella indoors? What had she done to make every facet of her morning swirl down the toilet of life in such spectacular fashion?
“Excuse me, is this yours?”
Rebecca jerked to attention, her gaze searching for the man who had spoken. He stood to her right, his dark hair still mussed from his encounter with the mugger. The rest of him was rumpled as well, jeans and button-up shirt looking as if he’d only just rescued them from the dryer. His jacket appeared in good condition, though, and he was also clean-shaven. A point for him, then.
Dragging her gaze away from his face, she noticed what he held out in his hand. “My wallet!” The surface had garnered a few scuffs from its tumble out of her purse, but when she opened it, all of her cash, cards, and ID were still tucked safely inside. “Thank you.”
“I saw a few other things fall out of your bag,” the man said, and dropped down to his haunches to retrieve a tube of lip balm from beside her foot. “I’m sorry he got away.”
She shrugged. “It happens.” Her own nonchalance startled her. She suspected shock would set in any moment, but at least for now, she could shuffle around the train station, collecting the few items that hadn’t been snatched from her. And for so many years, her mother used to chide her for never closing her purse properly. For once her own negligence had paid off.
“But what about you?” She looked the man up and down as she tried to cram her belongings into the tiny pockets of her skirt and cardigan. There had been a kind of scuffle when he and the thief had hit the floor together. “Did he get anything of yours?”
“My wallet,” he said, after checking his own pockets. “Phone’s gone, too.” A jingle of sound and he produced a small batch of keys from inside his jacket. “But I can still get into my apartment, so that’s a silver lining, I guess.”
He flashed a crooked grin. If his carelessness was feigned for her benefit, he was doing a bang-up job of carrying it off. His gaze flicked back to something behind her. “Were you waiting for that train?”
Rebecca glanced back over her shoulder. The train’s doors were open, the passengers filing in. If she turned and walked away from him at that exact moment, she could still make it. “I’m already late,” she said, and shook her head. “I don’t think I was meant to make it to work on time. My boss is probably clearing out my desk right now, so what’s another twenty minutes?”
“Where do you work?”
She looked up as she tried to shove her sunglasses—possibly cracked, but they’d been purchased at the local dollar store, so no great loss if they were—into the already overflowing pocket of her sweater. “Tipton Electronics,” she said, and gave the sunglasses another shove before she finally gave up and pitched them into a nearby trash can. “I work in accounting. Or I did.” She attempted a laugh, but it died before it could struggle out of the back of her throat.
“Tipton Electronics?” His brow furrowed. “On Market Drive? Near the hospital?”
“You’ve heard of it?” Tipton Electronics wasn’t a well-renowned place, by any means. Just an unassuming company housed in an unassuming building that shared its parking lot with a daycare and a dentist’s office.
He licked his lips, and his mouth moved as if he was about to say one thing, but changed his mind and said something else instead. “I’ve heard of it, yeah.”
“Well, here.” She looked over her shoulder again. People were still fitting themselves onto the train. She had a minute, maybe. “I think you made out worse than I did through all this.” She popped open her wallet, fished out what little cash she had, and held it out to him.
He glanced at the money and then up at her face. “You don’t have to—”
“I know I don’t have to,” she told him. “And it’s not much. Maybe enough for a burger and a cup of coffee you can drown your sorrows in. But my morning’s been absolute crap so far. Maybe this will keep me from infecting you with my bad luck.”
He hesitated. She held the money out farther.
“What’s your name?”
This time, it was her turn to hesitate. “Rebecca,” she said after taking a deep breath.
He held out his hand and she passed the money to him. “I’m Ethan.”
“Ethan,” she repeated, and smiled. “May you have a much better day than me.” A nod, a quick check of her pockets to make sure everything she’d grabbed from the floor of the station was still tucked against her body, and she turned and jogged towards the train. A moment after she stepped on board, the doors slid shut behind her.
By Rebecca’s watch, she was over an hour late for work.
She took the stairs up to the second floor, a quicker route than standing in the foyer and waiting for the sluggish elevator to make its way down to her, for any other employees to step on or off, for the doors to close with an unnerving groan before the cab shuddered its way towards its next destination.
And there was the added benefit that taking the stairs saved her from having to walk past Mitch’s office on the way to her desk.
Most of the floor appeared to be hard at work, though a few people milled around, fetching coffee or dashing off to the restroom on one of the few breaks they were permitted. She’d missed the meeting entirely, it seemed. Everything had shifted back to its normal routine, though a buzz of heightened conversation hung over the cubicle walls.
Rebecca ducked into her own cubicle and dropped into her chair. She spun around until she faced her desk, a desk that still displayed all of her notes and personal effects. So Mitch hadn’t ordered her space cleared out yet. Or perhaps he would hand her a shoddy cardboard box, order her to fill it herself and point her in the direction of the elevator doors.
No, no, no. She couldn’t think like that. A slow exhale fluttered the sticky notes stuck to the edges of her computer monitor. She couldn’t allow her imagination to run away from her. A minute was what she needed. A full, glorious minute without racing towards a train or a bus or a mugger or a kitchen flooded with soapy dishwater.
“Okay,” she said, and rolled her shoulders back. “Just pretend it’s a normal day.” Her computer beeped and hummed to life after she switched it on. While she waited for it to start up, she slipped off her cardigan and tugged at the front of her shirt a half dozen times to dry the sweat she’d worked up jogging the last few blocks here from the bus stop. Her hair wasn’t salvageable, so she tugged out the pins holding the tangle in place and shook it out over her shoulders.
There. Overheated, perspiring, her hair somehow managing to be lank and frizzy all at once, she crossed her unshaven legs at the ankles and reached for the computer’s mouse.
“Jeez! Where’ve you been?” a voice whispered in her ear.
Rebecca gasped and banged her elbow against the padded partition as she wheeled her chair around. “Don’t do that! I thought you were Mitch!”
Sharon stepped back and walked around to the other side of the double desk. “Don’t worry about him right now.” She lifted her chin and looked over the edge of her glasses towards Mitch’s office. “He’s busy upstairs with all the big-wigs paying us a visit. He’ll wait until they’re gone to deal with us lowly hoi polloi.”
“So what was the meeting even about?” Rebecca searched through her drawers for a comb. “Mitch has been acting like he’s harboring government secrets, but I thought it was just a random check-in from the shareholders.” She ran her hand through the contents of a basket on her desk. “Do you have a hairbrush or anything?”
A quick rummage from the other side of the cubicle and Sharon passed a green plastic comb to her. “C’mon, you know Mitch doesn’t know anymore than the rest of us. A bunch of important-looking people in boring suits and boring haircuts are taking a tour of the place, and it will all end with half of us being out of a job by the end of the quarter.” She held up her right hand as if swearing an oath. “At least, that’s my prediction.”
The comb caught on a snarl in Rebecca’s hair and she winced. “You forget that some of us will be out of a job before the end of the day.”
Sharon’s expression soured. “Ugh, I’m so sorry. I tried to tell Mitch what was going on, but he waved me off and said you should have had a backup plan in place, whatever that means.”
“The plumber wasn’t even the worst of it,” Rebecca said. She told Sharon about missing the train, about the mugging, even about Ethan-With-the-Crooked-Grin. All the while, she tackled the first items on her to-do list, replied to three emails, and double-checked her notes on a quarterly spending report that needed to be finished by the end of the week.
Well, it would be finished by the end of the week. But not by her.
“Hey, you want to join me for lunch?” Sharon asked a little while later. “A couple of us are going to try that new pizza shop on the corner.”
Rebecca shook her head before she twisted her hair into a bun and secured it with a few borrowed pins. “Thanks, but…” A quick shrug and she clicked open another tab on her computer. “As long as I’m still officially an employee, I’ve got a ton of stuff to catch up on from this morning. But if you could bring me back a slice, that would be great.”
“Cheese and pepperoni,” Sharon recited as she stood up and slung her purse over her shoulder. “No mushrooms, right?”
Rebecca flashed her a thumbs up and went back to her computer.
The buzz of work and conversation in the office died down as more employees left for their lunch hour. Rebecca sat in her chair, her shoulders slowly rounding forward until a crick in her neck and the beginnings of a headache forced her to squeeze her eyes shut. She needed coffee. The pot in the break room would no doubt be down to sludge by now, but a fresh batch along with whatever might be left of the morning delivery of donuts would be enough to get her through until the end of the day. Or until Mitch fired her. Whichever came first.
The refrigerator kicked on with a groan as she walked into the break room. The cardboard box of donuts sat on the counter, but when she peeked inside, all that was left were blots of glaze and a few flattened sprinkles. Further along, the coffee pot sat with a half inch of black, slightly viscous liquid in the bottom. A quick rinse in the sink, a new filter, several scoops of grounds, and she had a fresh pot brewing, the aroma of it almost strong enough to eradicate the odor of burnt popcorn that had emanated from the microwave for the last week.
She grabbed one of the disposable cardboard coffee cups off the stack when someone walked past the break room’s door. She ignored it at first. But then that someone cleared their throat, and Rebecca glanced up to see Mitch standing in the doorway.
She gulped. Her hand stilled over the coffee pot, while her mouth worked around words that wouldn’t come out.
“Rebecca, I need to see you in my office.” The tone was congenial. He even smiled a little, his eyes crinkling at the corners as if he were merely asking her to join him for a friendly chat about the weather. “Oh, you made coffee? Great. Can you bring me a cup?”
He didn’t wait for a reply. A dip of his head, a small gesture of his hand that could’ve been interpreted as a wave or a rude dismissal, and he walked away.
Rebecca didn’t move, not until the muffled sound of his footsteps faded down the hall. So this would be it. While everyone else was at lunch, he’d fire her. He wouldn’t even make a big show of it, just scuttle her off when no one was looking. She wasn’t sure whether he was being generous by saving her the humiliation, or if he thought she didn’t even merit the ignominy of a public dismissal.
She poured her own coffee and took down another cup. How did Mitch take his coffee? With cream? Sugar? Tossed in his kind, smiling face?
Her hands shook as she popped the plastic lids onto the cups. She wasn’t worried about finding another job. No, scratch that. She was worried, or she would be. But that fear hadn’t sunk in yet. Right now, her apprehension was on a more short-term scale. Could she make it to Mitch’s office without crying? Or would she instead blurt out a random string of expletives the moment he declared her time with Tipton Electronics was over?
She arrived at his office door, both cups of coffee warming her hands. She couldn’t knock without attempting to tuck one of the cups against her ribcage or setting it down on the floor, so she turned and tapped at the door with her elbow. Three quick thumps, and she waited.
She glowered at the door handle. A bit of juggling with the cups and she hooked her little finger around it and managed to open the door.
“Ah, Rebecca. There you are.”
Mitch’s office was suffused with light. While the main office boasted no windows and the break room only had a small pane of glass that offered a view of the building’s truck entrance below, this room—along with the meeting rooms that flanked it—enjoyed an entire upper wall of clear glass.
The midday sunlight at his back cast Mitch in shadow. A few blinks, and her eyes adjusted to the change from artificial illumination to natural. “Here,” she said. She took a few steps forward and set his cup on the desk between them. She held her own cup between her hands, afraid to take a drink, afraid that she’d either burn her tongue or spill it down her shirt. Or both.
He picked up his coffee, took a sip, and grimaced. When he put it down again, he gave it a little push away from him. “So, Rebecca.” He leaned forward, placing his elbows on the desk and clasping his hands in front of him. “I’m sure you know why I asked to speak with you.”
It didn’t sound like a question. Did he expect her to say something in reply? “Mmm,” she said, and nodded. “Right.” She held back her own frown at her inability to carry on a conversation properly while under stress. “Of course,” she added, and bit her lip before she could sound anymore like a fool.
“Today is a big day for Tipton Electronics,” Mitch went on. “All employees were asked to be here this morning, unless previously excused.”
Asked? Rebecca’s hand tightened around her cup. When had any of them been asked to come in early? Unless Mitch was currently inhabiting a world where a request and a demand were interchangeable.
“You, however, were not here. And, you know…” He spread his hands apart, his head cocking to one side as he seemed to weigh something in each palm. “I want to be lenient, Rebecca. I really do. I know you see me as a friend, not just your boss. You all do. But…” He shook his head, his gaze dropping to the surface of his desk as he seemed to study something described on its faux-wood paneling. “Sometimes a friend has to be tough.”
“I—” She stopped herself before she said anything more. She needed to think, to put her words in order before Mitch drove a steamroller right over her. Her leg bumped against a chair as she shifted her weight. Could she sit without having been invited to do so? Of course, if she was about to lose her job, perhaps etiquette wasn’t what she needed to worry about. She glanced down at the chair beside her, and her gaze caught sight of something behind her.
Well, several somethings. Someones, to be more accurate.
Two women and a man, kitted out in their boring suits and boring haircuts, sat in chairs to the right of the door. And to the left…
Rebecca’s grip on her cup slipped, and she fumbled for a moment before she caught it again. There sat Ethan, in a plain metal folding chair, one ankle crossed over his knee as he watched her.
She looked back at Mitch and again at Ethan. Ethan-With-the-Crooked-Grin, still slightly rumpled from head to toe. “What—”
Ethan gave a quick tilt of his chin towards Mitch, and shook his head. Rebecca closed her mouth. Now, apparently, wasn’t the time to bring up their previous meeting. “I’m sorry, Mitch.” She dragged her attention back towards the other side of the office. “I’m not sure what to say. I could tell you everything I went through to get here this morning, but I suspect you’d think I was making it up, making excuses. So…” She pulled in a deep breath and pushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “I will say I did everything in my power to get here on time. But unfortunately, things didn’t go my way.”
Her voice sounded strange to her own ears, higher than normal and slightly breathless. She hadn’t expected there to be an audience. Was this Mitch’s idea? To present a display of strength to his bosses by firing someone in front of them? And what about Ethan? Who was Ethan? And why was he sitting there, simply watching all of this play out in front of him?
“I acknowledge your honesty,” Mitch said, while scraping the corner of his desk with the edge of his thumbnail. “We need employees who aren’t afraid to speak up. But we also need employees we can depend on, men and women who will be there when it’s asked and expected of them. And this morning…” He placed his hand flat on the desktop. “You weren’t.”
Now was the time to argue. She could explain in detail everything that had happened that morning, even call on Ethan to vouch for her. She could beg and plead to keep her position. But something stopped her. For two years, she’d worked here. For two years, Mitch had been her boss. And at that moment, she wanted a change. She couldn’t stay here, hating her job, constantly dealing with the burden of guilt and stress for matters beyond her control.
“No, I wasn’t.” She shrugged, and a tremendous weight slipped off her shoulders with the movement. “ I wasn’t here. I’m sorry.”
“Well.” Mitch sank back in his chair, deflated. Rebecca suspected he’d wanted a fight, a show for the guests, and she’d gone and taken away the planned entertainment. “You leave me with no alternative. I expect your desk to be cleared out by five o’clock. I’ll begin the necessary paperwork, and—”
“Excuse me, Mitch?”
Rebecca turned around. Ethan had shifted forward in his seat, his elbows braced on his knees.
“Yes?” Mitch cleared his throat and sat up straighter. “What is it, Mr. Tipton?”
Rebecca glanced back and forth between the two men before her breath stalled in her mouth. Mr. Tipton?
“I’m sure you’re eager to get the ball rolling on…” Ethan’s gaze shifted towards her. A small smile creased the corners of his mouth, but aside from that, he gave nothing away. “Rebecca, was it?”
“On Rebecca’s termination,” Ethan continued, as if he hadn’t missed a beat. “But I was wondering if I could speak to her for a minute? I mean, if you’re done here.”
Mitch pushed his shoulders back, his elbows seeking out the armrests on his chair. “I can deal with everything on my end. But what do you—”
“Fantastic.” Ethan stood up and gestured to the door. He looked at Rebecca as if the other four people in the room no longer existed. “That is, can I speak with you?”
“Sure,” she managed to eke out, and without a glance for the man who had just fired her.
They both stepped out into the hall, and Ethan led her back towards the break room. The lunch hour hadn’t ended yet, so the floor was mostly deserted, only a couple of people working through their break and paying the two of them little notice.
“I should have said something this morning,” Ethan said as they walked into the break room. “But you caught me off guard.” He held out his hand. “My name’s Ethan Tipton. My father is—”
“Richard Tipton,” she interrupted. “Right? His picture is hanging down in the foyer.”
Ethan nodded. “Yeah, that would be him. But he’s retiring, or he will be by the end of the year. And I’ll be taking over the company. Well, in an official capacity”
Rebecca licked her lips. She looked down at her coffee before she wrinkled her nose and set it down on the counter beside the sink. “That’s… great, I guess. But I’m not sure why you’re telling me this.” Despite the absurdity of the situation, the reality of being unemployed had begun to sink in. Whatever news Ethan—Mr. Tipton—wanted to impart, she still had a desk to clear out before the end of the day.
“I take it you didn’t like working for Mitch?”
Was this a test? Wasn’t there something about criticizing one’s boss to… well, another boss? “Not really, no. He tried to be nice, but it was…” She waved her hand in a circle as if she had the ability to pluck the right word out of the air.
“An appalling act?” Ethan supplied.
“Exactly.” Her sigh of relief carried a nervous laugh beneath it.
“What about me?” He pushed his hands into his pockets. He wasn’t wearing his jacket from earlier, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to a few inches below his elbows.
Rebecca tore her gaze away from his arms and looked at his face. “I’m sorry?”
“What about me?” he asked again. “As your boss. How would you feel about working for me?”
Too many questions pinged around inside her head. She glanced at the door and waited for someone to leap in and exclaim that this was all some kind of bizarre practical joke. Instead, she shook her head, looked back at Ethan, and asked, “Why me?”
“This morning, we were both mugged.” He took a step towards her. “You could have left me there, gone on your way without a glance in my direction. But even though you were already running late, your job obviously on the line, you made sure I was all right, even gave me the last of the money in your wallet in case I needed it.” He pulled his right hand out of his jeans pocket. Between his fingers, he held the small wad of cash she’d given to him only hours before. “You didn’t infect me with your bad luck. Far from it, I think.”
She took the money back from him. It was still warm from his pocket. She tucked it into her skirt and kept her hand around it, her fingers squeezing out the tension running through her.
“I’m an accountant,” she said after a moment. “Do you need an accountant?”
His smile grew, teeth and dimples and the shadow of a cleft in his chin making an appearance. “I need a good person,” he told her, brown eyes glinting. “From what I’ve heard, they make good employees.”
Behind them, a buzz of sound began and picked up in volume. “Lunch break must be over,” Rebecca said, just as someone walked past the door on the way back to their desk. “Wait.” She looked away from the doorway and back to Ethan. “Am I still fired?”
At that, he laughed out loud. “Consider yourself rehired, if you like. That is, if you accept.”
She thought back to how the day had started, with everything going wrong at once. At the time, she’d thought the universe had been conspiring against her. But for once, perhaps it had been directing her towards something better.
Well, something better with a side of flooded kitchen and stolen phone. Though at this point, she figured she should focus on the good things.
“I accept,” she said, and blew out a breath she hadn’t been aware of holding. “So… when do I start?”