Well here we are. The writing bug is back, and feeling good. Each piece seems to feel more natural much better.
I don't plan these in any way. I generally start with a central idea, given to me by the theme, usually a twisted idea. Thought process for this one went 'Stars in the sky, stars on TV, stars sewn onto something as badges or embroidered (like Soviet stars), been looking at tattoos today, ooh, tattooed stars.' The whole story went from there.
Probably the first time a character in a story has surprised me by revealing something about themselves right at the end.
034 – Stars
I think really it was the stars that did it. Those five little tattoos on her wrist, delicate, understated, totally Helen. She nearly always wore a long-sleeved shirt, not that she had any choice; Management were pretty stern about the dress code. I guess you don’t get to be a big international corporation if you let your employees come in wearing Hawaiian shirts and pyjamas.
So, like the rest of us, it was the dress code for her. Black trousers or skirt, white long-sleeved shirt even on the hottest of days, that long blonde hair tied back into a sensible ponytail and only the subtlest traces of makeup. I liked to buck the trend slightly. I had socks with the days of the week on them, and I wore them out of sequence. Sometimes, amazing myself with how daring it felt, I wore mismatched days under my black leather shoes.
Our cubicles were grey. Our computers were grey. The carpet was brown, but, let’s face it, brown’s down there with grey. It lead, in turn, to grey personalities:
“Hey, did you watch the game last night?”
“Yeah, it was so awesome. You?”
And that would be it. Day after day, like some sort of unspoken script that had been circulated via internal memo.
One day, the rainbow wandered in. Helen was introduced to us in the morning meeting by Management, the ever-changing faceless ones.
“This is Helen Reeve. She’s transferred from Chicago, and I’m sure you’ll make her feel welcome here.”
“Hello, Helen,” we chorused, and she smiled and blushed and nodded her thanks.
Later that same day, she must have been wandering past my cubicle at just the right time. Either that or she had deliberately waited for her moment; to this day, I’m not sure. Either way, the computer was spitting out its usual error messages, grey boxes against the grey wallpaper: “Fatal exception 221b” or “Jung Inhibitor Installation Error” or my particular favourite, “Reality Engine Failure”. I have no idea how to remove those messages, but suddenly I became aware I wasn’t alone. A faint, distinctly feminine, scent reached me, some sort of fruity shampoo perhaps; she cleared her throat and I turned around to find Helen, her mouth twisting indecisively.
“Helen, isn’t it?” I said, suddenly aware that she was quite pretty really.
She nodded and moved the folder she was carrying so that she appeared to be hugging it. “That’s me.” Her accent was soft, almost fluffy.
“What’s up, Helen?”
“Did you know that you can clear that error message by ticking this box...” she began, then took a step closer and leant down. Her hair was suddenly very close, the fruity smell tantalising, and as she pointed at the screen I saw the stars. They were blue, normally covered by the thicker fabric of the shirt cuff. I wondered if there were more. Did they go right up her arm? Did she have any others? Suddenly, words didn’t want to come.
“…this box here, and if you tick this one, the other error messages will go away. Ok?”
She stood up straight and I suddenly remembered that I needed to act vaguely like a human being, despite the short-circuit in my mind.
“Er, thanks,” I said, then cast about for something to say. Compliment her clothes? They were compulsory, and she’s just fixed your computer, so it’s not really appropriate. Her hair? Not really appropriate. In fact, compliments were out in general. The window of opportunity was closing as she smiled just a little too long and rocked on her heels, still hugging the folder.
“How are you enjoying your time here?” I managed.
“It’s lovely, thanks. The people here are really great!”
“Yes, they are.” More awkward silence. Then she said “I’m new to the area as well.”
“Oh. Oh! I‘ve lived around here for, ooh, ten years now. I know this place like the back of my hand!” We were on more familiar territory now. Any minute now she’d ask me if I’d seen the game last night.
Instead, she frowned. “It’s a bit strange. I don’t really know where anything is yet.”
“Would you like me to show you a great place to have coffee after work?” The words were out of my mouth before I could even stop them, but the smile she gave me then was worth any amount of discomfort. It lit the room up, gave colour to the greyness and, more than anything, gave me hope.
“Sure, that would be awesome!”
“Well, meet me out the front at six, ok?”
“Ok. It’s a date!” and off she went.
A date, she’d said. Did she mean it in that American way, where you make a dinner-date or a play-date and it’s just a meeting? Or a date-date? I’d never really been much for date-dates; Sarah McConnell had dealt with that in my late teens. One of the nastiest break-ups imaginable, crockery broken, cars vandalised, things sold, bridges forever sundered, burned and the ashes scattered in the river.
The rest of the day seemed to go at once quickly and slowly. Would she be waiting there for me, those five stars glowing on her wrist, or would she forget? More than that, was she even interested in me? Would I pass muster? Even the grey conversations that seemed to go on interminably just outside my cubicle seemed more interesting now.
“You watch the game last night?”
“Yeah, it was cool. You?”
“Nah, I missed it. New baby, y’know.”
A little more interesting, at least. Finally, it was time. My desktop seemed strangely empty without the error messages, and it shut down about twice as fast. Was that what life would be like with her? Free of clutter and twice as fast? My mind raced all the way to the lift, all the way down as the people around me all stood in their own personal bubbles, ignoring me and everyone else. Already mentally disconnected from work they walked to the front door and out into the car park en mass, and there she was.
She was waiting next to the security desk, and when she saw me she smiled. The sun came out, and I found myself smiling back in response.
“Shall we go, then?” she said, and brought her hand up to her hair. With one pull she removed the hair-tie and suddenly the long hair, like spun gold, was drifting down around her shoulders, bright against the material of her suit jacket. I smiled in return, smoothed down my skirt and followed her out into the twilit evening.
There were fifteen stars on her body in total, five on each arm, two on each foot, but I’m not telling you where the last one was.