The Atrium

Tuesday, 14 March, 2017 — Ann Arbor, Michigan

“Coming in early on your first day!” Nuriel smiles at Chris as he steps inside. “I have your badge here, but I’m afraid nobody else is back there yet. Can you find your way?”

“Sure, thanks,” Chris says, clipping the badge to his belt like he saw all the others doing yesterday during his interview.

“I’m afraid I forgot to introduce myself yesterday,” the receptionist says, still smiling and rising out of her seat. “My name is Nora.”

“Hello,” Chris says, and takes her offered hand. Nora is an older woman, maybe a little past forty, but seems quite fit, like someone who might play tennis or something. Does she seem a little bit more alert than you would expect a receptionist to be? As if she, too is wondering whether something might happen as Chris walks through the door. No, Chris decides, he’s imagining it, probably due to a little nervousness at starting his first day on the job.

“Should I go visit Mr Williams first?” he asks. The desk that the woman sits behind is enormous, like a big curving bulwark a few yards in from the door.

“I’m afraid the officers will be in a meeting most of today,” Nora tells him. “It’s probably best if you just start getting settled in. I’m sure he’ll come and visit as soon as he can. We’re very excited to have you, Chris!”

Thanking her, Chris walks left past the big desk and toward the research engineer’s bullpen, plans already articulating themselves in his mind. He wants to get online as soon as possible of course, but will probably have to wait for someone to create an account. Once he’s able to log in he will want to be looking at aspects of the business that might surprise his coworkers, so as soon as practical he will get the ability to log in from his apartment and thus able to explore at will without leaving detectable traces. He is just approaching the entrance to the hallway that leads to the northern half of the building when a subtle change in the air derails his plans and stops him between one step and the next. At first he doesn’t understand why he has stopped, then he listens for a moment, hears the gentle sound of water flowing that has arrested his attention.

Turning to his right, he walks toward the scent and flowing sounds. As the building’s tall atrium opens out around him, it feels like remembering something from a million years ago.

The air in this place carries scents from when the world was younger and more innocent.

Chris looks at the delicate trees that reach up to the glass ceiling of the atrium. He looks down at the base of the large planters that make up half the area of the room, and sees brilliant and exotic flowers. Flowers from every region and era. He walks slowly, feeling himself halfway into some kind of dream world, and moves toward the room’s big glass back wall thinking strange thoughts.

This is what it was meant to be. Why did I think it would be small?

Chris often has thoughts that feel as though they are intruding into his mind. He assumes that everyone does. But the thoughts that are coming to him now seem different. They seem more like his own.

~

Kate hurries out of her office, carrying the morning’s catch of snail-mail. It’s amazing to her that people still send paper through the US Mail, which has enjoyed a government-enforced monopoly on first-class post since Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth. That is assuming that ‘enjoy’ is the right word for a place that loses a zillion dollars a year so that it can deliver garbage in envelopes to people who throw it all away without glancing at it. It’s the American Way!

Kate proceeds with quick steps down the wide carpeted hallway that leads from her part of the building—with her lovely corner office—to the center of the building where she can take the stairs up to the third floor and Haniel’s office. She’s thinking that after delivering the mail she will be able to get to the invoices and after that get started on the Q1 timesheet summaries.

The wide hallway empties onto the north end of the atrium, which Kate always loves to walk through. Her usual route is to pass between the Big Tree Planter and Nora’s reception desk—she always says hello to Nora whom she absolutely adores. Kate sincerely wishes that if she ever gets to be Nora’s age she will be able to achieve half of Nora’s graciousness and elegance. That is not what she expects, however. What Kate expects is that by the time she is thirty she will be a broken-down old hag living in a cardboard box under an overpass where she will chew tobacco, cackle at the hurrying passers-by, drink poisonous hobo wine that comes in bottles with screw-off caps, and trap innocent pigeons for her meager sustenance, devouring them raw and spitting out the feathers through the gaps in her teeth.

Sigh.

Anyway, after passing Nora’s desk her usual route takes her over to the broad, open stairway and up to see Haniel.

But this time there is an interruption in her usual route. This time as Kate walks across the atrium, her heels clicking on stone tiles, she detects movement from the corner of her eye. Nobody is ever in the atrium this early but some guy she doesn’t know is standing over there now, looking out the big window-wall into the garden. Hearing her loud footsteps above the gentle sound of the waterfall, he turns to look just as Kate is stopping herself, realizing that this must be the New Guy, Chris Walker, whose paperwork she has to do today. Their eyes meet, time slows, and Kate’s heartbeat synchronizes with the rotation of the cosmos.

There is a thought that takes no time, and that Kate cannot remember in the instant after it passes.

I have always known you and I will always know you. We separate timelessly only to meet again. You have called me back out of the dark places, and if you fall into deep water I will dive even into the abyss to pull you forth. I am your help and you are mine and we walk together endlessly on the infinite paths of existence.

Kate blinks. What she actually remembers afterward is thinking Holy crap! That’s the most beautiful guy I have ever seen.

The young man takes a hesitant step forward.

“Hi,” he says, “my name’s Chris.”

He walks forward to shake hands. Kate blinks, juggles the stack of mail so she can get her right hand free, takes a deep breath, and persuades her heart to resume its beating. As he approaches, Kate realizes that she is idiotically staring directly into his brilliant blue eyes and, worse, that she can’t stop, and doesn’t really want to stop. Then their hands touch and lightning bolts leap from their fingertips, arcing to every corner of the room, raising a glowing nimbus on every tree and wall and they both levitate while music plays.

Actually, the lightning stuff doesn’t really quite happen but Kate certainly feels as though it ought to. Kate! she thinks. Pull yourself together! This is not the first time in your life that you have seen a decent-looking young man!

“What’s your name?” Chris asks after a long moment.

“Oh! My name? It’s Kate! I think it’s Kate. If I recall correctly.” Oh God, you are such an idiot!

The beautiful Chris looks far too serious to allow many smiles to cross his perfect countenance, but Kate’s idiocy manages to elicit one. Excellent! He’s going to remember me like a circus clown. Maybe I should go into stand-up comedy. Or more like fall-down comedy, since I practically fainted for no reason at all yesterday, and now I’m about to swoon at a young man’s feet. Maybe after I lose my job I can go pitch a tent in Gandy Town and start a juggling and pratfalls act. Oh and by the way, Einstein, you’re still holding his hand!

Kate spastically lets go of the new guy’s hand and grins like an idiot. I, Kate thinks, am seriously messed up. For just one instant, gone before it had time to really register on her consciousness, as she was looking into Chris’s face his eyes seemed as blue and shiningly brilliant as the clear sky on a warm summer’s day.

Lowering her hand and smiling up into the young man’s countenance, Kate collects herself. What the hell? she thinks. I do not swoon for guys and even if I did, it wouldn’t be for this guy! Chris is only a couple inches taller than she is. He’s healthy-looking, but nobody’s idea of an Olympian. His face looks perhaps just a bit too sharp-featured, like he could stand to put on a few pounds, but his features are pleasantly regular.

You’re still staring at him you idiot!

“You must be the New Guy,” some automated and remarkably dim-witted part of Kate’s brain manages to say. “Chris.”

“Yes.” His smile widens. “Chris.”

Kate realizes that there is no escape. The lightning a moment ago has welded her feet to the floor. And fried all her speech-circuits, apparently. Hey! How about trying something like Well! Remarkably March-like weather we’re having lately, isn’t it?

“Is there a desk picked out for me yet?” Chris asks. “Could you show me where it is?”

Saved!

“You bet!” Kate says, and gives the New Guy her very best relatively normal smile.

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