by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Ned was standing at the lunchroom counter trying to decide what would be worse, drinking a cup of tea with not enough soymilk in it or the hassle of going out in the cold to get more, when someone came into the room. Maxwell, a random part of his attention informed him; at the morning’s committee meeting all of Maxwell’s shirt buttons had bloomed into roses, and their perfume still wafted around him in a cloud.
The carton in Ned’s hand abruptly gained 1.89 liters of soymilk’s worth of weight. He nearly dropped it.
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry.” Ned turned. Maxwell made a placating gesture. Glitter arced gracefully from his fingertips and drifted to the floor. “Sorry.”
“For crying out loud, Maxwell, you’re ill. Go home.” Sandra made a wide detour around him on her way to the coffee maker.
“I’m fine,” Maxwell said, as the decades-old plastic clock above the door grew a face and made a lewd gesture at him with its tongue.
“Whatever, then just stay away from me. The last time I had the virus, half of my apartment grew wings and trashed the other half trying to get out.” Cup filled, she tore open two packets of sugar and three of powdered creamer in one go and dumped them all into her mug, then retraced her steps out the door.
“I’m hardly going to use up my sick days for this,” Maxwell muttered, barely loud enough for Ned to hear. He walked over to the coffee maker and looked dubiously at the toasted-smelling liquid in the bottom of the carafe.
“Ignore her. At least this manifestation’s kind of useful?” Ned offered, sloshing the carton.
“You…probably don’t want to drink that. It might or might not be contagious.”
“It’s fine. I never get the virus. I’m just not very susceptible, I guess.”
“Also, I can’t guarantee that it’s actually soymilk.”
They both looked at the carton warily. Ned dropped it into the garbage can without further comment.
“I’m sorry,” Maxwell said again. “I, uh, I think I need to go across the road and get some real coffee. If you want–” He cleared his throat. “Can I get you a replacement drink? Tea, or something?”
“You don’t have to. There wasn’t much left.” Ned took a sip of his milkless tea, grimaced at the tannin, and dumped it into the sink. “Though you know what, after that meeting, I could do with some fresh air.”
The only place within walking distance, out here at the edge of sprawling nowhere, was the strip mall on the corner, consisting of a chain Mexican place, a chain Japanese place, a convenience store the size of a walk-in closet, and two chain coffee shops, which Ned had always thought was violating some honour code, or possibly Canadian law.
The sidewalk was messy with slush and gritty with salt. As they walked, to fill the silence, Ned offered a little ritualistic complaining about the committee they’d both been drafted into, an ad hoc interdepartmental efficiency task force or, as Ned thought of it, the Joint Initiative to Waste Everybody’s Time. Maxwell responded noncommittally and turned the conversation to the weather. Being diplomatic, Ned thought. He supposed it was a desirable quality in an executive assistant. Maxwell didn’t say much in the meetings either, but he took copious notes on graph paper in small, precise handwriting.
Ned followed Maxwell into the fancier of the coffee shops. It was the brief lull between morning break and lunchtime, and two of the armchairs sat empty. Maxwell took off his long woollen coat and draped it over the back of one of them. “What will you have?”
Ned protested weakly, for form’s sake, before he gave in and shamelessly ordered a chocolate hazelnut soy tea latte. He sat down, and Maxwell went up to the counter, to return a few minutes later with two steaming mugs.
“Thanks again,” Ned said. “I owe you one.” He picked up his mug and blew on the tan froth on the top, then put it down again to cool a little. Maxwell took a sip of his. As he lowered it, the coffee dribbled over the rim and dripped down his front. He made a sound of pained exasperation and dabbed at his shirt with a paper napkin. Fortunately, most of the coffee had landed on one of the red roses. By now they were slightly wilted, but Ned thought they added a dashing touch to Maxwell’s tweedily old-fashioned brown suit. Maxwell must have mopped too vigorously, because the rose plopped to the table, leaving behind a gap that gave Ned an illicit glimpse of pristine white T-shirt.
“Are you sure you shouldn’t be at home?” Ned asked. The virus could really wipe people’s energy out, or so he’d heard.
“I’m used to it.” Maxwell folded the napkin he’d used into a tidy square and set the rose in its centre. “I have the chronic version, so it’s no worse than mild allergies, and it’s not contagious through casual contact. I have flare-ups, but this one isn’t bad as–“
He broke off, horror crossing his face as he stared down at the table. Ned braced himself and looked down, expecting spiders or nudity or some other magical non sequitur.
The steam from their cups had solidified and twined together like vines, forming a wispy but readable cursive banner that read, You’re hot.
“Oh, no. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Maxwell dashed his hand through the steam, which burst into pinpricks of fire and dissipated.
“Look, don’t worry about it,” Ned said. “It’s not your fault.”
Maxwell was scarlet. “I’m not trying to sexually harass you, I promise–“
“It’s fine. It’s not a big deal.” Ned hooked a finger through the handle of his mug. It was probably still a chocolate hazelnut soy tea latte. “Seriously. I read that manifestations don’t always reflect–“
Maxwell stood up abruptly, bumping the table. Ned snatched his hand away just before hot liquid slopped out of his own mug. “Oh, god. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay, you didn’t get–“
“I’m going to go.” Maxwell scooped his coat up. “I’m sorry again about your soymilk.”
“You don’t have to–“
But Maxwell was gone, not even stopping to put his coat on before he went outside. When he reached the parking lot he shook it out and stuck his arms into it as he walked, slipping a little in the slush. He thrust his hands into his pockets and hunched as though the dull January thaw was much colder than it was, and Ned watched him with a nagging sense of anticlimax until the snow fence blocked him from view.
Because he might as well, Ned finished his drink. Inspired by the sugar rush, he considered getting a takeout cup and bringing Maxwell’s back to the office for him, before he decided that that would be weird and the coffee would be cold anyway, and realized that he didn’t even know where Maxwell’s desk was.
He puttered desultorily through the rest of the day and left the office in the dark, in time to just miss the five-fifteen-ish bus and stand around for forever watching his co-workers drive out of the parking lot and feeling his body temperature attempt to reach equilibrium with the winter air. The commute wasn’t all that bad–a straight line past rubber-stamp clusters of office parks, strip malls and condo buildings–as long as the weather was dry and the traffic was light and the TTC hadn’t melted down, which was basically never. Most of the time Ned just put on some music and zoned out, trying to use the interstitial forty minutes to transition from work brain to creative brain, but the first two months of the year were enough to make him reconsider all his resolve to live lightly, and just buy a damn car.
Tonight it was almost an hour by the time he closed his apartment door behind him. He changed into sweats–which were, okay, right next door to wearing pyjamas all the time, but these were randomly crusted with dried glue and paint spatters, so they counted as work clothes–and heated up a frozen meal in the microwave. While he ate, he checked on social media. The next time he looked at the time on his tablet, it was quarter to eight.
He glanced guiltily at the work table he’d set up by the window. He wasn’t really feeling it yet. That was no excuse, but… an episode of the latest series he was streaming was only twenty minutes. It wouldn’t take too long. Just to get him in the mood.
At twenty after nine, FaceTime chirped at him. Guiltily, Ned paused the program he was watching and accepted the call.
“Wake up, it’s your weekly accountability call!” Agustin was in his kitchen, sleeves of his grey sweater pushed up over dark forearms, a heap of colourful vegetables out of focus in the foreground. “You got time?”
“Yeah.” Ned sat up on his couch and readjusted the pillow behind his head. “How’ve you been?”
Agustin made a flourish at the screen with the point of a very large knife. “Three hundred and twenty-seven fucking words this morning.”
“That’s great.” Agustin was one of those obnoxious people who could actually get up extra early and accomplish something other than slouching resentfully into the shower.
“Yeah, it is.”
“Do you need to talk anything through?”
“Not right now. I’ve got the next few scenes planned and lined up in my head.” Agustin eviscerated a red pepper with a decisive twist. “You?”
Ned made an indeterminate noise and looked away from the screen.
“Ned.” Agustin looked stern the way only a grade school teacher could. “You’re only cheating yourself.”
“Yeah, I know, I know. I meant to. It’s just, I worked all day and it’s dark out and…blah, it’s like pulling teeth, you know?”
“‘The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on,'” Agustin intoned.
“Uh, Albert Einstein?”
“Right. Okay. But what if the water’s just hot and cold running garbage?” He picked at a blob of dried paint on his sleeve. “I worked for a few hours on the weekend and… god, I was bored the entire time. I feel like don’t know what I’m trying to say anymore, or if I even have anything to say. Maybe the world doesn’t need another third-rate artist trying to enlighten the masses through hot gluing shit to other shit. Maybe I’m contributing more to the world by just watching TV.”
A hiss burst from his tablet as Agustin dropped sliced peppers and cabbage into a saute pan. “Back up a little, there. Who are you making art for: the masses, or yourself?”
Ned groaned. “Myself. I guess.”
“Okay, then.” Another hiss, followed by billowing steam. “You’re just in a fallow period.”
Fallow sounded much more encouragingly artistic than lazy. “You think?”
“Ned, this is what you do. You lie around moaning about how uninspired you are and then one day you’re suddenly on fire about something new. Remember the summer of yarn bombing?”
Ned smiled. “Yeah. That was fun.”
“So, you’ll find something new that’s fun. Either that or, you know, you’re done. That’s fine, too. The universe doesn’t care.”
“Uh, wow, that pep talk took a dark turn.”
The picture on his tablet went out of focus as another man ducked into the frame to give Agustin a kiss.
“Hey, Li.” A trio of neon-winged butterflies alit on the cutting board and began dancing a chorus line high-kick. “Oh, no, are you sick?”
“Just getting over it. It’s been bad this year.”
“Yeah, it’s been going around my office too.”
“Dinner’ll be in ten. You have time for a shower, if you make it fast,” Agustin said.
“Awesome. Take care, Ned.” Li disappeared. Ned sighed, recalling the microwaved dinner he’d eaten in grubby solitude.
Agustin shooed the butterflies gently away and poured sauce from a bowl into the pan. “Aside from all that, is anything new?”
“Not much. Oh, possibly this guy at work thinks I’m hot.”
“Yeah? Is the feeling mutual?”
Ned thought about Maxwell’s formal manner and faint, charming blush when asking Ned out for coffee. “He’s not unhot? He doesn’t talk a lot, but he seems pretty on the ball when he does. He dresses kind of old-fashioned. I don’t know him very well. Anyway, I should let you go,” he ended quickly, forestalling the things he knew Agustin was about to say about Ned’s type and artistic inspiration and being open to new opportunities, i.e. getting laid. “Good luck with the writing.”
“Thanks. Talk to you next week.”
Ned shut the app and started his show up again, but after a few minutes he realized he wasn’t paying attention and turned it off. His apartment was so quiet that he could hear the wind’s dull rush along the windows. He crossed his arms, chilled by the sound. According to the weather forecast, the January thaw was over and by tomorrow all the slush would be frozen solid into treacherous, misshapen terrain. Not for the first time, he wondered whether he should take Agustin up on his standing offer of a spare bedroom for a few weeks out on the west coast. It wasn’t exactly tropical, but at least in Victoria the weather wouldn’t be actively trying to kill him.
The next few weeks were routine. Ned put in his hours, rode the bus with varying degrees of stoicism, watched too much TV, and made art so uninspired that he could barely look at it even while he was working on it.
One day, he was idly colour-coding a spreadsheet and waiting for lunchtime when Maxwell said behind him, “Hi, Ned. Do you have a minute?”
Ned twirled his chair to face him. Maxwell was in a darker brown today, with a tie tucked into a Fair Isle sweater vest knitted in complicated pastels. His expression was determinedly professional in a the-coffee-shop-never-happened kind of way.
“Sure. What’s up?”
“Do you recall how in the corporate efficiency meeting, Chanthavy thought the EAs should learn how to run the website statistics reports?”
Because upper managers thought “efficiency” meant “everybody should know how to do everything,” apparently. “Yeah.”
“She still thinks that. Would you have some time over the next few days to give me an orientation?”
“Probably. Let me check.” He turned back to the screen and pulled up his calendar.
“You’ve got a block of time free this afternoon,” Maxwell said, promptly enough that Ned suspected he’d already done an availability check through the system.
“Yeah, after my meeting. Say, three o’clock? Your cubicle or mine? It’s probably quieter here than where you are.” Between illness, vacations in sunnier climes, and people working from home, his corner of the building had been pretty dead lately.
“I don’t have access to the software yet.”
“My cubicle it is.” Ned gestured as if welcoming Maxwell into his square metre of real estate.
“Thank you. I’ll see you then.”
His afternoon meeting was run by someone who approached project management as though it were a group therapy session. Afterwards, Ned had just enough time for a bathroom break and the walk back to his desk–where he found that Ewan had already emailed him with a question about something he’d forgotten to put on the agenda–when Maxwell arrived.
“Hi! Just give me a minute to log in. Uh, grab a chair. Jing Jing’s away, you can borrow hers.” Ned waved towards the facing cubicle. Maxwell rolled the chair over and sat behind Ned as he maneuvered to the software’s dash. “Did Chanthavy say what reports she wanted you to be able to run?”
“Nothing in particular. Which ones do you find the most useful?”
Ned clicked over to his personal list of canned reports. “The software can give you all kinds of numbers, but they’re mostly useless except for distracting upper management. I’ve customized–“
A new email notification popped up. Ewan again. Ned internally rolled his eyes and closed his email entirely. “I can share these reports with you once you’ve got access permission. Here’s the stuff they usually want for the annual report…”
When Maxwell wasn’t distracted and embarrassed, Ned soon learned, he had a focus like a sharpened pencil. He noticed things. He remembered things. He summarized when the system worked the way he expected it to, and asked questions when it didn’t. They got beyond the basics very quickly. As Maxwell reached over to take control of the mouse and tap out a command with one finger, Ned became aware–not uncoincidentally–that his opinion of Maxwell had advanced a good ways beyond “not unhot.”
Maxwell had looked so mortified in the coffee shop that Ned should probably just keep that to himself. Anyway, he’d decided to take a break from all that, he reminded himself sternly. He only had so much energy, and right now, he was putting it into his art.
Shortly after Maxwell successfully wrote and ran a short custom report–causing a short squall of confetti to burst from the ceiling–a firm step came down the corridor, muting when it hit the carpet where the cubicles stood. “Is someone still here? Oh, hi, Ned, Maxwell. I didn’t realize you hadn’t gone yet. You must be the only ones left in the building.”
Ned glanced at the time. It was just before five.
“Hello, Shamalia. Why? Where’s everyone gone? Has something happened?” Maxwell asked, standing.
The security guard hitched her belt up. “Didn’t you see the email? When’s the last time you looked out the window?”
Ned opened his email and took in the message that had been cascaded down from the CEO’s EA an hour and a half ago. “Oh, come on. We seriously missed a snow day?”
“I’m just making sure everything’s secure for the night, and then I’m leaving, myself.” Neon highlights flashed briefly along the braids wrapped around her head. “Bundle up; it’s getting nasty out there.”
“Drive safely,” Maxwell said, as Shamalia headed off down the corridor again. “Thank you for the tutorial, Ned.”
“No problem. Let me know if you run into any issues.”
“I will. Have a safe trip home.”
“Yeah, you too.”
Before he logged out, Ned went online to check the service alerts page for the TTC. Chaos reigned, evidently, but at least his bus route was still running. Then he made the mistake of looking at the subject lines of the emails that Evan had sent, and outraged curiosity dragged him into reading them and privately ranting at them a little before he shut everything down. Between that and packing up his stuff and getting his array of scribbled scrap paper notes put away, it was fifteen minutes or more before he finally reached the front lobby.
Maxwell was standing there, coat on, leather briefcase at his feet. His face was ruddy in the glow of the luminous crimson chain that was draped from one side of the doors to the other, dipping and rising between invisible stanchions just inside the glass.
“What is it?” Ned reached out a hand. The chain’s high-gloss candy-apple sheen made his mouth water.
“Don’t touch it,” Maxwell said, as a cinnamon-hot tingle warmed Ned’s fingertips, and he jerked them away again.
Ned looked around. The security desk was vacant. “Does Shamalia know about this?”
“My guess is that she was the one who did it–not on purpose. It probably manifested just after she left. I hope she gets home without any problems. She must be feeling wretched.”
Ned recalled the multi-coloured luminescence of her hair. “Well, crap.” He went behind the security desk. The screens were black, the desktop bare. “Stupid Clean Desk Policy.” He tried the drawers, which were locked. “Shouldn’t there be a list of emergency numbers or something?”
“Before we do anything else, let’s check the other exits.”
It took them ten minutes to do a perimeter walk of the building. Maxwell led them past every side door, every emergency exit, even the loading dock, where the chain twined from the low bay up the concrete stairs like a string of patio lights. The only doors not blocked were the ones to the central courtyard, a landscape of indistinct icy lumps surrounded by the building on all sides.
“Do any of the windows open?” Ned asked, as they walked past dimmed cubicles and a humming printer someone had forgotten to turn off.
“Not wide enough for us to get out.”
Back at the main entrance, Ned went behind the security desk again to stare futilely at the lack of helpful instructions. “Okay. Can we crawl under it?”
“I don’t think so. I tried to reach over it to push one of the doors open and it was like putting my hand into a furnace.”
Ned was getting warm in his jacket and toque. He peeled them off and dumped them onto one of the lobby benches. “The place is remotely monitored at night, right? You’re an EA, don’t you have secret EA knowledge? Is there someone we could call?”
Maxwell copied Ned, slipping off his long coat, draping it over the bench, and placing his brimmed hat neatly on top of it. “I do have some emergency numbers.”
“But?” Ned said, when Maxwell didn’t continue.
Maxwell looked reluctant. “I’m not saying I don’t want to go home, but–should we really call someone out in that?”
They looked past the chain to the swirling white outside. The parking lot was imperceptible; the spotlights that lined the front walkway were barely lighter spots in the blizzard. The wind flung pellets of ice against the glass.
“What could anyone do, in any case?” Maxwell went on. “The only antidote is time.”
The confetti that had festooned them both earlier in the afternoon had evaporated by the time Ned had turned his computer off, but he’d read accounts of manifestations that had lasted for days. “How long do you figure it’s going to last?”
Maxwell sighed. “Shamalia did say she was securing everything for the night.”
Ned thumped down onto the bench on top of his jacket. “So you’re suggesting that we spend all night here.”
“I don’t think we have much of a choice.”
Ned looked around the sterile lobby and sighed. “No, you’re right.” He unzipped his bag and peered into it. “What are we going to do for dinner? I might have a granola bar…” He pulled out a torn wrapper into which a wad of linty oatmeal was glued. “Or not. I’m pretty sure Jing Jing has a stash of cookies. We’ll have to forage.”
“I might be able to come up with something. Shall we meet back at my desk? I’m just past the large supply room on the west side.”
Jing Jing must have cleaned out her desk before going on vacation, and Paul’s, beside it, offered nothing but two small cellophane packets of ghost-shaped gummies left over from Halloween. Ned advanced to the lunchroom with higher hopes. Surely every office had a decade-old package of ramen at the back of a cupboard? He managed to find half a bag of no-name pretzels, vintage unknown. The lunchroom fridge was full of things in unmarked containers that Ned was afraid to touch, but it yielded an apple, and he had his own soymilk and teabags.
He wasn’t hungry enough to raid the desks of people he didn’t know well–though it might come to that, he acknowledged–so with a nostalgic thought for the days of office vending machines, he made his way to executive territory, where the carpets were thicker and the walls a less institutional hue.
“I didn’t find much,” he said, holding up his scant loot.
Maxwell was standing at his desk with a grocery bag in hand. “I think we’ll be all right.”
“Where do you want to eat, the lunchroom? I wouldn’t mind a cup of tea.”
Maxwell gave him a small smile. “I have secret EA knowledge. Follow me.”
Ned trailed him into a cross-corridor and through one of a pair of wooden double doors. He stopped short and smacked his hand over his heart. “What is this place?” he asked, with exaggerated wonder.
The broad table took up the far end of the room, sturdy blond wood ringed by the kind of ergonomic chairs that looked like they’d been ported in from the future. A large screen occupied the far wall. Two long leather couches made an L by the door, beside a low credenza sporting a coffee machine that might have tagged along with the chairs.
“It’s the executive boardroom,” Maxwell said, taking things out of his grocery bag and setting them out on a spare patch on the credenza.
Ned watched as half a dozen bagels, a tub of cream cheese, another of hummus, a bag of baby carrots, and a clamshell of chocolate chip cookies emerged. “Did you just slip out to the store?”
“The loading dock staff have quite a pantry. I’ll replace this tomorrow; I left them a note.”
“Thank you for being awesome, loading dock staff.” Ned accepted the styrofoam plate and plastic knife that Maxwell offered him. “Now, does this machine make hot water, or just launch things into space?”
Tea and coffee made and meals assembled, they settled at the table. “Is there a TV show you like?” Maxwell asked.
“Let’s see. I like the kind of competition show where they make things rather than fight about things. And I’m halfway through that series about the convenience store…” Ned trailed off, a little surprised, when Maxwell began fiddling with his phone, which was lying on the table. Was his conversation that boring, two sentences in? And Maxwell didn’t strike him as a melded-with-his-phone type.
Then the screen at the front of the room lit up, and the title cards of movies started to scroll past. Actually, they were doing triple backflips and pirouettes that Ned had never seen on his own screen, but that was probably just Maxwell’s influence. “The executives have Netflix?”
“I have Netflix. The executives have wifi.” Maxwell tapped, and a picture of two smiling people in overalls filled the screen. “Have you seen this one? This couple designs fruit and vegetable gardens. I find it relaxing to watch.”
They played a couple episodes of that, and then a couple of the convenience store one, which Maxwell had never seen. Maxwell dimmed the lights, and they moved to stretch out on the couches and eat chocolate chip cookies and stale pretzels. It was like having a private theatre. It was also, Ned felt, slightly off-key, a weird melding of non-workplace norms and workplace setting, or like a date as envisioned by someone who had read an anthropological review of dates but never seen one happening in the wild. Maxwell seemed intent on the shows, and didn’t say much. Ned wondered whether he was still embarrassed.
When the credits were rolling on the last episode, Ned excused himself to stretch his legs and went out into the office space. It was only nine o’clock, but it felt much later. Most of the lights had been turned off, creating a shadowy landscape of barriers and hiding spaces. The windows across the room were milkily opaque from the storm. Ned resolutely turned his thoughts away from any horror movie he’d ever seen in his life.
Oddly, now that he was in a situation where he could do nothing but watch comforting TV and not feel guilty about it, he was restless. He walked a circuit of the corridors, but the grey-toned emptiness creeped him out, and he headed back to the boardroom.
When he passed Maxwell’s cubicle, he stopped on impulse. It was predictably tidy, everything locked away for the night as per corporate protocol except for pens and other office miscellanea on a tray pushed to one corner of the desk. Ned was amused to see that reserved Maxwell favoured neon post-its and multicoloured pushpins.
His fingers itched for something to do, and the juxtaposition of colours, even in the dim light, sparked the let’s-mess-around-with-this-and-see-what-happens part of his brain. He filled his hands with office supplies.
Darkness fell on him as if someone had thrown a blanket over his head. There was a descending hum, and then silence, as office machinery he hadn’t known he was hearing went dead. A cold shiver arpeggioed up his spine.
“Maxwell?” he said, squeaking a little.
“This way.” A beam from a phone washed from the side corridor. “Don’t worry, the backup generator will come on in a second.”
Ned gained the boardroom and set everything he was carrying down on the table. Maxwell was looking up at the unlit ceiling and frowning. “Why isn’t the backup generator coming on?”
Ned checked the battery on his phone. Thirty-two percent, which wasn’t a crisis yet, but the flashlight app used up juice at an alarming rate.
“The Health and Safety Committee is going to hear about this,” Maxwell muttered. “I’ll be right back.”
Ned’s battery was down to twenty-eight percent when Maxwell returned, carrying a tray of lit candles in small glass jars.
“Admit it, you have a hidden portal to the mall and this is all some big conceptual art reality show,” Ned said.
Maxwell set the tray down. He placed two candles on the credenza and another two on the end table between the couches, leaving the rest to make a golden pool on the boardroom table. “Every year there’s a popular vendor gift. This year it was candles.” The room was already becoming vaguely Christmas-scented, a low level of pine and spice. He sat down. “Are those my post-its?”
“Yeah. Your cubicle needs decoration.” That popped out of Ned’s mouth without any thought on his part, the way the best ideas did: of course Maxwell’s decorations would be made of repurposed office supplies in surprising colours.
“Um. All right.” Maxwell leaned down for the bag beside his chair. “Do you mind if I work on a crossword puzzle?”
“Go for it.”
They worked for a while in silence. Ned made a lime green frog for practice, then an orange crane, dredging the instructions out of wherever his brain had stashed them. He tried a flower. They were pretty, and working with the small post-its was absorbingly finicky, but none of them said Maxwell.
“Are you doing those from memory?” Maxwell asked. He’d put his pencil down. Ned wondered how long he’d been watching.
“Yeah, I went through a pretty heavy origami phase a few years ago. A friend and I did these mobiles made out of political campaign posters. We even managed to sneak one into City Hall, it was great.” Maxwell looked perplexed. “I’m an artist, when I’m not here.” It felt a little fraudulent, calling himself that when he hadn’t produced anything worthwhile in months, but Ned figured he was still trying to do the thing; he had a right to the label.
“Oh, I didn’t know that. Do you ever exhibit?”
“Not in galleries. In public places. Nobody’s ever going to pay me a cent for it, so I figure, why not just do what I’m interested in, and put it out there?”
“Guerrilla art.” Ned looked up from the butterfly he was folding, and Maxwell gave him a look. “I know what that is.”
“Right. Sorry. You just seem like you wouldn’t necessarily…um…I’m shutting up now.” He concentrated on unfolding the wings of the butterfly, and set it at the end of the row.
It shivered once. Ned reached for a purple post-it. The butterfly shuddered, emitted a tiny, high-pitched screech, and detonated into a crumple of sharp paper points.
“Oh, no.” Maxwell rubbed his forehead. “I’m so sorry.”
“You don’t have to keep saying that.” Ned poked at the paper porcupine.
“I’m sorry, I–I mean, I…don’t mean to impose it on you. It’s not fair to you, when we’re trapped here together. I’m used to it, but…” He suppressed a sigh.
“It’s not your fault.” Ned picked the animal up. It had miniscule, paper-ball feet.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t see it that way.”
That pulled Ned out of his examination of the creature. “What, you get grief for being sick? Man, some people are jerks.”
“Everyone knows what it’s like to have the virus for a few days, but then they get better. I don’t, so some people start to feel as if I should be able to stop it, if I really wanted to.”
“That’s messed up.”
Maxwell looked away into the shadows. “People lose patience, and I suppose I understand why. It’s not that I haven’t tried. I even bought one of those stupid amulets, and I know it wouldn’t work, I just… wanted to know that I’d tried everything.”
Ned pleated the purple post-it, a doodle in 3-D, waiting for inspiration to show up. “For what it’s worth, anyone who can’t see what an awesome EA you are is an idiot. I’d be starving in the dark without you here.”
It was hard to be sure in the low light, but Ned thought Maxwell coloured. “It’s my job to make sure things happen smoothly.”
“How’d you get into it? Or is this your dream job?”
“No, no. I just fell into it, really. I used to be an actor.”
“Really? No way. Stage or screen?” He could totally see Maxwell as one of those introverts who sparkled in front of an audience or a camera.
“Stage. At least, that’s what I enjoyed the most. Shakespeare. The classics. Except then this happened” –he gestured at the porcupine– “and it’s hard to get a part when lightning sets fire to the first row of seats during your audition.”
“That sucks.” Ned pressed his lips together firmly to quash an inappropriate snicker.
“It does. And I know, it’s probably funny. In theory.”
“No improv group snatched you up?”
“Improv isn’t my strength.”
An actor. Ned contemplated the largest post-its, a rainbow stack the size of a memo pad. He peeled one away, scored it, and carefully tore a strip off the side. “Do you miss it?”
Maxwell nudged the porcupine with his finger, sending it skidding into the frog, both of them tumbling over onto their sides. “I do. I know there’s a cliche of actors hiding in roles, but for me being on stage was like…expanding into a bigger space in my head. Stretching out, becoming part of all the layers of interpretation of the play, and all the other ways the character was played in the past. And then opening up to share that with other people.” His eyes had lit up, hands shaping something ephemeral in the air. “There’s nothing like it, when you get a really good audience and a performance when everyone’s just on, and you’re building this experience together…”
“I get it. That’s what art is for me, I think. Just playing with stuff, being open to ideas and seeing what happens.” He turned the strip of paper in his hands, folding and tucking. “When it’s really working, it’s like it’s not even under my control, you know? Like something else is working through me.”
“Yes, exactly.” After a moment, Maxwell dimmed. “I can’t complain, really. I have a good job that I’m useful at, and I still see plenty of theatre. Most people who want to act don’t succeed either.”
Ned reached for the box of coloured vinyl paperclips he’d absconded with and pried one apart slightly to make a hook. Onto it he slid a plump five-pointed paper star, full and blue as the summer sky. He watched it dangle from his fingertips. Then he grabbed a handful of the paperclips and began to chain them together. They were the same vivid colours as the post-its. An idea scratched at the edge of his consciousness. He pulled the pad of large post-its closer and tore off another one.
Maxwell resumed working on his crossword puzzle. Ned’s eyes were accustomed to the candlelight now, and he fell into a rhythm of creation. After a while, he was vaguely aware of Maxwell getting up and leaving the room. A pile of vibrant stars grew in front of him.
He emerged from his creative fugue some time later to the sound of foil crinkling. He looked towards the door.
Maxwell was shaking a space blanket out of its tightly folded rectangle into a wide sheet. The candlelight burnished it in wavering gold. He gave it a last snap and swung it around his shoulders. “They’re from the first aid kit,” he said. “I brought one for you, too. If the power doesn’t come back on soon, it’s going to get pretty cold in here.”
The picture he made, silver streaming down his back like a cloak, was perfect. Ned stood up and gathered his finished piece in both hands. “This is for you.” He walked over to Maxwell and lifted it over his head. Maxwell took a step back. Ned lifted his hands so Maxwell could see it. “It’s just paperclips and paper. Will you try it on for me?”
“All right.” He let Ned place the loop around his neck. “I thought you were going to decorate my cubicle.”
“I’m decorating you instead.” Ned smoothed the wide collar with his hands, flattening the rainbow rows of paperclips. The stars sat suspended in diamond-shaped frames and dangled downwards like jewels, the colours standing out against the metallic gleam. He felt the warmth of satisfaction well over him. “Hail Sir Maxwell of the Royal Order of Brilliant EAs.” And because it felt right, he went to one knee.
Maxwell looked down at Ned. His lips parted. Colour washed over his face.
There was a twang. One of the paperclips helixed back on itself, making a tight twist and pulling the collar askew.
“Oh, no. Oh, god. I’m so sorry.” Maxwell let go of the blanket where he’d been holding it around his shoulders. It slithered to the floor. He put his hands to the collar.
“I told you, you don’t have to keep apologizing.” Ned stood up to take a closer look at the spiralled paperclip. It had sprung tiny tendrils, like ivy.
“But your–” One of the stars made a sound like a kernel of popcorn exploding, and spewed out a tangle of curly streamers.
“You can’t control it, can you?”
“No.” Maxwell looked miserable.
“Do it on purpose?”
“No.” Another of the stars let out a disconcertingly human-like sigh and deflated.
Ned laughed in sudden glee. “Oh my god, do art with me!”
“This is amazing! You’re amazing!”
Maxwell made as if to cross his arms protectively, halted when his forearms brushed the collar, and shoved his hands into his pants pockets. “Please just take the picture or whatever you wanted to do, and I’ll take it off.”
“I didn’t ask you to wear it so I could take your picture.” Though he’d keep that image in his mind to enjoy later, Maxwell absurd and regal and awkwardly charming. “I didn’t make it for anyone else to see. It’s for you.” A moving thread of glitter looped up and down a section of adjacent paperclips; it rushed into a yellow star and coated it in flashes of light like a disco ball. Ned reached out and ran his hands over the collar, tugging it straight again. “I mean it. Let’s try working together.”
Maxwell was rigid under his touch. “But I’m not an artist.”
“You’re a performer.”
“What would we do?”
“I don’t know! We can figure it out! Maybe some kind of performance art thing. I haven’t done a lot of that, it could be fun.” Ned felt like jumping up and down with elation. “Come on, Maxwell. Let’s make weird, random, beautiful, magical art together.”
Maxwell studied his face. “You’re serious.”
“Yes! Yes, I am.” The collar was as straight as it was going to get. He should probably stop touching Maxwell now.
“You want to make art. With me.”
“Yeah, Maxwell, I do. I really do.”
Maxwell’s gaze was as heavy as a weighted blanket on him. Ned realized how close they were. His hands stilled, cupping Maxwell’s shoulders, the paperclips brushing against his thumbs. Maxwell’s eyes were hazel, the reflection of the candle flames flecking them with copper. His lips were slightly apart, as if he were about to say something. Or do something.
Neither of them moved quickly. Gravity coalesced between them, drawing them together, an ineluctable pull. Maxwell’s lips were slightly chapped, rough against Ned’s as their mouths met.
“This is good too,” Ned murmured, and kissed Maxwell again, more firmly this time. Maxwell’s hands came up to rest on Ned’s chest. Ned took a half step closer and slid his arms around Maxwell’s back, the paper stars bumping against his wrists. Maxwell made a little sound in the back of his throat, and Ned brought one hand up to cradle the base of his skull. Maxwell’s hands clenched in Ned’s sweater, and his mouth opened, and electric excitement ran along Ned’s skin in a way that had nothing to do with viral magic at all.
There was a musical pop. They both turned to see one of the candles shoot out an emerald spire that culminated in a starburst of fireworks, showering tiny sparks onto the boardroom table.
Ned grinned. “I knew you were hot, Maxwell, but I had no idea.”
Maxwell ducked his head against Ned’s chest with a stifled sound. “Please don’t make fun of me,” he said, muffled.
“I’m not! You are absolutely, one hundred percent hot.”
Maxwell sighed and pushed himself up. He gave a wry smile, not quite looking Ned in the eye. “I’ve had a crush on you since the committee had that fight about deadlines and you told Chanthavy that you didn’t do artificial urgency. I had assumed the coffee shop incident gave it away.”
“Manifestations don’t always reflect thoughts or personality.”
“Yes, but sometimes they do.”
“Okay, noted. Anyway, I think we can say we’re on the same page here. How do you feel about more making out?”
Maxwell let his hands drop, no longer touching Ned. “Are you sure you want to? Sometimes things… happen.” He waved a hand loosely towards the candles.
“I’m not worried.” He nudged Maxwell’s chin up until Maxwell looked at him, and then they were kissing again. Ned crowded into Maxwell’s space, as close as they he could get while still leaving room to maneuver, his hands flattening against Maxwell’s back, Maxwell’s hands clutching at his arms. When he pulled back again they were both gasping, hair mussed and clothes pulled askew. Maxwell looked as lit up as Ned felt.
Hooking up with a coworker in the executive boardroom was not exactly something Ned would have previously considered, but the room was softly dim and candlelit and they were the only two people in existence, in a pocket of chance outside of space and time. He was dizzily turned on. “Want to take this further?” he asked, touching his lips against Maxwell’s neck, resting a hand on Maxwell’s hip.
In response, Maxwell pushed forward, arousal evident against Ned’s thigh. Ned huffed out a laugh. “Same here. Okay, I got tested in the summer and I haven’t had unprotected sex for two years, and we were monogamous at the time so I think I’m good for whatever.”
“I haven’t had sex at all for two years.” Maxwell shrugged when Ned looked at him. “There was an…incident. Nobody got hurt, but he didn’t take it well, and since then I’ve been, well, off dating.”
“I volunteer to change that.” Ned swept up the space blanket and wrapped it around Maxwell’s shoulders again. “Here. In case you get cold.”
Maxwell licked his lips, unconsciously, Ned was sure, but the sight went straight to his cock. “Yes?”
“Yes.” Ned walked him backwards until his legs hit the edge of the couch, and gave him a gentle shove–not enough to do anything if Maxwell wasn’t on board, but Maxwell hit the couch as as though his legs had been kicked out from under him. Ned dropped to his knees. Maxwell drew in a breath. Ned stretched up and kissed him, a little messily. When he let Maxwell go, he ran his hands up Maxwell’s woollen trousers to the promising bulge at his fly. Maxwell reflectively slouched a little, and Ned slowly unzipped him.
He spent a moment taking in the glorious sight: his hand on Maxwell’s rosy cock, Maxwell looking unfocused and a little desperate, the now-asymmetrical net of colour lying across his collarbones, cloth of silver spreading out behind him like a full-body halo. The image flattened in his mind like a medieval painting: Saint Maxwell of the Snowstorm…
Maxwell shifted his hips a little. His eyes narrowed. “Are you doing art in your head right now?”
Busted. “You’re just so fucking beautiful,” Ned explained, and bent to slide his mouth down over Maxwell’s cock.
Maxwell groaned and let his head fall back. Ned sucked, then pulled off, swirling his tongue as he went. Maxwell’s hands were white-knuckled on the padded leather.
“You can grab my head if you want,” Ned said, and as he applied his mouth again, he felt Maxwell’s fingers thread through his hair. Ned had known plenty of guys who were hands-off, but looking at someone you were giving a blowjob to in this position could be hard on the neck, and he liked feeling the effect of his efforts.
Hearing them, too. Maxwell was vocal, wordless ohs and ahs and the occasional yes that sent a current of lust through Ned’s core. At one point there was a tearing noise, and out of the corner of his eye Ned saw a seam of the couch sprout a row of tiny crimson flowers. Maxwell’s hand gripped his hair, pinpricks of interesting pain when Ned changed direction. Maxwell was rocking his hips now, biting his lip. His thighs tightened. “Now–just–“
Ned pulled away, wet hand moving fast, and Maxwell’s back bowed as he cried out and came into Ned’s palm. He shivered and twitched and collapsed into a soft heap on the couch.
Ned got his own fly open, fumbling one-handed. Maxwell opened heavy-lidded eyes. “Come here,” he ordered breathlessly, and Ned clambered over him, knees on either side of Maxwell’s legs. Maxwell wrapped both hands around him. Ned thrust into that tight hold, looked down at Maxwell’s flushed face, and came with a shuddering groan.
He deflated down onto Maxwell and they sat like that for a few moments, panting. Then Maxwell moved a little under Ned’s weight, and Ned rolled off him to lean against him on the couch.
“See? No worries. Only flowers,” Ned said, nodding at the seam of the couch.
Maxwell laughed softly, a relieved sound. “I don’t even know what those are. They may be a fictional species.” Pants still loose, he got up and shuffled over to the credenza, where there was a stack of paper napkins. He wiped his hands and brought some over to Ned, then wrapped all the wet napkins in a clean one, presumably to be disposed of in a less incriminating place.
Ned was zipping up his fly when he became aware that Maxwell was looking at him with a somewhat panicked expression. “What?”
Ned fished out his phone and flipped on the selfie view of the camera. Even in the dim light, he could see it: a large patch newly bleached white and dusted with gold, right where Maxwell had clutched it as he came.
“I love it,” he said. “I wonder if it’s permanent?”
Maxwell winced. “I’m–“
“Don’t even think of saying you’re sorry.” Ned pulled Maxwell into his arms. “That was spectacular.”
“It was, wasn’t it?” Maxwell smoothed the ragged hair, and his fingers came away gilded. “It looks very good on you.”
They kissed gently and parted, and then puttered around the room companionably in a bedtime wind-down. Maxwell took the leftover food back to the loading dock fridge; Ned restacked the remaining office supplies on Maxwell’s desk. Maxwell found a coat hanger to drape the collar over so it wouldn’t tangle. The couches weren’t wide enough to cuddle on, so they bedded down individually, each under their space blanket, one candle left burning to scent the room with winter cheer.
Ned fell asleep, woke again, and thereafter dozed sporadically, disconcerted by being fully clothed and in a strange bed. He was finally awakened by the lights and the low buzz of electronics powering up. He sat up, disoriented, and heard the answering crinkle of Maxwell doing the same.
“Five-forty,” Maxwell said, voice a little creaky from sleep.
Ned wrapped the blanket more firmly around himself; the temperature in the room had fallen significantly overnight. “What time do people start coming in?”
“The building manager usually starts at six.” Maxwell yawned. “I’m going to start some coffee.”
Ned went into the washroom and splashed his face with cold water, then detoured out to the main lobby. The chain was still a scarlet scallop across the doors. Out in the parking lot, snowdrifts sat white and motionless against the dark, sculpted into waves by the vanished wind.
By six, he and Maxwell were at the front doors with mugs of hot beverages in their hands, watching people arrive, try the doors and recoil as if zapped by a live wire. Maxwell had several conversations over the security phone, mostly consisting of Last night; I don’t know; I don’t know, Chanthavy, we’ve been locked in here without power until half an hour ago. After seven, the chain started to fade; at twenty to eight, with the first primrose glaze of the rising sun, it dissolved into a mist like breath in the cold, and people began to gradually trail in, carrying cups from the coffee shop where they’d gone to wait to be told to come in or go home again.
While Maxwell and Chanthavy and the building manager were deep in conversation, Ned slipped away to his desk. He logged into his email, blew off two meetings, let his supervisor know that he was out for the day, and gathered up his stuff from the boardroom.
He took the long way to the lobby, cruising by Maxwell’s desk, where Maxwell was insisting to Chanthavy–Ms. Oum, VP of Production and Sales, to Ned–that he was fine and didn’t need to go home.
“Of course you’re going, for heaven’s sake. Ah, Ned, there you are. I’m so sorry about your ordeal. Do you need a taxi chit for your ride home?”
“That would be great, thank you.” He hadn’t checked the state of the road plowing, and on a day like today there probably weren’t many taxis that wanted to come this far out for a fare, but it was a nice gesture. “Let’s go, Maxwell, we can share.”
“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow, Maxwell.” She disappeared into her office.
“I have work to do,” Maxwell said plaintively, and yawned. The couches hadn’t been terrible, but it hadn’t been the best night’s sleep Ned had ever gotten.
“We’re taking our snow day.” Ned picked up Maxwell’s coat. “Come on.”
They emerged into a day of crystalline brilliance, everything stark white and blue. The path between the building and the parking lot had been shovelled, though not the sidewalks. They trudged through shin-deep snow. “Where are we going?” Maxwell asked.
“Coffee shop. I’m going to buy you breakfast. We’ll have to wait forever for a cab anyway, we might as well do it in comfort.”
Behind him, Maxwell started to say something, then cut off. Ned turned to find him wading up from his knees, coated from the neck down with snow. “Oh, crap, are you all right?”
“It’s like falling into pillows. I didn’t even reach the ground.” Maxwell stood and dusted off the front of his coat. A twinkling cloud swooped, spiralled, and formed script in the still air: You’re still hot.
Ned laughed. Maxwell gave a chagrined sigh, breath billowing in the chill air. “Oh, god. Are you sure you want to do art with me? Or even have anything to do with me?”
Ned grinned at him. “Believe me when I say that I cannot wait.”