January 15th: Interim and the Changes
Seven hours of sleep was not ever enough. I rolled onto my other side and nearly broke my nose on the wall. There wasn't enough room for me in my own bed, was there? I slapped the wall as if that might make it move a bit.
"Get up, already! I think I've conscripted most of your laundry trying to wake you up
Curse whoever had made Dannon our roommate. Straight to the most literal of blazes with them, I say. "Bugger off." The words weren't afforded much oomph, as my face was still half in the wall, half in the pillow. The little sod had the most annoying habit of waking up before eight o'clock. And he thought he had the right to call other people insane.
He also, apparently, got lonely. That is, he insisted on my being awake whenever he was, which meant that I'd been getting far less sleep than a man ought. If I didn't actually see him sleep, I would have assumed he ran on spit and bubbles. He never drank coffee.
When I tried to turn over, I found my way blocked by neatly folded clothing I couldn't remember owning. "These are mine?"
"They were in your hamper." Over the top of the unexpected and rather high pile, I could see Dannon wielding an iron. I pressed my back up against the wall, and the folded clothes became a fort.
Ever since we'd been more or less forced to take Dannon on as a third and very junior partner, Joseph had been making himself scarce somehow, pushing the limits of his haunting space. Sometimes, when I was off baby-sitting duty, I would see him in deep conference with Petersen. My field of vision was rather limited at the moment, but I doubted he was in the room.
Being in the dormitories helped. It was always easier to stay sane in here. I sat up and scratched my head, then stopped when the sound made my brain start throbbing. "Why are you doing the laundry?"
"It passes the time."
"In a dull sort of way, I suppose it does
" Where was my toothbrush? "House-keeping let you into the laundry room here?"
A pair of socks flew into my face, narrowly missing my mouth. Dannon wadded up a second pair with more vigor than sock-wadding really needed. "Took some sweet-talking, but yeah. I needed something to do."
"Thought our lives were gripping Hollywood blockbuster excitement all the time, did you?"
He sat on the edge of what had become his bed. "At this point, I'd settle for a few days of Murder She Wrote."
I started moving some of the clothes out of my way. They couldn't all be mine. My eyes caught a scrap of faded red poking out from between two dress shirts. I didn't even own a red handkerchief. "You washed Joseph's clothes as well."
"Is that a bad thing? I just took the whole hamper down
Silence settled down again like gathering dust. I couldn't think of anything to say. Before I'd come here, when people died, everyone else either packed up their things or went to great lengths to keep it all in exactly the same condition it had been left in. "No. I don't think it matters to him."
Dannon got up and started disassembling the ironing board. "You've really got your finger on that pulse, haven't you?"
I didn't get up until he'd put the iron away. He must have really charmed the housekeeping staff if they'd let him have it. Or maybe he had his own. That seemed significantly less likely. "I should," I said, my voice distorted a bit by a yawn. I stretched until my back popped, then sat in the desk chair. The laptop had been removed by someone.
"How long did you live together?"
That should have made me laugh. It sounded like something else when he asked that way, without any names. I nearly started talking about my marriage, and that wasn't his business. "I don't know. Probably I couldn't tell you the time by a fleet of calendars, and it's difficult to measure time on a personal living level."
He leaned back on the new pillows and snorted. "You just don't want to admit it was only a short time."
"May not have felt like it, but"
I cut him off with an exaggerated sigh. "At least fourteen years."
That shut him up. Fourteen years is a long time when you're in your early twenties. It was still a long time to me, and I was nearing forty. I couldn't say for sure how it was for Joseph
he'd always seemed ageless to me.
As if he knew what direction my thoughts were sliding, Dannon asked, "How old iswas Joseph, when he died?"
I had to think about it. We didn't have things like birthday parties, it just seemed like a waste of time and it made some of the agents uncomfortable, often for unexpected reasons. In fact, we hardly even had a marker for those days. "About sixty-ish. I think."
Dannon pushed himself away from the pillows and leaned on his knees. "Ish."
" I looked away. Where was my toothbrush? "It isn't important. He's never acted his age except perhaps when he was seven." This was slightly a compliment, but only Joseph would know it, and even he would have to think about it for a minute.
A knock on the door prevented my finding out if Dannon had understood. I got up to answer it, shuffling so I wouldn't trip on my own legs. It wasn't until I had turned the knob that I remembered I was still dressed for bed and hadn't even shaved. Or brushed my teeth.
The door opened on its own momentum. A lovely familiar face crept politely into the room. "Sorry to bother you so earlyoh, you're both awake, perfect."
"Caitlyn?" She'd never been in this end of the building. I held my hands behind my back so she wouldn't see them shake.
"Yes, that's me. Good morning, Mr. Hollowmark," she said, quite cheerfully. She must have been as early a riser as Dannon, or she was just perfect no matter the time or circumstances. I gritted my teeth and ordered my brain to behave itself. " I'm playing messenger for a while. Petersen is getting a new little haunt, and he wants you to help him choose it." Her smile was blinding. "Mr. Lovelace is with him already. They're in one of the empty offices on the fifth floor, 5R."
Somehow I managed to thank her without falling over myself or turning into a total utter idiot, but then she excused herself and was gone. I slumped. What a coward. Where was my damn toothbrush?! I went into the bathroom to look for it.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Dannon called through the closed door. "Joseph told me to say that your toothbrush is in the top drawer."
I sighed and opened said drawer. If he'd left that sort of message, with Dannon of all people, he couldn't be that mad at me. Not that I had done anything, but he liked change even less than I did, and all the most recent changes were my fault. Dannon, Petersen getting a newer computer to possess
Everything that had happened in the past week seemed to be one large reminder that everything in life has an expiration date.
Including toothbrushes. Mine was barely fit to use anymore, what with all the places I left it. I tapped the excess water off the bristles, then put it back in the drawer. I'd probably find it in a shoe tomorrow morning.
At least it was easy to find clean clothes. I separated my things from Josephs, marveling at how old and tatty some of his shirts were. I would have broken them down for dusters in a few weeks. But now I wasn't sure if I could. They had changed status as well. I didn't really want to think about it, so I just put them in my bottom drawer. All of the drawers that had been Joseph's were Dannon's now, but it seemed alright to give Joseph one of mine.
While I gave myself one final straightening out, just in case Caitlyn was invited to Petersen's 'move' as well, Dannon seemed to be searching for words. It was interesting to see him uncomfortable, and I was loathe to put an end to it. Still, it couldn't go on forever. "You're coming too," I said, figuring that it would preserve everyone's pride to word it that way, "Petersen is our roommate, you ought to get to know him a little. Helps to be there for the important things."
He bounded off the bed in a way that I was certain no one else could imitate, and grabbed his cane from where he'd hung it. He was quiet until we'd left the room and started for the elevators, but as soon as the doors shut, he turned and grinned at me. "You've got a thing for that receptionist, haven't you?"
"That isn't any of your business." If only I had worn a hat. I did have quite a nice one, somewhere back in the room. My ears wouldn't have given me away if I had just worn a sodding hat.
"You have! See, you've gone all red."
"I dislike your tone."
He sounded like he'd won at something. "Bet she fancies you too. I could hear it in the way she said your name. Mr. Hollowmark, to rhyme with wonderful."
The elevator dinged, but it was not the sound of deliverance. "Don't be such a child"
"I am a child, compared to you." If not for the cane and whatever precipitated its presence, I would swear that Dannon would have started skipping, just to annoy. "It's really quite edifying, finding out what an old, old man you are. No wonder Mrs. Young thought you were my dad."
I let him go on. I didn't mind being called old. After all, I was. Thirty-eight was not exactly ancient, but it also wasn't a number you put on to look shiny and new. More to the point, my age was a much better subject than my feelings towards Caitlyn. For one thing, I could laugh about my age. "I don't think I look much like you, though."
"Oh, neither did my dad." In spite of the fact that he had only been here for a few days, Dannon was leading the way, and not making any wrong turns so far. "He was a fat deadbeat with a beard and infected tattoos."
It shouldn't have surprised me. I did my best to put on a stony poker face, but something about the way he practically started whistling made me laugh. It wasn't even an open, honest laugh. No. It was a snicker. I bit my tongue.
Three more steps and I could have escaped into the room. I could see the scuffed plaque, proudly claiming it as Room 5R. Dannon stood in front of the door. "What's funny?" he asked, his face set in a hard, rather confused frown.
I very nearly shuffled my feet. "Nothing. It's just
the way you said that. It was unexpected." There was no way to explain it, although that was a fairly terrible dodge.
If his eyebrow had gone up much higher, it would have to disappear into his hair. "I guess so." He turned his back to me and faced the door. "Just forget it, right?"
I assumed 'it' included the flattering description of his father. "Of course. I'm very sorry."
"Whatever you say." He opened the door, and the conversation was quickly monopolized by a very jolly Petersen.
The room was designed for a modest number of people to hold a business meeting, but it could really be knocked about to fit any purpose. A long table in the middle of the room was currently being used to display four laptop computers. One of them was blue, and immediately caught my eye. It was much newer than the others, and made Petersen's old laptop look like a cube of compacted sheet metal and decorative lights.
It practically had been that, but still.
Speaking of the man of the hour, Petersen looked to be in top form. He was talking a mile a minute about specs and other words that were short and yet mysteriously outside of my knowledge. I listened politely, smiling and nodding whenever it felt appropriate.
If he'd been alive, he would have already knocked several things over. "And with all the things I learned with that old slag heap, I can boost the processor speed to at least twice its original capacity!' He glowed like a firefly in the country.
Then Dannon asked the magical question. "How?"
I retreated to a corner where Joseph was relaxing with a cigar. He looked to be in a better mood than the last time he'd deigned to hang around me. The thought put me in fear of a hurt puppy look, so I gave myself a mental thump on the head.
"Still a coward about technology, are you?"
"You're one to talk," I muttered, smiling ruefully. "The man who refused to use calculators."
"I can do sums in my head, thanks." An impressive billow of cigar smoke wafted over my head. "How are things with the kid?"
"Frustrating. And as embarrassing as bringing your auntie to a bake sale."
Another wave of smoke. "Ah. So you remember my auntie."
"Vividly." She was a petite, terrifying person with a razor wit and all the manners of a groundhog with invasive amoebiasis. Joseph loved her with a devotion I could never fully understand. "Have you had a good enough vacation?"
Time to lay on the fuzzy stuff. "I miss you." Please let this work. For the sake of sanity, one thing in life had to be constant, and as much as he might have liked to fight over it, Joseph was a constant. "When are you going to stop avoiding me?"
He sniffed, probably to make fun of me. "I'm not avoiding you. Besides, don't you need lots of alone time to teach the kid to be a good upstanding adult?"
I nearly choked trying not to laugh. With my luck, Dannon could hear us despite his rather animated conversation with Petersen. "There's no chance of that."
The other laptops on the conference table were the technological equivalent of sad sacks. One of them fizzled in a very alarming way. I stared hard at it, as though that would prevent it sparking. "Petersen is like those guys who buy scrap metal cars to fix them up, isn't he?"
"Good analogy, Hollowmark. A bit kinder than I would have put it, but I guess fake dadhood has made you go all soft and squidgy in the soul bits."
Petersen's glasses were falling down his nose so often I began waiting for him to take them off, put them on his head, or in his pocketthere. He'd put them on his head. He looked even younger without his glasses, but I'd never say so.
One of the computers started to whine in distress. I pressed my back into my chair and waited for someone to fix it.
Surprise, surprise, no one else noticed it, except Joseph, who just laughed at me. "You're squeamish about everything, aren't you?"
I gritted my teeth. "Try being me for two minutes, Lovelace. You'd be kicking holes in walls within half an hour."
"Or holes in people. I know you won't like to hear it, but you're a lot like those nervous little fluffy dogs ladies keep for impersonating ugly pillows."
The pitch of the ailing computer's whine went up a few octaves, and Petersen moved in to fix it. I slumped a bit in relief. "I am not like a dog," I said, perhaps a bit too tetchily.
"Deny it all you like, I'm not going to take it back."
My chance to argue evaporated like water on a hot skillet as Petersen announced to the room, "Okay, I don't know. Which one?" He looked at me first, with an encouraging smile that suggested I'd been put in the kindergarten class.
Although my opinion might have mattered to him on a a personal friendly level, my technical opinion was only worth slightly more than pigeon leavings. I couldn't just give him a shrug, though. "Er, that one." I pointed to the blue one, solely because it wasn't sparking or held together with electrical tape.
Petersen hovered over it. "Oh, I knew you'd pick the good one."
I retreated inside of myself while he and Dannon argued about it. There were too many things in my head that I didn't want to confront, but after a few minutes, I dozed off anyway.
For some reason, it took me a while to realize I had fallen asleep. My dreams were significantly duller than life, but that just made it harder to spot them as dreams. I was sitting in the post office with a plain blue envelope. There was nothing in the envelope, but after I had been there for a few moments, I looked down to see it had been covered in stamps.
"I'm dreaming, aren't I?"
No one answered. There were other people milling around, but they didn't pay me any mind. Except
A little boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, stood across the crowded space, staring intently at the envelope in my hands. If I'd been awake, I would have felt awkward, but in my dream I merely waved and let things go on around me.
The boy toddled up to me, then hauled himself up into the vacant chair beside me. He was quite small, dressed in overalls and a large baseball cap. One of his bottom front teeth was missing. "Are you waiting too?"
I shook my head. "It's difficult to wait for things that might not happen," I said. My voice sounded peculiar, though. Like I was someone else who was also underground or in a different room. There was a line of static on the edge of it.
"I'm waiting," the boy said, swinging his skinny little legs back and forth. "You haven't forgotten me?"
My throat constricted so that I could barely breathe. "I'd sooner forget where I keep my knees," I managed to say. Somehow the little boy had seated himself in my lap. He was a bit bigger now, or perhaps it was only because he was so much closer.
Everything started to blur. I blinked to clear my vision, but once I could see properly again, I'd woken up. I sat up in the chair, trying to take things in quickly without drawing any attention. The two worrying laptops had been removed, and the third was flickering madly away. Petersen was out of sight, most likely inside the computer, setting up house, so to speak. Dannon sat in a chair next to it, watching the screen intently.
"You left us for a minute there." Joseph leaned in front of me so I couldn't easily look away. "Odd time for a power nap."
I rubbed my eyes, grasping futilely at the last threads of the dream. A little boy in the post office
It probably didn't mean anything. Just a dream. I held back a yawn. "I haven't slept well. Or much. Dannon doesn't know how to let a person sleep in."
"Aw, do you need me to protect your right to sleep late?"
He was just mocking me, I knew, but it wasn't really a bad idea. I pretended to take him seriously and looked relieved. "That would be excellent, thank you."
Hard to back out after something like that. I beamed at him while he struggled to find a way out of it. Then he slumped and glared at me. "You're picking up tricks from the kid, aren't you?"
"If I am, I promise only to use the good ones."