I hate filing. It is the last task I start. It is the first I put off. The room’s only window shivered in the wind. I looked up. Framed in darkness, a reflection of my pale face glared at me. I glanced at the clock in the corner: 10:20—later than usual. Why was I still here? The window rattled a reply.
I lived alone. I preferred being alone at the office to being alone in my apartment. I worked many evenings here, accompanied only by the laser printer’s drone and the fluorescent lights’ buzz. My pattern of late nights troubled my co-workers. I had no car. I always walked home. “Don’t walk alone at night around here,” they said.
It’s true the neighborhood was depressed. It was littered with crumpled beer cans, cheap liquor bottles wrapped in torn paper bags, and damp used condoms. The small businesses in the area closed early. Upon leaving, shop owners pulled down metal grates, securing windows and doors. Choke collars clanked as silent guard dogs thrust their muzzles against chain link fences. My only protection was an old black leather jacket and, occasionally, a faded yellow umbrella. But I wasn’t afraid. I never worried walking home in the dark. Not until that night.
I had finished the filing. I stretched and picked up my empty coffee cup. A hand-printed sign on goldenrod paper urged workers to wash their own cups. It was ignored. Dirty cups were everywhere. A brown ceramic mug with a light blue glaze was half-full. The cream had soured; mold was growing. Ancient black sludge coated the bottom of a plastic Mickey Mouse cup. I had a new mission.
I grabbed a battered metal tray and harvested coffee cups. I tapped my right pants pocket, making sure I had the keys. I left the three rooms that composed our small office. The lock clicked behind me. I hiked down the narrow hallway. With my right hip, I pushed the door to the bathroom room open. I balanced the tray on the edge of the lavatory. There was no counter. I reached beneath the sink for the bottle of dish soap. It must have been there for years. A soft blue mass clogged the squeeze top. I ran some water to get it hot. I plugged the drain with a wet, wadded-up paper towel. I squirted a short stream of sticky goo into the basin. Bubbles. Using another paper towel, I washed out each mug. I set them single-file on the porcelain rim of the washbowl. They looked like a gaggle of kindergartners lined-up to enter the cafeteria. I extracted my soggy, impromptu plug and rinsed the cups. Once more, I pulled down a paper towel. I dried one mug after another and deposited them on the tray. As long as I was there, I put the room to its designated use.
When I finished, I washed my hands, picked up the tray, and let myself back into the office. As I put the mugs away, I admired my gleaming handiwork. However, the coffeepot was a mess! I trekked to the small restroom again. I dumped the spent coffee grounds into the stained, beige wastebasket. I rinsed out the pot and filled it with fresh, cold water. Upon returning to the office, I measured coffee for the morning and set up the pot. I snagged a discarded 3x5 card from the recycle pile and folded it in half. In an attempt at whimsy, I jotted “just turn me on” and stood the sign in front of the coffeepot. Now what?
My wristwatch beeped the hour. I had hungry cats at home. I planted my wallet and keys in a jacket pocket and locked my purse in the bottom desk drawer. I turned out the lights and secured the office door. I stepped toward the stairs. The downstairs door creaked open; then it slammed shut. Footsteps bounded up the stairs. I stopped.
A chill whipped past me. It brought a potent fragrance of pine and cedar trees. The air became sharp; its icy shards pierced my nostrils, my lungs. I held my breath. I felt the corridor contract and the ceiling collapse. A creature filled the landing at the top of the stairs. It was a radiant white. A spray of snowflakes glistened about its mane and tail. My eyes clouded, my ears pounded. I gasped for air. I reached up and shielded my face with my right arm. A goad of energy pieced my palm and transfixed my mind. The thing at the end of the hall had not moved, but light flashed off a rimy spiral of horn between verdant eyes. The eyes had no pupils, only the wild flux of cedar limbs in the wind, ocean currents in the depths. I cowered and stared at four alabaster hoofs. There was a hush. Then I heard three words: “Don’t be afraid.”
The voice was music. Each word was the call of an alpine horn echoing off snowbound mountain peaks, but the creature was speaking, not singing. The tone was flowing, a swift stream rippling over a rocky bed, yet it was also haunting, the breeze whispering through a grove of leafless trees on a winter night. “Don’t be afraid,” he repeated. I almost looked up. Then, one of the front hoofs moved toward me.
I sought safety. The office was several yards behind me. The door was latched and bolted. The bathroom was two steps away. It was unlocked. I scurried into the tiny chamber and locked the door. I stood with my back pressed firmly against that flimsy, hollow barrier. My eyes ached. My palms tingled. Hoof steps clumped on the wooden floor. They halted.
The smell of the pine and cedar forest drifted into my sanctuary. I spun around and watched as mist swirled over the threshold. The floor began to ice over, edges first, like a frosty pond on a frigid, moonless night. I retreated toward the sink. I tried to smell dead coffee grounds and diluted dish detergent, but they were overwhelmed by a blizzard of savage, green, and vigorous scents. Movement in the mirror intercepted my eyes. A long, white head faced me. Emerald eyes flashed at me. “Trust me,” he urged. “You’re in danger and need my help.”
My mouth was dry. “I don’t need any help.”
“Everyone needs help sometimes.” He responded.
“Not me.” I said.
The reflection made no reply.
“Why should you help me?” I asked.
“Because it is my task.” He answered.
“I won’t be anybody’s burden.”
“Helping you is my task,” he reiterated, “It is not a burden.”
“But, I’m afraid of you.”
“Then, think of someone you do not fear and accept that one’s help,” he advised.
The image blurred into a pearly haze. My own face emerged. I could no longer smell the forest. I slowly unlocked the door and inched into the hall. I again heard the metal steps rattle beneath a rapid stride. Amos, one of my co-workers, appeared at the head of the stairs. “I drove by and saw the lights being turned off,” he said, “I know you like to walk home, but tonight would you accept a ride from me?”
I began to refuse, as usual, but a snowflake landed on the back of my hand. “Yesss,” I said slowly. “Yes. I would.” I said with more energy, zipping my jacket.
As we approached the turn onto my street, Amos hit the brakes. In front of us were police vehicles, flashing lights, and yellow crime scene tape. We wheeled around the corner and Amos glanced at me. I averted his gaze and stared at the white chalk line on the sidewalk. I saw an empty maroon purse with a torn leather handle next to a filled pair of black police boots. Near the purse, lying useless in the gutter, was a broken umbrella. When we got to my apartment, Amos locked the car and walked me to my door. I didn’t invite him in. It was late; too late. Without a word, he returned to his car and drove away.
I slept poorly. A storm swept into the area. Gusty winds lashed the thin windowpanes. Rain pelted the flat roof. Nevertheless, the morning dawned silent, bright, and clean. When I crossed the street and turned onto the Boulevard, I saw no evidence of the crime. I had no television, so I didn’t see the news. I don’t get the paper delivered and the do-nut shop I passed on the way to work sold only coffee and pastries. So, when I arrived, I asked Amos if he had seen anything about the trouble we passed the night before.
“Last night…” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “Last night?” he asked, gesturing toward me with the coffeepot.
“Yes, last night.” I nodded and Amos poured coffee for me. “When you took me home. Remember…?” I asked.
He put the coffeepot back on the burner. “I was out of town last night.”