Angeline Carter flipped through the stack of mail on her desk. It was almost always junk, but odd and amusing things popped up regularly enough to make it worth her time. She sorted quickly, deciding what was worth opening and what was trash almost without conscious thought, sometimes judging little more than the feel on the paper on her fingertips. She spent a bit more time on the pieces she thought were worth a second look, but most of those ended up in the trash, too. The only keepers today were an invitation to a restaurant opening at the marina, and a flyer for the City Opera, reminding her that she wouldn’t be taking advantage of her subscription this season, either.

In her haste Angeline almost missed the package that had been delivered as well, a plain box not much bigger than a coffee mug. She didn’t see it until she had sat down, and when she picked it up she was surprised that it had been delivered at all. Some determined or very bored mail clerk had inexplicably decided to not just return it to sender. Perhaps the long jumble of letters on the label had caught his eye. Maybe somebody in the mail room was Polish and upon seeing the name “Grace Szczepaniak” decided that he had a sacred duty to deliver the mail. Although it wasn’t any kind of secret, very few people her outside of HR or the Legal department knew who Grace Szczepaniak was, and almost nobody who knew Grace would ever think to find her here.

Angeline used a letter opener to cut the wrapping tape and open the box. Inside it was mostly bubble wrap, which she unspooled to reveal a small figurine of a ballerina. The figure itself was cheap ceramic, perhaps even just plaster, unglazed and mostly unpainted except for the faded pink tutu. The ballerina balanced on one foot, which connected her to the wooden base and the hidden mechanics inside. There was a slot on the side for a small key which, when turned, would make it play a tinny ten-second snippet of The Nutcracker, and slowly spin the little ballerina. The key was missing, but Angeline found that if she turned the ballerina herself the gears still moved, and the song still played, albeit at the wrong speed.

She checked the box. There was no return address but the postmark showed it was mailed from Sweetwater, and Angeline felt a tremble crawl through her hands. She put the figurine down and stood. It was an odd intrusion into her day, and although the tremble went away already she didn’t want to sit down. Her office, her home-away-from-home for nearly seven years now, felt alien and unwelcoming to her, and the need to get out was impossible to ignore.

Which was madness, after all. And infuriating. She had gone through this already, and over the past few weeks settled whatever it was that needed to be settled–which wasn’t much, she found. It was both ridiculous and unfair that this little figurine should insist otherwise.

And yet there it was. The slot for the missing key was a quiet accusation, and the muted song that wouldn’t play right tried stubbornly to remind her of Crystal and, inevitably, Grace.

Continue reading “Sweetwater”

Coffee and croissants

When all goes well I can have as much as an hour to myself before I have to report to work. I spend that hour at a coffeeshop called Friuli. The owner is Italian, the staff is the usual Almaty melange of Kazakhs and Russians. Two men and a woman; she works, they don’t, at least they try not to. Sometimes the can’t avoid serving a customer.

I ask for an americano and, when available, a croissant. If there’s no croissant the woman will bring me a plate of cookies. They’re indulgences I don’t need, empty calories that do nothing to fill me up. Usually I’m not even hungry. But they’re nice. And for about an hour a day I get to write.

I work on novels, or short stories, or whatever else is rattling in my head. I try not to think about work or family, or daydream about being President or starting a business. I resist the urge to tell an imaginary curious onlooker about my past or my future. I just write. At the end I take my word count and mark it on an on-screen sticky note. It keeps me motivated. Sometimes I write just to make sure that the word count is moving in the right direction. Without a definite purpose, even as modest as moving my word count up, my writings go nowhere. At least I’ve figured myself out.

Today it was 808. A funky number, banging like.

The coffee is decent. The croissants are hit and miss. Today’s was dry, dense, and a little cold. But that isn’t the point. I’m rewarding myself on a job well done. Funny how pleasing myself is something I have to work at sometimes.