He checked his calendar again. The screen on his computer refreshed for the eighth time that hour showing no changes. There was a childish digital sticker on today’s date with no explanation attached to it. Not that he needed any details, he knew why he had placed that sticker there.
The cutesy cartoon squirrel looked like her, well to him it did. He thought back on a dumb conversation they had had a while ago when she was rambling on about how he resembled a cat in her eyes. Despite himself, he still smiled when he heard her ask why he thought of her as a squirrel only to be lost for words at his explanation.
Today was the day. He had taken it upon himself to look at her personnel profile for work. Her company had this thing for making an office blog that ran alongside normal productions for Miracle Finder. He was told it was a new trend among companies, a peek behind the scenes. Small snippets of office banter and candid pictures had popped up revealing a workspace quite unlike any you would find in LFG. He frowned briefly wondering how you were supposed to work efficiently in such chaos before moving on to pull up the event pages.
A picture of a giant ice cream cake in the shape of something that he supposed was a kind of animal filled his screen. Text laid out in sloppy icing saying “Happy Birthday Boss!” was clearly visible. He cross-checked the date with the small personnel file in his hand that contained his contract with her. Yes, the date matched so now all he had to do was wait.
Waiting sounded like the easiest part of his whole plan. In fact, it was excruciatingly painful. His eyes fell on the pile of gifts he had selected and had wrapped. What he thought was a small pile in fact covered most of the top of a table in his office.
The different shaped boxes ranging from palm-sized to something closer to a shoebox were arranged so each could be seen. The complimentary wrapping paper with corresponding ribbons and bows made it look like an upmarket window display.
Time was a constant factor he was always aware of. The steady tick tick tick from the hands of the clock sounded mocking as he tried to focus on some work. Where was she? She wouldn’t forget about today, would she? No… maybe she’s thinking of seeing someone else today and not me? The idea, as brief as it was, hurt to even consider.
He had seen her posts on Moments where others had happily commented back. He had read her words smiling only to see the reply from someone else wipe it from his face. She was free to have friends and naturally that would include any gender. It didn’t stop his mind from wandering a petty path of jealousy when he saw the happy insider jokes and promises to meet up and try something new together when it was directed at another man.
He chastised himself for getting so worked up over something so childish. He knew what she was like when he fell for her. Oblivious, naïve, perhaps lacking in experience would have been a kinder way of thinking about it. What he felt to be a fairly obvious display of his intentions had repeatedly taken a turn he had not predicted.
“…Dummy.” His softly spoken term of endearment tumbled from smiling lips as he turned the page on another document. Using his pen to mark typos and underline sections for correction.
Time marched on and eventually, the entire morning had passed him by without the cheerful voice he wished to here filling his office. He thought back about a conversation they had where she had asked him what he did for his birthdays only to look upset at his reply of ‘nothing special’.
Birthdays to him were another day. They held some significance as a child, as they did to all children. Even back then though they had still felt more like a formality for him. His father was always working hard, his mother… actually that might have been the last time he had what you would call a very happy birthday. He shook his head chasing away the maudlin thoughts and refocused.
Today was her birthday it wasn’t about him at all. She had such a sad look on her face when he spoke of his own that he really did have to wonder how someone with such a kind heart had remained so pure in this world. She had known pain and loss yet she still moved forward like a blinding light in the darkness. The strength she showed, that self-motivating determination was what had made him take a second chance on an otherwise fruitless business arrangement.
She had a fire, she had a spark that reached out and touched others. She had so much potential if she only applied herself a little more to the groundwork. He guided her and watched her grow. He drove past her office on his way home frowning at the lights remaining on so late at night. He wanted her to grow but he didn’t expect her to work herself to exhaustion. He reminded her she could ask for help, ask him. Am I really so unreliable? Unapproachable?
The time she spent on his own birthday preparations had been a shock. The flowers, balloons other kitschy decorations that were completely her and yet it had touched him deeply that she had tried so hard on his behalf to prepare something he would like. He didn’t tell her that all he needed was to have her there with him. All he needed was to hear her say the words “Happy Birthday Victor!” in her cheerful voice and he would have been just as blown away.
The pile of gifts on the table caught his eye again. Knowing her she would try to refuse taking them, but he wished for her to have all of them and more should her heart desire it. Where was she?
Slipping his phone from him jacket he checked for any notifications even though he had turned the volume on the device all the way up to maximum and knew he couldn’t have missed a thing. He caught his own reflection in the glass of his window. The cool, calm man he usually saw was absent from view.
In all these years nothing had rattled him to the core in such an obvious manner. He could count the few times something had on one hand. This was different. Ever since their very first meeting, it felt like there was a lingering memory attached to her.
He listened to her talk and babble on about inane topics and found himself enthralled. When she was struggling, he found himself practically running to her aid. She was like an open book, so full of life and connected to all kinds of emotions. She was nothing like the other people he had met and here was the proof. He was waiting for her.
The knocking on his door drew him back to himself. He calmed his nerves and removed all signs of his previous anxieties from his overactive mind. In all honesty, he could laugh. How many times did he call her and her childish imagination out when it took hold of her?
“Victor it’s me.” Of course, it was.
“Come in.” His eyes flicked to the clock on the wall and straightened his posture. The door opened as he fixed his stoic mask in place resisting the desire to look at her. His eyes wavered on the document in his hand tracing the lines of text there without registering any of them.
“I’m sorry it took a while to get here. I finished the report and my printer was broken at home so I have to go to the office.”
A thin office binder appeared in his view. His eyes followed its high gloss cover to the delicate manicured fingers holding it. The sun from the window behind him catching on her jewellery as he looked up into her eyes. She looked different. It wasn’t the passage of time or his own mind playing tricks.
She had adjusted her makeup and styled her hair differently. She wasn’t meant to be working at all today but she had managed to appear before him dressed as if she had just walked in from a presentation. Her cream blouse was tucked into a form-fitting pencil skirt. Even the blazer she had chosen seemed so alien to him.
“Is something wrong? I didn’t use the wrong type of binder or something did I?” Her enquiry made him realise he had been staring.
“No, it’s fine.” He took another look at the document she had handed him before adding it to the pile on his desk and turning his critical eye back to her. “You got dressed up like that to drop off a report? You are aware there is a difference between professionalism and amateur dramatic performances?”
She fidgeted in place those little wheels turning in her mind just behind those clear eyes. His caustic words had a way of provoking a response. Sometimes he did it on purpose but there were other times such as now when they simply seemed to leak from him. A precise and cutting verbal display of word vomit even he, on occasion, hated with a passion.
The opinions of others never usually affected him. If they were hurt in some way by his critical reviews of their work and efforts, he saw it more as a ‘prove me wrong’ installation of inspiration. They had a choice, double down and get it done or walk away. It was a hard, cut-throat approach to business that had seen him a long way.
Meeting her had changed that. She shook him to his core. Had him questioning his managerial style and way of interacting in general. They had not known each other long at all but he already knew things had changed. For better or worse this was now something he was sure he didn’t want to lose.
Those little wheels kept turning in her mind. His harsh words however many he spoke in jest or just to get a rise out of her. He always felt a pinch in his chest as he waited for her reaction. He never wanted to hurt her.
“Say what you like I have already decided that nothing you say to me today is going to get to me.” Her childish bravado made him scoff.
“Oh really? I’m so pleased you found a way of keeping yourself happy. However, misguided the ideas to do so maybe.”
She gave him the most adorable glare before looking around the room and realising rather comically there was a stack of gifts behind her.
“What’s all this your fan – mail?” It was clear from her voice she had been thrown by the cheerful collection of wrapping paper trussed up with all the ribbons and bows.
“A return gift,” He said rising from behind his desk to stand just behind her. Leaning close enough the scent of her shampoo to fill his nose. “for a Dummy.”
“Return gift?” She spun around the unbridled curiosity in her eyes sparkling.
“Have you forgotten your own birthday?” He teased.
“Of course I haven’t. I’m just a little surprised you would know my birthday. Besides people don’t give gifts expecting anything in return.” She looked back at the collection of gifts without moving to take one. He was at least thankful for her distracted attention because she had managed to draw out something like shyness from him.
“Don’t go getting so excited I only picked up a few things and had them delivered here for you.” He cleared his throat and moved back to his desk. Choosing to perch on the edge of it rather than sit behind it.
“A few things this looks like half a store. You didn’t have to go to so much trouble.” Now she was at least taking a closer look at them all. Her hands reached out with fingers showing a slight shake as she brushed them over a coral pink ribbon.
“You think selecting a few things like this is trouble? I just happened to see some items that looked like the kind of childish knickknacks you enjoy and…”
“So, you were thinking of me?” She stopped investigating the ribbons and turned to him with a disarming smile.
“No, I wouldn’t say that. I was just acquiring some items in passing.” He covered for his floundering heart as she continued to smile at him. Honestly, what are you thinking looking at me like that?
“Whilst thinking of me?” Her persistence only added another layer to his own wonder at her line of questioning.
He knew she was right outside of work usually people didn’t gift a gift expecting one in return that was the whole nature of gift-giving at its core. You gave a gift as a gift without a desire for personal gain entering into the equation.
“All I thought was there was a certain Dummy who would like them. If you don’t want them you don’t have to have them.”
The smile on her face faltered at his words but it wasn’t in a way that he recognised as upset with him. Her eyes became downcast, the energy she showed so confidently when entering his office looked as if it were draining out of her.
There was something hidden in that curious look she was giving him. Concealed under the surface of her words and questions. He knew what he wanted it to be but he also felt that it was the wrong answer. How can such a simple mind confound me like this?
“What’s wrong?” He asked. His worry affecting the tone of his voice, making it softer.
“Nothing just… Ever since Dad. I’ve been on my own you know? The guys at the office try to do things and it's great but…” She cut her explanations short as if she were trying to trim off the pain from memory. He knew all to well that it didn’t work like that.
“… no substitution.” His voice was almost a whisper. His own protected memories answering her own, mirroring the loss.
“What?” Her eyes returned to him. Her smile was gone and it was like someone had dimmed all light in the world.
“I’m the same with my—Well we have similar thoughts on the subject.” He didn’t speak about his past. He had no reason too. It was private his life was of no concern of others but when it came to her, he wanted to tell her. They had shared so many things in such a short time it was strange to think that they hadn’t simply always just been together.
“Thank you.” Her smile crept back, tugging gently on the corners of her mouth.
“If you want to thank me you could pick a gift.” He joked hoping to get that smile to beam brighter.
“Oh! I couldn’t there are so many and I don’t know prices on them or anything. Knowing you they are all really expensive and—”
“Price isn’t important. Whatever I give to you is because I wish you to have it. Pick a gift.” He cut her off as she rambled. Why did everything come back to money? Accept the gift already. Accept… Even in his own mind, he couldn’t voice his own desires.
“… Y-you.” Her eyes flew open along with her mouth. She seemed completely stunned.
“Excuse me?” Did I say something that was truly that shocking?
“If you want me to pick a gift. I chose to have one that is truly and completely one that is so expensive no amount of money could hope to cover it.” She seemed to be back to her usual self or at least the playful childish one he had grown to love. With a sheepish smile that only added to her charm, she planted both of her feet firmly in front of him like she was awaiting a firing squad. “I chose you. Will you be my gift?”
Her request had his own mind grind to a screeching halt. Nothing could have prepared him for that question. Even if he had in a moment of lucid daydreaming thought that she might for a moment suggest such a notion he still had no control over himself.
“Do you have any idea what you are asking me?” His shocked face was reflected in her eyes that were searching him, wondering what his reply would be.
“I just want to spend some time with you on my birthday. Eat a meal, hang out maybe go watch a movie. Is that so wrong?” Her voice grew quieter the more she spoke. Withdrawing into herself fear of rejection looming over her head as he continued to look in awe at the woman in front of him.
*Sigh* She really has no idea of what she does to me, does she?
“No not wrong at all. It is very you.” He drew her to him and gave her a hug. She felt stiff in his arms by the sudden change in proximity but quickly relaxed against his chest. “You got bolder.” His words brushed over the top of her head causing her to giggle at the way it tickled.
“I’m allowed to at least for one day out of the year.” She squeezed him back.
“Let me finish up here and I’ll meet you at reception.” He withdrew from her sharply not trusting himself any further without first taking a moment to compose himself.
“Ok!” She happily bounced out of his office the door clicking shut behind her completely unaware of how shaken she had left him.
He slipped his arms into the sleeves of his black suit jacket. Remembering those two small arms of hers putting in as much effort as she could to show him how much she appreciated him agreeing. We don’t give a gift to receive one in return but what would you say if I told you this right here is one of the best return gifts I’ve ever received?
He delved into the pocket and pulled out the key to his car as his eyes looked once more at the pile of unclaimed gifts.
“You could have had any of these and this is what you choose?... Idiot.”