Being the head of the International Asian Desk meant that Carmilla lived on coffee. If Asia was awake then she was awake, which meant living with the sleep schedule of a vampire and surviving on the diet of a college student during final exams. Still, there were advantages to pulling the night shift. Less lackwit co-workers to deal with. No rush hour. No upper management looming over her shoulder. Total control of the coffee machine.
The important things.
Carmilla had her nights down to an artform. Roll in the door at exactly 11pm. Elevator to the 37th floor. Turn on the coffee machine. Boot up the computer. Retrieve coffee. Check email. Delete all emails from buffoons. Answer emails. Check markets. Retrieve coffee again. Settle in to put out whatever fires may spring to life.
Every night was the same and Carmilla like the predictability of it all. The same until tonight.
Someone had stolen her coffee mug. Carmilla narrowed her eyes and stared into the cupboard. Nothing. She moved on, flinging all the cupboards open in case some idiot had just decided to move the mug. Nothing. Finally, she gritted her teeth, shut all the cupboards, and re-opened them.
Just in case.
Still no beautiful navy mug with a black cat on it. Her black cat mug. One that was clearly different from the plain white mugs that the company supplied for all its staff. Which was exactly why she’d bought it in the first place.
Grumbling, Carmilla grabbed one of the stupid white mugs, filled it up, and stomped over to her desk. She made it to the second cup before she absently reached for her coffee mug, missed, and spilled lukewarm liquid all over her desk.
“For all the frilly hell,” Carmilla jumped back from her desk, sweeping papers clear of the brown flood. The stupid white mug had a handle that was too fat and it didn’t have the proper coffee volume to mug height ratio and was nearly impossible to spot out of the corner of her eye.
A ball of papertowel dropped onto the desk, “Problem Kitty?” Will smirked at her from his desk, crumpling up another sheet of papertowel lobbing it over like he was trying to make a 3-point jump shot.
She started mopping up the mess, “Some lackwit on the day shift stole my mug.”
Will pretended to look affronted, “Well, how dare they.”
“Dude,” Kirsch said, pushing off his desk to roll past Carmilla’s desk in his wheely chair, “Is that why you’ve been a bucket of grump today?”
Carmilla was beginning to regret the casual environment she’d tried to curate with those working under her.
“Cause you’ve like,” Kirsch continued, “been huffing under your breath and typing really loud.”
Carmilla shot him a look and dumped her entire pile of wet papers on his lap, “If you have time to notice my huffing then you have time to reprint all of these while I’m on my call with Tokyo.”
“Did you take it, William?” the next day found Carmilla looming over Will’s desk. She crossed her arms and tapped her toe against the ground, “because I would remind you that I do, in fact, control your performance review and therefore your salary.”
Will raised his hands in mock surrender, “Whoa now, Miss Karnstein ma’am. I know better than to snatch your mug. After yesterday, I would have returned the mug if I had it during that little breakdown at 4am.”
Carmilla scowled. It hadn’t been a breakdown and it wasn’t her fault that the stupid white mug had spilled for a second time all over her fresh 130 page report.
“You try leaving a note in the kitchen?” Kirsch covered the mouthpiece of the phone against his ear.
“Please,” Carmilla scoffed, “A passive aggressive note is not going to deter a thief.”
Kirsch shrugged and turned back to his phone call, mouthing the words, “It couldn’t hurt.”
Will shrugged and turned back to his own desk, “Just figure something out boss or you’ll be stuck with those white mugs.”
Despite her best efforts, the next 4 hours did nothing to help her create a better plan than Kirsch’s note suggestion. After a completely unsuccessful phone meeting where she’d barely managed to avoid spilling coffee all over her lap, Carmilla caved.
Grabbing the unused pack of sticky notes in the drawer of her desk, Carmilla scrawled a simple note:
“To The Mug Thief:
Please return the stolen black cat mug before I fire all of my employees from lack of coffee.”
Then, avoiding Will and Kirsch, Carmilla stuck the note to the inside of the kitchen’s cupboard.
She hadn’t actually been expecting anything when she’d put the note up but, low and behold, the next night her mug was sitting in its proper place in the cupboard. The familiar black cat smirking at her for the apparent power it had over her life.
Carmilla snatched it from the cupboard, carefully running her hand along the rim to check for any scratches. None. When Carmilla flipped it over to check the bottom for cracks, a bright yellow piece of paper floated to the floor.
She picked it up. The sticky note was covered in a loopy penmanship:
“Dear Mug Owner:
I am so so so sorry for taking your mug. I just saw it in the cupboard every day and assumed that no-one was using it. Please don’t fire your employees. I’d really like to make it up to you. Do you have any allergies? How do you feel about chocolate?
Super Sorry Mug Borrower”
Carmilla frowned down at the note before slipping it into her pocket, wondering who exactly this Mug Thief was. Probably a she, if the loopy writing and little heart was any indication. Still, it didn’t matter. Carmilla had her mug. Her coffee.
All was right with the world
She scrawled a quick note on the back of the note and stuck it to the cupboard door
“Just don’t do it again. Mug Thief.”
When she opened the cupboard the next evening there was another note, another bright yellow sticky taped to the outside of the mug just below the cat’s head.
“Dear Mug Owner:
Still super sorry about taking your mug but I’m still going to point out that I didn’t steal it. I borrowed it. Temporarily. There’s something in the fridge for you to make it up to you!
Still Super Sorry Mug Borrower”
Smirking at the underlined word. Carmilla let curiosity get the better of her. Leaving her steaming mug on the counter, she opened the small employee fridge. There was a small tupperware with another bright sticky. This one said,
“I figure everyone likes chocolate! Please keep out if this wasn’t meant for you!” There was a smiley face drawn on the note.
Carmilla popped the lid on the container open to find a small chocolate cupcake. It even had a small smiley face drawn across the top in pink icing. Figuring that Kirsch would eat it if she didn’t, Carmilla brought the cupcake to her desk.
It was the bright spot after a particularly aggravating 3:30am phone call with a petulant child of a customer.
At 6am she was halfway out the door before she backtracked to her desk and grabbed another sticky note.
“Well now Mug Thief, it seems as though your baking is better than your handwriting would imply.”
The next night, Carmilla found a return note:
“There is absolutely nothing wrong with my handwriting! Besides if my baking is phenomenal then that implies my handwriting is fabulous. Check fridge.
Later that night, as the sun was just rising, Carmilla chowed down on the vanilla cupcake and wrote:“I take it back then. Your baking is as atrocious as your handwriting. Not to mention your thievery skills. I mean come on Mug Thief, dotting your i with a heart? Are you a sixteen year old girl?”
The next day Carmilla got what appeared to be a red velvet cupcake and a new note:“First of all, there’s nothing wrong with 16 year old girls in general but if it’s non formal communications then there’s nothing wrong with a few flourishes. Besides you’ve got the most pristine handwriting. It’s like straight out of a textbook on penmanship. So I should infer that you’re an elderly, high class lady.”
Carmilla smiled down at the note, she wasted no time in her response, “Lady, yes. High class, not quite. Elderly, definitely not.”
“What’s got you actually smiling,” Kirsch handed over a stack of binders.
“Nothing that’s your business,” Carmilla covered the note with some files and looked up at her employee who was grinning down at her, “What?”
He shrugged and walked away. It wasn’t until he got across the room that he shouted back to her, “You’ve got icing on your face!”
The notes quickly became the highlight of Carmilla’s night. The next note came attached to some kind of rainbow cupcake: “It was a factual guess! I mean you said you’ve got employees so it would make sense that you’re older. Say hi to your staff by the way. I hope my borrowing didn’t get them fired.”
Carmilla shook her head as she wrote back, “I wouldn’t actually fire them Thief. You know you don’t have to keep bribing me with baked goods to minimize my wrath or something.”
The next note got taped to the inside of Carmilla’s drawer where she could see it every time she went for a staple or paperclip. The thief wrote: “Maybe I like baking for you.” The note had been accompanied by nearly a dozen cupcakes.
“Well now cupcake,” Carmilla wrote once she had gotten her head wrapped around the idea that this crazy person actually wanted to do something for her, “maybe I like your baking.”
“And my penmanship?” came the reply.
That night Carmilla let a full smile bloom as she wrote, “No Cupcake. Your penmanship is still atrocious. I hope you don’t write very many handwritten reports.”
If the last note from the cupcake girl had made Carmilla smile, the next note hit her full in the chest, “Well we could always actually meet up. You know. So you don’t have to stare at my ‘atrocious’ handwriting or whatever. Not that I’m admitting it’s bad. I’m just saying. Clearly it bothers you.” As if to contradict her entire statement, the Cupcake had covered the sticky note in little drawings of flowers and hearts and smiling bumblebees.
Carmilla strongly considered agreeing to meet. After all, communicating a few sentences at a time had proven more than frustrating and the girl did intrigue her. Then she shook her head at herself. Better the illusion of something than to meet and have it all fall to pieces.
“Sorry cupcake,” Carmilla wrote, “I’ve got to maintain my air of mystery somehow now don’t I?” However, Carmilla found herself sketching a cat on the back of the note during a particularly boring meeting.
If the cupcake was upset, she didn’t show it, “Well you’ve got to tell me something about yourself so I don’t feel like I’m flirting with stranger danger! It can be anything you want. For example, I love Doctor Who, I’ve got this wicked cough that I can’t quite shake, and I have a mildly unhealthy sugar food obsession. PS The cat drawing was super cute!”
Carmilla read and reread the note, considering what she could actually tell this girl. Nothing seemed the right blend of personal and not-to-personal. After tapping her pen on the desk for minutes, the answer finally came to her as she was staring out the window at the night sky during yet another speech from a boring client.
Clicking the pen twice, Carmilla wrote, “Well cupcake. I’ve always been fond of stars. I find them comforting. The idea that we’re so small and insignificant in comparison to them.”
The next day she got her reply, “Maybe it’s our insignificance that makes us and the good things so important. Like part of an infinite tapestry that we can never hope to see but still contribute to.” Carmilla blinked at the words, rubbing her thumb along the edge of the note. Eventually she noticed the small arrow pointing to the reverse of the note. She flipped it over to find, “Also you’ve GOT to be a philosophy major or something.”
Carmilla’s laugh startled Kirsch awake from where he was dozing.
They’d been communicating by sticky notes for nearly a month and a half when the notes and the cupcakes suddenly stopped coming. Carmilla would find the sticky notes she left still stuck to the cupboard when she came in every evening. When the pile up of notes hit a three weeks, she took them down and slammed them into the garbage. She tried not to read them but couldn’t quite help catching a few.
“Oh come on Cupcake. Just say the word and I will totally get your ex fired if she’s annoying you. I mean, it’s been a year. Girl needs to move on.”
“Well, well, cupcake. Nice to let me know that you’re taking a vacation.”
“Everything alright cupcake?”
“It’s not about your terrible penmanship. I just miss my cupcakes. I’ve gotten use to the sugar fix.”
“Cupcake. Call me. extension 3987”
Carmilla kicked the garbage can, letting it smash into her desk with a bang. Kirsh and Will jumped, looked up briefly, then went back to staring at their work. Heads bowed. She knew why. She’d been moody and irritable ever since the notes had stopped coming. First, she’d tried to put it off as sugar withdrawal. Then it was because her routine was mixed up.She missed the cupcakes.
Now she was just ready to admit that she missed The Cupcake.
It had to have been something she’d said. The Cupcake had told her when she was going to be away for one day. Surely she would have mentioned a lengthy vacation or a job transfer. Carmilla had done it again. Messed up one of the few good things in her life.
Although she wasn’t quite sure what it was. The last note she’d gotten had seemed the opposite of bad: “My ex is hovering again. She seems to think I’m fragile and in need of protection. I don’t suppose you want to come up here and beat her off with a sword or something?”
But it had to be her fault. It was always Carmilla’s fault. She couldn’t hold onto a good thing because the universe knew better than to believe she deserved it.
Another week passed with no word from The Cupcake. Carmilla tried to track her down, just to see if she was okay, but without access to HR files Carmilla knew her chances of finding one girl in an office of hundreds was nearly impossible.
She was scanning through public employee profiles when Kirsch stopped in front of her desk.
Carmilla didn’t look up, choosing to squint at the photo of a blonde in her quest to find the cupcake, “Shouldn’t you be headed home?”
There was no reply.
It wasn’t the blonde. Carmilla kept searching, “If you’re going to say something Kirsh, just say it.”
The words came pouring out of his mouth, “I know who the cupcake girl is.”
Carmilla’s head whipped up, “What?”
Kirsch was rubbing his neck with his hand, eyes on his shoes, “Yeah. I mean. I met her at one of the company picnics. We started around the same time. So I’ve known her for a while now. She’s a total bro.” He dropped his hand to his side but still didn’t met Carmilla’s eyes, “But I didn’t realize that she was your cupcake girl until I saw her yesterday and she mentioned this person at work that she’d been sending cupcakes to.” Finally he looked up, “Karnstein, you need to go see her.”
Carmilla’s fists were tight as she clenched the items in her hands, weaving through the building’s hallway and trying to ignore the heavy smell of antiseptic that hung in the air. She fought of the sense that this was the stupidest thing she’d ever done and pressed forward, following the puppy’s directions for navigating the maze of winding hallways.
She paused outside the door and took a deep breath. Walking maybe a foot into the room, she looked at the 4 beds and then said quietly, “Laura Hollis?”
“That’s me!” came a cheerful voice to her right.
Carmilla’s swallow felt like lead as she turned towards the bed. Then she blinked at the sight. There was sunshine sitting in that bed in the form of a tiny brunette with a crooked smile, bedhead, and eyes that seemed to spark with energy, all wrapped up in not one but two hospital gowns. One on right. One on backwards.
“Hi!” Laura said again, “can I help you with something?”
Carmilla forced the lead swallow down and launched into the speech she’d been running through her head, “Actually, I think I’m here to help you with something.” She mentally applauded, not a terrible opener, “See, there’s this girl at my work who has been spoiling me with cupcakes and I haven’t given her anything in return which doesn’t seem fair so I was hoping to make it for it now.” As she spoke, Carmilla reached into bag clenched between her fingers and pulled out a small foam sword, “See, I brought this because I was called to defend against ex-girlfriends as though I’m some knight in shining armour.” Out came a tupperware. Carmilla avoided looking at Laura as she gently placed in on the table, pulling back the lid to reveal a chocolate cupcake with tiny silver star sprinkles. “And I brought this because I figure it’s my turn to provide the baked goods.” The last item was heavy in her hand, “And I brought this because I heard that someone might need it more than I do.”
She laid the cat mug next to the cupcake, trying to ignore the annoying feeling that she just gone way over the acceptable sappiness meter with the stick note saying “hi Cupcake”, attached to the mug.
There was a pause, heavy in the room as it settled on Carmilla’s shoulder.
“Um,” Laura said at last, “I think you may have the wrong room?”
Carmilla’s gaze flew up and a swear word escaped her mouth as she took a step back.
Finally her eyes met Laura’s. The deep brown looked so serious until it suddenly broke into a thousand tiny stars and twinkles.
“Sorry!” Laura said, “Sorry. Bad joke.” Carmilla’s heart settled back into it’s chest. “This is genuinely the sweetest thing that anyone’s ever done for me and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it so my mouth just blurted something out before my brain could really analyze if it was the best option. Which it wasn’t.”
Carmilla face was torn between a scowl and a smile, “I’m taking back my mug.”
“No way,” Laura snatched it to her chest, “do you know what a sacrifice it was to return it to you? This thing has perfect coffee level to mug height ratio!”
“Sacrifice?” Carmila inched closer, “you stole it.”
“Borrowed!” Laura said immediately.
Carmilla shook her head, “I’m never caving on that one, cupcake.”
Laura grinned and scooted over, clasping the mug to her chest and patting the edge of her bed for Carmilla to sit, “I wouldn’t want you to. Now I know we’ve got weeks to catch up on, and I really do want to hear about your idiot client with the funny beard. But first things first! I’d really really really like to know your name.”
Carmilla gingerly sat on the edge of the bed. Laura took her hand in hers and Carmilla didn’t even bother to fight off the tiny sparks that went whistling through her body.
“I’m Carmilla, sweetheart.”