Alarms ring early, too early. My eyes matted shut, I stumble blindly toward the noise. No sooner do I flop onto the bed than Stipple bounds into the room and onto the bed.
“Wake up!” He is far too chipper and my head rebukes him, though he doesn’t know. “Wake up! We’ve got a new transportation schedule to work out. You can’t very well all ride the same bus together.”
I respond but my words are lost into the mattress.
“What’s that? I — CAN’T — HEAR — YOU!”
Lifting my head barely off the bed, I say, “I’m keeping my schedule. Everybody else can figure out a new one.”
“Ooh. Very grumpy cat this morning.”
“Leave her alone,” Cindi says. They kiss in wet smacks. I pull my pillow over my head. Cindi pulls it off a moment later. “He’s gone.”
I push my way to sitting. “I should call in sick.”
“Yeah, that’ll be just peachy! You should do that.”
“Peachy?” I laugh and she joins me. “I must be getting old.”
“Yes. Yes, you are.” She hops off the bed and tells me I have fifteen minutes to catch my bus. I throw the pillow but it hits the closing door.
Crash quizzes Wicker on her address and telephone number. Fields, they tell me, has changed three times. Cali has Otis, Blight, Helium, Glow, and Breeze in one corner. They argue the finer points of mass transportation.
“I told Birch I’d be an hour late,” I tell Cindi.
“Okay by me, but don’t expect a glowing recommendation from him.”
“Or a date,” Stipple says.
“You know I won’t need either,” I say, dignified.
“I don’t know,” Stipple says, moving out of arm’s reach, “the date couldn’t hurt.”
An hour-and-a-half later, I sit in the conference room with Birch. He wears his I-am-ridiculously-disappointed-in-you face. I want to break the news that I won’t be his problem much longer, but I don’t.
“We can’t afford this.”
He doesn’t speak for so long, I ask, “What can’t we afford, exactly?”
“This! This coming in late, clearly hung over, a slim two weeks before we need this bill to go through the Senate!”
“Oh? That’s your answer? Oh? You went from being a peasant, a lowly squire reaching ever upward for crumbs, to being a knight coming through with some legacy-inducing legislation. Did you enjoy being a peasant? Is it your greatest dream in life to write the same old updates on the same old ratty bills from the same old dank cube forever?”
I laugh at inappropriate times. It’s a thing with me. I don’t want to laugh. I shouldn’t laugh. But I do anyway.
Birch throws up his hands in surrender.
“I’m sorry,” I say, regaining some measure of composure. “Really, I’m sorry. I laugh when I’m nervous. You should have seen me at my grandmother’s funeral.”
He looks at me as if seeing a mad and dangerous individual.
“Sorry,” I repeat. “I know, I should have gone to sleep last night and waited to celebrate. But I was so,” I hesitate, searching for any word that might ring true, “relieved that we made the deadline. It won’t happen again.” Is my face contrite? I try but annoyance seems to be fighting for its own expression.
Birch stiffens, pulls his vest down in front. When he finally makes eye contact, his arrogance rankles me. In some fit of passion, I want to take back my apology.
“You are correct. It will not happen again,” he says evenly, “unless I’m there with you.” He leaves me sitting alone, wondering what just happened.