Milo was struck
He knew it was
lightning because once, when he was a kid, he’d gone camping
near the top of San Jacinto and a thunderstorm had come up
right in the camp. He and the other kids had huddled in their
sleeping bags under plastic ground-cloths folded over to
keep out the rain while great bolts of lightning had flashed
sideways through the camp, splintering a dozen trees, covering
one of the adults with wood-chips blown out of a pine tree,
filling the camp with the smell of ozone and making everyone’s
hair stand on end. It had been a joyful, terrifying experience
and he remembered it vividly. So when he was struck by lightning
thirty years later he knew exactly what it was.
What he didn’t
understand was how he’d been struck when, as far as he could
remember, he’d been standing indoors. Was, in fact, still
standing indoors, in the kitchen-like vestibule near his
cubical where the coffee maker lived. Unharmed, as far as
he could tell.
been lightning-stuck though. There wasn’t a mark on him but
his hair, or what was left of it around the ever-expanding
bald spot, was standing on end and his shoes were smoking.
When he took a step forward he saw that the rubber soles
had melted right off the leather uppers and onto the tile
floor with the gel insoles he’d started wearing two years
ago stuck in the goo, leaving the uppers flapping loosely
over his bare, unscorched feet.
Where were his
socks? Details were a little confused but Milo was sure he
usually wore socks. There were no socks in evidence now.
He lifted the cuffs of his slacks to check. Just bare, hairy
legs; one for each cuff. Maybe he’d been rushed this morning,
or unable to find a clean pair?
the only things missing. There was no coffee-maker on the
Formica counter near the sink. No fridge beside it either.
There was a space for a fridge, an abrupt end to the counter
despite a continuation of the overhead cabinets suitably
raised to accommodate a full-sized refrigerator, but the
flooring in that space was unmarked. No dust, no black footprint
to mar the neutral pattern of the tile. No discoloration
of the wall-paint to show an appliance had ever graced this
Nothing in the
alcove showed any sign of habitation except the two blubs
of rubber now cooling into the tile that marked where he’d
been standing. Milo stepped out, off the tile of the break
area and into the cheery blue of the office carpet. It felt
soft and clean and new under his bare feet.
The office was
silent. Not quiet like it was when Milo stayed late to finish
some timely report due the next day and all his co-workers
left before him, but silent. There was no hum of computer
fans, no crinkle of Post-it notes and cut-out comics swaying
in the breeze of the A.C. He looked into the first cubical,
which belonged to Stan Williams, sales guru and office clown,
but it was empty. Just slate-blue cloth cubical walls and
an unused desk. No computer, no filing cabinets, no chair.
Not even dust.
the cubical maze like a mouse in a lab and everywhere it
was the same. No chairs, no computers, no office furnishings
beyond simple desks, desks without drawers, mere faux-wood
benches of desk-like potential, all the same. He looked for
his cubical, his special place of belonging where he did
his work but he wasn’t certain he found it. They were all
the same and they were all empty.
Empty also were
the offices that lined the perimeter of the cubical farm.
No brass plates slid into the holders beside each door, no
signs of occupation. Just clean, unused desks, though the
offices had chairs as well; cheap, impersonal swivel chairs
with plastic backs and cloth seats. The office blinds were
He crossed an
office, splayed two vanes of a venetian blind with his fingers
to peek out the window. Sunlight glinted off another office
building. He could not see the ground from here, could not
see past the glare on the glass of the other office building.
He crossed the cubical farm again, shoe uppers flapping on
his bare feet, to the corner office on the other side. There
he pulled the cord to raise the blinds and stared out the
And saw another
office building, blue-glass windows between panels of pebble-textured
concrete wall, with closed blinds. He looked down. From here
Milo could make out the ground around the buildings, with
concrete walkways between fake stone planters filled with
neatly trimmed low evergreen plants. Small trees dotted the
evergreen hedges like mile-markers along a highway, and neatly
tended lawn hid behind the planters. Nothing moved; no breeze
stirred the leafless branches of the trees, no stray papers
tumbled along the walk edge. It was like the office, pristine
and still. Unoccupied.
Yanking the cord
on the other blinds revealed another faceless building. Something
stirred in a window partway down, but Milo couldn’t make
it out. He dashed out of the corner office and partway down
the floor to the middle office near the elevators. He raised
the blinds and there, right across from him in the other
building, was a girl.
Hair stood out
in all directions from her head, frizzy not-quite-blonde
hair. She was wearing a light-colored dress covered with
little flowers. Milo waved his arms, frantically crossing
them over his head, but she couldn’t see him. The same sun
that’d blinded him when he looked the other way blinded her.
Milo backed out
of the empty office and looked out across the silent cubical
farm. What was it that he did here? He wasn’t sure. Whatever
it was, he wasn’t doing it now. He crossed over to the elevators
and pushed the down button.
No light came
on. The elevators were as quiet as the office. Across from
them, behind a brass-handled door he’d never opened, the
stairs. The stairwell was like the office, clean, new, unused,
and empty. The stairs were grey-painted metal planks with
raised cross-hatched markings and matching grey railings,
never meant for workers filing in and out, just emergency
evacuations. This seemed an emergency to Milo. His feet had
grown accustomed to the clean soft newness of the carpet.
The metal stairs were cold, the hatch-marks sharp-edged against
their soft, uncalloused flesh. Four flights of stairs took
him to the lobby. He wasn’t even temped to test the other
floors for occupancy.
Outside the air
was crisp, a pleasant coolness. The smooth concrete pathways
burned cold under his feet. He threaded the meaningless greenery
to the next building, checking for signs of motion. The building
lobby was as still as the one he’d left. Milo stepped off
the path and worked his way around the building on the soft
green lawn. He had to step over a planter to get back to
the path as he came opposite the doors. The glass-paneled
doors swung open silently when he pushed. That was good;
Milo had been half afraid they’d be locked.
The lobby was
the opposite layout of his building’s, mirrored sameness.
Elevators where stairs ran in his, just as dead as in his
building. He pushed open the stairwell and started up the
grey metal stairs. A sound came from above; door opening,
soft foot falls.
Her feet came
into view on the stairs above and Milo stopped. They were
clean, pretty feet with nails painted light pink, the strap
of a shoe still dangling from one ankle. Their owner worked
her way slowly down the hatched stairs, and as she turned
and looked down at Milo he stepped back, stunned. The snub
nose, the light freckles marking her warm skin, the flowering
dress over her slight frame, her poor, poor hair all askew.
She was perfect.
“Uhh, hi!” Milo
knew it was the dumbest thing he could possibly start off
with, banal and content free. He never could talk to girls.
She stared at him for a moment like a deer caught in the
headlights of a semi-truck and he was sure he’d emerge from
this with his record of success unaltered. Then she responded.
“Hi.” For a long
minute Milo thought that would be the whole of it, like a
hundred thousand encounters with the opposite sex had gone
for him. Then she continued. “I’m Laura.”
Laura, that was
promising. She stared at him uncertain, and Milo realized
she was expecting some sort of reply. “Uhh, I’m Milo.” Was
he going to start every sentence off with that annoying uhh? “From
the next building over.”
“I didn’t see
anybody there,” Laura said, talking breathlessly, “I couldn’t
see past the glare.”
“I saw you.” Milo
assured her. Well, he hoped he was assuring her. He sounded
stupid to his own ears. “You want to get lunch?”
down her hair, sending a static charge crackling along her
fingers. “Maybe something quick?”
“A dog?” Milo
ventured. “There’s usually a cart-guy around the corner.”
He held the door,
to the lobby, to the walk outside. Birds chirped in the distance.
A pigeon cooed, ambling past their path. Their hands clasped
as they waited for the elegant-feathered vermin to pass by.
Around the corner,
the vendor stood at his cart.
“Two dogs,” Milo
said, glancing at Laura. “Everything?” She nodded and smiled. “Two
dogs with everything.”
“Here you guys
are,” the vendor held out two steaming dogs already covered
with various vegetables. He handed her a dog and she took
a bite. Juice, steaming hot, spurted out of the dog as she
bit it, and she smiled. Together Milo and Laura walked back
between their respective office buildings.
“Can I call you
after work?” Milo asked.
“You can call
me what you want, but I answer to Laura,” she said, and then
she gave him her number. He walked her back to her door,
busy people walked around them. There was a crowd in the
elevator he put her on. He had to hustle back to work.
His building was
crowded now as well. He couldn’t quite understand the looks
he got while waiting for the elevator. He got off on his
floor and headed back to his cubical. Steve from the next
cube met him along the way. “Dude,” Steve said in a whisper, “where
are your shoes?”