”You look at that picture every day,” Una said, rolling her chair back to peek at Emma Jean around the cubicle wall. “When are you going to go?”
Emma Jean sighed and turned away. She’d clipped the picture from a calendar or something. She didn’t even know where in the world that beach, with its white woven hammock piled invitingly with pillows, was located.
“Never,” Emma Jean laughed, trying not to groan when she saw ten new unread messages in her inbox. She’d only turned away for a minute. “Every month I think I’ll get ahead of the bills but something always comes up,” she added, beginning to type a response.
“Don’t I know it,” agreed Una over the cubicle wall.
“And as if I could get two seconds to rub together, even if I was there,” added Emma Jean. “This morning I had such a hard time getting the husband and kids out the door with food and permission slips and clothing, I realized when I got to work that my blouse was on backwards, I hadn’t eaten, my own lunch is spoiling on the kitchen counter and I wasn’t wearing makeup. Beaches like that are for people who have something figured out that I don’t.”
“Preaching to the choir, sister,” Una sighed. “Oh, did you get the memo that you and Kay are doing the presentation today?”
Emma Jean groaned. “I thought it was you. It says it right here.” She pulled up the memo. “Una Majinativ and Kay Oss are to present…”
“Nope, the memo from this morning.”
“I swear, that whole department is a mess,” Emma Jean grumbled, gathering up her notes. “Imagine if we made that many mistakes.”
“We wouldn’t have jobs,” agreed Una, nodding to the delivery cart driver as he unloaded several towering stacks of paper onto her desk. “It’s going to be another eighty hour week,” she said through a sigh of resignation.
Emma Jean was studying her notes in the elevator when Kay joined her on the second level.
“I only got the memo this morning,” Emma Jean said, holding up her notes. “Do you know what you’re going to say?”
“Yes, I’ll fill in whatever you don’t cover,” said Kay.
Emma Jean’s stomach dropped.
“I don’t think I can do this,” she said, feeling sweat in her palms and worrying that she might have to shake hands.
“You have to talk to that guy in the Peace Department,” Kay said.
“What does the Peace Department need with me?” Emma Jean asked, her mouth going dry.
People from the Stress Department were never summoned to the upper levels. She was surprised the Peace Department even knew who she was.
“Need?” Kay repeated, shrugging. “Need is a strong word. Have you ever noticed how often people use that word when they mean want or desire?”
Emma Jean decided to drop the subject. If the Peace Department wanted to speak with her, they’d tell her what it was about. Right now, she needed to focus on what she was going to say in the presentation. She fought cold sweats as the elevator leveled itself out on the fourth floor. Her hands began tingling around about the time she and Kay came in view of the conference room and she realized that their audience had every executive branch represented.
When the presentation was finally, mercifully over, she took the elevator up to the eighth floor, to the Peace Department. The first thing she noticed when she stepped out of the elevator was the light. She hadn’t known it was possible to have so much light in an office building. Great windows let it in, and plants of every size and color filtered it into mesmerizing patterns across the sandstone floor.
“Welcome,” said an elegant woman sitting near a wall fountain.
“Hi, I was told that I was needed,” Emma Jean said uncertainly. “I’m Emma Jean Ayshun from the Stress Department.”
“I’ll find out who called on you,” the woman said, smiling warmly and indicating a cushioned seating area for Emma Jean to wait.
Not finding a clock anywhere in sight, Emma Jean checked her watch after the woman had sauntered away as if she’d never had to hurry in her life, and tried to calculate how many new messages would be waiting for her when she returned to her desk. After another minute her mind was cringing over each moment of the presentation she’d just bumbled through. Kay had been no help. In fact, she’d inflamed arguments on some points between the executive teams that had been completely unnecessary. Emma Jean wished there was someone to whom she could complain about the overall conduct of the Confusion Department. For some reason, people from the Stress Department were often paired up with people from the Confusion Department, and it usually meant more work for the Stress Department while the Confusion Department went on their merry way.
“Joy will see you,” the woman said, jolting Emma Jean from her thoughts.
Joy sat in a large office, spilling colored sand in intricate patterns onto a low table. Emma Jean couldn’t take her eyes off the artwork, or the slow, purposeful movements of the woman.
“Welcome,” Joy said, looking up and smiling serenely. “This visit is an unexpected delight. How may I help you?”
“Oh, you didn’t need me?” stammered Emma Jean, frustrated all over again with Kay. She looked down and realized she was clutching her fingers together so tightly they had gone numb. “Kay Oss from the Confusion Department said that you needed me,” she said, tucking her throbbing fingers behind her back.
Joy nodded and dipped her scoop into a new color of sand. “She said I needed you? Not the other way around?”
Emma Jean felt lost and out of her league. What skills did one need to have in order to work in the Peace Department, she wondered. It seemed like it would be worth the trouble of acquiring them. It wasn’t as if she was afraid of hard work…
“I’d like to find out what I need to do to work my way up to this department,” she said, feeling brazen.
Joy studied her with interest. “I believe Kay meant to say that you needed Calm,” she said, drifting colored sand in an intricate swoop over the design. “Start there.”
“Thank you,” Emma Jean said, “I apologize for wasting your time.”
Joy laughed and met Emma Jean’s gaze, stalling her retreat. “My time is never wasted,” said Joy. “Is yours?”
Joy’s words hounded Emma Jean during her ride down to the Stress Department. She had considered stopping in at the Calm Department, but knowing how much work was piling up back at her desk, she decided to let her little dream go.
“Don’t ask,” she groaned to Una’s inquisitive gaze when she slid into her seat.
“I don’t know,” said Una, “it couldn’t have gone too badly. The Peace Department scheduled an appointment for you tomorrow in the Calm Department. You must have wowed someone to be jumping all the way up there. Personally, I think I’d be too scared to go. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that presentation. I’m not smart on my feet like you are.”
Emma Jean was barely paying attention as she dove into her mountain of work that needed to be addressed by the end of the day. After a few minutes, though, she recognized that she wasn’t going to be very productive. Her mind kept going back to Joy and her question.
“Do you feel like you waste your time?” asked Emma Jean.
“Heavens no,” Una said. “That’s the Confusion Department’s job. I don’t have enough time in the day, but what time I do have, I’m using it as efficiently as possible.”
They shared a laugh. Emma looked again at the picture of the hammock, open and inviting in front of a turquoise sea and wondered what sort of picture Joy had on her wall to keep her motivated. She thought of that beautiful sand drawing.
“What if that isn’t the point?” she asked, though not necessarily loudly enough for Una to hear.
Comparing Joy’s work with her own, her first impulse was to assume that the difference was just a matter of privilege, and become upset over inequality in the world. What if she’d been missing the point though, all this time? Joy was in a position that held a certain amount of power in this corporation, and Emma Jean had always assumed that implied that Joy would be better at each job below her position than the others still working those jobs. That wasn’t it at all, though. Joy was good at her own job. She’d be terrible at Emma Jean’s. Emma Jean wondered if she’d be any good at Joy’s job, whatever that was. Probably not. Not yet.
Emma Jean was quiet through the afternoon, planning the ways she would need to change in order to become good at jobs like Joy’s. Joy had said to start with Calm, and that was exactly what she would do. She wouldn’t only study the jobs in the Calm Department, though, she’d study the qualities of the people. The next afternoon, Una frowned at her when she returned to her desk.
“You look different,” Una observed.
“Oh?” asked Emma Jean.
“The people in Calm smile. Have you ever noticed that?” Emma Jean mused.
“No,” Una shrugged. “Well, your meeting took a while. Have you seen the new memos from the Confusion Department?”
Emma Jean could see from the gleam in Una’s eye that she wouldn’t enjoy whatever she found in her inbox. She stopped before sitting down, though, and did another thing she’d noticed in the Calm Department. She took a deep breath. Not a sigh, but a good, solid breath, taking in the air as if savoring it and letting it out with a smile. She looked again at the hammock and smiled again. She’d seen pictures like this in the Calm Department. In fact, several of the people with whom she’d spoken had taken the photos themselves.
“I learned the simplest, most important thing today,” she told Una through the cubicle wall.
“Oh?” prompted Una, though Emma Jean could tell she wasn’t really paying attention.
“I learned that anything is possible. We just have to make the choice. It’s like rearranging furniture, in your mind. You just move things around so that your mind is the place you want to be.”
There was a long silence from Una’s side of the cubicle.
“One meeting in the Calm Department and you’re starting to talk gibberish,” she said at last.
Emma laughed. She smiled at the hammock in the photo, for the first time confident that she would go there someday. Already she could hear her children splashing in the water. She could see her husband swinging in the hammock, holding it open for her to snuggle in beside him.
“I’m practicing,” she said. “They offered me a position.”
Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome athttp://www.farsideofdreams.com. Please help support this indie author by telling your friends about this short story blog and buying W. C. McClure’s books http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!