With my second work week on its final leg, things seem to slow down just a tad and I feel like I can finally catch my breath. But there isn’t the slightest inkling of the usual “TGIF” sentimentality you find in other workplaces. At least, not that I can see. The atmosphere is as sober and demanding as a typical Monday morning when I step into my office. I exhale, genuinely wishing it was as the weight of a day I’ve come to dread hinges on my shoulders, the muscles beneath them stiff as oven-dried bark when I shrug my blazer off.
Don’t think about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t think a—
A vivid splash of red catches the corner of my eye while I’m hooking it to the metal coat rack. I turn toward the source, my thoughts halting at the distraction. A salient, long-stemmed rose takes up residence on my desk, sitting diagonally atop a note.
My brows furrow as I approach it, peering down at the lone plant in a mesh of confusion, surprise and suspicion. Lush, velvety petals flare and converge in thick, alternating layers, saturated in scarlet; simultaneously bold and soft. Daring and dainty. Bloody and sensual.
I pick it up, bringing it to my nose instinctively and inhaling. My eyes flutter closed, detecting an understated, almost imperceptible mesh of soil and sunshine amid notes of honey and pine. Like it was freshly cut from a garden.
I regard it, taking generous whiffs between a panoramic view as I rotate the smooth stem between my fingers. Despite my love for botany, I’ve never really been a “flowers girl” in the usual sense, having preferred to admire them in nature—as nature intended.
Then again…I’ve never actually gotten any before.
Not even from my parents. On birthdays, graduations, or any other special occasions—never mind Valentine’s Day.
I flip the note over, my eyes instantly fluttering in tandem with my heart at handwritten words I don’t expect.
I exhale, a rush of something I’d rather not put a name to hitting me like a boulder straight to the face.
Countless more broken breaths leave me in quick succession, my chest spasming, suddenly finding it hard to swallow. The short, simple words instantly gentrify my mind, evicting everything else it houses.
Approximately five hours later, it’s practically bursting at the seams with mortification, feeling immeasurably stupid and embarrassed for that magnificently erroneous sentiment.
The cafeteria teems with an oomph that simply wasn’t there last week, markedly animated, different from the ambiance I’ve come to expect during my short stay. And the polar opposite of my current, energy-drained countenance.
Frowning in spite of myself, I scoop up another heaping spoonful of frozen tapioca, my mood turning as sour as the fermented delight. But the guilty pleasure offers little in the way of gratification as I swallow wistfully, regarding the giddy expressions of everyone around. Up until I walked in here, I was giddy myself.
Right until the very moment I realized every single employee in the company also received roses, identical to mine—along with the exact same note.
“Earth to Reau. Hello? Anybody there?” My eyes dart to Leah’s questioning gaze, searching mine for signs of life. “Or maybe you’d respond better to ‘Earth Capital‘ to Reau?”
I grin sheepishly. “Sorry. What were you saying?”
I uphold a feigned smile, hoping to veil the fact that I’ve been zoned out from the moment she made me aware of those details.
“You seem a bit out of it today,” she says observantly.
So much for trying to save face.
“Just work kicking my butt,” I lie.
But she seems to lap it up without question, nodding as she stabs at a particularly large garbanzo bean with her fork.
“I hear you. But don’t worry. You’ll get used to the way things are done around here with time.”
Somehow, I highly doubt that.
“I know how intimidating it can be in the beginning,” she smiles encouragingly. “Believe me, I felt the same pressure when I was just getting started. Hell, with this project, there’re times I feel brand new all over again.”
I appreciate her empathetic words but, like the tapioca, they do little to quell my current, unrelated state of mind. Thankfully, Leah doesn’t seem to notice.
“It’s why gestures like these go a long way in boosting company morale,” she signals to the note beside her.
My eyes follow the motion against my better judgment, landing on the identical card again after she pulled it out of her purse to show me mine was far from its only copy after seeing another woman momentarily place hers on one of the countertops to grab a slushy.
“Oh my god, I can’t wait to add this to my collection!” a chipper, freckled girl gushes from the table closest to ours, smiling from ear to ear, staring almost fanatically at her note, as if her eyes were coded for just that purpose.
“I know!” her lunch mate concurs from the other end, loud and unabashed. “No matter how many times he does this, it’s like the first time all over again.”
“That’s what she said!”
The pair openly snicker at that, laughing boisterously and carrying on without a care of who might be listening in, wrapped up in their own little world; centered around the bountiful, benevolent gestures of our highly-esteemed boss.
Under normal circumstances, I’d be humored by their comical banter, perhaps even crack a laugh or two.
Instead, I’m irritated.
Mostly with myself.
I force my eyes away from them, trying my damnedest to ignore their admirative, heavily-innuendo-ed remarks about their Valentine’s notes—and the man responsible for their existence.
“How many employees are there at Zanergy?” I ask suddenly, the question spawned by both Leah’s comment and those of the ‘squeal twins’ behind us.
She purses her lips, placing a finger against them thoughtfully. “Hmmm, I think the company crossed the hundred thousand milestone at the end of the last fiscal year. That’s including subsidiaries, offices abroad, and operative locations outside HQ. It’s crazy. No matter how much the company grows, Mr. Zane always makes sure he writes one for every single person, every single year.”
I cock my head to the side, my brow arching. “Wait, so…he actually wrote these?” My eyes flit to her note and back again. “All of them?”
She nods emphatically, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin as she swallows the last of her hearty salad. “I know, right? I didn’t believe it when I first got here. I mean, who the heck writes individual notes for their employees—let alone tens of thousands of them?”
But then she shrugs, her eyes mirroring a sense of what I can only describe as…endorsement.
“It blew my mind all the way to the stone age and back at first. Still does, to be honest. Can’t even say I’ve become acclimated to the idea. I just try not to think about it too much,” she smiles. “The only thing I can say is, Atlas Zane precedes his reputation by so many margins not even he could measure.”
Long after lunch is over, Leah’s words continue to resonate in my head, sparring with work-related information for my dwindling attention—and winning. Scrolling through digital piles of seemingly-endless paperwork, I still find myself both amazed and incredulous by the notion of one individual taking the time to single-handedly—no pun intended—write notes, one by one, for every person at his company. Including temporary workers like myself. I’m awestruck, in sheer disbelief that such a feat is even possible.
And for such a busy man.
A hundred thousand people…
There’s no way he could have done it all by himself. That would take at least a few hundred hours to complete. He must’ve used—or built—some sort of typography device capable of duplicating his handwriting. Or enlisted the help of a highly-skilled team of calligraphists—
As soon as the thought forms, it triggers another.
One hundred thousand dollars.
Inadvertently, my eyes fall on the digital clock in the upper right-hand corner of my tablet, the hairs on the back of my neck rising.
I set the device down before my suddenly twitchy fingers drop it. I exhale brokenly against severe knotting in my stomach, reluctantly rising from my chair in tandem with the rigid follicles at my nape.