Last Monday morning, I installed a new lamp in my office, right above my four-tier filing cabinet. When I turned the lamp on, it burst light throughout the room, bouncing off metal, refracting through glass, and revealing dust I didn’t anticipate ever seeing with such clarity. I shielded my eyes. The lamp was too bright.
Mr. Inglethorpe knocked lightly on my open office door.
“Malcolm, this is Alex. She will be filling in for Natasha this week. I’m afraid Natasha has fallen ill,” he said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Alex, it’s nice to meet you. Welcome aboard.”
“Thank you, Mr. Sharpe,” Alex said.
“Malcolm, if you would, please show Alex to the reception area,” Mr. Inglethorpe said. “And, get rid of that miserable lamp. It’s far too bright for Inglethorpe & Cavendish. The recessed lighting provides sufficient lumens. There is no need for such imprudent brightness.” Inglethorpe turned away and waddled down the hall as a penguin wearing a monocle would.
Alex and I walked to the reception area. Her pupils were like pinholes, smaller than any I had ever seen.
“Where are you from?” I asked
“Oh, here and there.”
Alex wore a professional black skirt, a light blue shirt, and a black petit blazer. Her unblemished, tan skin reminded me of summer. Her straight, shoulder length hair barely moved as she walked beside me. As we walked, her pupils widened, returning to normal.
I hate uncomfortable silences. Whenever I get queasy from the inevitable quiet that creeps in between me and someone I just met, I tell a joke. “How do you know if a drummer is at the door?” I asked.
“How?” she said.
“He keeps knocking and doesn’t know when to come in.”
She did not laugh.
“Is this my station?”
“Yes,” I said. I took her through the telephone protocols, mainly how she was to send all attorney calls to voice mail or to direct the caller to send an email to the attorney they are trying to reach.
“Paralegals and administrative assistants can receive calls directly,” I continued. “That’s because the attorneys have to conflict check before even speaking to—“
“I’ve worked in a law office before, Malcolm,” she said.
I straightened my suit jacket. “Of course, Alex. Please let me know if you need any assistance.”
I turned and walked back to my office, but then I stopped and turned around.
“California?” I asked.
“Excuse me?” she replied.
“You’re from California. You don’t have a detectable accent. You must have lived in California for at least a while.”
“Yes, I lived there for a time.”
“What brought you to North Carolina?”
“I just like it here.”
She turned her chair to her computer and began typing.
I walked to my office. What unsettled me about Alex wasn’t her cold demeanor, her arguable lack of a sense of humor, or even how her pupils grew infinitesimally small in bright light. What unnerved me was that, during our entire five minute introduction, she never blinked. Not once.
On Tuesday, I arrived at work at 7:30 am, about a half hour earlier than usual. The elevator shook as I rode it up to the third floor. Old elevators are noisy, but that morning’s ride jostled me so hard that I saw stars.
As the door opened, Alex was already at the reception desk, typing.
“Good morning, Mr. Sharpe,” she said, not breaking her stride in the least.
“Good morning, Alex. Early bird gets worm?”
Alex stopped typing, looked at me blankly, and returned to her task. I went to my office, shut the door, and buried myself in the morning’s work.
Two hours later, a screech like the wail of a thousand banshees pealed from the reception area. Mr. Inglethorpe emerged from his conference call, alarmed.
“By Jove, what on earth is that wretched sound?!” he said, covering his ears, wincing in pain.
“I don’t know, Mr. Ingl—“
Then a crash, like a sonic boom, shook the building. Mr. Inglethorpe and I ran to the front reception area. The elevator cable had snapped and the elevator car had fallen to the first floor.
“Oh, Alex! Call 911. What if someone was in there?!” Inglethorpe said. “I’m ruined! Ruined I tell you!”
Mr. Inglethorpe scurried to his office and slammed the door.
I turned to Alex and saw that she was still typing, unmoved by the raucous din.
“Are you going to call 911, Alex?”
“I’ve taken care of it, Mr. Sharpe.”
Then, sirens screamed in the distance and made their way to our building. As the fire engine and ambulance pulled close, their sirens were painfully loud. I covered my ears with the palms of my hands. Alex kept typing.
“Alex!” I shouted.
Alex stopped typing, looked at me blankly, and returned to her task. The sirens stopped.
The first responders reported that no one was injured in the elevator breakdown. But my ears rang for the rest of the day. And even now my nerves wince at the memory of the sound of that cable snapping. How could Alex just sit there in all of that chaos and not flinch an inch?
On Wednesday, Mr. Inglethorpe gathered the entire firm for lunch in the large conference room.
“The new elevator will not arrive until Friday, so please use the stairs until then. And enjoy these lunches, courtesy of the firm,” Mr. Inglethorpe said. He departed the conference room with an air of importance, but he only left so he could eat his boxed lunch in his office, away from us common folk.
“Not eating?” I asked Alex, who sat directly across from me at the conference room table. The room had already filled with the low grade hum of lawyer lunch small talk.
“No. I’m not hungry,” she said.
“What do you like to eat?”
“This and that.”
“Do you like Bojangles’?”
“Famous Chicken N. Biscuits?”
“Chicken ’n Biscuits. Not Chicken N. Biscuits.”
“Well, do you?”
“No, but Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas, the founders of Bojangles’ Famous Chicken N. Biscuits, envisioned providing a menu with distinctive flavors, delivering high-quality products made from scratch, and offering a festive restaurant design with friendly service.”
“Get the cajun filet biscuit. It’s world-changing,” I said.
“Noted. If you would excuse me, please. I must step out for a minute.” Alex got up from the table and walked out into the hall. I followed her down the hall where I saw she had taken the stairs down to the first floor and had exited the building.
She walked north two blocks and then sat on a bench in Center City Park. The sun shone brightly and cast a glare off of the back of her head. Her straight locks shined so brightly. They seemed to reflect the sun, almost like a mirror would. She sat motionless with her back to me. Her hair shimmered, as if it were being moved about by a light breeze. But the leaves on the trees in the park remained still.
On Thursday morning, after everyone in the office had laboriously arrived to work, having bemoaned the oppressive toil of having to take the stairs, work as usual seemed to begin—keys clicking, papers shuffling, and the phone ringing every thirty seconds. Around ten o’clock, a commotion in the reception area alerted the offices down the hall. Like a malfunctioning whack-a-mole game where all the moles popped out of their holes at the same time, every attorney from every office stuck their heads out simultaneously into the hall to see what all the fuss was about.
As I walked toward the reception area, the foul odor of piss, shit, and vomit made me gag. I covered my mouth with my tie and entered the reception room.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but you will have to leave,” Alex said.
Reginald, the homeless man who lived in the alley next to Inglethorpe & Cavendish, found his way up the stairs from the street. The security of a locked elevator had departed, at least temporarily.
“Rex? You OK?” I asked.
“I’m hungry,” Rex said.
“Here,” I said, grabbing two boxed lunches from yesterday’s leftovers. A stack of six unopened lunches lay behind Alex’s work station.
“Thank you, Mal,” Rex said. He left the reception area and headed down the stairs.
My eyes were watering from the stench Rex left in his wake.
“Thank you, Alex, for . . .” She stood still, unfazed by the smell.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Sharpe.”
Alex walked about the reception room in a fury, waving her arms, wafting the air. By the time she finished her errand, Le Cologne du Reginald had dissipated. Somehow, she cleaned the air.
On Friday afternoon, after the elevator was installed, Mr. Inglethorpe sprung for coffee for the entire firm. He asked Raffe, the proprietor of Raphael’s, the coffeeshop across the street, to set up a few carafes of his finest joe in the reception area.
“Lookin’ sharp, Mr. Sharpe!” Raffe said, knocking on my office door. “Say, Mr. Sharpe, that coffee is really hot, so please, you know, be careful with it.”
“Will do, Raffe.” I rubbed my bald head and pointed to his bald head. Raffe left.
I walked to the reception area and poured myself some coffee. It was Alex’s last day so I poured a cup for her, too. I approached her desk with two paper cups in hand, each cup sheathed in a cardboard protection ring. As I neared, I tripped, spilling coffee everywhere, falling on my face. Upon impact, I realized that I had doused Alex with two pints of scalding hot coffee.
“Alex, are you OK!?”
“Quite alright, Mr. Sharpe.”
The coffee had covered her, but it rolled off of her like rain on a windshield newly treated with Rain-X. I winced at the blotch pattern burn on the back of my hand. I looked at Alex’s face. The coffee had splashed her right between the eyes, but it left no burn.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said.
Alex moved her hands quickly and somehow erased the coffee from the floor, from her clothes, and from my hand. Then, she took my scalded hand in her hands. After ten seconds or so, the pain and the burn were gone. She winked at me.
My heart was racing and I could barely catch my breath. “Alex, what’s going on?”
She put her index finger to her lips and said, “Shh.”
Then, she looked at me intently, as if to say that she knew that I knew that she was different somehow, that she was not entirely human, if even human at all. If, at that moment, I was able to discern the truth about Alex, at best I might conclude that she was from another world—perhaps an android or some kind of alien—posing as a human and just trying to fit in. But that assumption would have limited who or what Alex really was. Her ultraviolet eyes, solar cell hair, and teflon skin were mere incidents of her story. Why she fell from the stars in the first place and why she lived here among us for so long seemed to be what she was really trying to hide.
I looked into her dilated eyes. I saw eternities and distant stars; the smallest pieces of things, the brightest light. I put my index finger to my lips and replied in kind. Her secret was safe with me.