Jim checked his phone out of habit as he rushed down the hall. Before he could see just how late he was, the screen dimmed.
“Buggy piece of dogshit!” he said, shaking the infernal device, suppressing the desire to throw it through the 5th story window. For moment he decided on a compromise, agreeing with his inner demon to toss it in the trash and buy a new one after work, but before he could act, he found the phone tumbling out of his hand as he fell onto the floor.
“What the fuck?” he said, twisting around on the marble floor. “Who-”
“Oh my God, I’m sorry Jim!” It was Melissa, and she was on the ground beside him, papers and open files spilled everywhere.
“Sorry,” Jim said. He rubbed his suddenly hot neck.
“It’s me that should be sorry,” Melissa said, pulling up a binder to hide her mouth. “I was checking my phone and wasn’t watching what I was doing.”
Jim could see her going red around the ears, and his neck felt suddenly hot. Her eyes, pale blue, regarded him on back and elbows, getting slightly wet. He swallowed, trying to regain his train of thought.
“Eh, don’t worry about it,” he said, sitting up, looking away.
“I made you spill all your papers.”
“It’s okay. Really, it is.” Jim began sorting through the papers, trying to re-assemble his handouts for his fourth-quarter report. “Some of these are yours.”
He heard a chirp and slid some papers over, revealing a phone – Melissa’s phone. He picked it up to hand it to her, but couldn’t stop himself from reading the text. You’re not remembering it right. You always misremember. Like with the last party.
“It’s… Don’t worry about that,” Melissa said as she took the phone from him, reading the text before putting the phone in her purse. A few tears had leaked from the corners of her eyes, and her eyeshadow was smearing. Jim’s mouth felt dry as a salt flat.
“I didn’t mean to,” Jim said. “Just a habit.”
“It’s okay. I do have a really bad memory.” The phone chirped again. “I remember things differently from how they are all the time.”
Jim hesitated with a thought, but his impulse took it to his tongue, and he said, “Who was that?”
“Sean. My… My boyfriend.”
Jim felt a sinking sensation in his stomach. “Your boyfriend?”
“Yeah. I guess. We’re dating, but we have…” She wiped tears from her face. “I’m sorry, too much information. You were probably heading to the meeting in D3. Let me help you sort these.”
“It’s fine. I don’t really need them. It’s all on the powerpoint.” He got up and put his hands under Melissa’s elbows, meaning to help her up. She shook him off.
“Sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have… I’m just embarrassed. And I actually need these papers, even if you don’t need yours.”
Jim took a breath. “No need to be embarrassed.” Jim saw his phone on the ground. It vibrated even as he reached down to pick it up. It was a text from Will. Where are you? The old man’s waiting. Jim stuffed it in his jacket pocket. Quickly he kneeled down and began scooping all the papers on the ground into one pile. “Just take all of them and sort yours out. I really am going to be late if-” he paused as Melissa took a deep breath beside him. He stood up, folding what remained of his files into the crook of his arm. “I’ll… I’ll see you later. Don’t feel bad, okay? I don’t seeing… just take it easy, okay?”
She forced a smile for him, which he returned with equal effort, realizing he had been frowning. He nodded and turned down the hall, setting off into the only sort of run his Florsheims would allow from him, which was a kind of shuffling jog.
He reached D3 a minute later. Pausing outside the door, he smoothed his suit and brushed his hair aside, then opened the old walnut doors.
Inside the old man, as they called the CFO, was addressing the room, though Jim knew he was talking primarily to the six other old men that sat near the head of the long table. Jim ignored the speech and quietly sat down beside Will.
“Had the runs, or what?” Will whispered with a snigger.
“No, just ran into Melissa,” Jim whispered back.
“Now you have to chat up the office staff? I’ve never seen you say two words to her before, and when you’re-”
“I ran into her in a literal sense. It really upset her.” Jim pushed his hand through his hair impulsively.
“Eh,” Will said with a shrug. “Not the prettiest girl, anyway.”
Jim opened up his folder and began pawing through what he had left, hoping he had enough PowerPoint copies to hand to the old men up front. His heart suddenly leapt along with his blood pressure as he hurriedly checked his papers again.
“You seem tense,” Will said. “You alright?”
Jim reached up and brushed a bead of cold sweat from his brow.
“I dropped something. Something important.”
“Eh, you can always email it later.”
“Not this. This wasn’t an electronic document.”
“Can’t have gone far. Want to step out in the hall and see if you dropped it?”
“I know I dropped it. And I know who picked it up.” Jim buried his head in his hands.
“Well go get it. I’ll stall the old man.”
Jim nodded. “Yeah. Maybe.”
He stood up and quickly slipped to the door. The old man cast a fleeting glance his way, but it held little in the way of anger; rather, it held a fleeting look of puzzled disgust. Jim stepped out into the hallway and broke into another jog. “How could you be so stupid!” he whispered to himself as he ran. “You’re always such an idiot!” He slowed as he reached the cluster of cubicles that he knew contained Melissa’s desk.
When he reached Melissa’s desk he found it, and her whole work area, vacant. He stepped in, seeing all of the papers strewn out along one section of the desk. Some of his papers were already stacked, but most of them were still in a haphazard heap.
“She had to step out to take a call.” Jim turned to see Rachel leaning back from her desk. “Do you need something?”
Jim tried to slow his breathing, but it raced ahead along with his heart. “Some of our papers got mixed up. I… need one of them. Has she… looked at many of them?”
“I don’t know. She sat down crying with that heap and then got a call. From her boyfriend. Or, I think she has a boyfriend. I don’t really know.”
Jim nodded. “Okay. Do you think she’d mind?” He gestured to the papers.
“I won’t tell if you want.”
Jim shrugged. “I’m sure she’d notice.”
“If she did notice, she wouldn’t ask me.”
Jim nodded again, slower, and turned around to the heap of papers. He rifled through them quickly, trusting the one he was looking for would be easy to find. It was just a few sheets of stapled lined paper. With a rush of relief, he found it beneath a small stack of computer paper. He breathed a sigh, still wondering if Melissa had read it.
“Thanks,” he said, turning and smiling to Rachael.
“No problem,” she said, smiling back.
Jim rushed out of the little work cluster and back down the long hallway to D3. He looked down at the papers in his hand and stopped.
At the top, in blue pen, written in a shaking hand, began the letter.
I hope this isn’t too strange, but I have something to get off my chest…
Jim felt a pang that was more than physical grip him. He couldn’t bear to keep reading what he had written.
“Stupid fucking asshole,” he said. “Stupid fucking asshole James!”
With a sickness in his stomach, he tore up the letter.
Looking at the pile of small paper pieces and ink, a though occurred to him. The letter, which he had carried around for months but could never summon the courage to deliver, had been delivered for him, against his will, as if God himself had decided he could delay his feelings no longer. And somehow, he had defied that providence.
“Just as well,” he said. “I’m a fucking asshole and she would hate me.”
He threw the pieces into a nearby trashcan and jogged back toward the conference room.
This story was written after I gave a short piece of advice on pacing at the micro, or scene level. The central idea was, “How much can I communicate with a run-in between two characters in the hallway?” It has an odd “resolution,” and there certainly could be more told, but it fits for a single scene or very short story.