She was crying in the copier room when I came in, and she looked up at me with moist blue eyes, like pansies under the rain.
I couldn’t remember her name. Too D*mn Young isn’t a name. Even my name is not that weird. Crying like that, she looked about sixteen. No makeup. Blond hair down to the middle of her back. Very pretty. Maybe one of our high school interns?
And then she grabbed a tissue from box on the shelf, wiped her eyes, blinked at me and said, “Oh, Mr. Rumple, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know– It’s just I don’t know what to do. This promotion.”
And I realized she couldn’t be an intern — they didn’t get promoted — and that she knew my name, which probably meant she’d been kicking around the office for more than a year, because I didn’t come in that often. I’m just the accountant, okay? Mostly I work from home, or come in after hours to look through the books. Sometimes, rarely, I have to come during the day for some documents. But not that often.
Now she was more composed, I upgraded her age to early twenties.
“You’re crying because you had a promotion?” I asked.
She nodded. “It’s Maddie,” she said. “She says I was being oppressed by remaining a receptionist. She said that receptionists are outmoded, and I need to work as– As a copywriter.”
Maddie, which is what all the young women in the office called her, was Ms. Madeline Maddoc, AKA Mad Maddie to all the male members of the staff. Mad Maddie had struck again.
Look, I’m not sure what had happened to poor Mad Maddie back in the dim years of her youth, before she’d become CEO of Baileng Copyrighters Inc. Maybe a man had bit her, or not bit her. Whichever.
What I know is that if allowed to go on at any length in a staff meeting she’d bore you with a long list of men who had made discouraging statements about her abilities, starting, seemingly, in her cradle. At one of the meetings I attended, I swear she said that the doctor who delivered her said, “Well, she’s a girl, she’ll never amount to much.”
At any rate, the mad one had achieved control of the company by age 40. And since then she’d been on a mission to make sure none of the women hired by Baileng ever had to suffer in an inferior position. If this meant promoting the cleaning woman ahead of our top copywriter? Well, so be it. Girl power!
Look, I didn’t care. I was the accountant, and no one in the glitzy daylight business cared much about what I did in the dark after hours, with our books, provided it wasn’t criminal and the IRS didn’t take enough taxes to shut us down.
The problem was that what Maddie had done was make our company near-unable to keep decent female help, from receptionists to executive assistants to — even — cleaning ladies. If you weren’t hiring for top posts, you might as well hire a man, or else you’d not have her long. She’d be promoted up the ladder, fail, and leave, either in disgrace or for a better position, aka, to be someone else’s problem.
But no one dared explain this to Maddie. She’d tell us again about how her science teacher had told her girls were stupid at math, which frankly sounded pretty unlikely for the 70s in the US.
“Ah….” I said, noncommittally, and prepared to back out of the room, except the young woman was actually very pretty and seemed devastated. “And you don’t think you can do it?”
The tissue came out and pressed against her nose. “I don’t know anything about advertising,” she said, nasally. “I have an associates in English, for crying out loud.”
“Well…. that means you know how to write in English, so that’s a beginning. You’d be amazed how many of our executives can’t do that. Between the impacted and the incentivized, they verbify the language to death.”
This got me a pallid smile, around the tissue. “She brought me in to the meeting, and she made a big song and dance about the Straw Brothers account and how I was perfect for it. I had no clue what to say, so then I went to my desk and looked it up. It’s a lumberyard in Caroline. She wants me to do a big advertising campaign for their straw bales. Apparently they have a big straw bale event every fall, and they hired us to– to–“
“Promote it?” I asked, helpfully. To be fair, this was pretty small potatoes, which meant Mad Maddy was moderating her reach somewhat. Maybe old dogs did learn new tricks. This thing was probably worth maybe two thousand for us.
She threw her arms wide, “Why would I know anything about straw. I was raised in Denver.”
I shrugged. “It’s just Maddie. Look, it’s not as scary as it seems. Yeah, Straw Brothers has stores all over the front range, but I doubt they’ll pay us more than about ten thousand for a campaign. I’m not even sure why they did it. Maybe they’re looking for a deduction. People do buy straw around this time of year, for animal fodder, and to cover fields, and to do straw bale gardening, it’s apparently better if it rots a bit over winter, and stuff. But it’s a pretty closed market that’s going to happen anyway. I don’t think you can fail.”
She made a face, “The only time I saw a straw bale was when we went to this cowboy pancake breakfast, when I was little, and we sat on bales.” She sighed. “I still have no idea what to do. They want to do some kind of TV spot?” She started crying again. “I don’t know what to do!”
I normally don’t get involved in this stuff. The faster Mad Maddie’s pushes fail, the less damage they do. But the kid was young and looked scared.
“Okay,” I thought of a way this couldn’t be claimed to be sexual harassment. Us ugly guys can be accused just by staring vacantly in a woman’s direction. And as ugly guys went, I was the ugliest. “Look, if you want to spitball, we could maybe grab a coffee. Or not. Entirely up to you.”
“Would you? Let me throw ideas at you, that is?”
“Oh. Sure. I’m just here to pick up some stuff, and it will only take me about ten minutes.”
“Okay!” she said, and grinned, and looked like I’d promised her something wonderful.
So she grabbed her laptop, and we went to the coffee shop across the street. Her name was Amber Golden, and she was 25. I didn’t even ask her any of that. And I also didn’t do much in the way of suggestions, honest. It’s just she was really creative. I was just there to listen, and the fact that I couldn’t help being delighted with some of her ideas made it better.
You see, the kid was good at doggerel rhyme and line-cartoons. She kept drawing these funny figures doing funny things, and explaining what they were doing with silly verses. In the end she concluded by pointing out that straw bales were great for seating and tables at Fall and Thanksgiving parties, and really, who was I to argue.
I took her funny rhymes on Straw for Pa, and asked her if she wanted a tune for it. Look, something you accumulate over a few thousand years of life is music. At least if you have a memory for it. Her rhyme fitted perfectly to this jingle that medieval maidens used to dance to.
I hummed it, then she got up some sort of program that I could play it in, and which would record the tune. And then I showed her a program that took line drawings and animated them, and was free, even.
By the time she had a great spot, about two minutes long, there was a server standing by our table, all serious, “Sorry, guys, but we close at seven, so–“
So, we’d taken up a table and only bought two coffees and a couple of pastries. I gave him a generous tip, to compensate, while Amber gathered up her stuff, and thanked me all confused, “Thank you so much, Mr. Rumple. Is that what I should call you, Mr. Rumple? And gosh, I don’t know how to thank you.”
I laughed. “Oh, just give me your first born,” I said. “And call me Rumple. Just about everyone does. Also, I didn’t do much for you. You did it all yourself. All you needed was some self confidence.”
She grinned and skipped away, and I shook my head. There were echoes and memories in my mind, but it had never gone well for me, so why would it now? I wasn’t even going to try.
Over the next month our paths didn’t cross, although I heard comments from some people about the new Golden kid. But perhaps it was the “new golden kid” and might not be amber at all.
Then about a month later, when I was leaving the office, I heard her call, “Mr. Rumple?”
I turned. She was wearing nicer clothes. Still a skirt suit, just nicer. I was just glad she hadn’t gone to pantsuits. Those weren’t designed for the female anatomy and always looked weird.
She blushed. “I… I have a new marketing campaign they gave me? Achyro restaurants…. and…. well…. I wonder if I could take you to lunch and talk to you? It seemed to help so much last time?”
We went out to one of the Achyro restaurants, Achyro Diner, and stuffed ourselves on dolmades and baklava, while she told me her ideas. Not line drawings, that time. She was thinking of taking various members of a large family,and showing them celebrating their occasions with Achyro restaurants, from the young couple with kids going to the diner for their pancake special, to the young man proposing in Achyro Heart which was sort of a bistro-ey thing, to– You get the point. Ended up we stayed through lunch, and then with the complete campaign sketched out, she invited me to for dinner to celebrate.
Of course I was wary. Look, I really am very ugly. Or would be, if I were human.
Somehow, and I swear I made no moves — and kept expecting some sort of trap, honest — this became a thing. Every week, she’d take me out somewhere — she was very insistent on paying — and talked to me about her projects.
“It’s just, see, that I feel very comfortable with you,” she said, after a few months. “I don’t have any family, you know? Mom and dad died in an accident when I was young, and grandma died three years ago. With you, I feel like I’m with family.”
Which figured. I wanted to tell her I wasn’t family. I wasn’t even really human. I was… Lonely. Really lonely. I looked back over the last few thousand years. There used to be more of my kind around. Now, it was just me. It had been just me since the few remaining of my kind had died in the black plague, leaving me all alone. That’s when I’d tried that foolish gambit. I kept wondering if she’d connect the dots.
And I thought she hadn’t. We went out all the time for six months. Then she invited me as her plus one to the company’s Holiday dinner. People kept looking funny at us, because there she was, five eight and blond and beautiful, while I was five four and…. well, very ugly indeed.
Then she asked me out to dinner, and came in looking all serious, and told me some guy named Walter Furst had asked her to marry him. I felt my heart sink to my feet, and she looked at me, all serious, and said “You know…. the thing is…. I mean….. Would you be all right with that?”
“Only if you give me your first born,” I said, and grinned, displaying teeth that I knew were just a little too sharp for humans. Most humans backed away from that, but instead, she reached across and grabbed my hand.
I was so shocked, I didn’t even pull away. She looked straight into my eyes and said, “It wouldn’t work. I know your name. I mean, your real name.”
And then she said it.
I want to assure you that the legend about my vanishing in a puff of smoke was embroidery on what actually happened. Though I might very well have thrown a massive snit, because I’d worked so long and so hard and then–
This time I just blinked at her. She smiled at me, “Yeah. I looked in company records, after our first meeting,” she said.
“And it doesn’t matter to me. I was just hoping you wouldn’t want me to marry Furst. I was hoping–” She took a deep breath, “But I didn’t know what the whole thing with the first born was….”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, most of my kind — there is no name for us, really. Though elves or fairies or whatever fits, if you don’t go thinking of us as Tolkien elves — died in the Bubonic plague. Maybe all of us. I don’t know. I’ve never met another. I just… I was lonely. I thought if I raised a baby, I’d have a family. Okay, it was stupid.”
She gripped my hand harder. “We’re not so different, you and I. I mean, I’m not an elf or anything, but you always felt like family.”
And I realized suddenly that’s what she’d become. Family. Kind of an important part of the family. We’d encouraged each other, supported each other, joked together. What had been my very lonely life with numbers for company had been… well, kind of the life I wanted the last few months. I sighed, “You’d marry me?”
“In a minute!” she said.
That’s when I lost my mind and kissed her. Afterwards, as I laughingly told her that we couldn’t get married in a minute, but I thought we could in 24 hours, in this state, she looked serious again, “You won’t dye your hair white or something to pretend to get old along with me, right?”
I grinned. “Oh, no. Solved. You see, if we marry a mortal, we become mortal.”
She pulled back. “I couldn’t let you do that. Trade immortality for me?”
I laughed. “A worthy trade. Better a few years with you than endless, lonely immortality.”
That was when she kissed me.
I did get her first born, it turns out. And the second and third and fourth. All of which look like their mother, fortunately.
And she knows my name, of course. My name is her name too.
Mrs. Rumplestilskin has never complained.