December 17, 2005
Day of the Accident
The Arctic Circle
Prerna rubbed her hands together as she hurried down the long hallway outside Mr. C’s office. Glad to be out of the cold, she brushed a few snowflakes from her shoulders then unlocked the door to the waiting room and went inside. She flicked on the lights and moved to the desk to turn on the computer then docked her iPod in the office music system.
As she waited for the electronics to start processing, she hung up her jacket and scarves. Neither machine responded right away, but she didn’t worry too much. When the temperatures dropped below zero, like they did at this time of year, all of the electronics always needed a few extra minutes to wake up.
They’re not the only things that need help waking up, she thought as she stifled a yawn with her hand. Why couldn’t Mr. C. be working out of someplace warm, like South America?
As she turned on the fancy coffee machine to make herself a cappuccino, she glanced around to make sure all was in order. A few magazines sat on the low table coffee table in the middle of the room. Two end tables on either side of comfortable chairs held four books each. The elves knew they were welcome to borrow the books as long as they returned them by the end of their Quarter Force shifts.
The coffee machine sputtered to life, and Prerna exhaled with it. Within minutes she held a steaming cup of her morning in her hands. She went behind the desk and slid the mouse back and forth across the pad, bringing up her to-do list.
The waiting room door opened, and an elf poked his head around it. Prerna gave him a little wave and blew on her coffee.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said. He disappeared for a second, only to enter the waiting room moments later pulling a dolly. “Mail call.”
Prerna suppressed a sigh as she pushed back a few of the long black curls that managed to escape her headband. The elf pulled the dolly closer and stood it upright just to the side of the desk.
“Is Mr. C. in?”
Prerna shook her head and turned to the calendar on her computer screen. She clicked a few windows until Mr. C’s agenda for the day appeared, took a sip of her coffee, then put it down on the desk.
“He’s in the stables. One of the reindeer had a calf last night or was supposed to, anyway.”
Jonathan tipped the dolly forward so the oversized bag he’d carried in slid off and pulled a clipboard off the back.
“I guess that means you sign for this then,” he said.
Prerna scribbled on the clipboard and turned to face the bag. This time she couldn’t stop herself from sighing, although she knew she had the easy job. No matter how late he had to stay up to do it, Mr. C. would read every single letter addressed to him.
“How’s the coffee from that newfangled thing?” Jonathan asked, eyeing the steaming mug close to her.
“Really good,” she said. “Mr. C.’s thinking about ordering more machines after the holiday rush so the elves can use them.”
Jonathan’s eyes lit up. A coffee connoisseur, Prerna knew. Rumor had it Jonathan had even worked in the trade somehow, although no one had any more details than that. She wouldn’t ask, of course, and no one else would either. Jonathan had only started working at the Arctic Circle a year earlier, and she still remembered the bruises that accompanied his surly disposition when he arrived. He’d fought most of his internal demons, and no one wanted to undo the progress he’d made.
“All right, well, tell Mr. C. I said hello,” he said. He gave her a little two-fingered salute and grinned. “See you at lunch later?”
She nodded. “Save me a seat?”
“You got it.”
He pulled the dolly back through the door, and Prerna dropped to one knee to start pulling the mail out of the bag. Even though it would create more of a mess than she liked, she started sorting the mail right there on the floor. The letters covered in childish drawings and stickers addressed “To Santa Claus” she put in one pile. The ones that had typed return addresses or asked to be delivered to “S. Claus” went into another.
With the children’s letters in one hand and all the grownup mail in the other, Prerna got up and went to the solid wood door to her right. The entrance to Mr. C.’s office. Even now, more than two years after starting at the Circle herself, she still had trouble believing she worked for one of the busiest men in the world.
She used her shoulder to push the door open and her elbow to hit the switch on the wall. As the boss liked, she left the letters in two neat stacks on either side of his computer keyboard. She glanced around the room to see if she needed to tidy anything, and just then she heard the click of the outer door opening.
Rounding the desk, Prerna went to meet the man himself.
“Good morning, Mr. C.,” she said. “How’s our new baby reindeer?”
Mr. C. unwound the lengthy scarf from his neck and ran a hand over his white beard several times. “Just fine. Beautiful and healthy. The mama’s doing well too.”
Prerna’s smile widened. “Good. I put your mail on your desk, and I’m about to scan the headlines for the day. Do you need anything?”
“Music,” Mr. C. said, holding up one finger and then two, “and hot chocolate.”
Prerna nodded. “Coming right up, in that order.”
She went back to her desk and spun the wheel on the iPod. Within minutes, the first track from a classical album of holiday music floated through the air. Prerna went to the coffee machine next and inserted a pod for hot chocolate. She pressed the wrong button once or twice, and the machine protested with indignant beeps but finally began to percolate.
She returned to her computer and pulled up a few of her favorite newspapers. When she wasn’t working her Quarter Force shifts for Mr. C., Prerna lived in Florida. Reading the Orlando papers always made her feel closer to home when she had to come to the Circle for her three months here.
The coffee machine sputtered to a stop, drawing her attention away from the screen. Prerna grabbed a small serving tray from a bottom desk drawer and arranged the hot chocolate and a candy cane on the tray then carried it into Mr. C.’s office. Just before pushing in the door, she gripped the tray with one hand and knocked twice with the other.
This time she backed into the door as she took the tray to Mr. C. His eyes twinkled with childish excitement but then dimmed a little.
“No whipped cream?” he asked as he took the tray from her.
Prerna put her hands on her hips. “You know Mrs. C. wants you to watch what you eat. Especially at this time of year. It’s hard enough with all the cookies and pies that come through here every day.”
Mr. C. scrunched his nose in disagreement. “Well…she’s not the boss.”
“Maybe not,” Prerna said, “but she does want you to be the boss for a lot longer.”
The jolly man grumbled, but his good humor came back as he took his first sips of the hot chocolate. Once again his eyes lit up.
“Say, that’s really good. Let’s get in touch with the manufacturer on the 26th and put in that order for about a hundred more machines.”
“You got it, Mr. C.”
Prerna picked up the tray and went back to her desk. She started scrolling through the news again when the door to the waiting room opened. Two elves, both of them women, came in. One looked absolutely terrified, and Prerna’s heart went to her.
“Can I help you?”
The terrified elf managed to stammer out that she had an appointment with Mr. C. first thing. The other elf, more at ease, said the same. Prerna directed both of them to sit down and went back to Mr. C.’s office. Poking her head through the door, she let him know his first appointments of the day had arrived then went back to her computer and clicked checkmarks by the elves’ names on her list.
As the day progressed, Prerna kept clicking checkmarks next to the names of the elves who came in and out. In between appointments, she tracked the last shipments of packing material that would hold the gifts tight to one another when Mr. C. flew on the Night Of. She flicked back and forth on her computer between the shipments, the news, celebrity happenings, the weather patterns in various countries, and equipment maintenance. Lunch came and went in what felt like a blink. Prerna knew Final Quarter always flew by, but today seemed exceptionally fast.
In the late afternoon, Mrs. C. stopped in to say hello. She greeted the last elf to leave the waiting room with a smile and insisted that he take several cookies from the plate she held. After a few minutes of small talk, the elf left and Mrs. C. came to Prerna’s desk.
“Mrs. C.,” Prerna said through a groan, “I can’t get the boss to stay on a diet if you keep bringing these by.”
“Oh, hush now,” the elderly woman said, her eyes sparkling over her small round glasses. “This isn’t for Mr. C. I brought these for you to sample. The rest are going in batches to all the cabins tonight. I know how the elves need a little motivation in this last week before the Night Of.”
Prerna bit into the perfect blend of flour, butter, sugar, and chocolate. She sighed with contentment around her chewing and nodded her approval.
“Good?” Mrs. C. asked.
“Good,” Prerna said with her mouth full. “Everyone’s going to love these.”
A banner in bright red on her screen flashed twice. Prerna turned her attention to the news site and forgot about the cookie. Her hand lowered to the desk, and she leaned toward the screen as she read the headline.
“Breaking news: Plane executes emergency landing on Utah highway full of cars. Details to come.”
Her mouth dropped open.
“What happened, dear?” Mrs. C. asked, coming around the desk. The woman angled down so she could read the screen through her glasses and covered her mouth with her hand.
“Oh, those poor souls,” she murmured. “I hope everyone’s all right.”
Prerna’s chest got tight. She didn’t know why. No one she knew lived anywhere near Utah. Her parents were in Orlando. Akash…well, Prerna knew he hadn’t run to the Beehive State. Still, the tightness wouldn’t go away, and she coughed.
Mrs. C. patted her on the back. “Now, now, dear, I’m sure it’ll turn out fine.”
Just then Mr. C. came out of his office and greeted his wife. He tried to grab a cookie, but Mrs. C. batted his hand away, and a mischievous glint appeared in his eye. His smile extended to Prerna but then faded.
“What’s the matter, Prerna?”
She pointed at the screen, unable to form words. Her pulse drummed in her ears, and her reaction disturbed her as much as the news did. Mrs. C. moved back so her husband could read the headline. His brow furrowed as he straightened up.
“Did you know someone there?” he asked.
Prerna shook her head. “No, but I just…it seems like this is…I mean, it feels…important.”
Mr. C. looked at her with consideration for a moment then nodded.
“It might be,” he said finally, “and if it is, we’ll help whoever comes to us the way we help everyone else here: by giving them purpose.”
Prerna held his gaze for a moment, and bit by bit her heart stopped pounding.