After surfacing from one of their scouting assignments, Birg liked to stay ground level, where there was a pub and a recreation center and a clubhouse with nightly social events. Without fail, they parted with him inviting Sher to join him for fish and chips, for a costume party, for bridge. Sher liked the invitation, the expectation that she might sometime say yes.
But preferred to start her evening letting the elevator take her slowly up the trunk, packed at first with passengers, with fellow surveyors and their leads, with file clerks and payroll processors and other main office personnel, and with the one or two yellowcoats not staying late to analyze soil pH or check the tree’s root hairs for health (or whatever they did). Sher never recognized any faces, had never had occasion to learn names. She waited for their numbers to dwindle, a stop every twelve or so feet along the trunk, until it was just her, left alone in a quiet broken only by the industrious hum of the motor, swooping to the top with the lightness of a fluff of dandelion.
Because Sher had been in the first wave of recruits, she had been granted a spot in the canopy. Her apartment was smaller and in an older style than those down on the trunk, and so by some standards undesirable. By now, it was true, the furnishings could use an update. The agent had made clear, when Sher joined, that the foamcore stuff was only for show, to give her an idea of how her own things might fit in the space. Sher found it durable and in no real need of replacing. Not doing so had made her paycheck generous indeed, paying for the apartment and for equipment rental and for food she liked, and on top of that even a small televisor box with a decent receiver, tuning to subpopular sports and historical dramas and some old serials from back home, subtitled so Birg could watch with her, on the nights he stopped by.
While she cooked dinner, she watched a new program about an ancient, winged wind god trying to live a normal life in a well-to-do high school. The actor playing the wind god performed well; he had good timing and appealing expressions, especially when he talked to the one girl who might suspect there was something more to him, to whom he might someday be able to reveal his enchanted life. The rest of the actors were not so good, their only task being to normalize and sometimes wholly ignore the wind god’s imperious and out of place behavior. Still, there was a charm to their bald confusion when a ruffle of feathers sent their homework papers fluttering about the room. Sher found it sympathetic. If such things happened to her, she probably wouldn’t have the stomach to ask whether something unnatural was going on. Like them, she would blame the weather.
An envelope slipped under her door. An ad to upgrade the box most likely. Sher poured pasta still dripping into her preferred pasta bowl.
Sher’s show concluded sooner than she liked, and another began, a period piece about a handsome woman from wagon times. The woman was in the middle of saying something independent to the town census-taker when the storm started. The picture stretched north, the sound crackled in and out. The tree branches whipped against her window. Sher put her dinner down on the floor, closed the blinds so she wouldn’t have to see. She adjusted the angle of the box and its contact with the inner wall, picked up her dinner, hovered her own personal field of electricity near and far from the box, until the flickering stopped. She was maintaining a precise distance, trying to catch up to what the wagon woman had said, when Birg knocked. And, as the rain pattered harder, knocked again.
“Just come in,” she called.
Birg opened her door and shuffled onto the mat, dripping. “I don’t understand how you can leave your door unlocked,” he said, shedding his jacket, and only now did he notice the big wet footprint he’d put on her mail. He held it up between two fingers, eyebrows raised.
“I hadn’t gotten to it yet,” she told him.
“You ought to have,” he said, and shook out the envelope. “Everyone else has.”
“Kind of,” said Birg. He held out the envelope for her, refusing to move his sopping self from the square of linoleum immediately inside her door. “Rent’s going up.”
Sher reluctantly retreated from her program.
“Rent doesn’t change,” she said. “Not for the canopy.”
Birg had a slack, half-drunk expression on his face, but his lips tensed, and his nostrils flared. “Now we have something to talk about with our posh neighbors down the way.”
The envelope flopped, damp, in Sher’s hand.
“You should read it,” Birg said, “so you know when you wake up tomorrow that you’ve read it. And then you should tell me what we’re going to do.”
“Tomorrow’s a rest day,” she said.
“Not if you say we’re going back in.”
“You’re the lead. Why would I order you around.” Sher picked open the envelope flap with a pen cap.
“Because I’ll do what you say.”
“I don’t like that,” said Sher.
He pried his shoes off without untying, set them neatly to the side of the door. Birg would do this, force his company on her, talk big, but the whole time he was in her home he acted little, drawing his arms in to his ribs, making tiptoes into her living room. Fitting himself into the absolute farthest corner of the room. Sher returned to her spot in the middle of the floor, in front of the televisor. She read the letter through, subtracted monthly expenses. Read the letter through again.
“These things don’t have as good a picture as they say in the ads,” Birg said, propped up against the wall, peering at the box. “What program is this?”
Sher smoothed the letter back to shape, tossed it toward the foamcore table, overshot so it skidded off and fell to the floor. “It’s new,” she said. “I’ve never seen this one.”
But as they watched, she grew a little attached to it.
Birg came to get her the next morning early. She was still in her after-work clothes. A pasta sauce stain on her gray tank. “Fell asleep in your bowl?” he said.
“Go to hell,” said Sher. “It’s rest day.”
“Box still going. It’s like I never left.”
She turned her back on him, but left the door open. Walked through the apartment gathering pieces of decency, a toothbrush, a button-up shirt. Combing some order into her sleep-stiffened hair, pulling it into a broomstick ponytail at the back of her head.
“Don’t fuss,” said Birg. “No one’ll see us.”
“How do you mean,” said Sher, halfheartedly beating wrinkles from her coveralls. “You want to go petition the office about the rent, right?”
“You liked where we were going yesterday,” Birg said. “I do too. Let’s go in a little further.”
Sher turned the televisor off. “On rest day. Without asking for an extension.”
“We know the route now, we’ll be faster. Get you something to show the coats and the fee for a mapped tunnel. Plus a raise if it goes somewhere good. Which it will, because you and I both know it will.”
Sher wanted to tell Birg to stop his talk. To stop rocking one foot to another in her entryway, to stop being in charge to make her feel better, to stop looking at her like a boy who wanted a home, to stop trying to help.
She wanted to wait here and watch the morning grow old and quiet. Till the birds got to work and the shadows of the branches came bowing behind her blinds.
But at her current pay, she could afford this view for four more months. Six if she traded in the televisor.
“I can help you find your shoes,” said Birg.
“Will you come in already?”
Images courtesy of Florida Center for Instructional Technology.