Jake clasped the square box hidden in his slack’s left pocket while smothering a sneeze in the crook of his elbow. He waited in his dress shirt’s sleeve, thinking of Angela, then black pepper, ticklish feathers, and puffs of flour until another expulsion worked its way free. Silks and tweeds rustled against the conference room chairs as the board members turned.
“Are you feeling all right, Mr. Thompson?”
Sniffing, Jake uncurled his fingers from the box’s crisp corners and grinned wearily at Mrs. Grayfield.
“I think so, ma’am.”
With a weak cough, Jake returned to his open laptop set before him on the room’s slab of a table. A pie chart filled the monitor. Through the projector’s glowing lens the same image of elevated slices indicating donations, grants, endowments, and sponsorships illuminated the far wall. A mouse click transitioned the slide to the various non-profits hoping for a sliver of the Institute’s collected monies.
Taking a ragged breath, Jake resumed his presentation, shoulders slumped, body listing over his computer. He punctuated the pros and cons of each possible recipient with a sneeze or hack, and made sure to keep his head drooping. When he reached the last slide and elaborated upon the final tidbit of information, he propped himself on his elbows and wandered his gaze around the table.
“That leaves the decisions up to the nine of you.”
Four on the board bobbed their heads like buoys on a rough sea. Three others nodded with understanding, including Mrs. Grayfield who adjusted her spectacles on her hawkish nose. Beside her, Mr. Parson’s awoke from his doze. At the head of the table, Director Richards pressed his fingertips together and brought the manicured peak to his lips.
“We’d need a decision by next Wednesday at the latest.” Jake shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. “Honestly though the sooner the better. A lot of these organizations are running in the red or have been for months.”
“It would be nice to have this wrapped up by the holidays.” Mrs. Grayfield laid her bejeweled fingers on a spiral bound copy of the report Jake had distributed a delayed hour and a half earlier. “All of the details are in here?”
Ceasing his massaging, Jake attempted to straighten. “Yes ma’am.”
“But the slide you had showing the future impacts?” Richards waggled his hand, golden cufflink glittering.
At the insinuation, Jake heaved off his elbows and clicked backwards until the line chart with its multicolored web reappeared on the far wall.
“Yes, that one.” Richards tilted in his high-back leather chair, the crunch of his suit gathering the room’s attention.
Jake slumped and double-checked the box. Feeling the hard edges, he glanced furtively at his watch while Richards and the rest began a roundabout conversation he felt certain would never find a destination. The hands on the watch face neared the 90 degrees of three o’clock and Jake drummed his fingers on the hidden container.
A soft vibration erupted against his opposite leg and Jake smothered the buzz with his twitchy hand. Wiggling the phone free, he faced Angela’s text message.
The ticking hands, secreted box, and implications of lacking ink mounted.
Scooting to his chair’s lip, Jake slid the cover over the projector’s lens, darkening the wall. He tapped quietly at his keyboard while Richards and Mrs. Grayfield debated over numbers. Bringing up his personal email, Jake searched briefly for the confirmation and its attachment, downloaded, and sent it to the floor’s nearby combination printer-copier-fax. After deleting the file and scrubbing his electronic footprints, Jake sat slowly back and texted a reply.
Angela’s signature smiley face and asterisk kiss answered.
Turning his grin into a mucus-filled throat clearing, Jake slipped away the phone before checking the box and then his watch again. Sweat dotted his palm while the second hand ticked around the white face in a slow march toward his departure time, the larger one matching the minutes tallying in the lower right of his computer’s screen. Five more had accumulated by the time Richards and the others had agreed to mull on the various options until morning.
Jake let his shoulders sag. “Are there any other questions?”
“I think I can speak for all of us when I say we understand our choices.” Mrs. Grayfield touched the bridge of her glasses. “It’s simply a matter of choosing.”
Mr. Parsons blinked the sleep from his eyes. “And the report will cover any of the details, correct?”
“It does, and you can always call or—” Jake buried his nose for another sneeze. “Excuse me.” Shaking his head, he sought the rest of his statement. “Or email me should you have any more questions.”
“Phone calls will probably be best,” said Richards.
“However you like. If you don’t reach me, you’ll reach my assistant Grace or my voicemail and I’ll get right back to you.” Smiling around the half-truth, Jake set his hand on his monitor. “But I think that sums it up for the moment.”
Mrs. Grayfield’s assent nearly boosted Jake from his seat. Keeping his chair, he waited for the others to push away and rise. Casters rattled on the hard-pressed carpet. At a slow plod, Richards began oozing thick swaths of charm toward Mrs. Hoffen, her husband, and their bank account. The rest made their methodical way to the exit, complete with tittering, murmurs, and the thump of Mr. Parson’s cane.
Jake snapped his laptop closed and plucked the cables free. Dousing the projector, he stood and tucked the computer beneath his arm.
“I hope you get to feeling better, Mr. Thompson.”
Facing Mrs. Grayfield, Jake wilted in his loafers and covered the square bulge in his pocket with his hand. “I’ll do my best.”
“Is it a cold?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I know something’s going around.”
Stretching his smile, Jake motioned her toward the doorway where Richards and Mr. Parsons shook hands. Mrs. Grayfield swiveled around, strode on stout heels, and paused to bid her farewells. Jake followed her and managed another sneeze for good measure.
Richards turned back from ensuring Mr. Parsons made it to the elevator and scowled. “You sound like Meredith.”
“My secretary.” Richards shifted, directly addressing Mrs. Grayfield standing between them. “She had the flu for over a week.”
“You should have seen my schedule. I’ve never had so many back to back meetings or conflicting appointments.”
“I’m sure Mr. Thompson knows how to take care of a little sniffle.” Mrs. Grayfield leveled him with her bespectacled stare. “Be sure to take care of yourself. We can’t have you disappearing on us.”
Jake tightened his fingers taut around his pocket’s box. “I will, ma’am.”
“Very good.” With a departing nod, Mrs. Grayfield marched toward the chiming elevator chin lifted, the report hastily composed over the past two weeks tucked at her hip like a small child.
Richards grunted and crossed his arms. “How do you think that went?”
“Well I hope.” Jake drummed his fingers against the box and peered down the hallway past the elevator claiming Mrs. Grayfield, where the rest of the office milled and a printer and the stairwell waited.
“Do you have a moment? I had a few more questions about the outcome numbers.”
“I have another meeting in a few minutes.” Avoiding Richards’ curious stare, Jake glanced at his watch and sniffed. “But if you could be quick—”
When he devolved into another set of coughs, Richard inched back. “Perhaps they can wait.”
Slumping, Jake hugged his laptop against his tie. “Up to you, although I’m not sure what the next few days will bring.”
“You’re feeling that poorly?”
“If it’s anything like what Meredith had, I figure I better not take my chances.”
“I suppose that’s a good idea.”
With a smirk, Jake started them walking. Richards droned at his side while Jake shuffled toward his cloistered office on a route passing the printer. The Director asked questions and brought up concerns answerable by various pages of the report Jake recalled he had left on the table but his monologue soon meandered into speculation beyond Jake’s scope.
Humming appropriately at the worries, Jake eyed the printer’s discharge tray. Gray plastic stared back and the phone and box in his pocket each gained planetary weight. He slowed his stride, and with Richards lost in verbal dribbling, Jake managed a peek into the recycling bin and behind the blocky equipment.
Footsteps raced them, stopping Jake from what he knew would be a useless lift of the copier’s lid.
“There you are!” Grace cut through the line of cubicles, beaming. “You almost forgot these.”
Jake winced when she waved several sheets of paper, the stiff sheets crinkling.
“You can’t take a trip without tick….”
Grace trailed off when she finally noticed Richards. A blush darkened her cheeks and she clasped the pages to her ruffled blouse. Jake locked upon her saucer-sized eyes, two blue pools of apology.
Wary of Richards’ looming presence, Jake held out his hand. His fingers dented the pages Grace offered and in the next breath, he had them folded and pressed against his laptop.
“I should get back to the research you needed.” Skittering backwards, Grace bolted down the corridor.
After smothering a cough in his fist, Jake peered at Richards. “Did you have any other questions about the report?”
“Another time.” Richards gaze darted to the laptop, to the printer, and to Grace’s dwindling steps. “It seems like you have your hands full at the moment.”
“I suppose I do.”
“Then you better take care of that cold. It would be a shame to have it cause you to be out of the office unexpectedly.”
Jake shivered without intent. “I’ll do that.”
With a final nod, Richards pocketed his hands and began a stately stroll along the opposite corridor. Resuming his sniffling, Jake waited for him to disappear into his corner office before veering toward his smaller version.
Grace hunched in the doorway. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Jake placed his laptop into her shaky hands.
“Do you think he knows?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Skimming the printed tickets, Jake checked for any changes in the flight times and made sure the seats assignments remained side by side. “I’ve earned this.”
“Then you should get going.” Grace fetched the duffle hidden behind his desk and the suit coat from the hook on the door. “You don’t want to be late again.”
Slinging into the coat, Jake slipped the tickets into the inside pocket. He took the canvas strap, hefted the bag onto his shoulder, and tucked the box within. “If any of them call—”
“I’ll handle it.” Grace’s embarrassed flush returned. “I can do some things right.”
“Seriously, don’t worry about it.” Padding to the door, Jake glanced towards Richards’ office.
“Go on.” Grace shooed him off the threshold and positioned herself in the hallway like a human barricade.
Raising his hands in surrender, Jake loped to the stairwell. “See you in two weeks.”
“Let me know what Angela says.”
He grinned. “I think you’ll be able to tell.”
“Then come back smiling.”
“I’ll do my best.” Swiveling, Jake trotted to the door and started a swift descent toward the one question Director Richards, the work waiting in his office, or even the truth, couldn’t keep him from asking.