01 THE MUNDANE [Speck of Light]

Helen Zaranie had been called in to work early. She barely had time to shower and dress after dragging herself out of bed. There was no time for coffee or breakfast. Her light brown hair was still damp as she struggled to lock the deadbolt on her apartment. This early in the morning she couldn’t be sure that her suit matched as she had both black and navy in her closet. Her neighbor Thomas offered her a ride in to work, luring her into his car with a large cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich.

“I don’t suppose you know why we are being called in at this godawful hour,” Helen said as she gingerly sipped at her coffee.

“Not a clue,” Thomas replied. “It’s not like I see him every night.”

“That’s what you get for slumming it,” Helen replied before taking a bite out of her sausage and egg sandwich.

“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘slumming it’,” Tom commented. “The landlord has been taking care of the place.”

“I like the new owner,” Helen stated. “He’s put some people to work maintaining their apartment building.”

“Did you ever find out who bought the place?” Thomas asked.

“I used to think it was you,” Helen replied. “But I don’t think your father pays you enough to afford a real estate investment.”

“Maybe it was my father,” Thomas suggested.

“Nah,” Helen replied, “Your father thinks real estate is a bad investment.”

By the time Thomas pulled his burgundy red Porsche Panamera Hybrid into his assigned parking spot, Helen was finished with her breakfast. The two of them took the elevator up to the offices of Caine Accounting Services, LLP. Everyone had been assembled in the dining hall waiting for the arrival of Abraham Caine.

The room fell silent as Abraham Caine and the rest of the senior partners entered and took a seat at the head table. One of the junior partners set up a small dais and adjusted the microphone before introducing Mr. Caine. Helen sat at a table near the back of the room that she shared with her neighbor, Thomas Caine, and her best friend at work, Lois Alden.

“Good morning, everyone,” Abraham began clearing his throat before continuing, “Apologies for calling you all in so early, but we need to get a jump on our new contract.” He paused briefly to scan the crowd. “Late yesterday afternoon we signed a contract to conduct an audit for a large local real estate holding company. This will require some changes in normal business operation until the audit is complete.”

“Each of the partners seated here will be handing over their regular work to the accounting clerks who they supervise. The accounting clerks will be responsible for doing all the work for each account that they are assigned except for reconciliations.” He paused to shuffle the papers in front of him. “As of today, all reconciliations will be handled by our newly appointed Reconciliations Administrator, Helen Zaranie, who will report directly to me should any problems arise that she cannot resolve on her own.”

“The junior partners will receive a list of the clerks who will be under their supervision during the audit. If you have any questions, please direct them to your current supervisor before you leave this room. Thank you for your time.” Abraham started to leave, but asked, “Ms. Zaranie, please see me in my office.”

Helen was in charge of reconciliations for several of Caine Accounting Services clients. As of that day, she would be in charge of all reconciliations. Helen wasn’t sure how she felt about this new development. It meant more work and longer hours than she was used to working, but it also meant more money to spend on a vacation in the future. The thought of being able to actually travel somewhere exotic like Hawaii or the Caribbean buoyed her enthusiasm for the new responsibilities she had been given.

Her best friend at the office, Lois Alden, would be handling one of the firm’s biggest accounts. That was Lois’s only assignment. Nineteen corporate accounts had been divided among fifteen accounting clerks and all of them would be supervised by Thomas Caine. He was the company’s only junior partner.

Somehow the arrangement kept Thomas from being Helen’s supervisor. As her new job title of Reconciliations Administrator reported directly to Abraham Caine, Thomas was free to socialize with Helen outside of work without a hint of impropriety. The hardest part was finding an excuse to see her socially. Thomas had met Helen at a summer pool party and took an instant liking to her. She was quiet, attentive, and willing to laugh no matter how bad a joke was.

Thomas and Helen were neighbors in the same apartment complex and frequently met at the pool. The apartment complex had once been the pride of the neighborhood, but it was beginning to show its age. When he first started working for his father, it was the only place where he could afford the rent. He had thought about moving, then Helen moved into the apartment next to his. Whenever he bumped into her he would ask questions about her interests. He frequently turned up at events she attended. He was friendly, but respectful of her personal space.

One day, Lois showed up at the apartment complex to ask Helen for a favor. “I really hate to do this, but I’m desperate,” Lois said. “I know that we haven’t been friends for long, but…” Lois paused and took a deep breath before blurting out, “My mother set me up with a blind date and I don’t want to meet this guy alone. Mom says that he’s a doctor and all, but I don’t know. Is there any chance that you could double date with me, for protection?”

“I don’t know,” Helen replied. “I’m not really dating anyone. Who would I take?”

Thomas piped up, “I’m available. You could take me.”

“Are you sure?” Helen asked. “Because there won’t be any Netflix and chill afterwards.”

“I wasn’t expecting any,” Thomas replied.

“Please?” Lois pleaded.

“Fine, I’ll go,” Helen conceded.

They would meet at the restaurant where Lois’ mother’s friend’s son had made a reservation for four. The Hungry Shark was an expensive restaurant that Thomas had been to before. The three were seated at one of the best tables, one with a modicum of privacy. Lois’ date arrived promptly and strode up to the Maître d’ asking if his party had arrived.

Markus Charles strode up to the three at the table where they sat waiting. “Which one of you is Lois?” he asked. “You’re both such fine ladies.”

Lois blushed and offered her hand. “That would be me,” she replied. These are my friends, Helen and Thomas. Thomas has agreed to split the check.”

“Nonsense!” Markus replied as he sat down. Looking at Thomas, he asked, “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”

“Only if you’re the same Markus Charles that led the Western Prep football team to victory for four years straight,” Thomas replied.

“Now I remember you,” Markus commented. “You’re the guy who helped me pass calculus. Thomas Caine, isn’t it? Is your dad still an accountant?”

“He still is,” Thomas replied. “Senior partner at Caine Accounting Services and my boss. He hired me right after I earned my MBA from Wharton.”

“Did you follow my career as a Quaker?” Markus asked.

“Is that a football team?” Thomas joked. “Seriously, though, what have you been up to since then? I heard that you were a doctor?”

“Played some football in college to pay my way to a premed degree, then went pro to earn enough to pay for med school. U Penn all the way through,” Markus replied. “Now I fix people faces and install fake boobs for a living.”

Lois found Markus to be utterly fascinating and was soon dropping hints that the couples could separate after dinner. Helen was happy to see her friend find someone that shared her hobbies and interests and was rich. Helen never understood why it mattered so much to Lois that the man be rich. Thomas had never shared his hobbies with Helen, but she knew what some of them were from how comfortable he was sharing hers. They had quite a lot in common and she was willing to adopt some of his that she was less than enthusiastic about just to spend time with him.

Their platonic relationship made them both uneasy, but Helen didn’t want to put Thomas’s life at risk. It wasn’t something that she could explain to him. She wasn’t sure that she understood it herself. So, after Lois and Markus went to see a movie together, Helen and Thomas went back to their apartment complex and parted ways for the night.

The audit took weeks which meant long hours for everyone at the company. And everyone went home exhausted at the end of the day just keeping up with their new responsibilities. Helen was grateful for her single status as she only had herself to care for at the end of the day. She could sense the stress in those who had families and relationships to care for. And being a helpful person, Helen donated her weekends to giving each of those with families some time off from being parents.

Thomas enjoyed the time he spent with Helen caring for the children of her co-workers while they took the night off from being parents. Getting the children to their weekend activities, feeding them, putting them to bed for the night were all things he found he looked forward to doing. Maybe it was because Helen made it look easy. Maybe it was because he liked acting like a kid again.

Over time, Helen adopted a schedule for reconciling the additional accounts that her work no longer ran into overtime. Thomas frequently treated Helen to dinner on their way home. On several occasions, she invited him in for breakfast before they drove in to work. In all their time together, they never discussed their own families. Thomas had his reasons for not bringing the subject up. There were some things about his family that he felt he could never explain to anyone, especially not to Helen.