“Junior Matchmaker Amore, my office. Now!”
Despite your best efforts, a distinct gulping sound escapes your throat. You try to slink into Director Eros’s office, but everyone and their brother is watching you. Nevertheless, closing the door behind you is no relief at all.
Director Eros stares at you with narrowed eyes. He takes in a breath like a bellows “Do you know what this pile of papers in front of me is?”
They certainly look familiar. “Um, all my case files?”
“No!” he replies with smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. He pulls a single file folder, a very thin one, from his drawer and adds it to the pile. “Now it is all of your case files. Before, it was all of your failed case files.”
“Sir, I . . .”
“You want to stop trying to explain now. We are beyond probation. We are beyond discipline. You are officially on to your last chance. I am giving you the easiest possible assignment for a Junior Matchmaker in the Cupid Squad. We are talking textbook Romantic Comedy work here. You have exactly one week to bring me a happily ever after on a silver platter. Or ELSE!”
Back at your cubicle, you stare at the file in front of you. It seems like a pretty fertile ground for romance, but then so did the prom, the beach weekend, and the . . .
No, focus on the task. You have one week until the charity ball. She’s going to be covering it for the local newspaper she just took over from her parents, and he’s attending because his parents are basically bankrolling the event. You give his profile a frown. He’s a little angsty for someone born into so much privilege. Maybe there’s something more you need to look into.
That, however, can wait. Right now, you’ve got to take care of the first part of the Rom-Com standard procedure:
The Meet Cute.
Chosen: He likes the newspaper with his morning coffee, and she likes watching people read her work. This is easy. You can just point him to the right coffee shop.
The morning dawns and you enter the transmutator. Today’s form is of the young part-time barista who is working her way through college. One time you asked what becomes of the people whose form you assume, but your instructor waved off your concerns. “They suddenly look up and wonder where their mind has been for the past hour or so.”
You’re the first one at the coffee house and you quickly make sure things are ready. Sumatra blend, her favorite: Check. Kona blend, his: check. There are plenty of copies of her newspaper on the rack, and you made sure to leave a half-eaten bagel that no one is going to touch on top of the national papers.
He comes in from the cold with his dark hair well styled. He wears it short, so the wind hasn’t affected him at all. Sleepily, he gives you his order, and he doesn’t even notice that you put in the cream he forgot to ask for. He sits, opens her paper, and begins to read.
Her entrance is far less calm. She bursts into the coffee shop with her hair tucked under a cap. Her blouse is improperly buttoned, and she’s talking on her cell phone.
“We are a newspaper, Carol. Emphasis on the paper. If they didn’t bring paper for us to print on, we are just called news. And I don’t want to go knock on people’s doors and ask them if they’ll give me a dollar to tell them what the score was in the high school soccer game.” A brief pause. “I know nobody answered when you called them. It’s not even seven o’clock yet, but that doesn’t mean you give up. I don’t care if you have to drive out there yourself and steal a truck. . . Hold on.” She stops at the front of the line. “Sumatra, two creams, no sugar.”
And with no more than that she is back yelling at her assistant. You quickly pour the coffee, but your mind is racing. She’s about to walk out the door and never even notice him. How could you forget to clear her schedule for today? Basic fieldwork.
She spins around and you apologize to the back of her head for what you’re about to do. You take a quick breath, blink your eyes three times quickly and blow out a puff of air.
What did you just do?
Chosen: I just caused a jar of chocolate covered coffee beans to spill. She will trip on them and spill coffee all over his paper.
Your frosty breath (there’s a reason Valentine’s day is in February) strikes a glass container of coffee beans, and they explode outward as the glass cracks from the cold. Beans roll out under her feet and she falls headlong, spilling the coffee all over him.
“Ow! Ow! Ow!” He’s on his feet wincing and nearly hopping with pain.
“I’m so sorry. Are you all right? It was the beans.”
You rush around the counter with a broom and start sweeping the beans up.
“I’m okay,” he says finally, “probably only first degree burns.” He shoots her a pained smile. Your heart swells as she smiles back unconsciously.
“Oh,” she says, looking down at the table where he was sitting. “So sorry. I got your paper too.”
“Not a problem.” He looks down at his stained shirt. “It’s nothing compared to my dry cleaning bill. Besides, it was a lousy article anyway.”
Your heart sinks as her voice turns frosty. “What?”
He doesn’t seem to notice. “Yeah. The only thing that kept me from being bored to tears was counting all the typos.”
She rears herself up to her full height. “I’ll have you know, I’m the one who wrote that.”
He doesn’t seem impressed by her flaring nostrils. “Oh. And you’ve never heard of a spell-checker?”
She grabs the remainder of her coffee and throws it on his chest before storming out.
“And what is this?” says Director Eros.
“My resignation, sir. I’ve obviously messed up this case beyond repair.”
He narrows his eyes at you. “I read your report. It’s not even close to beyond repair. A rocky meeting doesn’t mean much of anything. That’s basic textbook romance.” He hands back your resignation letter. “I do not accept this. You have a responsibility to these people, and you are going to carry it out!”
Chosen: He’ll be visiting the printer to deal with the charity ball’s brochures. When she comes to figure out why her paper wasn’t delivered he can be right there.
Inspiration strikes and you make a dash back to the transmutator. This one comes right out of your training manual, but it just might work.
Five minutes later, you are a sixty-seven year old man behind the desk of the printer. He arrives first.
“Good morning, sonny. What can we do for you?”
He seems a bit taken aback. Maybe “sonny ” was a bit of an overkill. “I had called about some fliers.” He waves a flash drive at you.
“Oh, sure. Let me take a look at what you got. These computers today, they do everything in half the time.” You take the drive and plug it into the port on your computer. Just as you’re bringing up the correct file, she appears.
“Al, what is going on? Carol said you refused to deliver our paper?”
“Excuse me, he’s with a customer.” He stops dead. “You!”
“You!” she replies. There is a half-second’s pause before she says, “An Oxford Comma is not a typo!”
“It is in a newspaper, and you threw coffee at me!”
“An Oxford Comma is traditional, and I live in a traditional town. Everyone here went to the same school, and had the same English teacher. If I leave out a comma, I get letters because that’s the way Mrs. Grendlekin taught every single kid in sixth grade.”
“Well that doesn’t mean you can throw coffee at me and interrupt Al when he’s got a customer!”
“It was lousy coffee!”
“And you ain’t my customer, sonny.”
They both look at you in shock. “What?!”
“Raising money for these nitwits. One time I send them a check. One time. Now I’m on some kind of list, the sucker’s list. They call me once a week begging for more money. I say no, they just call back. What’s gonna happen to me if I print out fliers for them, I shudder to think.” You point a crooked finger at her. “And you! You publish that crap about the Spotted Owl last week. Gotta protect the owl, she says. You know what happens next? You can’t cut down trees, paper gets more expensive. You want expensive paper, fine. I’m waiting for the expensive paper to get here. When it gets here, I’ll sell you that.”
He shakes his head in disbelief. “Wait, are you telling me you won’t sell me fliers — sell them, for money — because you think a charity is going to put you on a list?”
“And you won’t sell me paper because . . . because you are insane!?”
“Exactly! It’s insane. Not Oxford Comma insane, but pretty high up there.”
“Mrs. Grendlekin was a scary old lady. I still have nightmares about her when I try to spell Mississippi . . .”
“For once, this is acceptable quality,” says director Eros. “You gave them a nice common enemy to work against. Half an hour arguing with the unreasonable printer, and they left thinking better about each other.”
You smile as he reads over your report.
“I am hoping that when I look up from this report, I will not find you smiling. This is, after all, only one step in the right direction. They left on good terms, but nobody asked anybody else out on a date.” He looks up, and your smile has indeed vanished. “Good. Because if you had been smiling, it would be pretty obvious to me that you didn’t read the case file all the way through. Your biggest obstacle hasn’t even reared it’s head yet. Now get to work!”
With a professional looking nod, you turn and walk away. The moment he can’t see you any more, you make a bee-line for your cubicle. Obstacle? What obstacle? What is he . . .?
It’s on page 17, and it says . . .
Chosen: She’s staying with her best friend because of her house being fumigated. Her best friend happens to be his ex.
You absolutely hate it when you have to turn into a cat, but such things come with the job. There’s another person here, certainly, but for basic matchmaking reasons, that’s one form you won’t be able to take.
“Ginny? Are you home?” she says as the room in general as she comes into the apartment. You give her a tired cat glare, but grudgingly accept her scratches under your ear. Maybe this isn’t so bad.
“Hey, Minxie. How you doing, girl?”
Suddenly a beaming blonde blows into the room. “Oh, good. It’s you. I thought it was you, but I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t want to come in with a gun in case it was you.”
“Well, that’s good. I’m in favor of not meeting you with a gun.”
“Oh, it’s not loaded. I couldn’t stand to have it loaded, I’m a pacifist.”
“Then why do you own a gun?”
Ginny looks at her in confusion. “In case I have to shoot a burglar. I thought that was obvious.”
It’s very hard for you, as the cat, not to blink your eyes in confusion the way she is doing. She shakes her head and decides to change the subject. “Thank you again for letting me bunk here. I am going to kill my sister for sending me that credenza.”
“It looked nice. You know, minus the termites.” Ginny shrugs. “How long do you need the bed?”
“Another three nights according to the exterminator. More tents than a girl scout camp around my house.”
“Oh, that reminds me, I baked cookies! But then they burnt because I forgot about them, but we still have dough! I only made half of them into briquettes.”
“Dough sounds good.” She smiles at her friend.
Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. “Who is it?” they both say on a breath.
“Hi, um, I think we met earlier today at the coffee shop, and then again at the printer? Your assistant at the paper said I could find you here. I think you have my receipt from the printer.”
Ginny looks at her. “That’s not for me, is it? I don’t think I did any of that today.”
She shakes her head. “No. Definitely for me.”
The muffled voice behind the door continues. “If I’m not at the right place, please don’t call the cops. Just tell me to go away.”
She walks over and opens the door. “Hi.”
“Hi,” he replies apologetically. He waves a piece of paper at her. “This is a receipt for a half-ton of paper in rolls. I didn’t order that. I’m hoping you have something more along the lines of a whole lot of fliers.”
She pulls her bag from the hook where she’d hung it, and starts digging. Her progress is interrupted by Ginny’s startled exclamation.
“Oh. My. Gawd.”
He notices her, and his eyes widen. “Ginny?!”
“That better have been surprise, not like you weren’t sure you remembered my name. Because you better remember me.”
“Of course I remember you!”
“That’s good, because I remember everything. I swore if I ever saw you again, I’d do two things.” Without a moment’s hesitation, she walks up and slaps him hard on the face. “That was for leaving me after the cruise.”
You almost start purring. It’s as close to smiling as you can get in cat form. This is promising.
“And this is for the year and a half before that.” Ginny grabs him by the back of the neck and brings his head down for a long, lingering kiss that’s likely to take all the air from his lungs.
Meanwhile, she’s standing dumbstruck holding onto a receipt. You need to take some action.
Chosen: No time for subtlety. Go bite Ginny in the leg!
As a cat, knocking things off of an end table is second nature. Make it something he gave Ginny. She’s superstitious and will take it as a sign.
The kiss doesn’t break up. You see him trying to separate, but Ginny’s arms are like a vise.
After the shock of the spectacle wears off, she stands there awkwardly, the receipt in her hand. For a moment, she starts looking around the room, trying to find something else to look at. Finally, she locks eyes with you.
It’s completely acceptable according to regulations to make the cat look smarter than it is. You see her blink in surprise at the knowing look at your face. You nod, then jump down from the table. You bolt across the room and sink claws and teeth into Ginny’s leg. You had forgotten how vile humans taste.
“Yaoowwwww!” screams Ginny. If she’d just given up her grip on him, it would have been all right, but she falls to the ground, dragging him on top of her.
“Geez, are you two all right?” she asks, trying to help them up. She shoots you a glance. “Minxie? What’s up with you?”
He extricates himself from Ginny and stares at you. “Minxie? You still have Minxie?”
Ginny clutches her leg. “Wow, she really got me. I’m bleeding. I’m bleeding a lot. Oh, crap, I think I’m going to faint.”
“Well, then don’t stand up!” she tells her friend. “Bad cat, Minxie!”
In response, you stay in character and hiss. Then you jump back onto the table, and bat at the ceramic rabbit. It falls to the floor. With Ginny on the floor he and she both dive for it. They collide heads in mid-air. The rabbit shatters on the floor.
“So, let me get this straight,” Director Eros says with a frown, “your male subject was kissing his ex-girlfriend, and to break that up, you put all three of them in the hospital?”
“It’s only a quick trip to the emergency room, sir. No lasting damage.”
“Oh! Good! I thought you were trying to make sure Ginny was too lame to go to the charity dance with him.”
“No, sir, that isn’t what I was planning.”
“Of course not, because that would indicate you actually have a plan!”
“Of course I do, sir.”
“Really? Well now I’m curious. What is this plan?”
Chosen: Explain to Director Eros that you don’t have time to share your plan. You’ve got to get to the emergency room to enact the next part of it.
“I’d love to explain, sir, but I need to get going. The next part of the plan is very time sensitive.”
Director Eros stares unblinkingly at you for what feels like half a year.
You very carefully do not gulp. With quite a bit of effort, you give him an encouraging smile. He doesn’t seem to buy it, and you feel his eyes on the back of your neck as you head back to the transmutator.
You’ve gotten a lot of miles in as a doctor. Sometimes you wonder if your record as a match maker might be partially caused by that choice. Romance in hospitals is . . . dicey.
“So exactly what happened?”
He stares at your light as you watch his pupil dilate. “I was diving to catch a rabbit, and I hit the head of a brunette who was doing the same thing.”
You give that the requisite pause of a person who didn’t know what he was talking about. “This isn’t helping me give you a diagnosis of someone who doesn’t have head trauma.”
“It was a ceramic rabbit on a table. The cat I gave my old girlfriend knocked over the rabbit, which was the last gift I gave that same girlfriend. I dove to catch it before it fell, and so did her friend. We knocked heads.”
“Hmm, you gave your girlfriend a ceramic rabbit as a gift? You sure you hadn’t hit your head then?”
“There’s not a really good way to give someone the last gift you ever want to give them. In retrospect, a break-up gift is a bad idea.”
You purse your lips. “Any nausea, dizzy spells?”
“Only when I think about my old girlfriend. The dizzy spells, not the nausea. She was a whirling dervish. It’s been years, and I still can’t decide if I miss her or I’m afraid of her.”
You pull your pen out of your pocket and make some markings on his chart. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know a thing about medicine. No one expects to make out a doctor’s writing.
“Well, I’m not seeing any sign of a concussion, but I think an x-ray. In the meantime, my medical advice is to stay away from dervishes.”
You walk out of the curtained space, step over to the next one, and open the curtain. She is waiting for you inside, and you’re quite certain she heard all of that. Now, to steer her toward him.
Chosen: Tell her she has to stay for observations. He’ll have to come visit her because, after all, she still has his receipt in her purse.
“Hi, Doctor, I’m . . “
You shine a light in her eye, interrupting her. “Your pupils aren’t dilating properly.”
“Is that bad?”
“It can be a sign of something bad. We’re going to want to keep you for observations, at least overnight.”
“All you did was look in my eyes.”
“The signs are unmistakable. I’m sorry. If you had any plans, you’d better cancel them.”
You’ve transmutated into a lot of things in the past, but never into a sick person before. You had no idea that humans were so miserable when they’re under the weather. Aches are really frustrating.
Luckily, all you should have to do is lie here and pretend to be asleep.
“Oh, hi.” Her voice is a little too high. That’s a good sign.
“Sorry, I didn’t wake you or anything, did I?”
“No. I just wasn’t expecting anyone, and I kind of hate letting people see me in a hospital gown.”
“Nah, you look good. You always look good. I mean, this is the fourth time I’m seeing you, but you’ve looked good all those times.”
“I threw hot coffee on you.”
“And looked good while doing it.”
She laughs softly. “Was there something . . .?”
“Oh, right. Hand me my purse, please.” There are some rummaging sounds. “Here.”
“Thank you. Do you need anything?”
“No, no. I’m good. I should only be here a while longer.”
“All right. Then I guess I should let you get some rest.”
“Okay,” she responds quietly. “So, will I see you around? I mean, are you and Ginny . . .”
“That’s a very large question mark right now. I don’t know if I can . . .” He sighs. “I just really don’t know much of anything right now.”
“Okay, well. I guess I’ll see you if I see you.”
You let out a completely in character moan. That “yeah” sounded way too much like “Goodbye.”
You only get one of these per subject per case, but it’s time to use the second most potent tool at your disposal (next to the arrows, of course). The time has come to put some words in her mouth. You only have a few sentences, so you’d better make them count. You dig deep into yourself, and channel the energy you need.
“Hey, can I ask you a question?”
Now you just have to ask the right one.
Chosen: What was up with the ceramic rabbit?
“What was up with the ceramic rabbit?”
He laughs out loud. “That’s a long story.”
She gestures to her surroundings. “I’m not going anywhere.”
He takes the chair next to her hospital bed. After a moment, he begins. “One of the first dates Ginny and I went to included Chinese at this little hole in the wall. They had place-mats with an explanation of the signs of the Chinese Zodiac. Now, I don’t believe that at all, but Ginny being Ginny . . .”
“She believes anything that has no scientific basis whatsoever.”
“Exactly. It’s like you two have met. Anyway, I don’t even remember what my actual sign is, but apparently if you’re born in the year of the rabbit, you’re supposed to be something of a homebody.”
“And you’re a homebody?”
“I want to be. My mom and dad wanted me to be well rounded, so I spent my childhood going just about everywhere. Ginny wanted to see the world. I wanted to show it to her, at first. But the longer we were travelling, the more I realized that it’s just no fun to go on vacation when you never have a home waiting to come back to. I gave her the rabbit to try to say that, well, I want to be a homebody.”
“So where’s home now?”
“I don’t know. Dad got sick, and I’ve been travelling six months out of the year doing work for the foundation. I wanted to find a home, and I guess I forgot to look for one. What about you?”
“Me? No, I always knew where home was. My family’s been running the local paper for four generations. Don’t get me wrong, I could have done something else, but, I like doing what Dad did, even if I’m doing half of it online these days.”
“That sounds nice. You’ve got roots here.”
“I do, and it is.” There is a wonderfully satisfying moment of silence. “You’re not getting back together with Ginny, are you?”
He shakes his head. “No. I guess I’m not.” He stands and buttons his coat. “Thanks for the receipt. Will I see you at the ball?”
“I’m covering it for the paper.”
“I’ll watch out for you.”
“See you later, Peter Rabbit.”
“Oh, we are totally not going to be using that as my nickname.”
Director Eros looks down at your report. Every once in a while, he lets out a grunt. It’s not encouraging. Finally, he looks up at you.
“Let me see your arrows.”
You pull the two arrows you’ve been assigned for this case out of your quiver and hand them to him. He takes them reverently and begins an even longer inspection. After what seems like a decade, he hands them back to you.
“This is the easy part, you know? She goes to the ball. He asks her to dance. When you’ve got them both on the dance floor, one arrow into each of them. I assume you’re familiar with the concept?”
You nod your head eagerly.
“If you miss with these arrows, I will personally beat you nigh unto death. You with me?”
“You did adequately on this one, kid. Don’t get cocky or anything, but this wasn’t the most screwed up job I’ve ever seen. You may consider the “Junior” removed from your title of “Junior Matchmaker, effective immediately.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome. Now get out of my office.”
You do, and for the first time ever, when you leave Director Eros’s office, you’re not secretly hoping that the rest of the Matchmakers aren’t looking at you. Today, you’re hoping everyone is, because you can feel proud of a job well done.