Doug looked up from the cutting station to see Megan and Philip standing some distance off and waving at him. They had clearly waited until he was finished cutting several sets of blinds for the previous customer so they wouldn't interrupt him.
"Hey, guys! What're you up to today? You know, I thought you had that place of yours just about finished up—or are you starting another project?"
"Well, you know," Philip said with an affable shrug. "There's always at least one or two little tasks waiting for you to get around to." This drew a laugh; they all remembered how big some of the previous "little tasks" had turned out to be.
"But what we really came here for today is: we want to invite you to have dinner at our house," Megan said, "so we can show you everything we've done, and to thank you for all the help you gave us! But! We don't want to be, like, creepy customers who overstep their boundaries if you wouldn't be comfortable with that. And we don't want you to feel bad about saying no to us! So, what we're going to do is leave this invitation with you." Megan placed it on the counter in front of him with a flourish. "And then we're going to go take a stroll around the paint aisle to look at which colors we might want to use when it's time to repaint."
"That's a long time away," Philip pointed out.
"But it is never to early to start planning," Megan resumed smoothly. "Green. And while we're gone, you can read our invitation and think about your answer. When we come back around, it'll be the first time you saw us today. If you don't want to come, just pretend we never gave you the invitation. You won't feel awkward saying no, and we'll act like it never happened. You'll still be our favorite person at Lowe's and we will be totally cool, we promise."
"So, we'll see you in a few minutes," Philip said
"And it'll be the first time you've seen us today!" Megan reminded them. They each gave a little wave and walked off together like kids playing at being spies. Surreptitiously.
Doug watched with a smile until they rounded the corner, then opened the invitation. "Please join us for dinner at our awesome house (which you helped us make awesome!)" it read, "this Saturday at 7:00p.m. (Or some other time if you're scheduled to work then!)" Phone number and email contacts appeared at the end. They'd put a little border on it, Doug observed, in the same purple-and-pale color scheme he remembered them choosing for Megan's office.
When they came back around a few minutes later, Megan beamed and said, "Hi, Doug! How are you this morning? It's good to see you today!"
"You guys are just the cutest thing," Doug said. "Of course I want to have dinner with you."
"Yes!" Megan and Philip high-fived, then Megan did a little happy dance around Philip as Philip beamed. "We can't wait!"
Of course they had to give Doug a tour of the house before they had dinner.
("I mean, if it's all right with you!"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world.")
The formerly green room. The now-intact office ceiling (and attic floor). The perfectly dry basement. Doug knew the stories of their disasters and victories in every room, and had even seen parts of the house in plans and pictures the pair had brought in, but now he was able to place each story in context, to see how each project he'd worked on with them fit in to the home and the life Megan and Philip were building together.
They were all so engrossed showing Doug their improvements to the garage (it turns out you can enjoy raising and lowering a garage door a limitless number of times when you've installed it yourself—not to mention the by-now sizable tool library they had acquired, whose organization and storage they were showing off to Doug) that no one noticed the food was burning until the smoke alarm went off.
In the kitchen, Megan dove toward the door of the stove, where Philip intercepted her with oven mitts before she reached inside. "Thanks," she said, as the smoke intensified, billowing out from the oven door. She danced around indecisively for a moment with her hands full of charred and smoking roasting pan before striking out for the back door. "Open for me?" she called to Philip, and he opened the door for her as she rushed through to set the pan outside.
Philip calmly propped the door open after her and returned to turn on the fan above the stove. "Yep, we wired it in," Philip said over the piercing shriek of the alarm, smiling benignly through the faint haze of smoke. "It won't stop going off even if you take out the batteries. You know, as a safety feature," he added. Aside from raising his voice enough to be heard, he showed no apparent reaction to the smoke or the noise. As Doug watched, Philip's face became slightly more obscured from view by the rising smoke.
"It's okay!" shouted Megan from the patio, only her flailing left arm visible through the open back door. "Emergency salads!"
They ate outside on the patio to escape the smell in the house as the smoke dissipated from the kitchen (windows open all through the house, fans whirring smoothly and reliably). From this vantage point Megan and Philip could point out the new gutters, the freshly painted shutters, the patio they'd put in. The faint smell from the burned pan Megan had brought outside to cool off was barely detectable.
The emergency salads were delicious.
"It's something we came up with when our kitchen was out of commission," Philip explained.
"Unexpectedly out of commission!" Megan put in with a smile.
"It's a way we can still have something good to eat even if we can't cook. If there's one thing we've learned in all this—"
"—and we've learned a lot of things!"
"—it's to have contingency plans for our contingency plans."
"And to always keep trying!" Megan concluded triumphantly.
Fortunately, they had all just about finished their salads when the rain suddenly broke overhead.
"You can leave the dishes!" Megan called out as they rushed toward shelter in a flurry of activity. "It'll be just like a pre-wash, really!"
"Rain-safe cushions on the patio furniture," Philip said.
"And rust-resistant paint! It'll all be fine—we just need to get out of the rain ourselves!"
Instead of heading back toward the house, Doug found Philip and Megan were leading him to a shed in their backyard. They huddled together under the tiny overhang as she got the door open, then went together into the small space. The sound of the rain suddenly quieted as the door shut behind them; Doug could still hear it pattering on the roof, as well as the tell-tale sound of a leak somewhere in the small building. It was musty, somewhat crowded with odd bric-a-brac, and altogether dark until a lantern switched on nearby.
"This," said Megan "is our next project. Our secret project." In the darkness and the rain, her face only partially illuminated by the lantern, she sounded unexpectedly portentous.
"And we want you to help us with it," Philip said.
"If you want to!"
"If you want to."
"I can see it still needs some finishing," Doug said cautiously, unsure what he might be agreeing to.
"We're going to build a time machine. In here. We're going to turn our garden shed into a time machine," Megan said. The air of seriousness held for a moment and then broke as both their faces erupted into grins—but not the grins of people who have just successfully pulled off an elaborate practical joke. These were the grins of people who would soon be in possession of a time machine.
Megan set the lantern down next to a drafting table, illuminating what Doug could now see were plans—somewhat messy plans, parts of them already crossed out or erased and rewritten several times. Megan and Philip began to explain, indicating different parts of the plan as they spoke.
"—And obviously we can't have the generator inside the shed," Megan continued, "but just as obviously we need it to somehow be part of the, the same unit—" Megan made gestures indicating unity, or possibly robots. It occurred to Doug that he didn't know which direction they were planning on travelling in. He thought they seemed like people who would want to see the future.
"So, what do you think?" Megan finished. She and Philip both turned toward Doug, faces shining with expectation.
Doug looked between them for a silent moment, then turned to consider the plans on the drafting table. He pulled them closer to examine a detail... and reached for a pencil.
"For a start, for a self-contained power unit, you'll want to make these changes to your plans for the wiring, here and here—"
"All right!" Philip said, at the same time Megan crowed, "We knew you could help us!"
As they crowded close together around the plans, damp and excited, Doug felt an unfamiliar smile blossom on his face. It was, he thought, the smile of a person who would soon be travelling in a time machine belonging to his friends.