It's a sleety November day in the city, cold and gray, and you're walking as quickly as you can down the sidewalk, because your umbrella has two broken ribs and sags at one edge, and your office building is five blocks from the subway station.
There's a man on the corner with a cardboard box at his feet. You try not to make eye contact, but you can't help glancing sideways at him as you go by. The box is filled with smaller white boxes. He's got one in his hand and is holding it out to you.
"I'm not buying anything," you mutter, looking away.
"Good, because I'm not selling anything." His voice is sunny, calm, warm, everything that this chilly day is not. It wraps you in a warm, fuzzy blanket. You realize you've come to a stop in front of him. Reluctantly, you turn your head.
"This is for you," he says with a smile. "Gratis, no charge, free."
"What?" you say stupidly. "Why?" Still, you reach out with your free hand to take the white box. It doesn't weigh much, but it's obviously not empty. Something slides and rattles gently against the sides of the box as you close your fingers around it.
"Why do anything? Because I want to give it to you. Because you need a friend."
"I don't –" you start, but your words stick in your mouth. They lodge somewhere in your teeth and won't come out. That's because he's right. Your alarm goes off in the morning, you go to work, you sit at your computer all day, and then you go home and read or watch television until you turn on the alarm and turn off the light. Boring.
You try again. "How did you know?" (Those words come out just fine.)
"This is the city," he says. "Everybody needs a friend."
You find yourself returning his grin, and when you start walking again, the box is in your hand. You'd like to investigate it as you go, but it's taped shut. You need one hand to hold the umbrella, and the tape's too tough to slit with your fingernail one-handed. So instead, it goes into your coat pocket. You plan to open it up as soon as you get into your office, but your boss is waiting for the elevator and when she sees you, she immediately asks you when you think you might have your current project finished. There have been some issues with the website and you're the one who understands it best, but it shouldn't take priority over what you're doing now, of course.
You calculate you can probably be finished by the weekend if you work late tonight and tomorrow. "It's okay," you assure her. It's not like you have anything else to do with your evenings. (The book will wait, and you can tape the shows.) Plus, it will make you look good. Maybe you'll get a promotion next review, or at least a raise.
That's what you're thinking as you step out onto the eleventh floor: your boss, the website, a possible raise. Your coat goes onto the rack and your wet umbrella against the wall by the trash can. You walk past Carla's cubicle (you've had lunch together once, but both of you have been too busy to get together again even though you've wanted to get to know her better), then past Harun's (you've talked with him by the coffee machine a few times, but both of you have been too busy to spend time with each other even though you've wanted to get to know him better), and into your own. Then you sit at your desk and bring up your email and begin your workday.
It's not until just before lunch that you raise your eyes across the rows of dividers that separate you from the outside wall, look through the window, and notice that it's still raining. And that reminds you of the man on the corner, and the small white box.
The box, when you fish it out of your coat pocket, is dry. (Had the man been sitting under an umbrella? Had his hair been wetly plastered to his forehead? Maybe he was bald. You can't remember.) You pry the tape open with one blade of your scissors, and open the box.
Inside, nestled in a piece of white tissue paper, is a translucent blue glass bird. Not a realistic bird; its cartoonish lines and bright color remind you of the Twitter logo. It has a cheery yellow dot for an eye, and a stripe of yellow glass outlining the beak. When you reach into the box to take it out, your fingers close on a pair of prongs protruding from the bird's backing. Clearly, it's meant to plug into an outlet. There's a spare outlet on the power strip next to your desk. You bend down, the glass bird in your hand, and plug it in. The bird begins to glow.
At first it reminds you of the background on your computer screen, that same vibrant electronic blue. But then it changes. It becomes... richer, somehow, morphing into a deeper shade, darker but brighter at the same time. It's no longer a glass bird filled with blue light; it's a glass bird made of light. It's so bright that it ought to hurt to look at, but it doesn't. It's beautiful. It's sharp and vivid, like the sky on a cloudless day. It doesn't look at all like your computer screen any more. It doesn't look like anything you've ever seen.
A voice floats across the cubicle divider. "What's that?"
"Is that coming from your cube, Harun?" asks Carla.
"Nope, not mine."
There is the gentle rumble of wheels as someone pushes a chair away from a desk and stands up.
"Oh," breathes Carla, in a voice full of wonder.
Reluctantly you tear your eyes away from the glow. It doesn't matter; you still see it. The whole room is filled with blue light, beautiful blue light. It's brighter than your desk lamp, brighter than the fluorescent tube lights in the ceiling. It shines from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling. It shines right through your skin. It shines right into your heart.
"Some homeless guy gave it to me," you start to say, swiveling your chair to face the entrance to your cubicle, but Carla's not there. She's standing by the outside wall, looking out the window. All around you, chairs are being pushed back from desks. People are leaving their cubicles and going to the window. A low murmur of excitement fills the air, the buzz of electricity and voices.
Harun and Carla step apart so you can stand between them. "Look," says Harun softly.
It's a sleety November day in the city, cold and gray. You are on the eleventh floor of a downtown office building, surrounded by other office buildings. Some are gray stone, like yours; some are dark metal and cool shiny glass. They've all got people in them, people like you, working at desks and easels and lab tables, at monitors and notepads and blueprints. You can see them in their offices, stick figures in an ant farm, dozens of vertical grids, hundreds of cubes.
Most of the cubes are lit with cold pale fluorescent light. A few of them are dark: a lawyer is out on a case, an architect is on vacation. But a handful of the cubes glow a rich blue. A bright blue, a beautiful blue. The blue of a cloudless summer sky, of the Caribbean sea in a shallow, sandy bay.
As you watch, another window flickers from pale yellow-white to blue. Then another. It is as though they are lighthouses in the gloom, calling out to each other. And you are in a lighthouse, too, you and Harun and Carla, and Jason and Andrew and Li Fan and Jenette, looking out to the infinity of other lighthouses, shining blue beacons tracing the pathways between them with light.
There's a blue cube in the building across the street, two floors down from yours and a little to the left, and a woman looking out at you. Her name's Leticia; she's the receptionist at the financial firm there, and a single mom, and she's allergic to tomatoes. She smiles at you, then tilts her head to look toward another building, toward another blue cube, another shining lighthouse.
Carla slips her arm around your waist. Harun reaches for your hand.
"You should take the rest of the day off," says Jenette. She's standing off to the side, but like everyone else, she's looking out the window. She glows as the blue light dances across her face. "All of you. Go, go." She catches your eye. "The website can wait."
Harun grins and tugs you toward the door. Carla breaks away to grab her purse and then runs ahead. "I don't want to wait for the elevator," she calls back, flinging open the door to the stairwell.
The light in the stairwell is a peculiar harsh yellow, and she pauses on the threshold for a moment, frowning. Then the sweet blue glow pours in from behind you, and the three of you run, gleeful, down the stairs to the ground floor and then out into the lobby and then out to the street.
The cloudless sky is a brilliant, vivid blue. All around you, doors are opening. Laughing people spill from their offices in twos and threes and fours and dance down the street. Carla and Harun catch your hands and you twirl them both through the crowd.
A cardboard box sits on the street corner. Stenciled across the top is: OPEN IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. You leap over it gracefully as you twirl down the street. Anyway, it's empty.