Brandon woke up two minutes before his alarm rang.
He freshened up with water that was so cold he felt like he'd dunked his face in an ice bucket. He carefully put on his neatly pressed work suit - if there had been any creases, they had been shamed away by the rest of his clothes. Breakfast was a sad bowl of cereal drowning in an excessive pond of milk, followed by a mug of coffee so dark it was sucking the color from the mug. He threw on a coat and hat a slightly darker shade of grey than the suit he was wearing, and stepped out into bracing winter air.
He was at the bus stand three minutes before his bus arrived. He sat at the seat four rows behind the driver - at this point, it should have had his name stitched on it. As the bus rumbled through the city roads, he glanced out at the smooth alabaster sky, occasionally poked at by the taller buildings that called the industrial district their home. There were no birds flying in this cold - they either had far too much sense for it, or they didn't and weren't up there for long.
His workstation, spotless and soulless, awaited him in his cubicle. With a sigh, Brandon sat down in his sparsely cushioned chair and tried to look forward to the day's emails and engineering work.
He gave up at the sight of his inbox.
The bus back home was delayed. A puff of misty air escaped his lips as Brandon sat down on the lightly frosted bench.
The evening had brought with it a moderate snow fall. In a happier place, the snowflakes would have been twirling daintily on their way to the ground, and a cheery musical score with glockenspiel notes would have played in the background. This was not such a place. Here, the snow simply plummeted, as though it just wanted to get this falling nonsense all over with. And there was no music - unless you counted the scratchy whistling of the evening breeze (but calling that music would cause the standard of music to plummet like the snow).
Sitting idly at the bus stand often has the side-effect of letting one's mind run wild with introspection. Brandon's was no exception. It was slow at first, as though it had just woken up from a night's drinking and wasn't quite sure whose couch it was in. But then the cold air kicked it into gear, and it started to run down the path of bleak pessimism. Thoughts about his monotonous life and comatose dreams started to buzz in his head like a swarm of despondent bees. Brandon sighed deeply and buried his face in his gloved hands.
"Laying it on a bit thick, aren't you?"
The voice was chirpy and friendly, maybe even melodic. It was a voice that wouldn't be out of place in a kid-friendly musical.
Brandon turned around. "Excuse... me?"
Her skin was the only thing he noticed for a while. It looked like she had just walked out of a skin care billboard. Her skin was so smooth and flawless that it almost glowed - or maybe it was glowing, and his eyes were trying to rationalize the faint aura around her. It was the kind of skin that a high-strung model would look at and then burst into jealous tears, before flinging her make-up around the room and storming out the door.
"Oh, sorry, I wasn't speaking to you just now. It was my... well, brother, I guess. He's being a little overbearing right now. He normally doesn't emote too much, but he can be so depressing when he does - I've disturbed you too much already, haven't I?"
Having recovered a bit from the radiance of her skin, Brandon was able to make out a pair of blue eyes and a bright smile. She looked more than a few years older than him, but not too old either. Blond strands of hair peeked out from under her amber shaded beanie. She was wearing a cheddar-colored coat over what looked like a dress with a floral pattern. Strangely, her coat didn't appear damp from the snow.
"Erm, no, not really. I was just... no, it's nothing."
The lady continued to glance softly at him, as though expecting a few more words. Brandon awkwardly obliged.
"I'm Brandon. I work at the engineering firm a few blocks that way. Macronics Inc."
"Nice to meet you, Brandon. Do you like working there?"
He usually had an answer for that question. It involved words like "stable" and "good pay" and was designed to be succinct and not leave room for more enquiries. This time though, it seemed to have melted away, exposing a deeper, flawed version.
"Well, it pays the bills I guess. And it's a good career. I've been working there for almost four years now, and I've been promoted once or twice. The work's not too bad - it's what my degree prepared me for. I really shouldn't complain, but..."
He hesitated. The lady nodded encouragingly, leading him on like a parent trying to persuade their child to recite a particularly embarrassing poem they had written.
"...I feel like this is all I'm ever going to do, to be, for the rest of my life. It sounds like that's a good thing, you know, have a steady job, get a car and house, family - but the thought terrifies me. I feel like I should be doing other things, but this job is the only one I've ever been good at, the only one I've ever known. I feel like I'm stuck in a sewer tunnel, scurrying along in the same direction as all the other rats because it's the proper thing to do, and... and... it just depresses me. Or maybe it's the weather making me think like this. But I feel miserable."
He was almost surprised at the burst of honesty. He also had the eerie sensation that he was watching himself from a distance.
The lady smiled again. She had a very pretty smile.
"Hmmm, I'm not quite sure why, but this reminds me of a story I once heard, a long time ago. Would you like to hear it? It might cheer you up."
Brandon nodded. And then wondered why he did.
"It begins with a chieftain of a tribe, a fierce and courageous warrior. His name was Metkachin. He and his group of loyal followers were the most feared and respected in all the land. They mostly defended their own village from outside threats, but sometimes they went on the warpath and raided other villages for food and supplies. And Metkachin, he was almost invincible. Other men trembled when they saw him approach, axe held high and steel in his eyes."
"He was as loyal and dutiful a soldier to his people as one could ever hope for. To him, he lived only to fight for and protect his people. Nothing else mattered. In due time, he was married to the prettiest and kindest girl in the village, Nyoma, who bore him a fine looking son that they named Tikal. He was proud of his son, but did not waver from his vigil as chief. To him, the boy would only matter once he had come of age. Nyoma would look on longingly as he rode out to his patrol, or on a raid, hoping he would come back safely. And he returned every single time, with only ever a few scratches and a stern countenance."
"But one day, he returned with far more serious injuries. Nyoma was aghast, but attended to them quickly. He recovered, but wouldn't be able to fight for at least a month. He was stubborn at first, refusing to stay at home while his men were out, but the pain of his injuries knocked some sense into him. So, grudgingly, he stayed at home, while Nyoma happily tended to him."
"One day, while walking around the garden behind his home, he saw his son, a young boy of four now, playing in the sand. At first, he stayed away, content to merely watch and ensure was safe. But then he saw that Tikal was drawing in the sand - and curiosity got the better of him. He walked over to where his son was, and sat down beside him. Tikal was startled at first, and shied away. The two of them looked at each other, unsure of how to proceed. Then Metkachin, slayer of many mortal men, began to draw in the sand himself. Tikal slowly ambled over, and joined him. Together, they created many masterpieces in that patch of sand in the garden. Sometimes, they even laughed and smiled at their work. And Metkachin learned that there were other things in life that mattered just as much as his duty and position. And he learned to smile more often."
The lady ended the story there, looking into the distance as she did. Brandon didn't quite know how to respond.
"That was... was that a folktale of some sort?"
The lady's cheerful face turned on him once more.
"Maybe it is. Maybe it's a real story that happened long ago. Maybe it's a myth. But that's not why I remember it so fondly."
"I'm a firm believer in happiness and optimism. I'm also a firm believer in taking a break, and stopping to smell the roses - especially when they're in full bloom."
Understanding dawned on Brandon.
"Sometimes, people are so focused on surviving that they forget to live. And I like to remind them that there's more to the world than what lies within their little bubbles. I love the sound they make when those bubbles pop, and the people step out and realize what they've been ignorant of. It can be harsh at first, but in the end, it only ever results in joy and contentment."
Brandon let the words sink in. Then he ventured, "So, you think I should quit my job?"
It was amazing how the lady could make even a snort sound musical.
"That seems a bit drastic, don't you think? Maybe all you need is a holiday. Travel somewhere, try something new like, hmm, cooking or painting. Give your life more color. Maybe starting with your clothes. Even my brother isn't so monochromatic."
Brandon didn't approve of the chuckles that followed. But he couldn't maintain his disapproval - it was like staying mad at a puppy.
"Is that your bus?"
Brandon turned to look. Sure enough, there it was, slogging through the thick layer of snow on the road.
He turned back to say goodbye, but the lady was gone. All that remained of her presence was a few tendrils of mist rising from the bench where she had been sitting. Puzzled, Brandon clambered into the bus. He was still looking at the misty patch as it pulled away from the bus stand.
He realized the lady had never told him her name. But he was somehow quite sure that he already knew.
It was Summer.