Stargazers: Chapter 1

"Val! Hey, Val!" Hazel heard her friend and co-worker Amanda calling to an unfamiliar man as they were making coffee in the office kitchen. Val smiled and waved, then went along his way.

"Who's that?" asked Hazel.

"Oh, he's pretty new. His name is Val, and he started working here, oh… about two weeks ago, I think," Amanda replied.

"How come I've never met him?" Hazel wondered. Office workers were usually on very friendly terms, and Hazel had been working there for quite a while and thought she knew almost everyone, even those that were only there briefly.

Amanda shrugged and started back toward her desk, coffee in hand. "You were on sick leave for a while, maybe that's why. Don't worry about it, I've only just learned his name recently."

Hazel put it out of her mind and took her herbal tea back to her own desk; she had work to do. Around one o'clock, though, she went out to lunch as usual, in a large and busy group of her fellow employees of the only publishing house in Easton. Amanda was there, along with several others that they were especially friendly with, and one of them had invited Val along. The group occupied a fairly large table at a nearby restaurant and had to wait a while before their orders arrived, due both to the sheer size of the party and to the fact that their waitress had only started work the day before.

At the other end of the table, someone said something or other about starfish, and everyone laughed. Hazel grappled with her logarithmically increasing hunger and listened to Jon's accented voice to her left, mocking the self-help book he'd been proofreading for work recently. To her right Amanda and Keri were exchanging opinions about cover illustrators and designers. Keri, a part-time illustrator herself, was berating some two-piece romance novelist, who'd called the office furiously to yell at them about their choice of cover illustration for her book.

"It's a shame she didn't get to choose the illustration herself. That would have saved you both some time, money and grief," someone said.

Keri shrugged. "Authors almost never get to choose their covers. Why should we privilege her? It's not like she's a long-time customer or some best-seller-lists prima donna," she said.

"I know," replied the other person, who turned out to be Val, sitting across from them, "all I'm saying is, it's a shame they don't. I know if I ever had anything published, I'd like to have some control over how my baby was presented to potential readers."

"Oh, are you a writer?" Keri asked.

"I dabble," answered Val, looking elsewhere.

"I bet that's why you wanted to work in publishing," commented Jon with a smirk.

"Actually, that was the original reason I did," agreed Val with a smile. Then the food started coming, and the conversation around the table mostly died out. A little later he caught Hazel's eye and she realized she'd been studying him. She looked away immediately.

A week later, Hazel was just as familiar with the newcomer as Amanda had been. He was just another one of the familiar faces she bumped into every fifteen minutes. He became a permanent addition to the raucous lunch-party, exchanging jokes and opinions as freely as those who had more seniority than she did. During the ever-active discussion of books, he went on to mention his own writing, once or twice.

"You should join the Writers' Circle," Eric said to him.

"Writers' Circle?" asked Val.

"Someone who doesn't work here anymore started it, about a year ago," Hazel started to explain. "It's a forum for staff members who do creative writing to share their material and get some honest opinions."

"Are you in it?" he inquired.

"Yeah," she answered, "but it's been a while since I wrote anything substantial. Work takes up all my time, and what's left goes to family, reading, movies."

He shrugged. "Maybe you're just not feeling inspired. If you were inspired, you'd find the time to write, wouldn't you?"

"Most of my writing was done on vacations, when I had a lot of free time," she replied.

"Didn't you get that feeling, though?" he insisted.

"What feeling?" she asked.

He looked like he found it hard to explain, and for a time the general table chatter was all Hazel heard. "The feeling that there's a story, or a poem, or something inside you, nagging to get out, and you have to put it to paper, right now," he finally said. "That urgency, knowing that you have something good and if you don't answer its call you'll lose it forever."

"I haven't had that in a long time," Gary remarked with a sigh.

"I'll get back to writing, someday. Are you working on anything serious right now?" Hazel asked.

"Hey, has anyone seen Sophie recently?" asked Jon at the same time.

Dean, Shane and Keri all answered at once, and the conversation turned to the topic of Sophie's many merits. It was one of those topics that they seemed never to exhaust, whether Sophie was actually around or whether she was away at some professional seminar for the week. Enthusiasm about new co-workers was a common thing, but since the turnover rate was often very high, the social circle that dominated last year might be reduced to nostalgic remnants by now. Hazel and Sophie had both endured through several such circles, so Sophie was considered a close friend, despite the fact that she was often away for extended periods of time.

Val had little to say on the matter. He half-listened, amused by the affection everyone seemed to have for Sophie but not much of a participant. He'd only barely met her, though from their superficial acquaintance he noticed her to be a generous and very sympathetic type, so he could see why everyone loved her so much. The office camaraderie left him feeling a little at a loss, despite the fact that everyone had been very open and welcoming. When a lull in the Sophie-worshipping came, he turned to Amanda, to ask her about this Writers' Circle.

"Oh, Chrissie started it, before she left," Amanda said.

"Who's Chrissie, and why did she leave?" asked Val, feeling even more confused.

"She worked here for a couple of years. I don't know her that well, since she left only a little while after I started work. If you want to know about her, ask some of the people who've been around longer than me," advised Amanda.

"Y'know," Val said, "it's kind of hard to tell how long anyone's been working here. You all seem like you've been around forever."

Amanda smiled. "I know what you mean," she said. "I remember it was like that when I came, too. When you've been here a while you'll also forget who's been where for how long, I can guarantee that."

"Anyway," said Val, "why did this Chrissie leave? Was she fired?"

Amanda, who was drinking, shook her head and put her glass down. "No, nothing like that," she assured. "She left of her own volition. Now she's working at some other publishing house in a different town. What I heard is that she left because of Eric."

"Eric from computer maintenance?" Val asked.

Amanda nodded. "Something was going on between the two of them, and so one of them had to go work somewhere else. I guess it was easier for her to find a new job," she said with a shrug.

"Someone left their job because of an office romance?" said Val, raising an eyebrow. "Does that happen often?"

"There have been a few cases," Amanda remarked, "but it's not like it's an everyday occurrence. I can see how someone might think that, though," she added with a smile. Val followed her look and saw who he thought were Julie and Dean engaged in some aggravated tickle-warfare. Between Dean's unearthly shrieks of laughter he could pick up what sounded like a reference to chocolate syrup. He turned back to Amanda and just looked at her in amazement as she was finishing her iced tea.

"We're an affectionate bunch," she said, smiling.

"I can see that," remarked he dryly.

"Work runs so late, our social lives tend to suffer, so we tend to let loose on these lunches," she explained. "It's all in good fun, and no one gets hurt."

"Unless Dianne's around," remarked Dean bre. "She's one mean tickling machine."

Julie smacked his shoulder lightly. "Are you insulting my tickling skill, mister?" she demanded to know. Things got crazy again, and Val just shook his head.

"Aw, c'mon, we're not that bad!" protested Jon with his usual grin.

"You'll get used to it," Amanda said again, smiling.

"Either that, or I'll entirely lose my mind because of you people," Val replied. People around him laughed.

"No, you see, that's exactly what we mean when we say 'get used to it'," Jon said earnestly. "I mean, what do you need sanity for, anyway?"

"I insist upon keeping firm hold of every inch of my sanity for as long as I work here, and I think I'll last a long time without having to give any of it up," declared Val ceremoniously.

"It won't be two weeks before he starts seeing stars," said Hazel.

"Oh, no," replied Val, smiling with an odd, tingly feeling of excitement, "the only starlight I see is the radiance of your magnificent presence."

"You see," Amanda said with satisfaction, "you're fitting in already."

The first thought that ran through his head was, 'well, I guess there's a first time for everything'.