The woman sitting at a picnic table in the courtyard looked like a bug. She was portly, dressed in colors really too bright for someone her size and she had a rather garish bag -- lime green with blue and red dots. Peter broke into his usual amused smile. She had made him laugh when her first saw her. From five stories up she did indeed look like a bug, barely sitting underneath the mushroom colored umbrella.
He knew the ritual -- zip open the polka dot bag, pull out the lunch items out one by one, carefully place the napkins beneath one of the small reusable containers so they would not fly away, open the medium-sized bottle top to put the drink at ready, take a short pause looking off into the distance, then lunch would begin in earnest.
"Hey, Peter, are you ready for the three o'clock?" Rusty's voice was quick and hyperactive. Peter did not turn around.
"Yes, Rusty. I'm ready.” This was the routine -- staccato question with a mildly perturbed platitude.
"Hey, man, I'm just making sure." There was a bit of a plaintive whimper in this response and Peter characteristically made a move to pour oil on the wound.
"Rusty, come here." Rusty jumped at the chance to be included. Standing next to Peter he followed his gaze down to the woman at the table.
"She's been there every day for the past three weeks."
"Huh. Must be a new employee in one of these buildings. Never seen her before."
"I haven't seen her anywhere but where she sits right now."
"Why do you care?"
"I don't care. I'm just curious."
Rusty paused and watched the woman in silence for as long as he could stand it.
"What do you think she's eating?"
"I don't really know. It seems to be the same thing every day."
A quick knock on the boardroom door frame introduced a third party into the room. Frankie leaned in.
"What's going on?”
"Nothing much. He is staring at a woman in the courtyard."
"Oooo-ooh, Petey. Got the hots for someone?" Frankie took post near Rusty."Sheesh. Is that all you guys are looking at?”
"Yeah, have you ever seen her before?"
"No, man, I haven't. Do you have anything better to do on your lunch, Petey?” Frankie was incredulous.
"Listen guys, I just like to stand here looking out over the city to stretch my eyes. She showed up about three weeks ago. And now I'm just a little curious to see if she breaks her pattern."
Frankie was impatient. "Dude, there are some far finer babes in the cafeteria two floors down. In fact, there's this new cougar from Lichtman, Farnsworth, and Pewter that is something else."
"Gents, what have we here?" Stewart swung in with his usual swagger. There was an air of the hunt about him at all times. He took position next to Frankie -- four men were standing shoulder to shoulder now looking down five floors at the decidedly middle-aged, broad-bottomed woman.
"I'd do her." A general exhaust of disgust shot out of the other three men.
"You'd do anyone!"
"Yup, just about." And with that Stewart eased out of the boardroom leaving an eye-stinging cloud of bitter cologne he was constantly convinced increased his pheromone factor. The three men waved their hands in front of their faces attempting to move the cologne into the vent above. One of them coughed reflexively while nearly gagging.
"How long do you watch her?"
"Every day. She's there precisely from 12:30 until one o'clock."
"And no one has seen her anywhere else?"
"Have you?" Peter leaned forward and peered at Frankie.
"No. I haven't seen her."
The woman began repackaging her polka dot bag. Rusty glanced at the clock.
"It's only 12:45. Is she leaving early?"
"No, no. She does a couple of other things. She has this tiny cup with a lid -- it kind of looks like medicine. She takes what's in it and then sits very still for another ten minutes or so. She has this little book which she takes out, flips some pages and then jots notes into it. Then it's time to go."
"Go talk to her." There was a juvenile dare in Rusty's voice. "Go on, dude. Find out who she is."
The temptation had been there before. Peter had always dismissed it.
"Nah. She's just having lunch, that's all."
"Come on! What's it going to hurt?"
"Yeah. Do it." Frankie chimed in for the junior high peer push.
"No." Peter shook his head quickly with a scornful press to his brow.
"Come on!" Rusty shoved him in the arm then leaned close into the side of Peter's face. With a low growl he said, "I double dog dare you." Rusty and Frankie leaned back with a gleeful laugh.
"You can do it!" Frankie slapped Peter on the back. Peter shook his head slowly.
"I'll do it!" Rusty jolted from the room. They could hear his footsteps fade down the office halls and the bell of the elevator.
"He's really going to do it!" Frankie was pleasantly shocked.
A middle-aged man named Walter ran into the room with Randy his assistant on his heels.
"What's going on?" They skidded to a stop at the window.
"Rusty's going down to talk to her!" Frankie's voice had a peak in it like it was just about game time. Not knowing what was happening Randy leaned into the window anxious to see what all the excitement was about. A fast shadow appeared at the foot of their building. Within an instant they could see Rusty's head leading his body in a brisk trot. He brought himself up short and turned for a brief second to throw a brilliant smile up to the fifth floor. A deep, muted and satisfied laugh rolled out from the four men's throats.
"He's going to do it!"
Rusty casually approached the woman from behind. Her head turned slightly. It looked as if he asked if he could sit down. The woman moved her hand indicating an invitation. Rusty leaned his back against the table, pushing his elbows down against the sun-warmed top. His long legs stretched out and away from the woman as if he was sunning himself at the beach. A little giggle, too much like a schoolgirl's, escaped from Walter’s lips.
"This is going to be good." The four men stood as still as lions before a leap. If the men had tails they would have been twitching.
Rusty seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. He pulled his head back as if stretching, but used it as a ploy to shoot a grin upward again. He turned back to the woman. Their heads moved as in conversation. Rusty swung one leg over another resting his calf on his knee. Their heads bobbed a bit as they seemed to be talking pleasantly.
"What are you guys doing?" The voice of the unpleasant office nerd came from the doorway. As if in a Greek chorus, four men's voices boomed, "Nothing!" It was sufficient warning to the nerd. He left quickly.
"What do you think they are talking about?"
"I don't know." Peter was a bit annoyed now that his lunchtime reverie had been turned into a zoo experience.
Suddenly Rusty's posture and frame changed. His propped up leg dropped off of his knee and his back stiffened.
"What was that?!" The men's eyes were riveted.
The woman's head tilted slightly toward Rusty. She seemed to be talking intensely. The longer she spoke the more Rusty appeared to recoil. He looked as if he was curling back into himself. The woman kept talking. Rusty jumped to his feet, his back to the window. His entire body was rigid. The woman was still for a moment and then she pulled the little book out. Rusty's fist flashed in the air and just as suddenly he dashed toward the parking garage.
"Something's wrong!" Frankie whirled around. His footsteps could be heard running toward the elevator but harder and more urgently than the previous runner. The elevator bell rang. Peter, Stuart and Randy were glued to the scene below. It was just a couple of minutes when Frankie’s shadow preceded him into the courtyard. He stopped short at the table, legs splayed, arms thrashing the air. The woman turned calmly to face him. His body movements became more expressive and almost violent.
"This is too much for me." Randy spoke slowly, as if he knew he shouldn't watch, but was mesmerized. He backed away slowly from the window, bumped into a chair, then sprinted wildly from the room.
"Sheesh, Peter. What's going on down there?"
"I don't know."
"Shouldn't we do something?"
"I don't know."
"What if she hurts him?"
"What if she hurts him? I'm more concerned about him hurting her."
The woman stood upright and faced Frankie. Two gasps caught at the fifth floor throats. She took some steps toward Frankie -- not threatening, but confident. Frankie was instantly still. The woman was intent upon him. Then he too, like Rusty, bolted for the parking garage.
The woman turned her head slowly upward. Her gaze, though not completely discernible, seemed to be directed to a particular window on the fifth floor.
"Oh, God!" Stuart ran from the room.
Peter stood still. He slowly crossed his arms. Glancing at his watch he could see it was about time for her to go. But now there was indeed a break in the pattern. The woman sat down, put her notebook back into her polka dot bag. She placed her hands flat on top of the table. She was still, as if waiting for a sign.
Peter felt compelled by what he did not know. He moved softly across the boardroom, went to his office to get his suit jacket and car keys. Then he walked steadily forward until he reached the elevator door. A distant voice called to him from inside the office. "Hey, Pete! Where are you going?" Peter ignored the call. The elevator door closed and he descended into unknowing.
The woman sat just as still as he had last seen her.
"Hello." He spoke into her wide back. She turned with a genuine smile.
"Hello, Peter Easton Smith. I've been waiting for you."
“Oh, you have?"
"Yes, I have. Won't you sit down for a moment?"
Peter eased himself down next to her, facing out as Rusty had done, but with less confidence and some fear. It was silent for several minutes.
"What -- what do you want?" Peter's voice wavered a bit.
With an astonishing gentleness, the woman began to speak. "Peter Easton Smith, born on December the 12th in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of three sons, and now the only living offspring of Arthur and Roslyn."
"Yes." Peter fairly mumbled this response. He found it odd that he was not frightened and that she knew these things about him.
"I've been sent to tell you something."
Here was very still, not wanting to change this meeting that seemed so different than the encounters the other men had.
"Peter." The woman's voice was like his mother's waking him gently on a summer's morning. "I've been sent here today to tell you that you are beloved."
"Beloved? By who?"
"By the one who put the stars in place. By the one who saw you even before you were conceived."
Peter’s throat tightened as he felt tears surge into his eyes.
"Peter, you are beloved. And there is far more for you than what is at your feet this day." Her hand touched his arm with the tenderness he had never known. He dared not speak.
"Your other friends did not want what is being offered to you. They became angry and frightened. But their fear came from misunderstanding."
In a short silence he felt as if he was being gathered to his father's chest. He could sense a great heart beating steady and strong and he felt comforted.
"You are not alone -- nor do you ever have to feel alone again."
Tears started to roll down Peter's face flowing so freely that they splashed onto his shirt and tie. The woman's voice continued like fresh spring water.
"Leave this place, beloved Peter. Leave it now and never turned back. You'll be provided for and watched over."
"Where do I go?" Peter looked deep into the woman's eyes.
"Go where you know you belong. Do the things you love. Work hard. Be a good and kind neighbor. Live simply and listen for his voice. This is all that is required if you."
Peter felt a growing resolve. He turned his head up and back toward the fifth floor. The woman's fingers gently pulled his face back to hers.
"Don't look back, beloved. Don't look back."
Peter covered his face with his hands and wept with joy. He could feel her fingers caress his cheek.
"Go now, dear Peter. Go now." Peter stood solemnly and looked down into the woman's eyes.
With a gentle push like a mother’s sending her son into the deep end, the woman pointed him in the direction he should go. Peter walked forward, uncertain yet confident that he had made the right decision at last.