Young Smith stood by the window and looked down at people swarming the streets. It was like watching a nest of ants. He remembered those from his childhood. He’d go to the forest and throw stones at the nests to watch the ants scurry around. Then one day he fell into one and the ants had crawled into his shoes and under his shirt and they had stung his skin. After that he had stopped throwing rocks, but still returned to look at the nests every now and then. But that was a long time ago and far away.
Smith closed the curtains with a faint feeling of disgust and turned to his desk. His files were piled neatly in the same specific order Smith always arranged them into. It gave him a certain sense of security. Pile one: important. Pile two: finished. Pile three: can wait. Pile four: to be burnt. The last one of these was the smallest, with only four slips of paper. Smith sat down on his uncomfortable chair and grabbed the fourth pile. Fraud. Blackmail. Bribe. Sensitive information. The last one made Smith smile. Those were the moments when he loved his job.
Smith set to work and was half-way through pile one when he heard commotion from outside. He returned to the window and parted the curtains. There had been an accident down on the street. Smith, who had expected another protest, was disappointed. How many more corruption scandals would it take for people to start marching the streets?
Suddenly there was a knock on the door. Smith didn’t answer and didn’t have to. It was the idiot from first floor who didn’t bother waiting for replies. The man walked in with the crooked smile that always accompanied his expressions. Smith had made fun of that smile until he had realised that the man’s face was deformed. The man was as large as Smith was scrawny, but once Smith had been convinced that he wouldn’t get punched in the face, he had gotten back to his nasty words. Another thing that gave him a strange sense of security. A constant.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s Khatom’s birthday card. Everyone on the first and fourth floor are signing it.”
“Are birthday cards even a thing on Khila?”
“We’re not sure”, the man said and frowned as if truly worried. It looked unnerving with his ever present grin. “We can explain it to her if she doesn’t get it.”
“Oh yes, that worked so well with her father when he retired”, Smith sneered.
“Look”, the man said. “I just wanted to do something nice.”
“This was your idea?”
“So, will you sign?”
“Everyone else did.”
“I’ve never talked to her. I don’t want to. Her face looks so ugly. It’s enough I have to look at you.”
The man sighed. It was the sigh of a grown-up dealing with a child’s tantrum. Smith felt his sunken cheeks heat with sudden humiliation.
“Give it here”, he said and snatched the card from the man’s hands. The card had a picture of an Earth cat wearing a party hat. It looked something like the cat Smith had had when he was a teenager. It had been the whole family’s cat, of course, but it had loved no one as much as him. It had slept in his lap and no one else’s and it was always there to greet him when he got home from the academy. Another constant in his life. Until he had moved here.
“Where the hell did you find this?” he asked. He had no idea how the man could’ve gotten a hold of a card like that. Earth settlers made up over half of Nobila’s population, but why the hell would someone there be selling something like this?
“I brought back a bunch of silly little things when I went home for Christmas”, the man said. Smith stared at the cat for a while before picking up his pen and writing his name on the very bottom of the card with tiny, barely legible letters.
“Thank you, Smith. Really. See you at lunch”, the man said as he left the room. Smith made the immediate decision to go out for lunch. He usually did that anyway. The man from the first floor seemed to always find him at the canteens of the company building. Smith didn’t understand why the man was so obsessed with someone as unlikable as him.
The commotion outside had died. Smith took his place by the window nevertheless and watched the sky. It wasn’t very different from Earth’s, but still sometimes painfully foreign. The man from the first floor had visited home for Christmas, but Smith had no one he cared to visit. He did get Christmas cards from his sister and his grandmother, though. Sometimes a birthday card, as well. What the hell was it with Earth and cards? Birthday cards, Christmas cards, Easter cards, Get Well cards, Sorry For Your Loss cards, Congratulations cards, Graduation cards, It’s A Boy cards.
Suddenly Smith wanted to see Khatom’s face when she got her birthday card. He was fairly certain she would be confused if not offended. Smith could’ve told the man from the first floor that the people of Khila saw birthdays as something almost sacred. Getting older and wiser and one more year closer to death which in their culture was only a step towards another world. How a planet so technologically advanced could hold onto such primitive customs and beliefs, Smith couldn’t understand.
As Smith looked at the sky, his thoughts wandered to his sister. It would be her birthday next Earth month. He thought about the ridiculous card with the cat and the party hat. He thought about his old cat and he thought about home.
Smith turned his back to the window, got back to his desk and started on pile three.