Picture Winter

an excerpt

Week two of the new year, and you're back in the groove after a stressful holiday season, Capricorn. Be nice to others this week. You never know where it could lead.

Pfft. Be nice to others? What kind of horoscope was that? He could get a better reading from a fortune cookie.

Elias tugged the scarf around his neck higher, covering his mouth and nose, and secured his toque more securely over his ears. Head down against the brutal blizzard, he trudged his way up Bay Street, boots marking a path behind him that was almost instantly swallowed up by the blowing snow.

Be nice to others. He was always nice to others. It wasn't his fault he had resting bitch face--or 'resting douchebag face' as Rachel called it. Even when he was in a shit mood, he was nice to others. All right, so that last part wasn't strictly true, but he avoided people when he was in a shit mood, so that had to count for something, right?

He didn't bother looking up until he reached Wellington Street and only then to make sure the light was green. It wasn't. Elias waited with the other three pedestrians for the light to turn. Normally at this time of the morning, the sidewalks were crawling with fancy-suited, briefcase-carrying commuters rushing to work. Today, people smarter than him were either working from home or calling in sick. He already had six emails from staff who weren't coming into the office. The streetcars weren't running. The subway was delayed. Go Transit trains were cancelled. Streets hadn't been plowed. The roads were icy. The kids had a snow day. Elias didn't have an excuse. He lived within walking distance to his office, but even had that not been the case, he would've come in anyway. Showing up on such on awful morning showed commitment and respect and trust.

It might just be enough to get him that promotion to VP.

But God, winter in Toronto sucked big, frozen, ice-cream balls. The snow wasn't the soft, Christmassy-looking type that fell gently and made everything look pretty. No, it was raining ice pellets, sideways no less. The wind was so strong that it dislodged fist-sized clumps of snow from rooftops and bus shelters and awnings, sneaking around buildings just long enough and hard enough to throw what felt like enormous, ice-encased snowballs into his face.

Stepping into the intersection, he crossed the street with his fellow dedicated commuters.

"Sorry," he muttered, when he accidentally bumped into someone going in the other direction. See? He could be nice.

Bunching up the morning newspaper with its useless advice column masquerading as a horoscope, he tossed it into the next trash can he passed.

"Hey!"

It was less windy on this side of the street, the tall downtown buildings a buffer against the wind. He jammed his gloved hands into his jacket pockets and--

"Hey!"

Elias turned. A guy dressed in a huge, puffy, white jacket with an orange-and-yellow city-worker vest over top scowled at him from next to a series of trash cans. Like Elias he had his scarf up over his mouth and nose, toque over his ears. His ice-blue eyes were so frosty that they would've frozen Elias's balls had the blizzard not already done that for him.

"Paper goes in this one." The city worker pointed at one of the cans. He was about Elias's height, roughly five feet ten. Other than that Elias couldn't tell much about him in his snowman outfit. He could've been a skinny beanpole or a carbo-loading, fast-food junkie, twenty years-old or fifty.

"Huh?"

The guy lowered his scarf, uncovering his nose and mouth. "Newspapers," he said slowly like he was talking to an idiot. "They go in this can."

Elias looked at the can in question. "Recycle," it said with a picture of a newspaper, a ticket stub, and one of those triangular pieces of cardboard every pizza place ever served their pizza slices on. The next can also said "Recycle," but had a picture of pop cans, water bottles, and milk cartons. The third trash can said "Litter," which probably meant everything else was supposed to go in there.

Wait. Was he being schooled on how to sort his garbage properly?

"What does it matter?" Elias asked. "Doesn't it all go to the same place?"

The guy huffed, the breath he expelled clouding around him.

"No, paper, plastic, metal, and glass all get separated and recycled for different purposes."

City Worker kept talking, but Elias stopped listening. He didn't care what happened to his garbage, as long as it got picked up once a week.

"You know what?" Elias interrupted the guy's monologue on glass plants and plastic plants and what-the-fuck-ever plants and made a show of peering at his watch. "I'm late. I gotta..." He turned and left.

Because seriously? He didn't need this on a Monday morning. He was twenty minutes late already, most of his staff weren't coming into the office, his toes were fucking freezing, and he couldn't feel his nose.

By the time he got to his office building at Bay and King a few minutes later, the bottom of his pants were soaked, his face was stinging, his nose was running, his fingers were stiff, and he had two more emails from staff who were working from home.

Which, everyone knew, was a euphemism for napping and binge-watching Netflix.

A new email came in as he was booting up his computer in his office. Fingers still achy, he fished his phone out of his pocket.

Dear Mr. Hood,

Thank you for your submissions to CanadaTravels magazine. Your Algonquin Fall Colors photo will be used on the cover of our September issue; the six others you submitted will be used in a four-page feature story about fall camping in Algonquin Park. Please find contract details enclosed and....

Ha! That made four editions of CanadaTravels magazine that would feature his photos this year. He tapped the pdf icon on his phone to open the contract, but Rachel appeared in his doorway--like she did every morning between eight and nine--before he had a chance to skim it.

"I didn't expect you today," he said.

"I live down the street." Rachel deposited herself in one of his visitor's chairs. "It'd be pretty sad if I couldn't make it in." She quirked an eyebrow. "So?"

"So?" he evaded. Rachel was his best work friend. They didn't interact outside of the office, but here they got along like a couple of teenage best friends. Probably because they didn't work in the same department.

Rachel rolled her eyes heavenward. "So what did it say today?"

"Nothing useful." Elias set his phone aside and logged into the internal system on his computer. "Told me to be nice to people."

"Hmm." Rachel tapped her lips with a pink fingernail. "And have you been?"

"I'm always nice."

Rachel cracked up.

Confused--and maybe a little bit hurt--he looked at her around his computer screen. "Why is that funny?"

"Oh my God," Rachel gasped. "Oh my God, you actually believe that." She looked like she was about to fall on the floor she was laughing so hard.

"I am nice," Elias defended himself. He realized he hadn't exactly been nice to the city worker giving him shit this morning, but that was just a one-off.

"I don't know if 'nice' is what I would call you," Rachel said, laughter still in blue eyes almost the exact same shade as the city worker's. And why was he even thinking about that? "'Tenacious' and 'determined' are what I would call you." Elias didn't think it was a compliment. "'Responsible. Practical. Organized.'"

"You're describing a robot."

He'd clearly startled her. "No, no, I don't mean it in a bad way," Rachel said, serious for once. "They're all good things."

Sure didn't sound like it.

"Anyway, I'd listen to your daily horoscope."

"Why?" Elias asked. "They're all a bunch of hocus pocus bullshit anyway."

Rachel's jaw tightened at his usual response. "Anyway, the reason I came in here. My cousin is visiting this weekend. He's twenty-nine and single and gay and..." She paused for dramatic effect. "He's a Taurus," she sing-songed.

"Why does that last part matter?"

"Oh my God." Rachel flopped back in her chair, flinging her arms wide. "Have I taught you nothing? Taurus is one of Capricorn's most compatible signs."

"Why?" Not that he cared. He was just curious.

"You're both pragmatic and rational, both have the same seriousness, treat life the same way."

There she went with the robot description again.

"So Capricorn and Taurus are basically the same?"

Rachel literally face-palmed. Her hand smacked her forehead, and she wilted in her chair. "Why do I bother? I'm done. You're hopeless." She took her pant-suited self toward the door. "Don't fire too many people today," she called over her shoulder before disappearing. She poked her head back in. "Let me know by the end of the week if you want to meet Steve."

"I can tell you right now," he called even though he couldn't see her anymore. "The answer's 'No'!"

Him on a blind date? There was almost nothing he wanted to do less.

****

The weather's looking up, Capricorn, and so are you. Don't forget to treat people the way you like to be treated. Karma always notices a good deed.

"Here you go."

City Worker blinked at the coffee cup Elias held out, eyeing it with suspicion. Dressed once again in a huge, white, puffy jacket, maroon scarf, and orange-and-yellow vest, he'd foregone the toque today. After a full week of the temperature hovering somewhere in the negative twenties, today was only minus five, which felt downright warm by comparison. Elias had left his own toque at home.

"What is it?" City Worker asked, making no move to reach for the proffered cup.

"It's coffee," Elias said. "Black with a touch of milk, since I don't know how you take it."

This was the lamest I'm-sorry gesture ever. He didn't believe in horoscopes and zodiac signs and whatever, but if the universe wanted him to be nice, he'd be nice. Plus he normally didn't treat people the way he'd treated this guy yesterday, and he did feel bad about it. It'd just been windy and nut-freezingly cold and snowing ice pellets of doom. Combined with most of his staff taking the day off due to the blizzard, he'd perhaps been a touch cranky.

City Worker's face folded in confusion. Still he didn't take the cup. His hair was blond, both on his head and on his unshaven jaw, but he had dark roots and dark eyebrows. Probably somewhere in his mid-twenties, his soft face made him look eighteen. Yet the full lips and frosty eyes gave him a certain maturity.

"Why?" City Worker asked.

"It's an apology," Elias explained. And promptly realized he hadn't yet apologized. "I'm sorry about yesterday. I was a dick, walking away like that. And here." He took the rolled-up newspaper from the back pocket of his leather messenger bag and delivered it into the correct "Recycle" trash can. "See?" He could be cooperative.

City Worker didn't look impressed.

Fed up, Elias thrust the cup at the unappreciative guy, who had to take it in a gloved hand otherwise it would've spilled all over his pristine white coat. Out of his own coat pocket, Elias extracted a few mini creamers and milks and several sugar packets--raw, brown, and white. He was considerate that way.

"In case you need extra," he said and thrust them into City Worker's other hand. Nodding in satisfaction, Elias continued his walk to his office, feeling quite proud of himself.

****

It's another cold one today, Capricorn! But it'll be sunny at least, so don't forget your sunglasses. Speaking of sun...why not try and brighten someone's day?

"Is hot chocolate more your thing?"

City Worker finished replacing the garbage bag in one of the trash cans before turning to Elias. Elias had to squint--he had forgotten his sunglasses, damn it. City Worker didn't have the same problem, with his cool eyes hidden behind a pair of functional sports sunglasses. Which was really too bad: Not only were his eyes a really impressive light blue, but the sunglasses meant Elias couldn't see where he was looking or what expression his gaze might hold. Although the wrinkled brow and the mouth set in a tight line gave him a good guess.

"You didn't seem too impressed by yesterday's coffee."

Not that he seemed all that impressed by today's hot chocolate either. Why was Elias still trying? He'd apologized already. And he didn't need to take the extra twenty minutes to stop at a cafe on the way to work to get something for City Worker. But it made him feel good to be doing something for someone else. Not to mention it must suck like the ass-crack of dawn to work outside all day in this the cold weather. A warm drink could only make the whole prospect a little bit bearable.

And yeah, he was kidding himself. City Worker was a young, tall, smoking-hot blond who was completely Elias's type except for the no-talking thing. Elias usually went for guys who spoke back to him, but it was fine. He could hold the conversation for both of them. Maybe. For about twenty seconds.

"Here." Elias took a step forward, getting out of the way of the massive throng of morning commuters, and held out the cup in his hands. To his surprise, City Worker actually took it today.

He was still scowling when Elias walked away, but when Elias turned back before he entered his office building, it was to see the city worker taking a large gulp of his drink.

****