The office was electric with the hum of anticipation; everyone in a frenzy to finish paperwork and head out for Social.
They reminded Irene of ants.
Circles of people crouched and sprawled around the floor, filling out cards, tallying numbers, handing in cash up to the next echelon, hunched figures perched on stools, bent over counters and clipboards who filed the cards, compiled the numbers and traced colored lines on maps marked with myriad notations.
Above them, two queens circled the room, one with a beatific smile, the other bored, twirling a curl of hair and staring at the clock--Athena and Ariel.
The smiling one would gravitate almost naturally to the downcast face of one of the lower ants scrabbling about on the floor. Sometimes she would crouch beside them, always smiling. Sometimes she would wrap an arm around their shoulders and steer them towards a door at the back where her private office lay.
Irene was the only one without a task; it was her first day. She had been hired that morning after going through the job listings in the paper and beginning with the letter, 'A' and found, "Activism!"
"A is for ant," she whispered.
"Hey!" A man who called himself Tree clapped a hand on her shoulder. Tree was one of those who got to sit on a stool. "How was your first day? Do you need help?"
"Uh, yeah, it was great." It had been hot. They, she and her trainer--Ariel, the queen with the bored look-- had walked for four hours in utter humidity.
The bored queen walked up then, her mouth twitched. It might have been a smile. "She made eighty dollars on her own, Tree."
Tree grinned, "made your scratch on your first day! You're going to be a Turf Manager in a week!" He still hadn't taken his hand off Irene's shoulder. "I'm a Turf Manager."
The words hung there, as if a cue for her to say something.
"You need to add up the total knocks and the ones you spoke with and which ones were benies," Ariel explained and handed her the clipboard she had been carrying with them all day. "Then give it to Cars. I already gave him the money and our map." And then she wandered away, leaving Irene to find a place on the floor with the lower ants. Tree had evaporated into the hive somewhere, she wasn't sad about it.
"C'mere, I'll help you," called a girl in a short skirt on the floor a few feet away.
Irene wove her way past a smelly boy with a nose ring like a bull and another person with a black pixie cut and indeterminate gender to sit by the girl who had spoken.
"I'm Jo," she continued with a blunt stare.
"I'm Irene," the new girl answered, tucking up the ragged bottoms of her jeans beneath her to balance the clipboard across her lap. She glanced at Jo's neatly tallied columns and began to fill in her own. "Are benies people who gave you money?"
Jo leaned over to check her work and nodded.
"Short for benefactors?"
"Yep." Jo glanced up from her own sheet, smiled around an unlit cigarette and a jewel embedded in her cheek twinkled in florescent light magic.
Around them the floor ants were beginning to clear out, having turned in their day's work to the Turf Managers on the stools.
A shadow fell across Irene's clipboard.
She looked up into the beaming and dimpled face of Athena, the queen-mother of the colony.
"Hi, Irene. Heard you had a great night. We're having a Social at my place, I hope you'll come. Jo knows how to get there." And then Athena too headed out, leaving Ariel to herd the strays out of the office and lock up.
Outside, Jo lit her cigarette and eyed Irene, a shorter girl with long reddish hair and large eyes.
"Where are you from?" Jo asked, blowing smoke out the side of her mouth with a practiced sexiness. The moonlight seemed to like the gem stud in her cheek, and it glowed in the dark.
Jo's dark brows shot up, highlighting the contrast in color between them and her platinum blond bob. "Ha! Iowa. We were practically neighbors. What brings you to the south?"
"Finished school, didn't want to be in the Midwest anymore," Irene shrugged and hugged her arms to herself, her thin poet's shirt inadequate. "You?"
"Came to seek my fortune," Jo smirked, "and a boy." She paused, "I think I like you. You're not like the others."
"What are the others like?"
"They're...you'll find out." Jo tossed down her cigarette, stepping on it with the heel of a black boot. "Hey, you gotta car?"
"You wanna go somewhere?"
"Isn't there a party or something?"
"There's a party every night. C'mon, let's go." Jo liked her arm around the shorter one's elbow
"Anywhere! Where's your spirit of adventure?"
Later, Irene would look back and mark the beginning of all that came after with these words:
"A is for Adventure."