“So we’re just going to sit here in silence the whole day, huh?”
I looked up from my book. Newspaper was sitting as his desk, feet up on the table, giving me a dubious look. I didn’t reply. Truth was, the book in my hands was most likely the most boring thing I had ever read, but anything was better than talking to him. Especially not after I completely broke my cool yesterday. And seriously, things were getting weird between us. Even the notion that I had some way of knowing what his cousin looked like gave me the shivers. Not like I believed him, but the whole situation was just awkward.
“Are you mad at me or something?”
I sighed, slamming my book down on the table. “Why should I be mad at you?” I snapped.
He put up his hands in surrender. “Jeez, I don’t know,” he said, smiling. “It just seems like you don’t want to talk to me.”
“Not to ruin your whole world, Miller, but I’ve never once wanted to talk to you,” I retorted.
That only made his grin wider. “You know, you are by far the most unpleasant person I’ve ever met.”
“Then you’ve clearly never met my roommate,” I murmured under my breath. Suddenly, a jolt of pain seared through the cut on my head. “Ah!” I cried, burying my face in my hands until the torture subsided.
“Gosh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you’d be that offended,” Miller teased, watching me with mock concern. “Why are you even at work today?”
“What are you talking about?” I snarled.
“Well, don’t take this the wrong way, but it kind of looks like you were jumped by some bums in an alleyway. Did you fall again?”
Wincing, I remembered my little episode with Sylvia. “You could say that,” I groaned.
Thankfully, it was time to dial into the call, so I didn’t have to spend another second having a heart-to-heart with Newspaper. I picked up the phone and called the usual number as quickly as I could. It took a while for the other line to pick up, almost as if they had forgotten for a moment that we worked there, too. Not like I could blame them. We weren’t the most memorable type.
“Are we ready to start, Karen?” the man asked, as he always did every morning. It was like they were acting out a script. I could always predict what they were going to say.
You bet, Michael. “You bet, Michael,” the blonde chimed in, adding in a little giggle.
They began to talk, and I struggled to immerse myself in whatever subject they were arguing about, but my mind seemed detached from it. I could only make out about three words per minute.
After a while, I could feel this familiar burning sensation at the top of my head. It didn’t take me long to place it.
“Miller, what do you want?” I demanded, pressing the mute button and turning to face him.
“I can’t believe this. Are you actually listening to the call?” he asked in disbelief.
“Maybe,” I mumbled.
“Wow. I didn’t know you hated me that much,” he said, shaking his head.
“Well, I’m glad it’s finally clear,” I snarled, turning the mute button off.
There was a silence as the voices in the phone droned on and on. My eyelids were drooping, and I was pretty sure I only had a few more minutes of staying awake if I kept this up.
I considered picking up my sketchbook and drawing something, but I hesitated. The last thing I wanted to do was draw Newspaper’s grandmother next. Worse yet, one of his ex-girlfriends, or maybe his favorite movie star. I thought for a moment, then settled on a bowl of fruit. At least that way, if I had to draw something from his life, it would be his lunch the day before, not another member of his flesh and blood.
As my pencil started to move, I could hear Newspaper clear his throat and shift around in his chair, like there was something he had to say but he wasn’t sure how to say it. Whatever, why should I care? I thought, shaking my head. But each minute made me more and more annoyed, and finally I gave into my exasperation, turned on the mute button and demanded, “What is it?”
“I’m sorry,” he blurted out.
I dropped my pencil and stared at him. He wasn’t grinning, or even smiling slightly. I could feel my stomach drop in shock. “Excuse me?”
“I said I’m sorry,” he shrugged, avoiding my eyes.
I tried to stifle a smile. I felt kind of bad for not taking him seriously, but honestly, the words just sounded ridiculous coming from his mouth. “For what?” I asked, playing dumb. If he was going to apologize, he had better do it right.
“For…you know…” His voice trailed off. He was gripping the edge of the chair so tightly you would have thought it was his only chance of survival.
“You know what?” I challenged, looking him square in the eyes. There was no way I was making this easy for him.
He took the challenge and locked his eyes with mine. “For freaking you out yesterday. I know that must have been pretty…strange.”
“Strange?” I repeated. “I think it was a bit more than strange, Miller.”
He groaned. “Look, I said it, all right? I’m not a complete jerk.”
I bit my lip. “I wouldn’t go that far,” I said, getting up from my chair and stretching my legs.
“It’s lunch time,” Newspaper called, glancing at his watch, “which means time for another one of your rendezvous with our best friend Daphne.”
I eyed him curiously, wondering if he was just saying that to change the subject. Nevertheless, I took the bait. “Actually, I wouldn’t call it that,” I remarked, sighing. “We sit on the floor outside of the cafeteria.” Then, before he could give me a confused look, I added, “That way we can avoid the—”
“Droolers, I know,” he finished, grinning. “They’re quite disgusting.”
“Even more so than a dank, musty floor,” I agreed. Then I stopped short because I realized I was agreeing with him. “I mean, you know, they’re not that bad. I’m sure they’re nice people.”
He raised his eyebrows, not even bothering to reply. “Well, get out of here before she misses you.”
I nodded and started heading towards the door. “You stay here for lunch every day,” I said, though the comment was aimed more at myself than at him.
“I do,” he answered. “It’s peaceful here without someone thinking I’m a skirt-chaser.”
“I don’t—” His eyes widened, but I cut myself off before I could add anything more. “Bye,” I said firmly.
Newspaper laughed. “See you later,” he shouted after me.
Daphne had been waiting so close to my door I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sight of her so close. “Hey!” she chirped. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?”
I glanced out the window, where a torrential rain pelted the glass and black clouds loomed overheard. “Sure,” I mumbled. “So, how was your first day as executive assistant?” I really didn’t care, but I figured it was polite to ask. After all, she couldn’t have that much to say about something as boring as Zippy’s Oats.
Honestly, I never learn.
For the rest of lunch, Daphne babbled endlessly about her crucial duties at the company, outlining every aspect of her routine. If she had been talking about any other business, I might have been interested, but keeping track of oatmeal sales wasn’t exactly the most captivating activity, and the fact that she seemed to worship it as if it was the most important job in the world made it even more sickening.
As the torturous hour passed by like an ice age, my thoughts drifted elsewhere. And something occurred to me. This week had been the most exciting week I had experienced in years. Sure, Newspaper wasn’t the ideal desk mate to spend your day with, but some part of me was glad that I was no longer alone. It was like sharing an office with an extremely large, smiley mosquito, or a flea. An extremely ugly, unappealing flea that buzzed around and occasionally bit you in the ass.
“Well, we had better get back to work!” Daphne’s piercing voice sliced into my trance. “The world of oatmeal is depending on us!” She squeezed my shoulders, causing me to cringe. “We can’t let it down!”
For all I cared, the world of oatmeal could go screw itself. In fact, any kind of oatmeal could go screw itself. Needless to say, I wasn’t in the best mood.
On the other hand, Newspaper looked like he had never felt better. “Essie! I missed you!”
I made a face. “Yeah, I was counting every second we were apart. Can you just dial the phone?”
He shrugged. “Whatever you say,” he relented, punching in a few numbers.
“Wow, you’re getting good at this,” I exclaimed in surprise.
“Ha, ha,” he sneered. The phone clicked as the other end of the line picked up. It only took about half a second before Jack pressed the mute button and turned to me. “So, how long have you been doing this?” he asked casually.
I yawned. “Doing what?”
I winced. “Too long.”
He cocked his head. “How long?”
“That’s not exactly a strong point of conversation, Miller,” I snapped, turning away from him. “You need to learn how to initiate normal discussion.”
“I could give you the same advice,” he murmured, spinning around in his chair. Neither of us spoke for a minute. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was thinking, but I was picturing his head being washed down a toilet. Or at least being hit by a very sharp object.
He got up from his desk and walked slowly over to mine until he was leaning directly over me. “So, a year? Five years?” Jack asked.
I groaned and lowered my gaze. “Why do you care so much?” Even by Miller standards, he was pissing me off. And normal Miller standards were pretty high.
“Why are you so angry all the time?” he retorted, his voice raising. I refused to let his eyes meet mine. I hated when he stood so close and displayed that awful smile, like he was the most powerful person in the world.
“Why do you always smile?” I demanded through clenched teeth. I had a feeling Sylvia’s fighting lessons were about to come in handy. If he took another step closer, I swear I would…
“Miss Spiros, are you there?” a voice inquired, breaking my stupor.
I jumped, confused. Had I just heard what I thought I just heard? My head jerked to the left, trying to find the source of the sound.
“What the hell was that?” Jack demanded, regarding me quizzically.
“I don’t know,” I said in wonder. “Are you sure it wasn’t you?”
“Was it you?” he asked.
I shook my head. Just as I was about to decide that I had finally gone round the bend (it wouldn’t be too surprising, hanging out with someone like Jack), the little voice rang out again.
“Miss Spiros, did you hear me?”
Once again, Jack and I were completely and utterly perplexed. Then he froze. “It’s coming from…there.” He pointed to the telephone, which had been sitting silently on the desk, abandoned.
Immediately, I panicked. Up until that moment, I wasn’t exactly sure if anyone besides Daphne even knew I worked here. By the looks of it, I was dead wrong, and by the sound of it, I was also dead meat.
With trembling hands, I picked up the phone and held it to my mouth. I was practically hyperventilating. It didn’t help that Newspaper was staring at me with a combination of awe and curiosity. “H-Hello?” I stammered.
“Miss Spiros, is that you?” the blonde woman barked.
I swallowed. “Yes!” I screeched. Be cool, Essie. Be cool. “I mean, yeah, I’m here, as always, twenty four hours a day, you know it bro!” I winced. What was going on with me?
Miller seemed to be stifling a laugh. “Bro?” he choked.
I scowled at him. “Can I help you?”
“Actually, yes, you can,” the man replied, a dash of annoyance in his voice. “If you would so gladly grace us with your godly opinion on this matter, Miss Spiros.”
My jaw clenched. He was mocking me, the son of a bitch! I mean, please, like he would actually listen in if he had my position at this company. But I couldn’t lose my temper in front of Newspaper, so despite my desire to ship the phone to an incinerator, I gathered my nerves and said, “Of course.” It wasn’t until the words slipped out that I realized I had no idea what they were talking about, much less my opinion on all of it. In other words, I was screwed. “Uh…”
“We’re waiting, Miss Spiros,” the blonde woman nagged. I could picture her white teeth glistening as she smiled cruelly. I wished I had my sketchbook so I could draw her with a giant wart on her nose.
Instead, I continued to drool pathetically, and repeat, “Uh…”
I could honestly say that this was the first instance where I had actually been expected to do anything in my job. Flashbacks to school, and teachers asking me questions I couldn’t answer while I fidgeted in my seat, quietly peeing in my pants overwhelmed me.
After a few more moments of quiet horror, I stooped as low as I could possibly go. I turned to Jack. “Help,” I mouthed, hoping he could understand me.
I doubted Newspaper knew any better than me what the employees were going on about, but I had to admit, unlike me, he seemed to have, well…this thing with words. Not like anything remotely attractive, obviously. Just a thing. I felt like somehow he knew what to say. So I gazed at him with pleading eyes, praying that a miracle might occur and Jack Miller would help me.
It didn’t seem like the gods were on my side that day, because my breathtakingly chivalrous coworker seemed to be doing everything he could to get the hell out of there. By the time my quiet entreaty had escaped my lips, he was already across the room, and before I could speak out to stop him, he was out the door and for all I knew, halfway to China.
For some reason, this filled me with an intense rage. It wasn’t like I thought he was going to actually help me, but couldn’t he have at least said something before bolting like some kind of scared puppy?
“Miss Spiros, are you still there?”
The voice was like a bullet to the foot. I had to say something. Anything. So, like many great, courageous leaders before me, I faced my fears, took control of the situation, and declared:
“I have to go to the bathroom.” I hung up without another word. The room now silent, I closed my eyes in shame to cringe at my utter stupidity. I had played the bathroom card. And I was convinced asking my coworker for assistance was pathetic.
Was I mentally ill? I had the easiest job in the world and I couldn’t even do it right. I felt like punching something. Rather, someone with blue-gray eyes. No, I thought. Punching wasn’t the way to do it. It was too quick, too obvious. I needed to make the guy suffer until he was kneeled by my feet, begging for mercy.
In a completely non-sexual way, of course. You perverts.
Taking a deep breath, I sat back in my desk chair and began planning my revenge.