When I got to work the next day, Daphne had some exciting news.
“Essie! Essie! Essie!” she yelped, trotting beside me like a stray puppy. “Harley’s back! And she approved the commercial!”
“Oh,” I said, too lazy to fake any enthusiasm. “That’s great.”
“Isn’t it? And guess what else? I’m being promoted!”
“Oh, really? To what?”
“Executive Assistant!” Her eyes were flashing.
Finally, I gave her a smile. “I’m really happy for you, Daphne.”
Daphne smiled so wide I thought her face might explode. “And don’t worry, Essie. You’ll be promoted soon, too! I heard Harley talking about you!”
“Right,” I answered. “Thanks.” I hadn’t been promoted in nine years.
Daphne gave my shoulders a little shake before rushing away to her new job.
I followed slowly behind. There was no point in moving quickly, anyway. I was off to my boring job, in my boring office. At least that was one thing I could count on. It would always be boring. Nothing could shock me.
The second I opened the door of my workroom, my jaw dropped.
There was someone sitting at the other desk, hunched over a computer.
I stared in disbelief for a moment. Finally, I plucked up the courage to speak. “Excuse me?” I stammered. “Are you…” My voice trailed off as the person turned.
It was him. The man on the train. The one with the newspaper. He was in my office, sitting at a desk, like he had been working there for years.
“You,” I whispered, paralyzed.
He raised his eyebrows. “Sorry? Who?”
“You,” I repeated, louder this time. “I knew it. You’re stalking me.”
Newspaper shook his head, smiling. He leaned back in his chair so far, he had to grab the table to keep from falling over. “Actually, I think you’re the one stalking me.”
I was about to hit him with a scornful retort, but instead, I felt my stomach tighten. How did he find out where I worked? “What, did you follow me to my car or something?” I spat, crossing my arms.
His brow furrowed and he sat up. Clearly he was starting to get annoyed. “In case you don’t remember, you walked in on me. I’ve been sitting at this computer since three A.M. Honestly, do you really think my life revolves around you?”
“Then why are you here?” I scoffed, ignoring his last statement.
He sighed. “If you must know, I was just hired here. In fact, this is my first day. And might I add that it’s starting out very pleasantly,” he remarked.
I shot him one more lingering glare, watching to see if he would crack. He kept giving me this blank, innocent look, like a wet puppy after he had just peed all over your new pair of pants.
I groaned and gave in. “Fine,” I snapped. “I’m sorry. It’s just that…well, no one’s set foot in this office for nine years.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Newspaper replied sympathetically, “that you were under the impression I was a serial killer. Now that we’ve got all of that out of the water…Maybe we got off on the wrong foot.” He rose to his feet and extended a hand. “I’m Miller. Jack Miller.” His eyes were lighter up close, almost gray.
Hesitantly, I took his hand, since there seemed to be no escape in sight. I shook it vigorously, just to get any ideas out of his head that might still be dawdling. “Essie Spiros,” I mumbled, still wrestling with his hand.
For a moment, he looked confused. Then he cleared his throat and grinned. “Nice to meet you, Essie Spiros.”
There was a moment of silence. “Well, I’d better get to work,” I announced, breaking eye contact. Wow, I thought. Those are words I thought I’d never say. “Same goes for you,” I added. “I doubt Harley will let you off easy on your first day.”
He smiled a bit at my last comment, even though I was being completely serious. I pulled up my email, and an alert reminded me that the call was starting in a few minutes. Untangling the cord, I set the phone firmly on my desk and dialed the number.
Again, I got the strange feeling I had on the train, like there were lasers dragging through my skull. My eyes slid to Jack, who, I discovered, was staring at me with an expression that seemed so overwhelmed I almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
“All right,” I huffed, hanging up the phone. “Do you need help or something?”
“No, I’m fine thanks,” he replied, staring at his computer screen like it was going to sprout wings and fly away.
“Fine,” I said. It’s your funeral.
He didn’t move for a full minute after that. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I slammed my fist on the desk, whipped around, and said, “Hey. Pick up the phone. Dial the number. Press the mute button. Pretend to listen in. It isn’t that hard.”
“I know,” he said, his brow furrowing. “That’s what I was doing.”
“Well, for your information, we sell oatmeal here, not snails.”
“God, you are pushy,” he said angrily.
“Of course I’m pushy,” I snapped. “Everyone’s pushy. That’s just life.”
For a second, it looked like he was going to lash out at me. Then he exhaled slowly. “Can I just listen in to your call?”
I was about to tell him no, but then I realized it was just stupid to keep arguing. I already wasn’t doing anything, so what was the harm in not doing work together? “Fine.” I dialed the number again. A look of relief washed over Jack’s face.
When the line connected, the snobs were already deep into a conversation. It was even more pointless than usual. Apparently some weirdo was threatening to sue because their box of Zippy’s Oats hadn’t fit in their cupboard. In my opinion, if you were stupid enough to buy Zippy’s Oats, which, by the way, was the worst oatmeal I had ever tasted, then the size of your kitchen cabinets was the least of your problems.
I learned this the hard way. When I had first applied to the job, Daphne (who was pretty young at the time, but for some reason looked and acted exactly the same as she did now) had brought some of our product into work. “Oatmeal Occasion,” she had called it.
It turned out the rest of the employees weren’t too into the whole “Oatmeal Occasion” thing. I wasn’t even that keen on going, but Daphne had dragged me out of my office, and I figured nothing too bad could come out of a bowl of free oatmeal.
I was dead wrong. The oatmeal wasn’t okay. It wasn’t just kinda-sorta-bad-in-a-unique-way okay. It was bad on every possible level. When you first put the spoon in your mouth, there was this stinging burst of some odd, tangy flavor that had absolutely not place being in oatmeal, sort of like a mix between rotten tomatoes and sour milk. Then, once the taste began to settle in, it changed to this awful, sweet, starchy relish, like consuming ten million cream doughnuts at once. And just as you were considering throwing up or spitting up or getting rid of it in any conceivable way, there was one last spurt of taste, and this was the worst of all, because you literally couldn’t place it. As far as I was concerned, it had never existed in any food or drink that had ever been tried by humans, and I was pretty sure there was a reason. It was so horribly, unfathomably bad that you felt rooted to the spot, unable to move, your cheeks bursting like a rabid chipmunk and your hands squeezing whatever they could reach.
I would never forget that moment. I was coughing and sputtering, struggling for air, the stench still lodged in my throat. Once I finally got a hold of myself, I turned around to look at Daphne.
She had this big smile on her face, so big it made her brown eyes bulge. “I like it,” she said calmly, helping herself to another bowl. “Do you want some more, Essie?”
And that was Daphne in a nutshell. Anyone that could handle Zippy’s Oats deserved their own species entirely.
“Hey, lunch,” said a voice.
I nearly jumped out of my seat. “What? When?”
“Now,” Jack replied, giving me an amused stare. “You know, you look so peaceful when you daydream. Like a little drooling bunny—”
“Shut up,” I interrupted. “Don’t pretend you were listening to those lunatics.”
“I never said I was,” Jack said calmly. “But I did catch some blonde rattling on about the size of some box—”
“Wait.” I glanced over at him curiously. “Why blonde?”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “Well…I just assumed. Probably has white teeth too.”
I was about to reply, but I shrugged instead. “Whatever. I’m getting my lunch.”
“But you brought your lunch,” he objected, gesturing to my backpack, which has fallen on the floor, thus spilling most of its contents.
“Yeah, so?” I scowled at him, before shutting the door and heading to the cafeteria.
For once, I was actually relieved to see Daphne. I wanted to tell someone about newspaper guy, and she was the only person I knew who might have the decency to listen.
Unfortunately, I was incorrect. The second she saw me, Daphne started babbling on and on about the whole suing for box size issue the company was having, and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. In fact, she didn’t stop for the entire lunch hour. It was impressive, really, her talking for over an hour about one of the most boring subjects in the world.
And she kept talking, even all the way back to my office door. By then, my eyelids were drooping and my hands were twitching. Finally, she took a deep breath, flashed a giant smile, and yelped, “Bye!” before trotting off in the opposite direction, mumbling something under her breath.
I opened the door hard, leaving it swinging on its hinges. Jack didn’t even look up.
“Hard day, huh?”
“Shut up,” I snapped.