Tag Archives: Cubicles Blood and Magic

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 2: Poisoned

Welcome to another Tuesday!  This Tuesday we continue where we left off–Dorelai and Dereck on a really bad date. What follows is the entire second chapter from this contemporary fantasy novel. (PG-13, folks.) Cheers.

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic: Dorelai Chronicles, Book One

Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

Published by Osuna Publishing

This story is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Chapter 2: Poisoned

As Dereck and I walked to our reserved table at La Belle—Dereck bellowing into his ear clip—the alluring scent of grilled steak made my nose twitch, soft violin music tickled my ears, and the flickering of candlelight relaxed my mind.

I couldn’t help noticing an elderly couple snuggled up next to each other, more into each other than the half-eaten plates of roast duck before them. The gentleman cradled his wife’s veined hand in his, then actually kissed it with a loud smack.

How I wished I had someone who’d kiss my knuckles that way.

Dereck remained engrossed in fighting with his law partner on the phone.

A wave of dizziness surged through me and I had to grab onto the high back of my dining chair for support. Our waiter noticed, and nodded in sympathy as he pulled my chair out for me.

Once the menus were handed out, Dereck hung up on his law partner and came back to reality.

“So, what are the specials?” he asked the waiter.

As the waiter told us his name (Kevin) and rattled off the specials of the night, my gaze kept straying to the listed salmon.

I always got a salad when eating out. Always.

But a plate of blackened salmon, with herbed wild rice and grilled mushrooms, onions, and zucchini, made my stomach rumble just thinking about it.

“—and chocolate lava cake for dessert,” Kevin said. He flipped open his order book. “So, madam, what would you like?”

“The blackened salmon,” I said. “And the lava cake for dessert.”

“Excellent choice,” Kevin said, while Dereck frowned at me. I never ordered dessert. Never. Between the rich dessert and not ordering a salad, I’d surprised him.

Dereck said, “Bring two forks for the dessert.”

No way. That dessert, the first I’d allowed myself on a non-special occasion in years, was mine.

“Bring a second lava cake for Dereck,” I said to Kevin.

Kevin nodded. “Very good.”

Dereck made a hnnnh noise in protest.

Kevin rolled his eyes in derision behind Dereck’s back. If it weren’t for the wedding band Kevin was wearing, I might have tried picking him up.

I said to Dereck, “You can always take the leftover cake home if you can’t eat it all.”

Dereck bristled at my words. He said to Kevin, “I’ll have the New York strip, medium rare. Baked potato. Dinner salad.”

I waited until Kevin was out of earshot. “Look, I’ve come to realize I’ve been too narrow in my choices for meals. I want to experience what the chef here is renowned for.”

“But you’re…”

I tried to fill his awkward pause. “If I can’t finish the cake, I’ll take it home to enjoy tomorrow after dinner.”

“But,” Dereck pursed his lips, searching for the right words for whatever was bothering him, “their cake has so many calories.”

My shoulders tensed. Unbidden, I thought about my bony frame and lack of muscle tone, and Dereck’s past admiring comments about how “spare” I was.

Dereck was worried I was in danger of going on an eating spree and getting fat.

I made my fingers unclench from around my butter knife. Stabbing him for being a jerk would not solve my problems.

But dumping him definitely would. “You don’t have to worry about me getting fat,” I said to him, “because I’m never going to be your lover.”

Dereck choked on his water, spitting out a mouthful onto the tablecloth.

Kevin hurried over to help wipe up the mess while Dereck coughed from water going down his windpipe.

I took up my napkin from my lap and tossed it onto the table. “I’m leaving,” I said to Dereck. To Kevin I said, “I’m calling a cab. If carryout containers can be put together with my salmon dinner and cake, I can pay for it to take home.”

“Certainly,” Kevin said. “I’ll let the chef know.”

I strode over to the maître d’ to arrange for a cab to come for me once the takeout was ready.

Once Dereck had gotten his coughing problem under control, he stalked over to where I stood.

“Go back to our table,” he said.

“We’ve talked for weeks now, and you wouldn’t listen. It’s over. We’re finished.”

Dereck turned beet red. “What have I done to treated like this?” He kicked the reservation stand so hard I feared it might topple over on me.

“Excuse me, madam,” the maître d’ said. From his tone, he was asking if I needed help.

“Everything is okay,” I said to the maître d’. Then to Dereck, “Isn’t that right?” and in a lower tone, “Or do you want to talk to a police officer?”

Dereck broke eye contact, muttered “Women” to himself, and left the restaurant.

 *

That night I feasted on salmon and cake until I felt full, then put the leftovers in my fridge. I was unhappily struck by the lack of solid food in it. Lots of liquid diet drinks, and celery in the crisper, and diet caffeinated soda. And that was about it.

Monica was right. I needed to eat better. I’d have to go shopping for groceries on the weekend.

In the meantime, I grabbed a plastic bag from under the sink, and put the liquid diet drinks in it. I’d leave it in the break room tomorrow for someone to take home.

Then Dereck had the nerve to text me while I was getting ready for bed: Talk 2 me.

I sent back: No!

Dereck: Stop being a bitch. We must work this out face 2 face.

Me: I hate you. Never text me again.

That got him to leave me alone for the rest of the night.

*

My alarm forced me to drag myself out of bed. I felt like I’d run a marathon while drunk, which made no sense since I sat at a desk all day.

If it hadn’t been Tim’s last day, I would have called in sick to sleep off the fatigue and wooziness.

But instead I made myself a cup of coffee, ate leftovers from dinner so I wouldn’t ride the bus on an empty stomach, and got on my way. I stuffed the bag of liquid diet drinks in a book bag so the plastic bag wouldn’t tear from the weight.

It was after I got on my bus for downtown that I discovered that this particular Friday morning would be the weirdest I’d ever experienced. For a man in his twenties ran up to the bus before it began to pull away from my stop, and I was struck by the faint golden glow around his blonde head.

I’ve definitely been working too hard, I thought. I’m punch drunk from exhaustion.

I rubbed my eyes to clear them, but the glow did not go away as he climbed aboard. His entire outline glowed like one of those tacky paintings of angels.

He made his way down the bus aisle, so I was able to study him up close.

His clothes were those of a successful businessman—grey wool suit, white shirt, briefcase. Blue eyes, and a face like the proverbial angel. Breathtakingly handsome.

I forced myself not to stare back at him after he passed from view.

The bus got moving, and I soon discovered that every few blocks or so, on the walls of scattered buildings near pedestrian level, was the exact same ancient Egyptian-like painting of two golden eyes with black pupils. The way it had been painted made it seem like the pupils moved, as if the eyes were looking around.

It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

You know, I ought to be panicking right now. Why am I sitting here so calm? Was there something in those weird ink specks last night that drugged me?

There was something familiar about the strange colors and patterns I was seeing, as if I’d seen them before and then forgotten them. I pinched my ear, but the pain made it clear that this wasn’t a dream I could wake from.

When my stop came into view, which was within sight of Knossos Tower and the Chesterton Downtown building where I worked, I nearly rose from my seat in shock at what I thought I saw.

I tried not to gawk as I got off of the bus. Glowing blonde guy got off as well, and headed toward my office building, slipping past me with eerie quickness and silence.

The faint imaginary glow of Knossos I’d been staring at for two weeks now existed in reality. And it was beautiful. The entire exterior of Knossos was surrounded by a protective silver-blue aura, with golden sparks that flickered in and out of existence.

It’s so gorgeous, I almost don’t care that I’m hallucinating. A strange conviction came over me that this was how things in Mather were supposed to look, that I was on the verge of seeing everything and everyone for how they truly were.

You’re crazy, Dorelai, I heard Father’s voice say in my head. Snap out of it. Now. I won’t have a child of mine behaving in such an irrational manner.

Screw you, I’m tired of you telling me what I can and cannot do.

Outside the Chesterton was a new street vender selling sunglasses and key rings. His brown skin also had a golden glow like that of glowing blonde guy, who had stopped to talk to him.

I pretended to stare into a jewelry store window as I watched glowing blonde guy confer briefly with glowing street vendor guy while pretending to shop for sunglasses. He actually bought a pair, and handed over cash and something else into the street vendor’s palm. Then he disappeared into my lobby.

I wobbled toward the Chesterton lobby entrance. There was a woozy calmness on me that I couldn’t shake, no matter what I saw as I looked around.

On an office building next to mine, two painted giant golden eyes stared down from the second floor. I gaped as I saw the pupils swing back and forth to gaze at the office workers going past.

There were no golden eyes painted upon the Knossos building itself, but many buildings around the plaza facing Knossos had golden eyes painted on them.

And as I scanned the plaza, I found another golden glowing form, this one a ragged beggar woman holding an empty glass jar as she sat on a bench. She was engulfed in cloaks and a floppy hat.

On a crazy impulse I couldn’t stop myself from acting on, I wandered back to the glowing street vendor to look at his wares.

“How’s it going?” I asked him as I poked at a keychain with a velvet-style portrait of Elvis attached.

“Not bad.” He smiled, showing perfect white teeth. Up close I could see that he, too, was staggeringly handsome under his sunshades and baseball cap.

Most of the keychains had portraits of famous people or imaginary characters.

“Will you be here on Monday?” I blathered. “I don’t have the money today to buy keychains.”

The vender grinned. “Likely. But you’d better shop today in case I’m not. Here today, gone tomorrow.”

“Oh.” I barely stopped myself in time from asking why he glowed like an angel.

Somehow I drifted into the Chesterton lobby, which after the muggy exhaust fumes of the street was a chilly contrast with its air conditioning. Glowing blonde angel guy was nowhere to be seen as I wobbled my way to the elevators.

*

The day started off badly with our status meeting with Ed.

Before the meeting, I’d been forced to splash my face with cold water from a sink in the women’s restroom for ten minutes to get my mind clear enough to function.

The first words out of Ed’s mouth at the meeting were, “I regret to inform you all that Monica has given her two weeks’ notice. We’ll miss her as much as we miss Tim. But she’ll be doing programming work as a contractor. A move up.”

Monica couldn’t look us in the eyes while he told us, but then her eyes were nearly puffed shut from getting so little sleep. She was a walking commercial for sleeping pills. Just looking at her made me want to yawn and go back to bed.

Ed continued. “She assures me that she’s taking a week off after she resigns to get some shut-eye. It will, um, be a while before we can replace her due to the postponement of all replacement hiring until next year.”

Hiring freeze. The odds of me being able to keep our project up and running for six months had just gotten a lot worse.

Jake smiled at me as he passed around mugs of coffee. Jackass. My predicament amused him.

Tim, Stuart, and Vadin were all gripping their pens too tight. They knew what this meant. The death spiral for the project had just sped up. Tim was right. Granite Hills was headed toward layoffs. And as a prototype software project, we’d be the first to go.

I stood up with my mug and snagged a sugar packet from the side table to add to my coffee, and as I stirred in the sugar, wriggling black specks floated to the top.

My back was turned to the group, so my grimace went unseen.

Jake. He’d made this coffee.

Tim and Ed blathered on about what had been learned during yesterday’s software release.

I went back to my seat next to Monica, carrying my drink, and eyed her coffee as she blew on it.

Hers had shiny blue specks swimming in it.

What the hell?

No one else seemed to have speck crap floating in their coffee. And no one seemed to be able to see the weird black specks in mine or the blue specks in Monica’s, for there would have been an uproar if they could.

I got up with my mug to go look again at the coffee urn. No sign of specks in the coffee drops underneath the urn’s spout, or in the mugs, or on the side table.

Drat,” I said as I deliberately knocked over my coffee. It spilled across the side table, exposing the wriggling specks to view. My coffee had been chock full of them.

Jake said, “I’ll get towels,” and ran for the break room. The rest stared in bemusement as the liquid spread across the side table. But none of them seemed to be able to see the disgusting speck stuff as I could, for no one said anything about it.

I don’t want to be called crazy. If I say anything about what I’m seeing, I will be.

Jake ran back in to hand me a roll of paper towels and a wastebasket. He watched with nervous interest as I cleaned up the spill.

As I soaked up the coffee and specks, I threw out each wad of paper towels before the liquid could touch my skin. I was able to clean up the spill without getting any of the specks on my skin, but it was a close call twice.

Once done, I tied up the wastebasket’s plastic liner so that none of the specks could accidentally fall out.

When I turned my attention back to the meeting, I noticed that Monica’s coffee mug was empty. Too late to knock hers over. And unless I was imagining things, her sunken tired look had faded slightly.

Then she gave a huge yawn. “Excuse me. I don’t know where that came from.”

Something was happening to her. Something good.

Jake was watching Monica. Her head bobbed once, and his bobbed in mimicry. Monica was in danger of falling asleep in the meeting.

I made myself a fresh mug of coffee before Jake could offer to do it. I’d have to find a way to nail Jake’s ass for whatever it was he was up to with the speck crap. This wasn’t the first time he’d given us all coffee. Looking back on the past few months, it would have been all too easy for him to slip something into a mug if he wanted to.

Unless, of course, you’re just seeing things.

I’m not crazy. I’m not. I could feel the cry of protest stick in my throat.

Yes, you are. Your hostility to Jake made you imagine you saw something in the coffee. No one else saw anything. Only you. Admit it, you’re going crazy, Dorelai.

I’m not!

Prove it. Stop imagining things that aren’t there.

*

Right after the meeting, Monica drifted over to her cubicle, put her head down on her arms as they rested on her desk, and fell into a deep sleep.

We left her alone. She seemed to be resting peacefully, with no bad dreams.

I did my best to try to forget everything that I had seen, but it was hard to focus on my work. Hard to pretend I’d just imagined it all.

Monica woke up around eleven with deep creases in her forehead from her sleeves. But the puffiness was receding. She looked better than she had in days. And hungry. I was relieved.

“Why don’t you take a break?” I said to her. “Go get a souvlaki for lunch from the Pomegranate Deli or something just as good.”

“But we’re eating out for dinner.”

“Big deal,” I said. “You look famished.”

Monica perked up at the thought of the Pomegranate. “I’ll do that,” she said, grabbing her purse. “But you have to come along with me to Knossos, Dorelai.”

I hesitated. If I saw that imaginary silver-blue glow around Knossos Tower again, I wasn’t sure how well I could handle it.

Monica ignored my silence and said, “Anyone want to place an order?”

“Fries and a falafel sandwich,” Vadin called out over his cubicle wall.

“Nothing,” Stuart and Jake said in unison.

“I brought a lunch,” Stuart added.

Tim said nothing. He hated Greek food, and so never ordered from there if he could help it.

Monica scribbled Vadin’s request down on a scrap of paper. “Got it,” she said. “C’mon, Dorelai, let’s go.” She gripped my arm so tight I thought she’d cut off my circulation.

Once we were in an elevator headed down to the lobby, she said to me, “I’m so embarrassed that I took a nap on my desk.”

“We were happy,” I said. “It looked like you were getting the best sleep you’d had in two weeks.”

It was.” Monica seemed startled by this. “No nightmares.”

“Um, when exactly did the nightmares start?”

“Sunday night, after the Chinese takeout.”

The elevator opened, and we exited into the lobby.

In the bright light of a summer noon, Knossos’ aura stuck out like a beacon in the heart of downtown. My heart rate sped up and I felt dizzy again.

Glowing street vendor was still at his post. Glowing homeless woman had moved to a new position down the street, sitting in the shade of a door stoop. The golden eyes glared down from the buildings.

I felt intense despair at what I was seeing as Monica and I crossed the plaza and approached the silver-blue aura around Knossos. The summer heat that radiated from the concrete of the sidewalks made me feel as if I would pass out. It took effort to keep walking.

When I reached the aura around Knossos, I instinctively flinched as I walked through it. Didn’t feel anything odd. Nothing seemed to happen. But it turned out to be a thin barrier instead of something that filled all of Knossos.

Like an energy shield around a spaceship in a science fiction show.

Dorelai, that kind of thinking is going to get you a mandatory visit to a psych ward in Boston if you don’t stop it.

Monica showed no sign that she saw the barrier aura around Knossos as I watched her walk through it. But as she passed through, a piece of the aura pulled off and stayed on her back as a tiny silver blob between her shoulder blades. It made me think of a transmitter.

As we entered the lobby, I eyed other people. They all had the same blob-thing on their backs.

I will not make a scene about imaginary blobs.

I shifted my body around so that I could look at my back in a nearby mirror as we made our way to the escalators. But I couldn’t see anything between my own shoulder blades.

This is all in my head.

But the blob was still to be seen on Monica’s back as I rode behind her on the escalator going down. I could feel clammy sweat ooze down my back and sides. I feared I might be sick.

We placed our orders at the takeout counter in the deli. I ordered a salad with grilled chicken even though I felt nothing but nausea, and Monica insisted we go hang out at the entrance to The Dive to watch the pool players while we waited for our orders to be ready.

I peered through the smoky haze of the pool hall to the bar.

There was a human-like cockroach at the bar guzzling beer. He wore a trench coat, and I watched with a surreal urge to laugh as he turned his beer glass upside-down over his mouth to get the last drops.

I blinked a few times, but he was still there and still a human roach.

My body was shaking all over and I felt sweat drip off my forehead.

Roach guy rocked his bar stool while waiting for the bartender to give him another beer.

“Well,” I said in a quivery voice to Monica, “let’s go pick up the food.”

I couldn’t resist a compulsion to look back as we walked away. Roach guy was happily guzzling his second beer. Then he noticed my too-shocked gaze, and swiftly put the beer down.

Shit.

My legs sped up to a near-run, and I bumped into Monica as she pulled open the Pomegranate’s door. “Sorry!” I said as I scurried in as fast as I could, and made sure I didn’t look back to see if he had followed us.

Monica, on the other hand, had no compunction about looking back. She did so before following me through the deli entrance. Then she whispered to me, “I think the guy is taken with you. He’s looking in at us right now. Rather cute, like an extra from The Maltese Falcon.”

I knew the movie. But I was making comparisons to Kafka in my head … and William Burroughs.

“Er, that’s interesting,” I said, and bit my lip to keep but I’m not into giant roaches as boyfriends from coming out.

I’m losing it. I’m not sure how much longer I can fake being normal.

Monica asked Amanda (one of the waitresses we knew well) to get our takeout, then tickled me in the side as we stood near the deli cash register to wait. “He’d be a step up from Dereck. You need to start dating someone else. That’s the only way you’ll make Dereck accept you don’t want to get serious with him.”

“I broke up with Dereck last night,” I said.

Monica whooped.

I just rubbed my clammy face with my trembling hands. Luckily the food arrived, so Monica got distracted from the whole topic of Dereck in divvying up the takeout bags.

When we went back into the hall the roach guy was gone, so I was spared a matchmaking attempt by Monica.

After going up the escalator and exiting the lobby doors, I saw that when Monica walked through the silver-blue aura barrier, the blob-thing merged with it instead of staying on her back as I had expected.

It was a difficult slog for me across the hot plaza to Granite Hills. I had to fight the continual urge to sit down on the plaza sidewalk and throw up.

Then my cell phone rang.

“A friend saw you in The Dive,” Louie said when I answered, “and let me know you were available to come over to the emporium.” His voice was smooth, but had an undercurrent of urgency.

My crazy-looking stares at the guy I’d taken for a giant cockroach must have somehow triggered this phone call. Stall him until you can think of a good cover story. “Maybe I can come by later.”

Silence on the other end of the line. Louie was not happy about this. “You’ll want to pick out a gift for Tim as soon as possible, since today is his last day.”

His tone troubled me—something was seriously bothering him, and for whatever reason he couldn’t talk about it on the phone. So I said, “You’re right. I ought to get it for Tim now. Give me a few minutes to get there.” I hung up, and said to Monica, “Go on without me. I forgot to pick up my gift for Tim.”

*

I walked through the barrier aura around Knossos without hesitation this time, and shoved my smelly takeout bag of grilled chicken into a trash can before going inside. Even though I was almost certain there had to be a blob-thing sitting between my shoulder blades from the aura, I couldn’t see one on my back in the lobby mirrors.

My feet felt like they would soon go out from under me. I felt as if I were being dragged down by sheer exhaustion.

Never had the basement hall seemed so long a distance as I plodded down it to the emporium with what strength I had left.

When I got close to the emporium’s entrance, I discovered that there was a faint image of weird stuff going on upon its walls and glass door—they were crawling with a silver shimmer.

I was too tired to care that I was seeing new imaginary things.

Through the glass door, I caught sight of the Jewish guy I’d seen before on the escalators. He again wore a woolen black suit and fedora, which had to be stifling in the August heat, but the details that would define him as a Haredi were still missing. Today his shirt was forest green in color. He and Louie had their heads bent together as they stood in front of the main display case, conferring.

Louie burned with a faint version of the aura that surrounded Knossos itself.

Why am I not surprised? Louie and Knossos have the same aural patterns, my thoughts babbled, and I wonder if he would be upset if he found out I knew it? Maybe Louie can help me. Maybe he would understand if I tell him what I see when I look at him instead of calling me crazy.

The Jewish guy had no aura as far as I could tell. He shook his head at Louie, whether in disagreement or concern, I wasn’t sure.

I had an instinctive urge not to touch the silver glow crawling over the door handle, but made myself do so. I couldn’t feel anything different upon the cool brass.

The door refused to budge.

Louie looked at me through the glass and motioned for me to try again. The silver stuff writhed around the door lock. I heard the snick of the lock turning on its own, which didn’t faze me in the least.

This time the door pulled open easily.

After the door shut behind me, the lock snicked again.

“I’ve locked the door so we won’t be interrupted during our conversation,” Louie said. “Dorelai, this is Rabbi Elijah Rzondzinski. Rabbi Eli, this is Ms. Dorelai Trelton.”

Shalom aleichem, Ms. Trelton,” Eli said.

I just stood there right inside the entrance. I didn’t think I had the strength to take another step. And it was taking major effort not to weave on my feet.

“Just call me Dorelai,” I said.

Eli smiled and strode toward me, his hand outstretched to shake mine, and when I took a step forward to meet him halfway in the emporium aisle, I ended up staggering instead, and had to grab onto a shelf of antique leather books to keep my balance. Two books tipped over to spill open on the floor before I could stop them.

It was only with effort that I kept myself from toppling over as well. The ground felt as if it were heaving under me like a rowboat in a storm. Please don’t let me puke on Louie’s antiques. In a hoarse croak, I said, “Louie, I think I’m s-sick.”

Somehow Louie had gotten between Rabbi Eli and me while I was distracted with trying not to throw up. I’d never seen Louie look so worried before as he stared intently at my face. Then a realization came to him, and he went from worried to horrified. “Good God,” he said, “your irises. You’re crawling with nightmare dust.”

************** End of Chapter 2 *****************

Stay tuned for Chapter 3 next Tuesday.

Cheers, L. M.

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic – Chapter 1: Magical Poisonings

Welcome back! I hope you had a great week. This Tuesday’s story sample is the entire first chapter from the contemporary fantasy novel, Cubicles, Blood, and Magic. Cheers. (Note- This story is definitely PG-13 for language, so consider yourself warned).

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic: Dorelai Chronicles, Book One

Lynn Kilmore

Second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore

Published by Osuna Publishing

This story is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Chapter 1: Magical Poisonings

Mather, Massachusetts

My life began to fall apart on a Friday morning in mid-July, not long after Tim and I discovered the overripe cheese cubes smeared across the conference room table.

Tim had pulled me aside into an empty conference room overlooking the downtown plaza to tell me something. But it went clear out of our heads at the sight of the cheese mess.

From the way he kept swallowing, the smell made him want to puke. Not good. He needed to hold onto as many calories as he could, for lately he’d developed dark circles under his bloodshot eyes from too many nightmares and had lost too much weight. Rumors were circulating that he had cancer.

At least Tim didn’t really have cancer. Just burnout.

Or rather, that’s what we thought it was. It never crossed my mind as I stood there next to him that he might have been poisoned.

As for magic, it didn’t exist.

“Nate’s programmers are going too far with the passive-aggressive crap,” he said. “I’m glad none of my team would pull stuff like this on Stephanie.”

Stephanie was the head office assistant, and had been put in charge of implementing all the recent changes that were unpopular with the programmers. The latest change had been that there would no longer be any snacks stocked in the break room for the programmers to eat when working overnight or all weekend.

I followed Tim’s lead and gathered up wads of paper napkins from a tiny side table that held the supplies for coffee—stir sticks, Styrofoam cups, sugar, artificial sweetener, creamer.

Then I double-checked the industrial grey carpeting. To my relief, there was no powdery stuff of any sort poured across it, nor any cheese. “Good thing they didn’t think to dump sugar and creamer all over the carpet.”

“Just wait until next time,” Tim said.

Surveying the cheddar chunks encrusted all over the table, I could see what Tim meant. The culprits had been furious enough to be thorough—the entire glossy surface had dried cheese streaks and smears. It was going to take a janitor with a bucket of hot soapy water and a scrub brush to get it all off.

The cheese must have been smuggled over from the break room last night, for a plastic serving platter was in the trash can. Leftover cheese platters from a sales meeting had been put out by Stephanie in the break room yesterday for the programmers.

When the reflected light from the summer sky hit the table at just the right angle, I could read:

GRANITE HILLS SUCKS!!!

scrawled with cheese on the table’s surface.

As he was scooping up crumbled pieces of cheese with a napkin, Tim suddenly bent over with a dry heave.

Dropping my cheddar-filled napkin onto the table, I ran over to him and plucked his napkin out of his hand. “Okay, I think we’re going to let Stephanie be the one to worry about getting someone in here to deal with this.” I tossed his napkin in the trash and tried to lead him out of the conference room.

“No, wait.” Tim put a hand on my arm. His shirtsleeve stank of stale sweat, and tiny brown coffee droplets covered the fabric. He took a deep breath, and said, “I’m quitting.”

Shit,” I blurted out. I tried to stay composed. “That means I’ll be drafted as team leader.”

“I gave two weeks’ notice.”

I resisted the urge to yell at him in frustration for leaving us so soon. It wouldn’t help.

Tim double-checked that the conference room door was closed. “Dorelai,” he said, “I’ve had it with this place. It’s going downhill, fast. Ed’s blocked my attempts to get Jake fired. And Dysart and Wiley know jack-shit about coding—they can’t tell Jake’s work is nothing but crap. That’s why they listen to Ed.”

Dysart was the new CEO of our company, Granite Hills Software. Wiley was the new VP of Development, and had brought in Ed to be in charge of Tim’s project.

Granite Hills had been bought out five months ago, and Tim was right: things were going downhill. Ed had assigned his pet employee Jake from the buyout company (which did financial services) to Tim’s project, despite Tim’s protests about Jake’s weak background as a programmer.

“If they wouldn’t let you fire Jake,” I said, “there’s no way they’ll let me do so.”

“That’s not important anymore. Just keep things going while you look for another job. I’ll warn the others—except for Jake—to get out. From the way the company is bleeding cash, you’ve got less than six months until the layoffs start.”

This would be my first management-type position. Software and computers were my expertise, not human psychology.

Queasiness from thinking about layoffs made me sorry I’d eaten nothing for breakfast. I’d been in such a hurry to get into work this morning, I’d simply chugged a cup of coffee with skim milk before leaving my apartment.

I said, “I’ll keep the project going as long as I can.”

“That’s all I can ask.”

I was happy to see that the nervous tic near his left eye had gone away.

Tim said, “Ed’s agreed to me getting you up to speed later today. Send everyone but Jake to meet me in the conference room next to this one.”

“Sure.” As I pulled open the conference room door, Tim sighed as he regarded the cheese mess one last time. His body was in silhouette against the glare from the windows.

Once he’d had the hint of a double chin; now he teetered on being gaunt.

When I reached our project’s cubicle area, I found Vadin and Monica squeezed into Stuart’s cubicle to exchange whispered comments. Jake was away from his desk.

Jake was the kind of guy who would double-cross you while smiling to your face. He’d done nothing but challenge Tim’s judgment and decisions behind his back since joining the project in March. Since we were a software project of only six people (counting Jake), his behavior had not endeared him to our tight-knit group. Stuart and I had begun sharing fantasies about dumping Jake into the company’s paper shredder.

Monica, our quality assurance engineer, had done such a great job in testing our latest software build that she’d found a huge number of Jake’s coding bugs. She’d written up so many problem reports on Jake’s code that Ed was going to have a hard time pretending Jake was a competent programmer.

“Hey,” I said to them, “Tim wants to speak to you guys. Third north conference room.”

Monica looked down her nose over her glasses. “Is it true about Tim?” she whispered. “He’s leaving?”

The keyboard clicks and clacks from the nearby cubicles slowed or went silent.

“Ask Tim,” I said. “Where’s Jake?”

Monica mouthed Ed’s office.

The programmers eavesdropping on us went back to using their keyboards.

I wended my way through the cubicles to Ed’s office while the other three went off to hear Tim’s dour warnings. The programmer cubicles took up most of the eleventh floor of the Chesterton Downtown building, except for areas such as the walled manager offices, the break room, the conference rooms along the south and north sides, and such.

When I reached Ed’s closed door, from the lingering smell I knew Jake was definitely in there, for he liked to use a musky aftershave.

“—no,” I overheard Ed say, “you need more experience first. Learn what you can from Stuart and Dorelai.”

“But—”

I knocked.

“Who is it?” Ed sounded eager for an excuse to get out of this conversation with Jake.

“Dorelai.”

“Please, come in,” Ed said.

I opened the door to find a smiling Jake looking up at me from Ed’s guest chair. “Dorelai,” (he pronounced it “lay” instead of “lie” because he knew it ticked me off) “how’s it going?”

Backstabbing weasel, I thought. “Fine. Ed—did you already break the news about Tim to Jake?”

Ed coughed. “Yes, I uh, I did.”

“Good,” I said. “Tim’s letting the others know right now.”

Ed fiddled with the printouts on his desk. Then he blurted at me, “You’ll be a fine replacement for Tim.”

Jake almost lost his smiling mask. I could tell underneath he was furious. Ed had just cut short any hope of his for getting the position instead.

“Thanks,” I said. “Tim’s going to fill me in as fast as he can.”

Jake gave me a toothy smile while saying, “Interesting how Stuart hates management so much.”

Stuart had been a coder when Jake and I were still in diapers. He ran rings around the rest of us as a programmer, he’d done project management in the past, and had flat-out told us how much he’d hated it. Without him, our project would collapse—and Ed knew if he drafted Stuart as team leader, Stuart’d quit.

“Actually, it’s a common trait in top programmers,” I said. “Stuart knows more about coding than the rest of us combined.”

That made Jake squirm. He knew I knew his code was shit.

Ed did the nervous cough thing of his. The tension between me and Jake was getting to him. “Well,” Ed said, “status meeting in ten minutes.”

“Right,” I said. “Later.” I left Ed’s office feeling like any moment I was going to feel a pen stabbed between my shoulder blades.

#

The rest of Friday morning stank. Jake tried to act supportive and upbeat at the status meeting, but he was fuming about not getting the team leader position. And the rest of us, except for Tim, were jumpy. Ed sensed something was up, but couldn’t figure out exactly what it was.

Then we found out we were going to have work nights and weekends to get the software release done while we still had Tim to oversee us. I confess that deep inside I was relieved about the weekend work. Things weren’t going well with Dereck. We’d been dating for almost two months, and to his frustration I still refused to sleep with him.

I couldn’t even bring myself to kiss him on the cheek goodnight, and for whatever reason, the thought of having to strip naked in front of him depressed the hell out of me.

Even on dates he had the wireless clip on his earlobe—which he wore day and night to field a constant stream of phone calls—with his mouth moving nonstop, looking like he was talking to himself. It turned me off.

And he had a way of watching me that made me uneasy. He was always texting and calling me, demanding to know where I was, who I was with, and what I was doing.

I had told him that we probably weren’t compatible, but he never got it. He’d show up on my doorstep uninvited, with a restaurant reservation or movie tickets, and out of pity I’d give in to his demands to take me somewhere.

So it was with relief that I texted him that our dates were off for the next three weeks—duty calls, and all that. (Yes, I confess that I lied and threw on an extra week, despite it being just two. I guess I hoped that he’d get restless and go find someone new to date.)

#

To celebrate my unwanted promotion, I decided for lunch I’d grab a takeout Greek salad from the Pomegranate Deli, and do some browsing at Louie’s Emporium. Luckily for me, they were both in the basement of Knossos Tower, which was straight across the downtown plaza from where I worked.

I lived in a city in Massachusetts called Mather. It was dull and provincial compared to cities like Boston and New York, but something about the place drew me in after graduating from MIT. I had gladly accepted a software job at Mather College, then had switched to Granite Hills about a year ago.

Knossos Tower had a mystique I never tired of staring at. Even though it was new (they had only finished its construction three months ago), its style was Art Deco in tan sandstone with red geometric trim, and heavy brass for the lobby doors and door handles.

So stepping into the lobby of Knossos was like stepping back in time. The floors were veined marble, the walls covered with burgundy wallpaper and brass-framed mirrors, the lobby brightly lit by crystal chandeliers along the high ceilings, and potted palms packed into every nook and cranny.

Escalators went from the lobby down to the basement. I loved how the lobby always smelled of hot fries and rosemary chicken because the Pomegranate Deli was below.

As I rode the down escalator, on the up was a Jewish man with a thick black beard who wore a traditional black suit and fedora, but he was missing the details that would identify him as being part of the Haredim. For example, instead of wearing a Haredi-style white shirt, he wore a blue Oxford shirt.

He had the thickest glasses I’d ever seen … and the kindest eyes.

To my embarrassment, he caught me staring at him, and he smiled. “Shalom,” he said as we passed each other, me going down, him going up.

Shabbat shalom,” I called back.

My father would have had a fit if he’d heard me. Father claimed he was an atheist, but in reality he was an “assologist.” He went with whatever belief system would enrage the most people around him—in a world of atheists he would have become a Catholic just out of spite. He’d insisted Mother give up practicing as a Jew after their civil marriage. She was, however, allowed to keep her ethnic Jewish heritage to pass on to my brothers and me.

I nearly tripped over the ending edge of the escalator from my distraction.

The burgundy-and-brass decor continued in the basement hall that led away from the escalators and elevators. Before reaching the deli, there was a tinted glass door on the left to access some of the service corridors for the building. I’d made the mistake once of going through to snoop around, and nearly got lost. It was a like a grey-tinted labyrinth back there.

The Pomegranate Deli came up on the right as I walked down the hall. Behind its glass walls I could see the deli counters with giant jars of dolmas, pepperoncini, and pickles on top. The blue lighting in the deli made everyone look like they were eating underwater.

I always stuck to ordering salads, which were many and varied at the Pomegranate.

After placing my takeout order, I went on down the hall toward the emporium. I passed by The Dive on the left. The pool hall had no glass walls like the deli did. To me (as I peered into the entrance) the pool table lamps stuck out like islands of light in the smoky darkness. Always there could be heard the click of balls hitting each other, or the clink of glass as someone drank their beer.

Further along the basement hall, on the right, just before one reached the emporium at the end, was Louie McDonough’s management office for Knossos. The door, as always, was closed as I passed on by.

I’d found out Louie was the building manager through gossip at Granite Hills—our CEO, Dysart, had approached Louie about renting office space in Knossos at a cheaper rate than the Chesterton, and Louie had quoted a rate so outrageously high that Dysart had ranted about it at the last senior management meeting.

I peeked through the emporium’s glass door. My crappy day was looking up, for it was Louie instead of Ines behind the main display counter. Ines, who ran the shop for him, was nice, but it was Louie who knew all the dirt on my company.

Ever since I had first met Louie when his emporium opened three months ago, I’d felt drawn to him. He liked to ask me questions about my work, my interests, and my family, and listened closely, often to then ask a question that would throw a whole new light on a knotty problem or situation. But he was reserved about his own life.

During our last chat, as I watched him take apart a cuckoo clock, I’d asked him straight out why he’d opened up a shop in the Knossos basement when he had an entire building to run, and he’d given me an evasive sounding answer that he found just being the manager of Knossos bloody boring.

His emporium was a chaotic mixture of museum, hobby store, and tourist trap that smelled like moldering books and dust. He had all kinds of odd things to catch one’s interest: costume jewelry, wood carvings, porcelain figurines, gags, magic kits, gemstones, collector cards, puzzles, paintings, antique books, et cetera.

The emporium’s brass door handle was shaped like a bull’s head with a lolling tongue. I grabbed hold of the smooth tongue and went on in. As the chimes subsided, I called out, “Hi, Louie. How’s it going today?”

He said, “Good afternoon, Dorelai,” but didn’t look up. He was in the middle of dissecting a music box before him. “You may watch, but don’t touch.”

From his grey-black hair and the lines on his face, I had guessed he was in his fifties. He liked to wear 1940s-style suits with a crisp white shirt, silk tie, and a silk handkerchief tucked in the suit’s breast pocket. He always smelled of sandalwood.

To my surprise, he’d taken off his suit jacket (folded to lay neatly on the display case), and had rolled up his shirtsleeves to work on the music box. I’d never seen him so informal before. An unzipped leather toolkit lay next to him on the counter. He was removing the screws that held in place the tiny ballerina that would spin when the box was wound up.

I studied the interior of the cedar-scented music box. It was covered in white satin, with a central scene of a frozen mirror lake surrounded by sparkly snow and pine trees. The ballerina wore a glittering white ball gown.

“So,” I said, “is it refusing to spin the ballerina, or is the music not playing?”

“It works all too bloody well,” Louie said. “I’m trying to figure out who made it by analyzing the pieces.”

I frowned while studying the music box. “Why?”

“It plays a nasty trick when opened.”

“What kind of trick?”

“The kind that can hurt.”

I was disappointed when Louie didn’t elaborate. He could be quite a tease when it came to taking mysterious objects apart in front of me. I longed to elbow him aside, grab his tools, and dissect this mystery object for myself.

To take my mind off the music box, I said, “Tim’s leaving. He’s making me team leader.”

Louie stopped using the screwdriver, and put it down in the toolkit. “Congratulations, or condolences, or both?”

“Both.” I chewed at my lip. “You were right, the merger isn’t going well. I need to find a new job. Probably time for me to move to back to Boston, anyway—that’s where Tim is going.”

Louie tapped a finger against the counter. I noticed the hairs on his swarthy arms were white, and on his left arm there was a deep gouge of pale scar tissue that ran from his wrist upward toward his elbow and under the folded sleeve. Someone had cut him up badly, long ago.

Louie said, “Perhaps you could work for me.”

Selling stuff in an emporium, or running an office building, didn’t appeal to me. “Um—”

“I have other endeavors besides the emporium and Knossos Tower. Your deep knowledge of technology could be very useful to … projects of mine. But I need to ponder the consequences.” He picked up the screwdriver with his left hand and went back to work extracting the ballerina.

Somehow I sensed from his tone that the project he was contemplating was a tad dangerous. Or shady. Or both. “Sure,” I said. “Take as much time as you need. No rush.” I determined to start searching for a job in Boston as soon I got home that night.

#

Dereck spent the weekend texting angry complaints to me after he showed up outside my apartment, uninvited, on Saturday to discover that I’d told the truth. I wasn’t there. I was at work.

Thankfully, during weekends he couldn’t get into my office building to hunt me down since he didn’t have a security pass. Which was great.

On Sunday night, while I sat in the dingy break room with my coworkers (who were eating Chinese takeout), I set my cell phone ringer to OFF so I could ignore Dereck’s barrage of phone calls and texts.

Monica cheered when she saw me do it. Then she looked at my steamed broccoli and carrots in its plastic container (no sauce, no rice) and said, “Dorelai, that’s no way to live.” She was chowing down on moo goo gai pan. “Here.” She pushed the rice and her carton toward me. “Have some, I’ve got too much. No MSG. No greasy oils. And it’s got lots of vegetables, and the chicken is lean breast meat.”

I found the smell unappealing. “I’m—”

“On a diet,” Monica finished for me. She frowned, and I was shocked to see she was genuinely worried. “You’re skin and bones.”

“No, I’m fine,” I said.

Jake put a steaming cup of coffee in front of me, and another by Monica. He’d made a fresh pot for all of us.

I noticed Vadin was doing sketches in his notepad again—he did them compulsively now. He’d gotten a degree in computer science (as his parents demanded), despite wanting to be a painter. Once Stuart pointed out to him he could make a living in computer animation, Vadin had begun drawing nonstop and taking online animation classes.

Why Vadin felt compelled to make drawings of our boring break room I was never able to figure out. The carpeting was grey, the cabinets were grey, the walls were grey, and the countertops were grey. The lighting was dim, making us all look washed out. The refrigerator had dark stains on its handle from so many hands touching it.

Jake’s cell phone went off. He grimaced at the phone as he stepped out of the break room to take the call.

Tim nodded over his empty coffee cup. Monica, Stuart, and I stopped eating to watch. I wondered if he’d pass out after so many weeks of sleep deprivation.

Then Tim jerked his head back up. “I must be even more exhausted than I realized. Good thing I’m having Betsy pick me up.”

He eyed his Buddha’s delight with renewed interest. “I ought to eat this,” he said, and proceeded to chow down like I hadn’t seen him do in weeks.

Monica pushed her cartons toward him. “You look famished, Tim. Feel free to try my leftovers. They’ll reek if I try to store them in the company fridge.”

The break room refrigerator was in bad shape. Stephanie had made the unfortunate decision to punish the programmers for the cheese incident by implementing Wiley’s long-term plan to get rid of the programmers’ couch, the Ping-Pong table, and the treadmill. She’d seen to it that all of it had been hauled away Friday afternoon, and had been foolish enough to gloat about it afterward. Since she was in charge of keeping the break room clean, in retaliation some of the programmers had deliberately stocked the refrigerator with banana peels, apple cores, half-eaten sandwiches, and other nasty leftovers.

Jake stomped back into the break room. From the looks of it, he’d had another fight with his girlfriend.

Tim swallowed his mouthful of food, and said to Jake, “What’s wrong?”

Jake scowled at his phone. “Veronica had big plans, and now everything has to be postponed until August, when it’ll be too hot to enjoy anything outdoors.”

“Do it in September then,” Stuart said.

Jake glared at Stuart. “She wants to go to the lake now. She had to forfeit the deposit on the cabin.”

Stuart snorted.

Jake seized Vadin’s notepad. “I didn’t give you permission to sketch me.”

“Sorry,” Vadin said while reaching out a hand to get it back. “I did it without thinking.”

Jake kept the notepad out of reach. “Well, sorry isn’t good enough. It’s an invasion of my privacy.”

Jake,” Tim said.

Jake tossed the notepad at Vadin’s chest. “I don’t see why you bother when you’re in a lame-ass place like this. You need to move to Los Angeles if you want to be a computer animator. Assuming you have any talent, which is still in question.”

We all froze at this last comment of Jake’s. This wasn’t like him—he might think these things, but he never said them to your face.

By the widening of Jake’s eyes, I think he was surprised as well by what had come out of his mouth.

Tim said to Jake, “I don’t know what your problem is tonight, but shut up. We have a release to finish.”

Jake hunched down to sit in his chair. “Vadin, I’m sorry. Stress.”

Vadin looked Jake over warily. I had to agree, the apology was more of the “I’m sorry I got caught” variety than a heartfelt one.

Jake eyed us, and got a pissed look when he realized we could all see through him. He shoved up from his chair, threw out his Chinese food, and left the break room without a backward look.

Tim said in an undertone, “I wish I could have gotten his sorry ass fired before I left.”

#

The next two weeks were: code, curse as our software failed Monica’s QA tests, code, ignore Dereck’s angry complaints about not seeing me, code, watch us again fail Monica’s tests, code, deal with Jake ranting over the long work hours, code, watch everyone get enraged at Jake because we again failed Monica’s QA tests, code, sit with Tim for hours as he gave me info-dumps about our project, code, hitch a car ride home with Stuart or Monica, collapse on my bed, come back to work, code.

I avoided Louie, afraid he’d make me a job offer I’d have to refuse. I didn’t feel I had the extra energy to deal with his disappointment on top of the stress of work and Dereck.

Luckily, we were getting takeout a lot so that I didn’t need to go over to Knossos for food.

Sometimes I brought celery sticks to work to eat for lunch. I stored them in a chilled lunch bag at my desk, because the break room refrigerator had reached the completely disgusting stage, and any food left in it quickly absorbed the flavor of rot. Stephanie had sent out a memo that the fridge had to be cleaned out, or else, but so far the programmers had ignored her.

And at least twice a day, I felt compelled to go to the north conference rooms to look through the windows at Knossos Tower across the plaza. There were times I felt it had an inner glow to it that I could almost see. It was so different from the other buildings of downtown.

Tim’s health rapidly improved, but Monica’s took a nosedive. She started coming in complaining of insomnia induced by horrific dreams. She got Tim’s dark circles under her eyes, and lost her appetite.

#

By Thursday of the second week of long hours, Tim tried to get Monica to go on sick leave. “First me, now you,” he said. “Go home and try to get some sleep.”

“I can’t.” Monica lifted her head from the crumpled printouts on her desk. “I prefer to be awake. Those dreams are horrible, Tim. No wonder you looked like hell after a bit. I probably just have a bad case of stress.”

Tomorrow, on Friday, Tim would be saying goodbye since it would officially be his last day. He’d told us his new workplace in Boston would be hiring in a few months, and to get resumes to him.

Just this afternoon we’d finally gotten the software release done. That was because Stuart had gone through all of Jake’s code and fixed his bugs for him.

Jake sulked whenever he saw Monica, because she had consistently failed our software builds with her thorough QA tests. She’d made Jake look extremely bad in doing so.

Tim continued to fuss over Monica. “Go home,” he said. “That’s an order. The latest build is stable.” He raised his voice. “Actually, I’d like for you all to go home and rest. It’s four o’clock, and we’ve got a build that works.”

I was so exhausted I didn’t have the energy to smile. There were mumbles of envy from other programmer teams as we stumbled toward the elevators.

#

When I pushed open my apartment door, I stepped on a manila envelope that had been shoved underneath.

I was struck by how cheery my apartment looked with the bright August sunlight streaming in, despite the dust on everything. I thought about taking a long shower, then lying down on the couch to reread some Andre Norton to relax.

After tossing my briefcase onto my couch, I picked up the manila envelope and wandered into the kitchen.

The return address, printed on a label, was the company that owned the brownstone with my apartment. I tore the envelope open using my thumbnail. As I pulled the enclosed letter out, a flood of powdered ink poured from seemingly nowhere all over my hand and wrist and arm.

Their printer must be on the fritz, I thought. There’s enough powder here to fill a cartridge.

But then I discovered it wasn’t ink powder, but tiny wriggling dots that were burrowing into my skin.

“What the hell!” I yelled as I dropped the letter and envelope, and ran over to the sink to scrub with soap.

When I checked my hands and wrists and arms again, no sign of specks.

I approached where the mailing lay abandoned on the vinyl floor, and nudged with my foot the letter, then the envelope. Still no specks.

Then I took tongs out of a kitchen drawer, and picked up the letter to hold it over the sink, twisting it back and forth to study both sides.

It looked like a typical memo from the property management office asking if I had any concerns or complaints to make. No signature though, just the main office address and phone number.

I opened the tongs to drop the letter into the sink, then clamped onto the manila envelope to inspect it closely (again, over the sink).

Looked normal. Printed labels, one with the property address, one with my name and apartment number.

I peered inside—no specks.

The eye fatigue of staring at a computer screen too long for weeks must have played a trick on me.

I tossed the letter and envelope into the garbage (still using the tongs though). With anticipation I headed toward the shower.

#

To my aggravation, Dereck called as I was toweling off. It was hard to find my cell phone due to what I thought was wooziness from the hot water and fatigue.

“Dorelai, we’re having dinner tonight at La Belle.”

Somehow Dereck had found out about me getting out of work early. Otherwise there was no way he would have known I was home at a reasonable hour.

I got ready to say, “No,” but then I realized he’d just show up anyway.

Time to end this once and for all. I’ll get through to him tonight, no matter what. My own thoughts startled me. I said into my cell phone, “Sure. I can be ready by seven.”

“Good. I’ll be there at six-thirty.”

He hung up before I could chew him out for not asking me before changing the time.

While I was putting the cell phone down, my eyesight blurred, then cleared. I was struck by how bony my wrist looked.

Then I made the mistake of looking down at myself (I’d wrapped up in a towel to deal with Dereck’s call) and was horrified by what I saw.

I’d been chubby back in middle school, and it had taken effort and determination to diet off the weight. Since then I’d made sure to watch my calorie intake, and had never gained the freshman fifteen in college.

Mother had fretted when she last saw me that I didn’t eat enough.

And now I could see what she meant. I wasn’t thin enough to qualify as anorexic, but I didn’t look good. So I made myself get on the scale I kept hidden in my clothes closet. It had been months since I’d last weighed myself.

I made myself look at the number.

I was underweight.

My skin got all clammy. I went and sat down on my bed and tried to make sense of it all while staring at my bare toes. But nothing came together. It stayed a jumble.

So I tried to distract myself by getting dressed. I pulled out a blue cotton blouse, and black jeans. Comfort clothes. At least I’d feel good in those. And they’d hide my bony frame.

No wonder Monica kept coaxing me to eat.

#

Dereck buzzed to be let in right as I was pulling on a pair of black sneakers.

Grumbling to myself, I hit the buzzer to unlock the hallway door so he could climb the stairs to my apartment on the third floor. I lived in a brownstone on a quiet street with dogwood trees, with brownstones lining both sides of the street.

When I opened the apartment door before he could knock (the stairs were uncarpeted, so I could hear the echo of footsteps as he climbed up), Dereck frowned, puzzled at me being in jeans and sneakers instead of the expected business casual.

The damn clip was at his ear as usual. I resisted the urge to flick it off with my fingers.

He shifted on his feet.

I’d forgotten to open the door all the way so that he could come inside.

Reluctantly I pulled the door all the way open and stepped back so he could stand in the living room.

He looked me up and down again. My casual clothes for La Belle were a definite annoyance to him. My heart lifted as I thought he might give me an ultimatum to change or the dinner would be cancelled.

Dereck made a hnnnh noise through his nose.

I said, “I just need to grab my purse, and I’ll be ready.”

Another hnnnh from Dereck. Finally he said, “You’re not going to La Belle dressed like that, are you?”

As I grabbed my purse, I said, “I’m exhausted. I’d be happy just to grab a burger at a fast food place and call it a night.”

Dereck scrunched up his nose at the fast food mention. He prided himself on his knowledge of haute cuisine, and travelled into Boston frequently to go to the fine restaurants there. So far I’d refused to go to Boston with him on an overnight trip.

His phone went off.

What is it now?” Dereck yelled into his ear clip.

A deep voice could be faintly heard—Dereck’s paralegal Antonio. Another contract problem from the sound of it.

I got dizzy again, and sat down on the couch, and pretended to ignore Dereck yelling at his paralegal about a contractual dispute that was degenerating into scorched earth threats.

Both Dereck and my brother Thanos were lawyers. But unlike my brother, who thrived in the cutthroat world of corporate law in New York City, Dereck never seemed to be able to separate business and pleasure. Both were blended into a never-ending jumble of phone calls and texts.

Thinking about Thanos got me depressed. He was engaged to be married to Professor Evelyn Perkins, who despised his choice of a career almost as much our father did.

Thanos was the black sheep of our family, for instead of majoring in a “worthy” subject like engineering or science, he had gotten a B.A. in political science, followed by a J.D. degree. Father, who had done his Ph.D. in physics, still groused at Thanos during family get-togethers, telling him he was a parasite on society.

Only a Ph.D. would redeem Thanos, as far as Father was concerned.

“We’ll look over the notes tomorrow morning,” Dereck said, and ended his call. He checked his cell phone. “We’d better hurry. The reservation is for seven.”

Dereck fielded another phone call from Antonio as we got into his sports car.

While riding to the restaurant, slumped down on the squeaky leather, I thought about what words I could say that would get it through Dereck’s thick skull that our relationship was over. Any pity I’d felt over his loneliness was gone. I found myself feeling too exhausted and sick to care if I hurt his feelings.

Dereck didn’t notice my silence during the entire ride, for he spent the time after hanging up on Antonio calling his law partner to bellow about the latest hitch in the contract while he drove.

I got mad. He was going to be damn sorry he’d not been paying attention to how I felt.

************** End of Chapter 1 *****************

Cubicles, Blood, and Magic is a long novel (100,000+ words), so I’m going to post Chapters 2-4 over the next three Tuesdays.

Cheers, L. M.