1 - Freak
"Crush at 8:00."
Focusing on the task of firing a paper clip from a rubber band with the proper velocity to embed it in the soft, acoustic ceiling tile, Danny Marx nearly missed the significance of his co-worker's observation. His mind made the connection an instant before his release, spoiling his aim, and sending the clip careening off a fluorescent light panel into a neighboring cubicle. He heard a distant and weak cry of astonishment, and took comfort in the certainty that his culpability was not provable. He shot a look at the opening to his cubicle, and found the grinning face of Moe, the closest thing he had to a friend at work. Ignoring this face completely, he swiftly scooted his desk chair to the edge of the partition, and cast his gaze to the door of the stairwell.
"Ah, sweet nymph," he whispered. Standing just inside the door was a woman he did not know. He had not known her for about four weeks, ever since she had first walked into the building cafeteria during his lunch break and failed to introduce herself. Since then, he had gotten to not know her quite well. He didn't know her name, or where she came from. He didn't know how old she was. Although he conveniently imagined she was his age, twenty-six, he secretly acknowledged that she looked younger than that. From this, he was able to deduce absolutely nothing about her level of education. He didn't know her favorite movie, or song, or flavor of ice cream (assuming she was not lactose intolerant, about which he had no idea). Most vitally, he did not know if she had a boyfriend.
She was wearing her usual ensemble of skirt, shirt and necktie, all slightly mismatched. Today, they were confused shades of pink. On her feet were black boots with heels, over tall, white socks. The glasses she wore had unusually wide, wafer thin lenses in perfectly circular wire frames, making her eyes seem larger and her chin smaller than they actually were. Her auburn hair was curly enough that it grew out rather than down, and she showed no obvious interest in taming it. She wore dark maroon lipstick, but no other evident makeup. She stood there, slowly scanning the room, biting her lower lip and rocking her jaw back and forth.
"She's a freak," whispered Moe.
"She's the freak of my heart," said Danny. He sighed deeply. Moe sighed with him, in transparent mockery. "What's she doing here?" asked Danny, in the tone of a detective examining a clue. He had never seen her on his floor before, and assumed that she worked for a different office in the same building.
"She's lost," said Moe. "Seize the day, man! This is an opportunity if ever there was one." He offered a challenging smile.
Danny shook his head. "What do I say, exactly? 'Pardon me, Miss. I've been stalking you for some time now, and you conveniently appear to be in need of some assistance.' Even if I had a script, I'd just stutter through it anyway. Besides, she's not lost. She's looking for something. Or looking for someone." His eyes narrowed. "Be looking for me," he urged her quietly. "Save me from myself and be the one to break the ice. Be
looking - "
In the middle of his plea, the sweep of her gaze landed on him, and for a moment, she stared directly into his eyes. Then she looked at Moe, and Danny was slapped with the unexpected sensation of being caught. She must have noticed that they were looking right at her, and just as surely must have guessed they were talking about her. As far as he knew, this was the first impression she had ever gotten of him, and as far as she would know, he was part of a conspiracy of two leering creeps.
The moment froze, offering him plenty of time to reflect on how he must have looked to her. His own attire was standard issue office uniform. Light blue shirt, tan pants, black shoes, boring tie, probably tied crookedly. His hair was getting long enough to misbehave, and he found himself unable to justify why he had put off getting it cut. Worst of all, he pictured how he must look by comparison to Moe, whom he always saw as better-looking, better dressed, and sharper-witted. Moe was standing, and Danny was still in his desk chair. Danny imagined even that detail as counting against him, as though she would be insulted that he was too lazy to stand while talking about her. He had enough hang time to think of all of these things during the fraction of a second between when she made eye contact with Moe, and when she started walking towards him.
"Great googly moogly," Danny whispered, and he felt the color drain from his face. He was paralyzed, and trapped in his seat. She was about to break the ice, after all. He should have been better prepared.
She walked straight up to the pair of them, and frowned. She looked confused, though. Not angry. Danny hoped that he might still have a chance of not seeming like a jerk. He was still stuck to his chair, and he could feel beads of perspiration forming on his forehead. If he didn't say something smart soon, he was going to have a very bad day. She looked directly at him for several seconds, and her frown deepened. Then she looked at Moe, and her frown relaxed. He had no idea what to make of that, other than that the mental image he had of himself at that moment was probably not unflattering enough. She glanced at him one more time, then spoke directly to Moe. "Do you know which one of these people…" She tossed her head back in a gesture to indicate the population of the entire floor. "…is Daniel Marx?"
So many things went through Danny's mind at that moment, but the most prominent was that she sounded nothing like he had imagined. Somehow, he expected her voice to be high and soft. Not squeaky, but not bold either. Instead, she spoke in a buttery alto, with an accent he could not place. Her cadence sounded Irish, somehow, but her pronunciation reminded him of his cousin from South Carolina. It made no sense to him, and immediately her mystique deepened. He heard himself say, "That's ... He's ... I'm ..."
"This is Danny, right here," said Moe smoothly, indicating Danny, who was still seated.
Danny rose, struggling not to lurch. Moe had given him a chance to pull himself together. He was in the moment now. She had not approached them to be confrontational, but to ask for help, something he had been too nervous to offer freely. More incredibly, she had actually been looking for him, and had given him an opportunity to talk to her, and he wouldn't even need to come up with some fake but realistic-sounding reason. All he had to do was let her start, and pray he didn't do anything stupid. "What can I do with you?" he asked, smiling casually.
Her brows rose slightly, and for a moment, this close-up view of the green in her eyes, through the huge windows of her glasses, soothed him. He started to feel his stress drain away, and already pictured this as the moment he would look back on and describe as the beginning of a long, wonderful story. Then, suddenly, that moment was lasting too long.
"For!" he said, less casually. "For. You. What can I do," he gasped, neck muscles bunching, "for you?"
If she thought him a fool, she showed no sign of it. "Porter needs to see you," she said. Danny tried to make some sense of that statement, and came up with nothing.
"Who's Porter?" he asked. He didn't give a damn who Porter was, except insofar as Porter had sent her.
"Down in billing," she said patiently.
"All right," said Danny. This was starting to come together. Apparently his company had a billing department. He hadn't known that, but it stood to reason. Evidently someone named Porter worked in that department and now had some reason to see Danny. In a new, awesome development, this woman also worked in the billing department, or some other department, of the same firm Danny worked for. They had something in common. It might be enough. The specific issue of what business he would have with billing did not trouble him. The fact that Porter didn't seem to have a phone was curious, but not significant. What mattered was that he had a window of at least two or three minutes to attempt small talk with this woman he had admired from afar, and possibly even find out who she was. "I don't know where that is," he said truthfully, desperately hoping she would say, "I'll take you there."
"I'll take you there," she said, with a small, friendly smile, and turned back to the stairwell. Moe gave him a subtle thumbs-up, and walked away. Danny took a little skip to catch up with her.
As he walked through the door, he had the odd sensation of being in new and unfamiliar surroundings. He had been working in this building for almost a year, and had never once used the stairs. The company he worked for took up the entire ninth floor of a twelve story building, which amounted to far more stairs than he felt comfortable climbing. The fact that this messenger had come this way suggested to Danny that the billing department must be on the next floor. He was not aware of any offices above or below the ninth floor, but then he hadn't been aware of Porter or the billing department either. As she led him down a flight of stairs, he tentatively offered, "I'm Danny."
"So I hear," she said. Duh, he thought. She was facing away from him, so he couldn't tell whether the mockery was mean-spirited, but her tone was not cruel. She reached the landing and turned, taking that opportunity to look back to him. "I'm Caprice," she said. She was smiling, but she said nothing else, and turned away from him again.
Caprice! She had a name! She had a beautiful name! This was a victory beyond measure. He pressed his imaginary advantage. "I haven't seen you around the office," he lied. Well, half-lied anyway. Technically, he had only ever seen her in the cafeteria on the second floor. "Are you new?"
They reached the next landing, and the door to the eighth floor. She turned to look at him again, but this time she paused, and her smile was different. Less polite, more knowing. Busted again, he thought. She had seen him in the cafeteria too, and had probably noticed him watching her. And yet, fantastically, she seemed pleased. He felt his adrenaline kick in. Small talk was already moot. The game was now more subtle, and he realized with dread that he wasn't sure how to play. He resisted the urge to keep talking, on the premise that silence was often a more powerful tool than words. He had asked her a question, even if it was a flagrantly stupid one, and he wanted to see how she would answer it. He put his hand on the door handle, and watched Caprice turn again and continue her descent.
"I've been here a few months," she said. He tried to formulate his next line, but was now distracted by the fact that they were still on the stairs. She had come up at least two floors without taking the elevator. That alone was only a bit odd, but it also meant that there was at least one office that was located that far away from the rest of the company. That wasn't impossible, but it did seem pointless. He didn't want to fixate on this, now of all times, but he couldn't shake it. Porter? Billing office? It all suddenly sounded so wrong, for no good reason he could offer.
"Why does Porter need to see me?" he asked. It was the absolute last thing he wanted to ask her, but he couldn't help himself. He didn't know how to play this game, but he was sure that question was going to cost him points.
"There is no Porter," she said.
They were still walking, and Danny wondered how long he should keep doing that. This was all suddenly something completely different from whatever it seemed to be one second earlier. "Is there a billing department?" he asked. Somehow that still mattered, although he sensed it wouldn't matter for long.
He heard her laugh. "Probably," she said, "but it sure isn't anywhere down here." She reached the landing between floors seven and eight, and stopped, facing away from him. He had no idea what he was supposed to be feeling by this point. Angry? Frightened? He wanted to storm back upstairs and call building security, but what would he report? Besides, this was her! Caprice! He couldn't walk away. This was getting too weird, too fast. He stood two stairs up from her, waiting for this to make sense. Then she turned, and he saw her face.
Her expression was soft, nervous even, and again he was struck by the depth of her eyes. In them, in that moment, he saw only vulnerability. He took the two steps that would prevent him from looking down on her. "I had to talk to you," she said quietly. "This was the only thing I could think of."
Uncertainty plagued him. He wanted to believe this new twist. Oh, did he ever. Unfortunately, somewhere between paranoia and his natural low self esteem, he found that impossible. He knew what he wanted to hear. He was afraid she did, too, and the only thing he knew for sure so far was that she was playing him already. "Talk," he said. He tried to make it sound manly and assertive.
She lowered her eyes, then looked at him again. "I've seen you watching me," she said. All right, that part would be true. He always knew it was possible. She bit her lip, looked away, looked back again. "Have you seen me watching you?" she asked.
It was too much to hope for. His life didn't work like this. Hell, no one's life worked like this. His lizard brain dumped more officious adrenaline into his system. Over the pounding of his heart, he managed to say, "I wasn't sure." That was true enough. He had been trying to stay under her radar, but really hadn't known until today how poorly he had done.
She took a step closer. "Be sure," she said. She opened her mouth to say something else, then thought better of it. Her face tensed. It looked to Danny like she was either about to say something very difficult, or just start sobbing. Then apparently unable to decide which, she chose a third option that caught Danny by surprise. He almost didn't even see her move, and suddenly she had her arms around him, and her face reaching for his.
He had never pictured a first kiss with her under these circumstances, which, considering the vast number of first kisses he had imagined, was a statistical absurdity. He couldn't understand how this could be happening, but he had no choice. He had invested so much of his emotional capital in yearning for this moment, his heart would not allow him anything short of complete surrender to it. He had Caprice. He had won her, somehow, without even knowing it. He was perfectly happy to let the details sort themselves out later.
As much as he had been surprised by the sound of her voice, even more unexpected was the way she felt to him. Her skin was softer than any he had ever touched. In his arms, she felt utterly relaxed, as though she had no bones in her body. She wore no scent he could detect, not even soap or toothpaste, and yet was so clean as to have no natural aroma either. He did notice the taste of her lipstick, unpalatable with a bitter edge. It felt greasy, like too many layers of lip balm. At that moment, it was a small price that he gleefully paid, and a welcome reminder that she was real, not just some cubicle daydream.
And then, suddenly, horribly, tragically, she was pulling away. He let go, not knowing what else to do. He wasn't sure what to say next, if anything. Then he saw that she was crying.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I shouldn't have ..." She was trembling now, and when he tried to hold her again, she flinched away. "This is wrong," she said, and wouldn't make eye contact.
Danny felt helpless, confused and faint. "Shhhhh," he tried to say, but he couldn't tell how it sounded because the pounding of his heart was too loud in his own head.
"I'm sorry!" she cried one more time, then fled down the stairs and out the door to the seventh floor. Danny hesitated, then lurched after her. Three steps into his pursuit, he froze, with no idea what he intended to do if he caught up to her. Then he realized the only thing that mattered at that moment was not losing her, and he bolted down the stairs. By the time he made it through the door, she was nowhere to be seen, somewhere on a large floor with many strange faces watching him inquisitively. Numb, he walked the two flights back to his office.
By the time he made it to the ninth floor, he was out of breath from the climb, and light-headed. He walked past someone he barely knew, who seemed bothered by his appearance. He bypassed his cubicle, opting instead for Moe's. Moe would help him sort this out, once he had a chance to sit down for a minute. Moe was on the phone when Danny knocked on his partition. Danny thought Moe's eyes seemed bigger than usual, and heard him say something that sounded like gibberish to whomever was on the other end of the line. Japanese client, maybe. Whatever he said, it must have translated into "Gotta go," because he hung up in a hurry. Moe said nothing, but tapped his lips with urgency. Danny rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth, looking for whatever crumb Moe was gesturing about, and his thumb came away with a maroon streak. Blood? No, lipstick, he remembered. His head hurt, he was having difficulty breathing, and he could feel saliva accumulating under the back of his tongue. He hoped the adrenaline rush would wear off soon. Moe was standing now, trying to tell him or ask him something, but he was still speaking in Japanese. Danny started to ask him to speak English, and to tell him about something that happened to him earlier that was kind of weird, but when he opened his mouth, what came out instead was his breakfast.
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