"I can't believe you talked me into this," Dodge muttered, passing me the pile of papers he'd been handed in the standard take-one-and-pass-it-on gesture efficient people were so fond of.
We were in a long line populated by mangy looking students, waiting to be either admitted or turned away from a drug trial program – yes, we were that desperate for rent money. Given the steady stream of people trudging past us back down the line to the outer door with sour expressions and as they emitted disgruntled mutters, though, it seemed apparent that they had a much more extensive selection criteria than simply "able bodied and open minded" like they'd listed on the flyer. Each carried a text book of some description and was in various degrees of unkemptness.
"They must have advertised in the campus cafeterias," I mused aloud, ignoring his complaints, the last thing I needed to do was encourage him. "And the bars," I added as the latest discarded hopeful staggered past in that zigzagging pattern consistent only with severe inner ear infections, and drunkenness.
He was followed in swift succession by a woman who was quite obviously pregnant. She must not have even made it into the inner sanctum before being cast off.
We snorted in unified derision. That's what I love about friends, you can be disgusted in people out loud without having to worry about offending anyone you're hanging out with. Nobody likes that awkward moment when they look at you with a that was so cold look on their face.
"Did she really think she'd be accepted to a drug trial in her condition?" Dodge scoffed, seeming to relax into our tried and true, people mocking routine with surprising ease for a man who was opposed to the very idea of today's purpose. I was grateful, though, because if I had to put up with his constant complaints and mutterings any longer I'd probably have to shoot him in the face... next time we played paintball. Since that's the only time I'm ever allowed near a gun.
I linked my arm with his, leaning back against the wall beside him and tilting my head to his shoulder. "I'm really glad you're doing this with me," I told him.
"What good am I to you if I don't share the experience of poisoning my body with unstable drugs that do God only knows what," he replied, so tense that it was as if his jaw was wired shut. Even his lip movements were kept to a minimum as he glared at the foul smelling guy that walked passed.
"I'll get you a salad on our way back to work to make up for it," I assured him. I'd had to resort to blackmail to get Roger "Dodge" Benson, health nut and fitness fanatic, to agree to the trial.
I'd been late to work, bursting through the double glass doors of the lobby in a cloud of heat, humidity and hair and, like always, he was there waiting for me. I'm pretty sure he stalks the entrance waiting for my arrival just so that he could lecture me on the importance of punctuality. That and if he was there to announce to me that I was late he would get to here another one of my ridiculous excuses.
Which are hilarious, if I do say so myself. And I do.
On this particular occasion, I'd been trying to decide between the truth, which was unbelievable enough, since it involved an unicyclist. Or one of the excuses I'd written down in the little blue book I kept in my handbag. I'd just decided that he would never in a million years believe that I'd been knocked into a rare mud puddle by an out of control unicyclist, landing hard enough on my wrist to warrant a trip to the closest doctor and have it strapped up good an proper, and was pulling out my list of excuses when Dodge stepped up in front of me.
His light brown waves were tamed with the usual amount of hair gel – I'm pretty sure it's three tubes per strand – and his immaculate uniform practically sparkled with cleanliness in comparison to my own mud splattered, wrinkled, and dishevelled clothing. Travelling his keen grey eyes over my person, he took a small step back, as if afraid that I would somehow transmit dirt across the two feet between us. That was the thing about Dodge, he may not be your typical gay, but he was still opposed to dirt when he wasn't on the football field.
That's right, football. My theory is, he plays football for the same reasons straight men dance. They get up close and personal with the opposite – or, in Dodge's case, same – sex and on the occassion, there will be the necessity for them to get changed in front of you. It was a solid theory dating back to, well, I don't know for sure, but the evidence was clear that if it weren't working in the scoring dates department, it was at least satisfying an intimacy need. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that I had the hand eye co-ordination five year old and was more accident prone than Steve Urkel, I'd probably join the football team as well. As it was, though, the guys tend to take their practice to the other end of the field when they here I'm coming to watch. It's like my presence somehow guarantees someone is going to get hurt.
Lucky for them, though, the odds that it is ever someone other than me is pretty slim. Not impossible. But slim.
"Late again, Bea," Dodge informed me as I attempted to make myself invisible and sidle past him. It clearly wasn't working as well as I planned, because his gaze followed me for a few feet before his body joined in as I continued toward the locker room. "That's the third time this week."
"And it's only Wednesday," I pointed out with forced cheer. "At least I'm consistent."
He rolled his eyes at me. I was not off to a good start.
Dodge wasn't my boss in any way shape or form, but he was the guy I reported to, even if it was just because he'd made it his duty long ago that he would keep me on task. He was built like a star athlete with rock hard abs and the kind of chiselled jaw you find in nineteen- fifties black and white movies. And he was staring at the back of my head as I walked, I could just feel those stormy grey eyes boring holes through my protective layer of curls. He didn't approve of my choice of outfit of black Capri pants, a sheer, sleeveless top and knock off converse sneakers, but he approved of the dishevelled state of my clothes even less.
"What was it this time?" he asked, raising a single eyebrow at me as if to say he didn't believe my story already. "An alien invasion on main-street? Gold fish has menopause? Dog died?"
I slid my bag into my locker and began unbuttoning my top in order to swap it for the mostly clean work shirt I kept in my locker. I didn't bother to turn away from Dodge or hide myself in anyway, since I knew he wasn't interested in my body the way other men were. The most Dodge would do was suggest a new moisturiser or offer to plan a workout routine to get rid of my love handles.
"If you must know," I stated, pulling the shirt over my head. "I was captured by the Borg and reliably informed that resistance was futile." As I rifled through my handbag in search of deodorant, my hand landed on a piece of paper and I pulled it out instead. "Check it out, though," I said enthusiastically, "I found the solution to this month's rent."
He took the flyer from me and gave it a sceptical once over before reading it allowed to me. "Wanted: Volunteers for an experimental drug trial lead by the University of Romdan's Medical Sciences Department. Successful candidates must be able bodied and open minded." Dodge looked up from the page. "I dunno, Bea," he said, "It sounds a bit like, 'Hey they let us play with chemicals in the lab and now we wanna test our creations on you!'" He shuddered to make his point.
"But it's five hundred bucks," I pointed out, indicating the next section of text. "All we have to do is turn up, sign a waiver, they give us a pep talk and hand over the drugs. We keep a diary of how we feel each day, let them know of any side effects I experience. And we don't have to worry about whether we're gonna get enough hours here to cover rent and food for the rest of the month."
I snatched up the deodorant and sprayed it all over in an attempt to mask the vaguely swampy smell that was clinging to me before making my way back to out into the office where my desk was waiting patiently for me to arrive.
"Is this even ethical?" he asked, following close behind me once more. I should have known he wouldn't let it go so easily. Sometimes he was worse than my mother in the nagging department, and let me tell you, my mother is a master nagger.
"Who cares?" I retorted. "I need five hundred bucks." I began sorting through my inbox one handed, avoiding his gaze as I piled all the copy jobs on my keyboard. "Besides, it's totes probably just some new mixed vitamin or that super duper krill oil that wears capes and rescues your joints from danger or whatever. They're not gonna test out the hardcore stuff on the unsuspecting public."
"Then why haven't they called it a Vitamin Trial?" Dodge asked, sliding behind the desk behind me and pulling a file folder closer to him.
I shrugged as I returned the other papers to the tray to be dealt with later. "Drug trial sounds cooler," I informed him. "I would never be interested in a vitamin trial. You know I have a carefully balanced diet of junk and slop provided to me by fast food retailers, vending machines and the ready-made microwave meals in the cold section of the supermarket. I don't want to mess that up."
"How do you even find the energy to button your pants in the morning?" Dodge teased, reaching over to poke my only slightly pudgy belly. "I can't' believe you're not the size of a house."
I punched his arm, which provided more pain to me than to him. "I can't believe you were lecturing me on being late and now you're saying I'm fat." I tossed the papers from on top of my keyboard into my little photocopying tub and made my way across the cluttered space that was our communal office to the tiny room at the back that housed my best friend, the photocopier.
I may be hopeless at almost everything I do, including dressing myself and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but copying is the exception that proves the rule. When it came to copying, you name it and I could do it. I could do double sided, colour background title page, stapled at the side, colour printing, enlarging, shrinking, enhancing resolution. If there was a paper jam I could fix it. If it was out of toner, I was the only one in the office who knew how to refill it.
In short, I was the copy queen. Any copying that needed to be done, no matter how big or small, was put in my in-tray with a description of what was needed, usually not in technical terms, and I returned the completed jobs to their pigeon holes as they were completed. It had gotten to the stage that when we were ordering new name badges they'd suggested I actually make the title of Copy Queen official by having it under my name.
Office Assistant/Copy Queen
But, of course, the big boss hadn't seen the need to do such a thing and I was just a plain old office assistant. Until Dodge had made up a sticky label to go on my badge.
Speaking of Dodge, he had forsaken his data entries to follow on my heels once more. Giving me an affectionate shove, he hopped up onto the table beside the machine and crossed his legs to watch me work my magic. "I'd never accuse you of being fat," he assured me, continuing the conversation I thought we'd ended when I walked away from him. "Lazy, maybe. But never fat. And I'm confiscating this flyer. I don't need you going off and getting yourself all drugged up before work."
"That's okay," I replied cheerfully, tapping the little screen on the side of the machine. "You can keep it. I already saved the deets in my phone, and you're gonna need a copy of them so you know the where's and when's of it."
"I'm not going, Bea," he stated firmly.
I sent him an innocent smile, hitting go and wriggling up beside him on the table, my swinging my legs back and forth like a third grader sitting on the top of the monkey bars. "Are you sure about that?" I asked him. "Because I seem to remember a certain hot date you had last month with a guy you were too insecure to approach. Who was it that chatted him up and introduced you again?"
His usually mildly pleasant expression turned to storm clouds as he glared at me. "You," he grumbled reluctantly, crossing his arms over his chest. "But it didn't last."
"Ah," I murmured knowingly. "But what was it you told me as he was leading you out of the club?"
"Alright, fine," he gave in, dropping his arms to his side in a huff as he simultaneously clenched his fists, crinkling the flyer he still held. "I'll do it with you, but you have to start jogging with me three mornings a week." With that he was off the table and out of my sight, no doubt deliberately giving me no chance to protest. He knew I was morally opposed to mindless exercise. I couldn't just jog for the sake of jogging. I needed motivation. Like jogging to the mall to get some cute new jogging shoes. Or jogging to the KFC on Green Street to get some popcorn chicken. Needless to say, Dodge didn't approve of my view point. Unless he got cute new shoes as well.
Oh! That sparked an idea. I totes knew what I was getting him for his birthday this year. New shoes. What gay man doesn't love new shoes?
"It has to be a real salad," Dodge informed me, dragging me back to the present as we approached the door to the inner sanctum. "Not one of those limp imposters they sell at fast food restaurants."
A few minutes passed, during which time we bantered back and forth about the various states of the salads I'd forced him to eat over the years, and before we knew it, it was Dodge's turn to follow the nurse back. He gave me a peck on the cheek, silently letting me know that things were okay between us, despite the fact that I was forcing him to go against his self-mandated health code. I hugged him back in thanks before settling back into the wall.
"Nothing says love like a shared drug experience," came a wistful voice from beside me as Dodge disappeared behind the unmarked door.
I glanced to the side and nearly fell over with shock. Here in the same hall as me, standing not three feet away, was the same unicyclist that two days ago had knocked me into the mud puddle. What were the odds of meeting the same stranger twice in one week? I took in his dark, nearly black hair and hazel eyes framed by rectangular glasses. A little more stubble graced his jaw line and his clothes were cleaner, but it was definitely the same person.
An easy grin spread across his lips, revealing pristine, pearly white teeth one by one. "I'll save you the embarrassment of admitting you've forgotten my name so soon and remind you it's -."
"Riley," I interrupted quickly. "I didn't forget. I just didn't expect to see you here."
He shrugged nonchalantly. "I'm nothing if not a diligent stalker, Beatrix Cooper."
A gasp left my throat before I could stop it. I hadn't told him my full name when he'd run me over. There'd been no need to. The only reason I could see for how he'd possibly know it was if he was indeed stalking me. "How did you know my-," I started to ask, my eyes widened in horror, but he cut me off this time.
"Relax," he chuckled. "It's on your application form." I looked down at the pages I held in my hand. My name was indeed displayed clearly on the front within full view of his prying eyes. "No offense, but you and your boyfriend don't really fit in with the crowd this drug trial is drawing," he added before I could comment. "Too well dressed." He travelled his gaze back down the line examining the ratty t-shirts and baggy jeans, the dreadlocks, and the bare feet. "Most of these people would only wear clothes like that for funerals."
"What about church?" I countered, ignoring the fact that he'd called Dodge my boyfriend, he didn't need to know that Dodge was just a friend... and definitely not straight anyway.
He scoffed at me, flipping his hair off his forehead with a large, tan hand. "University kids that are willing to take experimental drugs for money don't go to church, Trixie," he informed me.
Involuntarily, I shuddered. No had called me that since sixth grade. I loathed being called Trixie. The name conjured images of fifteen year old bottle-blondes in tight, bright pink miniskirts and too much lip gloss giggling over a mean prank they just pulled on the red headed, freckled geek that sat alone in the lunch room. Hollywood had ruined that nickname for me.
"If you're going to shorten my name, stick with the first half," I requested coolly.
"What's the matter?" he asked, grin still in place. "Did I touch a nerve?"
Rather than dignify that with a response, I returned to my prior position leaning against the wall to wait. Dodge had been in there longer than most other people in the line before us, which was promising, I assumed, since they hadn't immediately rejected him and sent him back out. I was starting to think how funny it would be if he got accepted and I didn't when Riley spoke once again.
"So what do you do for a living?" he asked, moving to lean next to me. "I'm gonna guess, secretary."
"Bump bow," I buzzered. "I'm an office assistant."
"Close enough," Riley pointed out. "Where at?"
Rolling my eyes, I turned so that only my shoulder was in contact with the wall as I faced him. There was a clause in company policy where office assistants could only announce where we work if it was absolutely necessary. Some people might think that's insane, because word of mouth is like free advertising for the ears. But my boss wasn't exactly the most personable person, and the less he had to deal with stupid people wanting security advice for their trailer on bricks, the better. We had a wide enough client base with the government contracts and the wealthy business men.
"I'm not allowed to tell you," I said after a brief – very brief – consideration. Of course this served to gain his full attention, which was just what I needed. He raised his eyebrows at me and shrugged. "It's classified."
"You work for S.H.I.E.L.D or something?" he asked with an amused expression as he pushed off the wall, seeming to get excited by this mystery I'd presented him with.
"Don't be ridiculous," I told him. "SHIELD is a fictional organisation that deals with persons of special abilities and demigods. To believe I am working for them is absolutely juvenile."
A smirk spread across his face. "You know an awful lot about SHIELD for someone who doesn't work for them," he informed me, crossing his arms over his t-shirted chest. "Are you sure you didn't just over-share?"
"You think because I'm a woman I can't keep secrets?" I accused, propping my fists on my hips as I, too, straightened from the wall.
"No," he said, stepping closer so that he was mere inches from me. "I think that because you're a woman working in what appears to be a secretive corporation, I should stick close to you." At that moment, I heard the door open behind me, signalling that it was my turn to play follow the nurse. "Looks like lover boy was successful," Riley said, looking over my shoulder. "I bet he's thrilled about that." Gripping my shoulders, he spun me around and shoved me in the direction of the nurse who was waiting by the door with a clipboard. "See you in there," he said.
"You might find it a bit difficult to follow me home, Mr. Walker," I called over my shoulder with a smirk. "Iron Man offered to give me a lift."
NaNoWriMo Word Count: 3596