I Write Things

The Grind is the meandering episodic adventures of Max Fuentes, a journalist from New Mexico who currently resides in New York, talking his way in and out of situations of questionable legality. The tale begins here with The Darkside, which is a thoroughly misleading title.

Of course, people other than Max have been known to do stuff, and you can also read about these Detours.

Of course, Max and the others had to come from somewhere, and it’s worth checking out these Flashbacks.

I also like to look in on a completely different side of the world, with a number of Urban Fantasy pieces.

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A Taste

Her broken-in jeans and threadbare shirt, through which he could make out a dark bra, clashed delightfully with his antiseptic decor. “Fancy,” she said.

“Yeah,” he replied, “fancy.”

“Must be nice being rich.”

“Indeed it is.”

She glanced around the apartment and asked, “Somebody actually lives here?”

He slung his jacket onto his easy chair, threw himself onto its matching slate gray sofa, loosened his tie, and kicked off his wingtips. “I fully intend to ignore your vague insult.”

“Nothing vague about it,” she told him. “Thanks for letting me stay over.”

“Think nothing of it. It’s a long cab ride to your place of residence.”

“I wish you wouldn’t use that kind of language around me.”

“Request denied.”

She grunted.

He pointed to a hallway. “The bedroom is through there. As I am, if anything, a gentleman, I will sleep out here.”

“And if I don’t want you to sleep out here?”

“Then you are welcome to use the sofa.”

“You are such a doofus.” She rolled her eyes. “Got anything to drink here?”

“If you’ll recall, I’ve been sober longer than you’ve known of me.”

“People have been known to change,” she said. “You did.”

“Not as much as you think.” He popped out his gold-plated cufflinks, tossed them into an empty ashtray, and rolled up his sleeves. “Besides, alcohol was responsible for these.”

It had been years since she’d seen the scars that ran down the underside of his forearms, and their presence almost seemed to comfort her. “You think it was the liquor that did that?”

“I’ve chosen to believe so.”

“Fair enough,” she sighed. “Mind if I have one?”

“Perhaps I should have been more clear regarding the absence of potables in this place.”

“I brought my own.” Sure enough, there was a stainless-steel flask in her purse. “Got any place to put this?”

“There are highball glasses in the cabinet near the refrigerator.”

“I thought you told me you still don’t drink.”

He shrugged. “I pretend.”

“You are so weird.” After pouring herself a few fingers of whiskey, she leaned on the counter, as casually as if it belonged to her, and took a long swallow, locking stares with him. They said nothing for what could have been hours until she asked, “Miss it?”

“Every day.”

“Still? It’s been, what, seven years?”

“In my defense, I enjoyed alcohol a great deal.”

“Fair enough.” She studied him for a moment. “Remember what it tastes like?”

He frowned in concentration. “No,” he replied sadly.

She strutted over to him, taking her time doing so. “Want a reminder?”

“Perhaps I should have been more clear regarding my sobriety.”

Propping her knee on the sofa next to him and steadying herself with a hand on his shoulder, she took a deep drink of the whiskey. Her lips brushed against his, and instantly he recognized the sour sting of the rye. He leaned hungrily toward her, but she backed away.

Without a word, she dipped a finger in the glass, traced her lip with it, and kissed him again. Eager for the flavor of the drink and of her, he licked and nibbled, causing her to moan.

“More,” he whispered when she pulled away again.

But when she raised the glass, he snatched it from her hand and placed it on the end table behind him, not caring that there was no coaster. Her hand, now free, stroked his cheek, drawing him in.

He brushed a lock of hair from her face. “More,” he told her again.

Winding Down

Checking In on our old friend, “The Grind.”

Emma tapped the pencil against the kitchen table and frowned. This was getting her nowhere. The words on the monitor read “Blah, blah blah. Blah blah,” and the scribbles on the piece of paper sitting beside it weren’t doing that much better.

Anyway, she’d rather pay attention to her boyfriend, who was darting through the apartment, sweeping up and donning his wardrobe. While he popped his collar and slipped an already knotted tie around his neck, he caught her eye and smirked that smirk.

She was such a sucker for that smirk.

“Whatever will you do without me for the rest of the day?” he asked.

She waved her hand at the laptop. “This, for the afternoon,” she replied. “Tonight I think I’m going to fuck a Russian sailor. Maybe two.”

“Sounds exhausting.”

“Do you have to work on Sunday?” She drew out the have long enough for him to know she was serious.

“Yes,” he reminded her. “Just like the other fifty-one Sundays since this time last year.”

“You didn’t really work all those Sundays, did you?”

“I was supposed to work the other fifty-one Sundays,” he admitted.

She bounced in her chair. “Exactly! You have no sense of personal responsibility!”

“It’s true.”

“So play hooky!” Folding her hands in prayer, she added, “Please! I’ll give you a blowjob!”

He seemed considering it, but his shoulders fell in resignation. “Em, I have to talk to my editor. For real this time. I’m getting too old for this kind of life.”

“Dude, you’re not even thirty.”

I can’t spend another night in a holding cell,” he sighed. “I just can’t.”

Reluctantly, she agreed. Sure her initial attraction to him was that whole bad-boy thing, but that was going to wear thin soon. Hell, it was already starting to. She was sick of worrying all the time. Creases were already forming on her forehead. Besides, it’s not like she was one of those harpies who lived to control and emasculate; growing up was kind of his idea in the first place. She should probably be encouraging him.

Still, she was sitting here, wearing the pajamas that never failed to turn him on, yet he was halfway to the door. Couldn’t he talk to his boss tomorrow? Or, like, a half hour late? What did she have to do here? It was time for a Hail Mary. “But it’s Valentine’s Day!”

“It’s March.”

“It’s my birthday!”

“You’re a Leo.”

She grunted, “You just had to be one of the attentive ones, didn’t you?” Her fingers snapped as something occurred to her. “That reminds me: what’s a nine-letter word for ‘Kipling’s Kitty’?”

“Shere Khan,” he said. “Is that something you’re required to answer for a job listing?”

After a moment of intense concentration, she replied, “Yes.” As subtly as possible, she flipped over the newspaper to the side that didn’t feature the crossword.

“Anything else potential employers need to know about racist colonial literature before I go?”

Her eyes widened, and she sat straight up. “Dude, you should get a cat!”

“I don’t like cats,” he reminded her.

“You should get a cat for me.”

“Why don’t you get a cat for you?”

“Because you’ll end up being the one who has to feed it and take it on walks anyway.”

He shook his head. “You don’t take cats on walks.”

“See?” she said. “You know shit like that. I promise I’ll come over and visit it every day.”

“I don’t want a cat.”

She sprang to her feet and ran her hands seductively over his chest. “For me?”

“Not even for you.”

With a pout, she slipped a finger between a pair of his buttons and tickled his skin. “If you loved me, you’d get a cat.”

“Are we really using that word, Em?”

Fuck. That was a really good question. That’s the word that ended her last relationship, and he had his own hang-ups about it. But really, the only problem here seemed to be those letters strung together in that particular order. Everything else existed already–for her, it had set in just before they got together for real back in November; she was pretty sure he’d made it there even earlier than that.

They should say it soon. This was getting ridiculous.

“I was kidding,” she told him.

“Of course you were,” he replied.

It was time to change the subject, and since her hands were in the general area: “You should lose the tie.”

“Oh, hell no!” he snorted.

“Why not?”

“It’s my thing,” he replied.

“I had this denim jacket for years,” she said wistfully. “I wore it all the time, even under heavy coats in the winter. It was my thing. I totally grew out of it.”

“You used to be smaller?”

She narrowed her eyes. “I’m not that small.”

He shrugged.

“Jesus, dude, we’re almost the same height!”

He shrugged again.

“Listen,” she continued, “when you get to be my age, you’ll find that things aren’t really that big a deal.”

“Your age?” he laughed. “Em, you’re thirty-two.”

“I’ve crossed the threshold, dude!” She pointed at her forehead. “I have wrinkles!”

He kissed her there. “So?”

“The boobs go next, you realize,” she told him. “I know how much you like the boobs.”

He gestured to her computer. “Find a job with insurance, and we can fix that.”

“Lose the tie, Max.”

“Never.”

“For me?”

He pulled it over his head and handed it over. “For you.”

Emma bit her lip.

“Anyway,” he concluded, “I kind of want to get this thing with Myron over with. He yells a lot, and my nerves are shot from getting arrested this weekend.”

After she released him, they retreated to her bedroom, and she tossed the tie onto the mattress, where it would probably be used later as a restraint. She slapped him on the ass. “Go be an adult, dude.”

Before he crawled out the window, his preferred exit, he said, “My name’s not Dude, Em.”

“My name’s not Em, dude,” she replied.

He smirked that smirk again.

They had to say it soon. This was getting ridiculous.

Jayus

Meanwhile…

Gilbert Finch was a veteran of a moderately well known sketch comedy troupe in Chicago, until television dragged him to New York City. From there, he headed to Hollywood, where studios spent very little money on his craft, but earned from it a fortune. Critics loathed Gil Finch’s oeuvre, which they said appealed only to the lowest-common denominator. This mattered little to America, because the most lucrative marketing demographic–eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old white men who said bro a lot without irony–quoted his dialogue to each other like scripture, as did the preteen boys who would one day grow up to be eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old white men who said bro without irony.

Emma was not a preteen boy, nor an eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-old white man who said bro without irony, nor was she the lowest-common denominator. She graduated in the top 10 percent of her high-school class, and did pretty well in college, especially when you factored in her part-time job and all the partying. And she loved Gil Finch, so, so much. His latest, Addicted to Chaos, wasn’t quite as good as his now-legendary second flick, The Night Before, but it was still worth seeing on a Tuesday night.

One scene in particular stood out: during crucial dialogue, Gil and his costar, Lane Wallace, retreated to the kitchen, where Lane accidentally turned on the stove. At one point, Lane sneered, “Bro, you are a liar,” followed by the most perfect of all comic beats, and Gil’s polyester slacks suddenly ignited. It was the dumbest of puns, but the humor was in the manner in which it was served.

Timing. It was everything.

Even over a post-show turkey burger an hour after the credits rolled, the pants-on-fire-gag made her giggle.

The same could not be said for her friend, Max, who had accompanied her both to the movie and to the diner, and had not smiled once in the past three hours. It wasn’t that he was a particularly somber guy. Hell, he was one of the most hilarious guys she’d ever met. He always had the perfect wisecrack in the chamber, and could draw, aim, and fire it with laser precision–as if he’d been waiting for that moment for a week.

Yet she sat on one side of the booth, her cheeks and sides sore, while he sat on the other side, looking bored. Finally he spoke. “You know,” he said, “most people have the self-respect to treat that kind of thing as a guilty pleasure.”

She hadn’t realized how much tension his silence had been cranking into her spine until his words released all of it. “Fuck you, dude!”

“Relax,” he replied. “We’re in public, remember?”

“Why are you such an asshole?” she asked. “Why would you even watch it if you hate it so much?”

“I watched it because you invited me to.” He ate one of her French fries and raised an eyebrow, signaling that it was her move.

She folded her arms and grunted. “You could have said no.”

“Why would you invite me if you knew I’d hate it so much?”

“Because you forced me to sit through that gay, French art film last week,” she replied.

You forced yourself to go to that,” he reminded her. “I fucking warned you.”

She shook her head. “I just wanted some company.”

Don’t you have a boyfriend?”

“There’s some software bullshit going on at work again.”

“You could have waited for that to clear up,” he said.

“I just wanted to see this fucking movie, okay?” She pouted in earnest. “I thought it would be nice for you to go out and have a good time.”

“Look,” he started.

“You look!” she snapped. “Why do people like you always say movies have to be deep and shit. Do you just get off on judging people?”

“I was just about to ask you the same question.”

“Why can’t movies just…” Her rant came to a halt when she noticed his eyes rolling.

“Oh,” he groaned, “not the ‘movies-are-supposed-to-be-fun’ defen–oh my.”

Through gritted teeth, she asked, “Oh your what?”

“Whatever you do,” he declared slowly, but solemnly, “don’t. Breathe. Deeply.” He added, “Especially through your nose.”

She couldn’t help herself. She sniffed, and something forced its way through her nostrils–something terrible. It reeked of wet, moldy, sun-baked death, and it burned. God, did it burn.

He shook his head, and the corners of his mouth began to twitch. His eyebrows knit together, desperately holding something back. He spoke in a strained whisper. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“What the fuck is that?” she shrieked, on the verge of fainting, until she realized that she was about to witness history. Since they’d first met, Emma had seen him grin, snicker, and smirk–the latter of which was his best feature. Try however hard to amuse him, however, and the best you’d get was a stone-faced, “That’s funny.” Max never, ever laughed.

Yet there he was, tears in his eyes, fighting off the reflex like it would kill him and his whole family. “Silent…” he gasped, “… but violent…” And then he exploded.

Timing. That’s what it was all about.


… And then…

Item 8

Encl:
Prior Discussion re: Work Flow

***************

After a lunch of Thai food, followed by a chaste make-out session with her boyfriend, Tyler, Emma returned to the former smoking room to find that the deliverymen had indeed removed the brand new desk from its box. What they didn’t bother to do was assemble it. Later, when she would recount the tale to Tyler or anyone who would listen, she’d ask herself why she’d expected anything different. In the moment, she could only whine, “What the fuck is this?”

Mike shook the swear jar.

“Dude,” she told him, “I don’t like you. I mean, I was kind of ambivalent to you at first, and I was even a little fond of you after a few weeks, but today, I’ve decided that I don’t like you.”

“That’s fair,” he replied.

Amanda strode inside, and her shoulders fell instantly. “What the…” She reached into her pocket, but her hand came out empty.

“Oh, what the hell,” Mike told her. “You’re my best customer. Have a freebie.”

“Thank you,” she said with a slight bow of her head. “I still want a progress report on the 10Qs.” She returned her attention to the desk. “What the fuck is this?”

“I quit,” Emma replied.

“You’re not allowed to resign without two weeks’ notice,” Amanda told her, “especially you, Emma, because your daily tasks are pretty complicated, and it would take at least three days to properly instruct your replacement, who will probably need some kind of supervision until he or she gets a hang of it.”

“I don’t have to give notice,” she said. “I’m a temp.”

“I’ll give you a bad evaluation,” Amanda replied. “I don’t want to, but I will.”

“Okay, fine.”

“Stay here,” she said. “I have to get on the phone with somebody and yell. Literally yell, I mean. And I don’t mean literally like when people just use it for emphasis. No, I mean I am going to pick up the phone and yell, and I will probably be embarrassed about it later, but I’m really, really angry right now.”

“Okay, but–“

Stay here!

Emma didn’t stay there. She caught up with Amanda halfway to her office and blocked her way. “Breathe, dude.”

“Okay, fine.”

“Outside of this desk thing,” Emma asked, “what do you plan to do? For the rest of the day, I mean.”

Amanda was so taken aback by the question that she answered it without thinking. “Marking, filing, sorting, personnel issues, e-mails. The usual. And now I have to worry about the work Mike’s doing because Steve can’t be bothered to check in periodically, which makes me wonder if I shouldn’t check in with all of the other temps too see if they’re not wasting company time–yourself excluded, of course, because I kind of do that already–and that means a few hours extra here and there.”

“You know, I’m good at filing and sorting,” Emma said.

“Well, the only work of yours I’m familiar with are the daily reports, so I know for sure you’re good with photocopying and data entry and spreadsheet arrangement, but given how well you perform those tasks–“

Emma wasn’t sure that interrupting the boss of bosses was okay, but she was on a roll, so she did it anyway. “I’m trying to say I can help.”

“Thanks,” Amanda responded instantly, “but you’ve got your own work to do.”

“Not really,” Emma told her. “Everything after the meeting is pretty light for me. I just do gofer things here and there, when some VP needs it. Mostly I read a book or doodle. Besides, I don’t have a whole desk.”

“Then why don’t you go home early,” Amanda said. “I’ll tell Steve to pay you for the afternoon. You’ve had a long day as it is.”

“So have you.”

“Yeah, but it’s my job,” she reminded Emma. “You don’t get paid enough to do anymore than you have to.”

“What if I just want to help out a friend?”

Amanda sighed. “Look, Emma, I appreciate the–“

“Dude,” she breathed, “just stop.”

“I’m just saying–“

“Let me finish,” Emma snapped. “I’m not asking to hang out on weekends and get cocktails or double-date or whatever. I’m pretty busy all the time anyway. You and I will probably never see each other again after this contract ends, and that’s totally fine. I’m trying to tell you that I think you’re really cool, and I don’t like watching you get chewed up like this. You’re letting this place suck away your life, and for what?”

“Because–“

“That was rhetorical,” Emma said. “This is fucking insane, you know that?”

“It’s. My. Job.”

“Let. Me. Help.”

“Fine.” Amanda set her jaw. “If you want to help, you can start by finding me a green highlighter.”

“No problem,” Emma said with a grin. A few moments later, she strode up to Mike’s desk. “Dude, give me your green highlighter.”

“I don’t have a green highlighter,” he replied.

“Let me look around in your desk then,” she offered, “just to be sure.”

“No!”

“Why not?” she asked. “Afraid I’ll find Esther’s tape dispenser?”

“Why do you think I have–?”

“Because you used tape to make the swear jar.”

“You really think Esther’s the only one in the office with a tape dispenser?” He snorted, “Besides, it went missing way before I even had the idea. So why would I take it?”

“Because you’re just the kind of asshole who would think her freak-out was funny.”

“I’m not saying I did it,” he said, “but really? It’s all she has, man. Isn’t that kind of fucked up?”

“Swear jar.”

He pulled out his wallet and made the deposit.

“I don’t get Esther,” Emma told him, “but this is her thing, and you don’t have the right to take that away.”

“I told you I didn’t–“

“Esther’s tape dispenser.”

“I don’t–“

Now.

With a grunt and a thud, he slammed it onto the desktop.

“And a green highlighter,” she reminded him.

With an additional grunt, it joined the dispenser.

She fought back a smirk and snatched them away. “Thanks, dude.”

When she spun around to leave, she found herself blocked by Daryl’s incredible pectorals and even more incredible grin. “Damn, girl,” he said.

“I know,” she replied, looking him up and down without being even a little bit coy about it, “right?”

***************

Matter concluded.

Further business.

Item 7

Encl:
Prior Discussion re: Work Flow

***************

Emily!” Esther shouted.

“I haven’t seen your tape dispenser!”

“You look at me when I’m talking to you!”

Emma did so, mostly out of shock.

Esther rose slowly from her chair and stalked up to her, somehow increasing in size. “You know what I’m thinking.”

“Nope.” Emma replied and started to take her first step toward her new desk.

“I’m thinking that someone took it because I had my name on it.”

Crap. Now Emma couldn’t leave because she was dying for this logic to be broken down for her. “Keep talking.”

With sweeping movements, Esther explained, “Well, it has my name on it. I put my name on a piece of paper and taped it on. And glued it too. But only the S, T, H, the second E, and the R part. You see?”

“Nope.”

“I made the first E with correction fluid–“

Emma wondered if there was anybody else who used the term correction fluid.

“–and markers and glitter.”

“Did you use a highlighter?” Emma asked.

Esther’s eyes lit up. “So you’ve seen it?”

“Was it a green highlighter?”

“No, it was pink.”

Emma waved her hand. “Never mind.”

“Where was I?” Esther asked.

E.”

“Right.” Her focus returned. “So there’s a really big, beautiful E, and a smaller S, T, H, E, R that you can get rid of easy.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” whispered Emma, who was finally starting to see where this was going.

“So if someone whose name started with an E wanted a personalized tape dispenser, it would be easier if there was already an E on it,” she concluded. “Isn’t that right, Emily?”

“Dude,” she snapped, “I don’t need a tape dispenser!”

“What if you need to tape something?”

“I never need to tape anything.”

“But what if you did?” she insisted.

Emma said, “Then I would come to you and ask for some.”

“So you say,” Esther growled, “but why should I believe you?”

“Because I don’t lie.” A lot–she didn’t lie a lot. “I’m from Iowa. We’re honest out there.”

“So you’re saying you’re better than me?”

“No, dude,” she sighed, “I’m saying…” And then it hit her. “You know, don’t we have a VP named Edward?”

Esther stroked her chin. “We do have a VP named Edward.”

“Wouldn’t it be just like a vice president to want a personalized tape dispenser of their very own? Aren’t they always getting everything they want?”

“Now that you mention it…”

“It couldn’t hurt to ask.”

“No, it couldn’t.” Esther said with a wink. “Thanks for the tip!” She buzzed off, and Emma resumed her journey back to her brand new desk.

And there it was: right next to Mike’s. The delivery people had even been kind enough to restore to their rightful places her stapler, paper-and-binder clips, plastic inbox, and mug full of pens. The ancient monitor squatted just to the left of the keyboard, just as she preferred it. And the useless lamp even sat with its cord curled around it like a tail.

And yet… “Why the fuck is my desk still in the box?”

Mike shook the swear jar.

She narrowed her eyes.

Amanda swooped in beside her and asked, “Why the fuck is it still in the box?” before handing Emma a dollar she deposited in the jar.

“This is insane,” Emma groaned.

“Ladies,” announced Daryl from behind them.

Emma didn’t bother to look. “Dude.”

Amanda attempted in vain to hide a goofy smile as she turned around. “Hi…”

“How you doing, Amanda?” he asked. “Working hard, as usual?”

“Yeah…” she sighed.

“I have to say, boss,” he told her, “I have no idea how you manage to pull all of this off and make it look easy.”

“Yeah…”

“How’s life? Still single?”

“Yeah…”

“Somebody’s really missing out. Am I right, Mike?”

“I’m busy,” Mike snapped.

“Cool, cool,” Daryl said. “Emma?”

Emma had witnessed him use this tone with every woman in the office, regardless of their age or beauty, so she knew well enough not to take it personally. Still, she was a little bit jealous. “Totally,” she replied.

“I see you have a new desk,” he observed.

“I do.”

“It’s not unpacked, though.”

“No,” Emma agreed, “it is not.”

“Weird.” He crossed in front of her to greet the mirror, which would never have forgiven him if he’d left without visiting. “Do you think HR ordered Esther a new tape dispenser too, and that’s why it went missing?”

“What?” yelped Mike.

“No,” said Emma.

“Maybe…” sighed Amanda.

“It might be worth looking into,” Daryl suggested. “Who knows what that might turn up?”

“Why would they do that?” Emma asked, struggling to make sense of this line of deduction.

“Maybe it went obsolete,” he replied.

“Tape dispensers don’t go obsolete.”

“I bet they used to say that about water faucets.”

“No one would ever–” Actually, somebody probably did say this about water faucets, but someone else went ahead and upgraded them anyway, giving birth to some of the least necessary technical advancements in history. “All right, I’ll give you that.”

Daryl stared deep into the vast universe of imagination, wonder lighting up his face. “Imagine it: a machine that dispenses the exact amount of tape you need. And it would even have a mechanism that frees up that first little strip from a brand-new roll. There would be no more wasted tape. Isn’t that worth creating?”

No. “Yes,” Emma surrendered.

“Did we order one of those for Esther, Amanda?” he asked.

“I’m not in charge of those things,” she told him.

“Something to think about,” he concluded on his way out the door. “The possibilities are endless.”

Amanda and Emma took a moment to savor his exit. They made eye contact for a split second before looking away and taking deep, simultaneous breaths.

“So,” said Amanda.

“So,” said Emma.

“What’s that guy’s job anyway?” asked Mike.

Amanda shook her head, restoring her composure. “I’m going back to HR, and I want you to take an early lunch. Your desk will be unpacked when you return, I promise.”

“Thank you.” After Amanda left, Emma retrieved her phone from her purse. “Tyler,” she said, “we’re going to lunch.”

“Now?” the phone asked.

“Now.”

“But it’s not even eleven.”

Now,” she told her boyfriend.

***************

Further action pending.

Item 6

Encl:
Prior Discussion re: Work Flow

 

***************

The fingers of Emma‘s right hand danced across the number pad like a ping-pong ball in a dryer, while the fingers on her left found and identified the data she needed to input. The numbers themselves meant nothing more to her than a puzzle, and unraveling puzzles came more naturally than sleep. Her brain, not being needed, drifted away. Normally, she used this time to dream up plots and characters for future use in her under-construction, sequential-art masterpiece, but not this time.

Today, a twenty-four-year-old Emma Dayton, complete with an ill-advised pixie haircut and the denim jacket she swore she’d wear forever, sits beside her. She’d graduated from college four months earlier and spent the summer on a wild bender, waiting tables and saving up some cash before leaving Iowa and settling into an apartment in Queens with a handful of friends, a few boxes of necessities, and a future full of ambition. As she watches thirty-two-year-old Emma work, she has some questions. “What happened to your art?”

It’s in my apartment.

“I mean,” she insists, “why aren’t you drawing right now?”

Bills. Rent. Food.

“Why isn’t the art taking care of that?” she asks.

Because it’s just not working. I tried.

“Try harder.”

That’s easy for you to say.

“What, you think it’s easy for me to watch you sell out?”

Grow up, little girl.

To be fair, twenty-two-year-old Emma Dayton was an idiot.

She hit the save button and let her attention wander to the calendar hanging on the wall–not-quite-visible from the doorway, but very visible from here. Returning her gaze with half-closed eyes was a firefighter, a hose draped over his glistening, bare shoulders like a trained anaconda.

Nope. No subtext there.

“I guess you noticed that,” said Amanda, who had materialized in a chair on the other side of the desk, as relaxed as if she had been here for hours.

A startled Emma gasped, “Excuse me?”

“Mr. September.”

Sheepishly, Emma shrugged.

Amanda laughed through her nose. “The girls in receivable gave it to me as a Christmas present–they said Hanukkah, but Hanukkah’s not the same as Christmas, or even at the same time most years, and it would have been just as nice if they just made it a Christmas present, but the thought was really sweet so I didn’t say anything. They thought it would be funny–probably because I’m single, or because it’s not really classy or dignified, and besides, it’s firemen.” She laughed again. “I have a thing about firemen, but what girl doesn’t? So, yeah, long story short, it’s a gag gift.”

“You still hung it up.” Crap. Emma hadn’t meant to say that aloud.

Amanda blushed. “Abs.”

“Abs,” Emma agreed.

“Besides,” she added with a lowered voice, “you should see how the boys–the other VPs, I mean–react. It makes them a little uncomfortable and kind of reminds them who is in charge of the office–except for the president, of course.” She took a deep breath. “It’s the twenty-first century, and we’ve had the right to vote, for, like, a hundred years, but those expensive business schools keep sending out these frat boys who don’t have to work half as hard as I do to get twice as far, and it took a really long time to get them to even accept that I’m their fucking boss–way too long. So if half-naked–or mostly naked, like Mr. July, or all naked behind a fire hydrant, like Mr. February–makes them squirm, then good.”

“Huh,” Emma replied.

“Sorry. I don’t know why I just told you all that.” She shook her head. “This doesn’t leave the office. You get it, though, right?”

“Actually…”

“Except Daryl,” she said. “He doesn’t seem threatened. By the calendar or by me. He’s smarter than he looks, you know.”

“Daryl’s a VP?” Emma asked. It would be nice to be able to answer Mike’s daily question and maybe shut him the hell up.

“I don’t… I don’t know.” Amanda frowned and stared off into space. “Oh, I have an update about your desk. Was it falling apart?”

“It wasn’t in great shape,” Emma admitted. “I mean, one of the drawers had a big hole in the bottom. And one of the legs just kind of fell off last week, and the screw they used to put it back together rips a hole in my hose if I’m not careful. So there’s that.”

“HR ordered a new one the other day,” Amanda told her. “which is really forward-thinking of them, I’ll admit, especially since they hate replacing anything or spending money. And because it wouldn’t fit in that office with everything else in there, they called some guys to take out the old one, but it never occurred to anyone to replace it with the new one.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t get me started. But it doesn’t matter, because, after I explained the urgency of your situation, and they explained to me that you were just a temp, and I explained the urgency of your situation again, they called the delivery company, and they’ll be moving it in right away.” She looked at her empty wrist and then at the clock on the wall. “And that means five minutes ago. Literally five minutes ago.”

Emma glared at the pile of printouts that didn’t seem to be getting any smaller. “Can I just stay here and finish? I don’t want to lose my momentum.”

After a minute of thought and scrutiny, Amanda concluded, “No.”

“Okay, then, but these are running really late for the meeting.”

“I cancelled the meeting,” Amanda told her.

“You can do that?”

“Apparently I can.” She grinned. “Who knew?”

“Why would you do that?”

“You’re such a good sport,” she said, “and there’s no need for you to kill yourself for no good reason.”

“I think a functioning company’s a good reason.”

“You’re serious,” she stated.

“It’s my job,” Emma admitted reluctantly.

Amanda shook her head. “Your job is to perform a function vital to our corporation, but at a lower overhead because we don’t have to pay benefits, and we can terminate you suddenly without severance pay or even a really good reason.”

“Wow. When you put it like that…”

Amanda smiled sadly.

After a moment, Emma asked, “What now?”

“You can do whatever other daily tasks you have at your new desk at your own leisure, and I’ll be here tomorrow, which will hopefully go more smoother for both of us.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday.”

Amanda’s shoulders slumped. “Fuck this job,” she groaned.

***************

Further action pending.