By six o’clock that evening I was feeling much better. My headache was gone and my stomach had settled after consuming the delicious broth Dodge had sent home with Emily at lunch time. All that was left over was my worry for their fates. I’d turned my phone on after Emily left in the hopes of hearing some kind of news on that front, but neither of them was replying to my texts.
I felt utterly alone in the world. Not even bad day time television could cheer me up.
Eventually I’d switched off the TV and actually resorted to washing the dishes piled in the sink to keep my mind off things. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I was now in the middle of making a lamb curry for dinner.
Dodge was due home any minute now, and if he wasn’t lucky there’d be no apartment to come home to. I’d already set fire to the tea towel twice. I was being extra careful not to burn the building down, but with my luck I could make no guarantees.
“Bea?” I heard Dodge’s wary voice float down the hall from the front door. “Are you cooking?”
“No,” I called back sarcastically. “What you smell is my brain backfiring.”
“Well, okay,” he replied, audibly dumping his stuff at the side table in the entrance way. “It still smells good. Do I have time for a quick shower?”
I looked at the recipe I was following, noting the multitude of steps I still had to follow along with somehow figuring out how to use the rice cooker. “Plenty,” I affirmed, and got back to locating spices in the cupboards. For some reason, as particular he was about things being neat, Dodge never seemed to group herbs and spices in one fixed place. He just put them back willy-nilly regardless of anyone else who might want to find them after him.
With everything on and simmering, the rice in the microwave and the table set, I took a moment to wipe down the benches from all the spills I’d left to soak in. I was mopping up a particularly fragrant puddle next to the cook top when there was a knock on the door.
“Dodge?” I yelled, hoping he was out of the shower so I wouldn’t have to leave my dishes unattended – that was one way to make certain another fire broke out; and chances are it wouldn’t be so small this time.
“I’m naked!” he announced loudly. “You’ll have to get it.”
Sighing at my bad luck, I turned all the knobs down to a low flame and made hit pause on the microwave just to be on the safe side, before hurrying down the hall as another knock sounded. “I’m coming! I’m coming!” I cried, skidding to a halt just short of running into the solid wood door. I flung it open without a moment’s pause and only just stopped myself from slamming it shut again.
There in the corridor was Derek, his large hands tucked into the pockets of his cargo pants as he rocked back on his heels. The white t-shirt he wore strained over his pecks, drawing my eyes away from his bemused expression almost immediately. Once my gaze was fixated on his chest, I couldn’t resist the temptation to wander over the rest of him, taking in his muscled arms, the perfect fit of his pants around the groin area, his spit shined Doc Martins.
Aaaand back up to the groin.
“I knew I was good, but you hadn’t even seen me yet,” he chuckled. With one long, thick finger curled under my chin, he lifted my face to meet his gaze.
“Wha-?” I murmured.
“You came before you answered the door,” he pointed out.
I jerked away from his caress, snapping my mouth shut. “You’re gross,” I informed him. “What are you even doing here?”
He returned his hand to his pocket, shifting his weight a little as he stared down at me. “Emily said you were ill,” he explained. “I came to check on you, in case you had a concussion from your head bump yesterday.”
“Like you actually care,” I sneered, reaching for the door.
“Concussions can be serious,” he insisted. He took one giant step forward, forcing me to stumble backwards into the hall as he entered. “People have died from concussions.”
I figured there was no way I would be able to get him to leave, so I lead him back to the kitchen to check on the food. He trailed obediently, like a puppy, but I could feel his eyes shifting over everything, taking in every detail of the apartment as we passed.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” I asked as we turned into the kitchen. “Me dying from a concussion?”
“I can think of better ways to die,” he said.
As I set about turning the pots and pans back to the right temperature, he moved to lean against the counter. His casual posture was at odds with his intense gaze as he followed my every movement, like I was a deer he was hunting. Any moment now he was going to pull out a rifle and shoot at me.
Actually, come to think of it, the way he was staring at me now reminded me of my mother’s brief, but eventful internet dating period. For three weeks when I was fifteen, she’d agreed to meet every man who expressed interest in her profile. Each was brought home to meet me, because she wouldn’t accept a man who couldn’t accept me in my mother’s life.
There was this one guy she dragged in. I don’t what she was thinking when she accepted that request, because he was disgusting. Tattoos covered nearly every inch of skin I could see. Tobacco stains marred his stubby fingers. His complexion was ruddy leather from too much time in the sun. He wore torn and battered jeans that were so worn they were almost white, a t-shirt that had cigarette burns littering the hemline and thongs, revealing his yellowing toe nails. I had doubts he’d even brushed his hair for that date, since the grizzly locks stuck out at all angles from his head.
Since mum was still in the process of getting ready when he arrived, I’d been obligated to invite him inside and offer him a beverage. I’d lead him to the kitchen, just as I had Derek, and set about finding a mug and pouring him a cup of coffee. All the while, his eyes followed me, catching on my buttocks when I leaned up on tiptoes for the cup and bent to retrieve the milk from the door of the fridge. I’d had to suppress a series of shudders that threatened to make me spill the drink as I crossed the space back to him and noted the way he licked his lips, his eyes were glued to my budding breasts.
Of course, Derek’s observations felt nowhere near as unpleasant as that man’s had, even though it was more intense.
Turning to face him once more, I asked, “How did you find our apartment anyway? Have you been stalking me? Bastardising my photocopier isn’t good enough anymore, so you’ve decided to target my home instead?”
“Actually, I followed Dodge home,” he said, having the gall to make it sound like a normal occurrence. “It wasn’t that hard. He didn’t check his rear view mirror once. What I wouldn’t give to get a criminal that thoughtless for a change.”
At that moment, Dodge himself wandered into the kitchen, a towel covering his head as he dried his hair. He wore silk boxer shorts in a glaringly gay shade of purple and his chest was left bare. “Who was that at the door, Bea?” he asked, stopping just a step into the room to avoid running into me in his blind state.
I spared a quick glance at Derek over my shoulder, who remained silent, watching us with amusement, before forming my tense reply. “Derek, actually.”
“Big Winkie?” Dodge gasped. “What did he want?”
Derek was grinning at me now, and it took all my effort to curb a smile of my own. Dodge was completely oblivious to his presence. “Oh, you know, he just popped by to check on me, since I missed our gym appointment,” I said, trying for a casual tone as I vigorously stirred the nearest pot.
“Yeah, right,” he said, poking the towel into his ears to sop up the excess water that had pooled there. “Wanted to sprinkle small pox powder on every surface in the building in the hopes that he can incapacitate us, more like,” he theorised.
I made a noncommittal sound in the back of my throat as I shared a look with Derek. There was an extra glint his eye that hadn’t been there when last I’d checked. Instinctively, I knew he was about to freak Dodge out by making his presence known.
“Where would I even find small pox powder?” he asked.
A high pitched squeal tore from Dodge’s throat as he reefed the towel off his head and held it tightly over his chest, fiddling frantically with it so that all his supposed bits were covered. The sound of his sharp breathing was drowned out by Derek’s booming laughter, and I had to admit, the situation and the way Dodge had reacted was quite funny.
I tittered out my own giggle as I turned back to my simmering pots, partly to keep an eye on them, and partly to escape Dodge’s horrified glare. The image of Dodge covering up like a woman continued to play out in my head as I stirred the sauce, accidentally splashing liquid from the pot. I reached for the singed, melty-holed tea towel to wipe up the mess. The microwave dinged unexpectedly – I didn’t recall hitting the start button again – and I reflexively dropped the cloth onto the stove top.
“Fire!” I cried, just like the previous two times I’d ignited the tea towel as I jumped away.
“Bea!” Dodge groaned, snatching a pair of tongs from the utensil tin and swooping in to grab the flaming tea towel and dump it in the sink which was still half full of cold soapy water from my earlier cleaning endeavours. Once the fire was out he speared me with an intense glower. “Can I have a word with you?” he requested, gripping my arm and practically dragging me from the room before I had a chance to reply.
“Keep an eye on things in there, will you?” I called to Derek as we moved further down the hall toward the bedrooms. “It’s supposed to be a curry!”
Dodge pulled me into his room and shut the door behind us. When he turned to face me, his hand was on his popped hip, looking like a diva with attitude, and he wore that same scowl he had in the rash photo. Now usually comes the rant, but I got in first.
“You realise you just left my mortal enemy alone in the kitchen with our food,” I pointed out, mimicking his stance. “He’s probably looking for ways to poison me right now.”
“Like it’s my fault?” Dodge raged back. “I’m not the one who let him into the apartment!”
“I didn’t let him in,” I argued. “He forced his way in. In case you haven’t noticed, he’s quite large and muscley and very good at getting his own way.”
“That’s not the point, Bea,” Dodge insisted. “You made me look bad.”
I rolled my eyes, and gestured to his boxers and the towel he still held over his chest with a ‘Really? That’s my fault?’ raised eyebrows expression on my face. Following my gaze, he immediately dropped the hand holding the towel.
“You could have given my some kind of signal to let me know that he was there,” Dodge suggested, the anger having seeped from his tone as he moved to the dresser by the door and began rummaging for something to wear.
“Like what?” I asked. “We don’t have a set signal for when one of us walks into a room with a towel over our head, beginning a conversation about a person who happens to be in the room. Anything I might have tried would have been a wasted and failed effort.”
Dodge pulled on a pair of jeans over his boxers and slid the drawer shut, a grey t-shirt slung over his shoulder. “If you were constantly clearly your throat I might have taken the towel off my head to check if you were alright.”
“Okay, maybe not,” he admitted. “You make weird noises sometimes. I just accept them.” An indignant sound escaped me before I could stop it. “Yeah, just like that,” he commented, tugging the t-shirt on.
Quick as a flash, I leaned forward, nearly falling off the bed in my effort to grab the shoe he had discarded by the bed earlier and throw it at his head. I missed my target, but received a satisfying oof when it connected with his chest. He tossed it straight back and I was ducking out of the way when Derek’s voice carried down the hall.
“Bea?” he called. “Your food is cooked.”
“We’ll be there in a minute!” I yelled back, racing to the door as Dodge attempted to tackle me.
“Make yourself at home,” Dodge added. “You’re welcome to join us if you like.”
My legs were swept out from under me and Dodge’s bare foot was pressed into my chest as he leaned down to stare defiantly into my face, as if anticipating my raging rejection to the idea of dining with Derek.
“You did not just invite him to dinner,” I seethed, gripping his ankle in an attempt to rid myself of the awful pressure he was causing in my lungs.
He sent me a smile that was almost a sneer as he removed his foot and held out a hand to help me up. “Actually, I think I just did,” he said. “Think of it as payback.”
After a surprisingly pleasant dinner, during which Dodge and Derek kept up a steady stream of conversation mostly revolving around fitness and exercise, because that’s what they had in common, Derek proceeded to do the washing up while I dried and Dodge returned dishes to their rightful place. We were working as on, like a well oiled machine.
The thing about oil, though, is that it’s flammable. Which is the only explanation I have for what happened next.
Dodge had just straightened from fitting the last pot into the overflowing cupboard, his hand reaching blindly for the bundle of utensils I held toward him, when he burped. Belched really. And it was no normal belch, either. I stared blankly at the flames that were now climbing up the cabinet door, trying to piece together what I’d just witnessed. My eyes were saying he’d just burped fire, but my brain was still processing.
“Holy crap!” Derek exclaimed, turning from the sink, his eyes wide as saucers as he took in the devastation. “What the hell are you doing?”
I was rooted to the spot, watching Dodge carefully. Something in my brain was telling me that I needed to catch everything he did and store it away for future reference. Derek managed to attach the sink hose to the tap and had commenced dousing the flames, the stream of water flying between me and a gagging Dodge.
“Are you okay?” I asked, ducking under the spray.
Red faced and clutching his throat, Dodge coughed and a cloud of fine, black dust erupted from between his lips. He immediately snatched the hose from Derek and aimed it directly into his open mouth. It only lasted a moment, though, as he dropped it and burped again, another explosion of fire exiting his throat, narrowly avoiding igniting Derek’s short hair as it soared over his head.
Even though a small portion of my mind was still at odds with this bizarre occurrence, it felt natural. Like he’d been doing it all his life.
“Dude!” Derek exclaimed. “Did you just burp flames?” The unusual tone of his voice drew my gaze to his face, finding his complexion, though still respectably tan overall, paler than I was used to seeing. His gaze was locked on Dodge, an expression of abject horror morphing his features into a formation such as I had never before seen cross his face. This was the closest to freaking out I’d seen him, and it was whittling away and the calm serenity that had been cast over me.
“I thought we agreed you wouldn’t practice you fire breathing in the apartment,” I accused of Dodge, somehow managing an annoyed tone as I continued to inwardly marvel at the act I had just witnessed. The excuse had jumped into my thoughts and came pouring off my tongue before I’d even acknowledged it.
Derek turned his attention to me as Dodge hurried from the room. “He just ... flames,” he murmured, an air of despair hanging about.
“Dodge has been learning fire breathing for the upcoming office talent show,” I fibbed, avoiding his gaze as I bent to retrieve the still spraying hose. I pointed it toward the scorched cabinets for a brief moment before shutting off the water and coiling the hose into the sink to be dealt with later, when I was less jittery.
“We work in the same building, Bea,” Derek pointed out, stalking closer without so much as sliding on the wet linoleum. He reached out to run a finger along the still smoking blackened wood. “I haven’t heard about a talent show.”
What’s one more white lie on top of everything else I’d said in the past few minutes? “That’s because you don’t work in the office,” I told him. “It’s for the office workers only.”
“Yet another example of your elitism,” he said under his breath, dropping his hands to his side.
That statement turned me fifty shades of confused. It was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, wasn’t it? Derek was a member of the Squad, a small group of men known for keeping to themselves except when they needed something or were raising hell within the company building. They struck fear in the hearts of each and every office worker. And now he was accusing me and mine of being elitist?
If anyone was elitist it was him. Up until last week, the longest conversation I’d had with any of the Squad members was when I showed Jacob, who’s brawn far outweighed his brains, how to work the new high tech coffee machine in the break room. And that was only because I feared he would rip it off the bench and hurl it at my head if I didn’t step in and calm him down. I didn’t know anyone who had successfully made friends with any one of the muscled he-men, purely for the fact that they walked around glaring at us all.
Could we have been wrong about them all these years? Was the reason they kept themselves so separate from the office workers not because they thought themselves better than us, but that we had unconsciously ostracised them? And all because we feared the differences we viewed in them.
“You desk jockeys are forever organising ‘company events,’” he air quoted. “And excluding us from the guest list.” I was shocked to find hateful resentment on his face. “I thought you were different,” he added, a disconcerting glare creasing his forehead and causing me to shift uncomfortably. I’d never been the target for such a look of his. Sure, I’d seen it before, but it had always been directed at someone else. The subject always cowered in fear, covering their head with their arms in a weak defence. And now I knew why. A strong urge to flee or curl into a ball in the puddle at his feet gripped me and I had trouble even gulping down the lump that had begun to form in my throat.
“We don’t include you because your group of men is mean and scary as a whole,” I pointed out, feeling my anger slowly overcoming the surprise that had temporarily paralysed my body. “Have you ever tried to have a good time while being glared at the entire time?”
“Maybe we wouldn’t glare so much if you all weren’t such snobs!” Derek retaliated. His thick, meaty fingers curled into a white knuckled fist around the air at his side, as if he were imagining attaching them to my throat and squeezing until my face turned purple.
I took a hasty step backwards, attempting to put a little extra distance between us and bumped into the edge of the kitchen counter. The need to either escape or convince him to leave, rose within me with no place to go. I had neither the strength, nor the know how to accomplish either desire. Any physical acts I could have pulled were useless against such a skilled fighter, and with the way his expression was set into a jaw grinding glower, I doubted he would be open to listening to my requests.
Where was Dodge and his fire breath when you needed him? If he aimed right at Derek, he would at least be causing pain, which is more than I can say for what spilled from my own mouth.
“We’re not snobs!”
“Don’t be so sure of yourself, Beatrix.” My name sounded wrong on his lips. His tone made it sound like a dirty word, one he would like to wash out of his mouth with Listerine after saying. I pressed my back more firmly into the edge of the bench, wishing it would absorb me molecule by molecule so that I could be rid of his ever growing intensity. And what made things worse was the light tingling of an urination urge flitting through my bladder. Please don’t let me wet myself in front of Derek. No matter how scary he was, I couldn’t let it happen. No one’s reputation could survive public pants wetting. “You all pretend to be hard at work at your computers when we venture out of our section of the building, which I’d just like to point out is completely separate from everything and everyone else.”
My brow furrowed at that statement. “The office staff don’t dictate where your operations are based,” I pointed out, my tone a lot calmer than I felt. I was still on the verge of a fight or flight decision. “The boss does.”
“But the boss takes requests from his employees and pays attention to petitions signed by ninety percent of the staff,” Derek countered.
“I’ve never signed a petition to move the Squad room,” I said, truthfully. “It’s been in the one place ever since I started there.”
Derek stuffed his fists in his pockets, his gaze finally leaving my face in favour of the toe of his shoe. I took the opportunity to let out a pent up breath I wasn’t aware I’d been holding in and eased a little to the left along the counter. If he kept looking away long enough I might even make it to the door, but I didn’t like my chances, especially with the thoughts whirling through my head. Had I hurt Derek’s feelings? It seemed impossible. Such a tough guy, built sturdy with muscle to spare couldn’t possibly be hurt by a woman as slight and weak as me, right? Right. I assured myself he was just resigning himself to the fact that we would never come to a mutual agreement over who was the snob out of the office staff to Squad relationship. Just like I was.
I halted my movements after just two steps, the slump of his shoulders sending a weird sensation through my stomach. He looked so... normal. Non-threatening. All the arrogance and haughtiness that usually held his frame in a formidable configuration seemed to have oozed out of his feet and into the liquid pooling around his boots, deflating muscles as it went. I tried to figure out how I could have possibly brought out such a change in him so quickly with just the honest words I’d spoken. None of it made sense. Interpreting his body language like this was worse than trying to read Japanese characters without any prior knowledge of the language to feed off.
Without my permission, my hand lifted from my side cutting through the tense air between us until it was on his bulging bicep. His head snapped up, our eyes locking. A zzzap prickled down my spine and I temporarily lost the ability to function. My lungs stopped pulling in air. My brain stopped processing thought. My eyes snapped wide, unable to tear themselves away from his. The only thing I was able to do, was tighten my fingers around his arm, my lips parted slightly in surprise.
After what felt like an inordinately long time, his gaze scraped down my cheek in an almost tactile movement and caught on my lips. The wonder that crossed his expression was so fleeting that I almost didn’t recognise it, but I was certain it was there as he leaned his head down a little closer. If I had retained the ability to breathe, it would have been lost in that moment. He was going to kiss me! Again!
“Perhaps both parties have a share of the blame to carry,” he murmured softly, flicking his eyes up to mine as he paused mere millimetres from my lips. He was so close I could feel his breath whispering between my lips. “The guys can be a little full on in their approach to social interactions,” he continued, his lips brushing mine in a barely there touch as he spoke. “And the office staff seem a little reserved when faced with exuberant gestures.”
“Uh, yeah,” I agreed. It was all I could manage, my mind numb from his closeness. I was saved from attempting any more words, however, as a throat cleared in the doorway. Derek and I broke apart one jerky – and at least on my part, guilty – movement that sent me slipping and sliding in the water that still coated the floor below my feet. His hand shot out and grabbed my upper arm, launching me across the room with ease and depositing me in one of the kitchen chairs before I managed to land on my arse in a pathetic, sopping mess.
Dodge, picked his way through the puddle, making a beeline for the cabinet beside the fridge. “Don’t mind me,” he said. “I just need some Bourbon to burn the taste of ash and soot from my mouth.” He reached the cupboard and began rummaging through the assortment of practically empty bottles we kept there, searching for the amber liquid. “Ever tasted ash and soot?” he asked casually.
Derek and I were frozen in our respective places, me sitting and he with his feet spread shoulder width, his arms crossed over his chest. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I was definitely wondering what on earth Dodge was on about.
“It’s a bit like cotton mouth,” Dodge explained. “But worse. It’s like there’s this fine coating of charcoal on my tongue, insides of my cheek and down my throat and no amount of water guzzling can get rid of it. Ah-ha! Come to Papa, Jimmy.” He pulled a square, half full bottle from amongst the collection and started unscrewing the top.
“Should you really be drinking alcohol?” Derek asked. I glanced at him, still not quite with it after encounter with Derek’s lips. His next question, though, set me straight. “Isn’t it flammable?”
“Right! The fire breath!” I accidentally said aloud.
Derek let out a snort, that sounded like he was covering a laugh at my slow recall. Meanwhile, Dodge had taken a gulp straight from the bottle with no adverse effects. Yet. “I’ll be fine,” he assured us, smacking his lips. “You just get back to angrily making out.”
“We weren’t angrily making out,” I defended automatically.
“We were just settling an argument,” Derek said, and if I wasn’t mistaken I’d say he rejected the idea of us making out just as much as I did.
Tapping the side of his nose as he took another swallow, Dodge winked at us. “Got it,” he said, moving his jaw and tongue in an obscenely gross way that I assumed was him either mimicking what he thought we had just been doing or checking to see if his layer of soot was gone. “Proceed to settle your argument, then. I’ll be in the bathroom eating the toothpaste.”
Derek’s shoulders stiffened. “I should go,” he announced. “Thank you for dinner.” He nodded to me. “I expect to see you in the gym at eleven tomorrow, illnesses permitting.” And with that, he was retracing his path out of the kitchen and down the hall to the front door.
“Sorry for breaking up your nooky session,” Dodge apologised with a pout. “I didn’t mean to make him leave.”
“We weren’t doing anything,” I reiterated.
He nodded his understanding. “Must be the fuzzy head from the fire breathing playing with my vision,” he conceded, gulping down yet another mouthful of Bourbon. “’Cause it certainly looked like you were making out.” He paused in thought a moment. “Come to think of it, my ears must be out of whack too, because I could of sworn he just asked you on a date before he left.”
“He just wants to show me some self defence moves,” I sighed, exasperation and exhaustion drawing the extra breath from my lungs.
Dodge’s face contorted as he swallowed his latest swig. “Here we go again,” he said in a strained voice. And her burped, letting out a jet of orange flames, ending on a hiccup and a laugh and tendrils of smoke curled out of his nostrils. “Look, Bea, I’m a dragon!” There was no way he’d gotten that drunk, that quickly, but as he started attempting to make smoke shapes with his eyes squinted and his head tilted back I decided that he was either drunk or had snapped under the stress of his ordeal.
“RaWR!” he cried, stomping his bare feet in the puddle and promptly slipping onto his arse.
Yep. Definitely delirious.