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Standing My Ground

The break room was alive with laughter as I approached, a fresh manila folder containing Derek’s photocopying, which I had completed despite its superfluousness, allowing the machine to scan both sides of the blank paper, to pick up the crease marks and spit out a replicated image seven times, clutched in my hands. Some might say it was a gross misuse of valuable company supplies. Other might frown at me for killing trees. But I felt I had to do it. Because surely he wasn’t actually expecting me to rock up and hand him the requested bunch of mostly blank pages in front of his friends with a pleasant little smile on my innocent face.

To my surprise, the moment I stepped into the room, they all went silent. I’d been expecting to just walk in unnoticed, hand Derek the file and leave again. It was obvious that I was wrong though. Now I would have to endure eight sets of eyes glued to me as I made my way across the room. Concentrating hard on not tripping for a change, I could almost imagine that they weren’t even there. But when I reached the tiled area of the kitchenette, heading for the tall, buff man who leaned against the counter, my steady one foot in front of the other rhythm was interrupted as an ankle abruptly shot out in my path.

I stumbled a couple of steps and had the brief panicked realisation that I would land face first on the tiles in front of these macho men all because I was too stubborn to give in to Derek, before a hand grabbed my shoulder, pulling me back against a hard chest and holding me there while I steady my breathing.

“Might wanna watch where you’re going, Sweet Cheeks,” Blaine murmured gruffly by my ear, causing an involuntary shudder to roll down my spine.

For a moment, I was back in middle school, my lunch spilled across the ground in front of me, the school bully holding both my arms behind my back from when he ‘saved me’ after first pushing me so that I would drop my lunch tray. A knot began to form in my throat, but I pushed it away. I was better than that now. I was a grown woman and this man was just a bully who had been given too much power. The office workers shouldn’t have to cower at their desks whenever the Squad was in the building. We spent more time here than anyone else, working countless overtime hours. We had just as much, if not more right to be in the break room as they did.

Blaine didn’t know it yet, but in that one action of tripping and ‘saving’ me, he declared war. And I was all too willing to accept the challenge.

“Thanks for the tip,” I said smoothly, shrugging out of his grasp and holding the file folder out to Derek. “Here’s the copying you wanted. It looked blank to me, but I figured there was some really important evidence on it that you needed to examine, so I took the liberty of increasing the resolution. I hope you don’t mind.”

Derek met my gaze, a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “Thanks for that, Beatrix,” he said. And before he could say anything else, I took the two steps necessary to reach the refrigerator, opening it with one deliberate action and grabbing out two bottles of water before turning on my heels and striding purposefully back to the office.

Dodge was staring at me when I plopped into my desk chair beside him, placing the bottles on the desk in front of me. His fork was held forgotten midway between his bowl and his mouth, precariously balancing a pile of lettuce and tomato. “Where did you get that?” he asked, sounding stunned.

“Break room,” I replied with nonchalance, like it was an everyday occurrence that the office staff would breach the invisible territory line between the offices and wherever the Squad had taken over, just for some cold, pure water. “You can have one, I grabbed two.”

“I can see that,” he said, eyes wide as he looked from me to the water and back. I doubt he really believed I’d done it. “Bea, you survived an encounter with the Squad.”

I rolled my eyes at that. Wasn’t Dodge the one always telling me to stand up for myself and not be so intimidated by bullies? I’m pretty sure that was his pep talk to me every single morning before we entered the school gates. So why was he looking so shocked that it had finally sunk in? “They’re just bullies,” I pointed out. “We shouldn’t have to hide when they’re in the building. It’s too stressful.”

As I picked up my forgotten salad and resumed eating, I could help but notice that Dodge was still staring at me. When I glanced over at him I was confronted by his almost fluorescent grin.

“What?” I said around my latest mouthful.

In the next second his arms were wrapped around me in a tight hug. “I’m so proud of you,” he assured me.

“Great,” I murmured, over his shoulder. “Can you be proud of me while spreading the word that there’ll be an impromptu meeting in the copy room in about ten minutes? If we’re gonna put the Squad in their place once and for all we need everyone on board.”

Dodge got to work at once, like I knew he would, leaving me to ponder my poor, vulnerable photocopier. There had to be some way I could defend it from the invading hands of the dastardly Squad – and various other employees who seemed to have an inability to read the instructions clearly posted on the screen and ended up just punching buttons at random and hoping it would work. Maybe I should talk to the tech guys about tricking it out with specially calibrated lasers, honed to zap anyone who attempted to misuse my baby.

“Your possessiveness of the photocopier is getting crazy scary, Bea,” Dodge announced, startling me out of my haze. I glanced over to him with a questioning look, wondering if I had perhaps been thinking aloud. With a quirked eyebrow, he tilted his head toward my computer monitor. “Did you mean photosynthesis lasers?” he read, shaking his head. I hadn’t even realised I’d pulled up the search engine, let alone what I was typing into it. “You realise Emily’s gonna flip when she reads that, right? You can’t attach lasers to a photocopier. I’m pretty sure it’s against workplace health and safety.”

“Emily will understand,” I assured him, scrolling down the page out of morbid curiosity.

“It’s probably against the law,” he added emphatically. His hand was resting on the arm of my spinning office chair and I could tell by the way it quivered that it took every ounce of his abundant self control not to spin the chair so I was facing him.

I clicked on a site that advertised non lethal lasers and was sorely disappointed with what I found. “I’ve gotta teach him not to mess with my stuff,” I whined.

“Bea, seriously.” Dodge too my hand in his, moving it clear of the computer mouse. “It’s not technically yours.”

I huffed out a sigh, snatched my hand back and crossed my arms over my chest, the picture of a five year old that was not getting their own way. I know this, because I’d studied photos of myself at the age of five and almost all of them showed me in this very position. It’s obvious I wasn’t the favoured child. “If Walk Safe Security and I ever got a divorce, I’d win the photocopier in the custody dispute,” I grumbled, pushing my chair back from him. Without another word, I stood and made my way back to the copy room. It felt like a second home today, given the amount of time I’d spent there.

Fifteen or so men and women were milling around the small space when I entered with Dodge in tow. And I wasted no time in announcing our stand against the Squad. They would lord over us no more. No longer would we cower at our desks when they were roaming the building. Treating them like superiors only added to their cocky hubris. So I’d come up with an action plan.

“We’re never going to be alone,” I informed them, to begin with, just in case they thought I meant they all had to be individually brave as I had and risk their necks by crossing enemy lines alone. “We’ll stick to small groups when venturing into their territory. But we will be venturing.” I glanced around the room at this point, at all the I couldn’t see a single face, as they all appeared to be engrossed by the toes of their shoes. “Don’t you hate it that you always run out of coffee when the Squad are in the break room?” I asked them.

A murmur of agreement flittered around the room, people nodding and discussing their caffeine needs. “I bought a USB powered coffee brewer so that it wouldn’t happen anymore,” Glen from accounting called out. “What if we all got one and -.”

“You’re missing the point, Glen,” I cried. “This is our freedom I’m talking about! This is my equivalent of Martin Luther King’s speech! So stand up and let me hear it! I will not be intimidated by the Squad.”

Stunned silence met my shout. It was like that awkward moment after a lion roars at the zoo and all the animals shut up. Or when someone farts in class and you have that full minute where everyone is simultaneously deciding whether it was funny and whether they should blame the teacher. If you listen closely, you can hear the crickets chirping from the bushes, carrying out a quiet rebellion, however small it may be.

I met Dodge’s gaze through the crowd, beseeching him with my eyes to help me out.

“I will not be intimidated by the Squad,” he said loudly, and if I read his lips correctly, added in a mutter, “No matter how much they can bench press.” But it worked. All eyes turned to stare at him in shock – probably at the fact that he was buying into my make a stand attitude. Dodge had a reputation for reigning me in when I got a little out of control, like at last year’s Christmas party when I’d gotten drunk and decided dancing on the tables was a good idea. And for your information, me dancing on raised surfaces is never a good idea, not even when I’m sober. Because raised surfaces have edges, and my feet are very adept at finding them and moving to just the other side. In short, I’d probably fall off and break my neck.

So maybe Dodge’s support was his way of telling them all that it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. Which was a relief, because I was starting to get cold feet. Walking into that break room had taken every ounce of courage I had in me.

Holding my gaze, Dodge tipped his lightly stubbled chin up, pushed his shoulders back and repeated the mantra once more with conviction. “I will not be intimidated by the Squad!”

“They’re just bullies!” someone yelled out.

“We’re not afraid!” came another voice.

A fuzzy feeling began to grow from deep within my body. It reached tingling fingers out from my heart, building with a steady motion that seemed to match the increasing volume of my fellow oppressed desk monkeys until my entire being was encompassed by this warmth. My chest expanded as I took a deep breath of air that was somehow fresher than it had been two minutes previous. As if in the time it had taken me to get my followers excited, the cleaners had changed the air conditioning filter and all the bad vibes had been sucked from the office.

“We’re not afraid!” they chanted. “We’re not afraid!”

A grin burst onto my face as Dodge slid through the relative mass of people to stand beside me, leaning defiantly against the photocopier, a single brow raised at me as if daring me to tell him to get off it. I knew he wouldn’t do anything to it though.

“It’s my own mini revolution,” I told him, barely containing the urge to execute the spastic little happy dance he’d banned outside of our apartment.

“All this because he screwed up the settings?” he asked with a bemused smile as I practically vibrated with excitement.

All at once, the smile fell from my face as I contemplated my other reasons. “No,” I said, reclining next to him. “I could really use some coffee right now, but the Squad are in the break room.” I paused, lost in thought. “Maybe I’ll hit Glen up...”

“Bea,” he started, shaking his head mournfully, but was cut off as Emily appeared in her magical puff of smoke minus the smoke, standing not three feet away. Her head was cocked to the side like a dog listening to the mail man make his way down the street and the PDA was held up next to her head, like she had just been distracted from reading it’s screen.

“Good,” her voice cut across the animated chatter in the room. “You’re all here.” As if she was only just noticing how she was standing, she dropped her hand to her side and straightened her head. “General announcement,” she said to the now quiet assembly. “The boss is coming in next week to check on things. I expect everyone to be on their best behaviour.”

She paused long enough for us to have the unified thought that we were always on our best behaviour. Or maybe that was just me thinking it really loudly.

“Apart from the well earned donations we receive from some of our highly respected clients, he is our sole source of funding. So I would appreciate it if nobody gave him any reasons to shut us down. That means no wars, prank or realistic.” She speared me with that hard glare she usually reserved for people who finished every sentence like it was a question. “And definitely no lasers,” she added. And as she turned and walked away, I could have sworn I heard her mutter, “I’m this close to my own Jarvis.”

“Told you,” Dodge murmured by my ear, his voice teasing.

“I thought Eric was the boss,” I countered, changing the subject with ease, because I really didn’t care for his topic. “He’s the bossiest person I’ve seen around here. Are you telling me that there’s an even bigger boss?” He made an affirmative sound with his throat. “You know what this means?” I asked Dodge.

“You have to think of more subtle ways to defend the copier?” he guessed, already sounding bored with the conversation.

“No.” I paused, his words registering belatedly in my mind. “Well, yes. But more than that. My whole life has been a lie!”

*

My favourite things in the entire world are good booze and bad television. Put the two together and you have one very happy Bea.

And my Friday night ritual.

After the compulsory night out on the town, drinking like fish and dancing with waaaaay to many gay men for liking, we would stumble home, sufficiently buzzed and hyped from all the margaritas and numbers we – and by ‘we’ I mean ‘Dodge’ – had managed to nab. While Dodge sat in the kitchen, guzzling down a gallon or three of water in an effort to flush out the toxins he’d ingested throughout the night, I would head straight for the glorious internet to search for the most ridiculous thing I could find to watch.

Tonight’s selection was the 1966, animated series, The Mighty Thor. And while I usually underwent this ritual alone in my darkened bedroom, emitting deranged, yet strangely glee-filled giggles –because Dodge had too much self respect to subject himself to corny movies and television series made in the eighteen hundreds - recently we had been on an Avengers kick and his curiosity had gotten the best of him when he heard me shout. “Thor! Why you not look as sexy as in the movie I just saw you in?”

The next thing I knew, we were lying on our stomachs side by side on my not-quite-big-enough-for-two bed, at the drawings on the screen of my laptop as they vaguely moved. We were absolutely mesmerised. For a time. Then the crazy started setting in.

“Maybe Thor’s not as hot in this series because he just hasn’t grown into his rugged good looks yet?” Dodge, whom I’m certain only watches the Avengers movies for the men in tight fitting clothing and the bulging muscles, suggested. “It was released like fifty years ago or whatever.”

I thought he might have one of those curled upper lip, squinty faces, like the ones he always says are so unattractive on me, but I couldn’t see him. In fact I couldn’t see anything. I was either blind, or I had my eyes closed. Fingers crossed it was the latter.

”Bea, are you asleep?” Dodge asked when I didn’t comment on his apparent revelation.

My eyes, it appeared, were just closed, not blind, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t sleeping. I could have sworn that I had been watching the show. I knew exactly what was going on.

“No’ sleepin’,” I assured him, noting how sluggish I sounded. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d completely left out all the consonants in those two words. My next statement came on a large yawn, further mangling my words. “Jusessinmyes.”

“Bea!” Dodge exclaimed, sounding much more alert that I felt. “You can’t sleep yet! Loki has Thor trapped and has taken away his walking stick! We have to find out how it ends.”

Another yawn escaped me. “Don’t worry. I know exactly what’s going on.” Rolling to the side, I stretched my arms up above my head, nearly falling off the bed in the process. “This show is really vision impaired friendly. Narration. Narration. Narration.” I made a slopping talking mime with my hand. “Blah, blah, blah. Can you imagine if we all went around narrating our lives like Thor and Loki do?”

“It would make things more interesting,” he agreed, though I wasn’t sure he was right. Things might get a little boring if everyone was always saying what they were going to do. There’d be no mystery. Everything would be announced ahead of time.

“I think I need sleep,” I told him, settling back down onto my stomach with my head resting on my folded arms.

“Good thinking,” he said, sounding way too energetic for a man who had been out drinking half the night after a full day of work. “We’re going jogging in the morning.”

My eyes snapped open in surprise. “What?!”

“You promised,” he reminded me. “Jogging, three mornings a week. I’m taking the drugs now you have to jog.”

“Ugh,” I ughed. “Fine. Set my alarm and get out.”

“Can I take your laptop with me? I wanna finish watching this episode.”

“Whatever.” I sighed, crawled around on the bed and finally settled that my head was at the pillow end as he stood. I was vaguely aware of Dodge setting the alarm on my phone and placing it on my bedside table before tiptoeing out of the room, and then the next thing I knew there was a truck was backing over my head.

At least that’s what it felt like.


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