“Hey Grant, are you with us?”
My coworker’s tease plucked me from my daydream, leaving me with little more than a fatigued stare.
“Just as much as I usually am..” I responded with an expected lack of enthusiasm.
Todd (the coworker with the jokes) chuckled and threw himself onto his office chair; how he mustered so much energy on a daily basis, I’ll never know.
Lay off the energy drinks… I mused.
Oh, I should mention—my name isn’t Grant. Well, my first name isn’t Grant. My birth certificate says “Tristan Arthur Grant”, but good luck trying to convince my coworkers to call me by my given name. EvolWeb, the “innovative” web design company we worked for, crammed our desks into what appeared to be an oversized closet.
This oversized closet was packed into the very back of the office building, which was directly down the hall from a spacious, contemporary lobby. There, the administrator Pearl greeted each of them every morning. Generally speaking, the office was open and well designed—it just wasn’t purchased with my coworkers and myself in mind. Being so close to each other, we really had no choice but to be friends, and apparently friends don’t call friends by their given first name.
It was not an awful job, but none of us had planned on overstaying. It’s the kind of job you get straight out of college and deal with for about two years, or until you have enough experience to find something better. Provided your sanity is still intact, of course. Frankly, mine had been slipping lately, resulting in (many) much-needed daydreaming breaks. Mass producing cookie-cutter websites just has a way of slowly, but consistently, pushing you over the edge.
“Grant,” Rodney (coworker #2) called as he passed my desk, tapping it with his unusually large hands, “did you see the job listing for Emerald Design Solutions? They’re hiring designers. I’ve seen some of their work; man, I’d love to have one of those sites in my portfolio!”
I had, in fact, seen the job listing. I reclined in my swivel chair a bit, eyeing Rodney’s triple-stacked burger from the place across the street. My stomach then kindly reminded me it was almost time for lunch, at about the same time my brain reminded me I could probably never land a job at Emerald Design Solutions.
“Yeah but, you know, I don’t think I really want another design job.” My response seemed to surprise Todd and Rodney, as they both gave me a look like, “seriously?”
“What else would you do? Dumpster dive?” Todd snickered at his own snappy response, which was cut short by an expert pen toss to the forehead from Rodney. It elicited a glare from Todd’s dull brown eyes as he rubbed the spot where the pen hit.
“Come on, can you blame the kid?”
Kid... heh. Rodney called us kids a lot, but he was older than us both by nearly a decade. I always wondered how he got into design, but I never had the guts to ask. Asking would insinuate he didn’t belong, and while he isn’t the most creative designer, he certainly did belong. He belonged anywhere he wanted to be, really. With carefully-groomed blonde hair and a figure that didn’t reveal his love for cheeseburgers one bit, I found it hard to imagine he would be denied any opportunity he ever went after.
“No, seriously—what would you do? What would you want to do?”
Todd’s question caught me off guard, and Rodney’s green eyes drilling into me didn’t help either. I rubbed my palms on my slacks anxiously. What did I want to do?
“I don’t know. I’ve just been bored.”
Todd laughed again, but Rodney just grinned with a look as if he knew exactly what I was talking about. He started to eat his burger, but I couldn’t ignore his reaction.
“Laugh all you want, Todd, but I think Rodney is bored, too.” I wasn’t entirely sure this was true, but it made me feel better to say it.
“Oh, I’m not bored.”
Rodney’s confident answer instantly piqued my interest. Not bored? At EvolWeb? What, was he sleeping with one of the loud ladies in sales? I laughed a little and leaned forward, hands clasped in intrigue.
But before I could say anything, Todd broke in with, “Oh yeah? Did you finally get Pearl to agree to a date?”
I really hoped he was joking. Pearl manned the lobby desk dutifully, and I was always glad she did. Her optimism helped me start the day out on a better note, and she wasn’t bad looking, either. I did always have a thing for red-heads.
“Nah.” That’s all we got from Rodney.
Todd gave up and went back to work, but I continued to stare a little longer. Rodney seemed to have won the genetic lottery, and he absolutely knew it. We knew he knew it. I would not have been surprised if he was seeing Pearl, and I wouldn’t blame her either.
I sighed. “Well, good for you,” I muttered, also returning to my work. But I felt Rodney watching me as he finished his burger, and it hindered my productivity. He wasn’t normal, at least by society’s standards, and it admittedly made me uncomfortable. I wouldn’t say he was a creep, but he always had an air of mystery about him. It made me even more uncomfortable, however, to think of how ordinary I was.
* * *
Four o’clock came as fast as it was going to. As we made our way to the time clock, Pearl smiled and waved. Her eyes were green like Rodney’s, but with a vibrancy his couldn’t match, even if he drank as many energy drinks as Todd. I suddenly remembered Todd’s teasing comment, and felt an overwhelming urge to strike up a chat.
“Any rude people today?” It was the best thing I could think to ask as I leaned against the smooth marble lobby desk. It was, as I saw it, the insurmountable barrier between Pearl and I. The way she leaned across it, with her elbows propping her up, made it obvious she had total control of this barrier, as well.
“Not really, it’s been quiet.” Her voice was like an instant shot of espresso. “It’ll be a long stretch to five o’clock, that’s for sure.”
“Ha! I know what you mean.” My voice almost cracked as I answered her, so I cleared my throat before continuing. “I couldn’t wait to get out of the office today.”
“Really? I mean, you’re still in the office. You must not be too eager?” She had to know the smile she gave after this rendered me speechless, because it only grew wider as my cheeks got redder.
“Grant! You said you’d get drinks with us after work. Did you forget?”
Todd’s shriek made me cringe, but it released me from Pearl’s bonds so I could at least laugh a bit, or really anything but turn beet-red.
“I’ll uh, I’ll see you Monday.” I rushed my answer and walked briskly to the time clock, avoiding eye contact with both Todd and Rodney.
Of course, as soon as we walked out the door, they let me have it. I managed to look back through the glass doors of our company’s office without them seeing, only to notice she was watching us leave. I hope I didn’t creep her out. My brain would torment me over that short interaction the rest of the night.
“Aw…shoot,” Todd spat, stopping in his tracks. “I forgot I have to dog-sit for Angie. That dog hates me, too!”
“Ditching on us, Todd?” Rodney questioned with a snicker, turning to me. “I guess it’s just us.”
“Oh, great!” I joked, finally in the mood to jest with them now that we were free from EvolWeb. It helped that it was a Friday, too.
Todd brushed it off, muttering something about a “needy girlfriend", and bid us good-bye before leaving in his sports car—or, well, former sports car that had probably hit its prime 20 years prior. It chugged along at a pace that reminded Grant of himself in the morning--it must have wanted early retirement just as bad as he did.
“Alright, then,” Rodney started, looking to me. “The usual?”
“Sure.” The usual was a small Irish bar a few blocks away. We’d walk there every other Friday since it was free to leave our cars in the company’s lot. Plus, if we were still a little buzzed when we left the bar, the walk usually had us good to drive by the time we got back to the lot.
So, off we walked, a little less chatty than usual. I blame myself. I was never a huge talker, but I was still embarrassed about the failed (as I saw it) conversation with Pearl. Rodney probably didn’t care, but it bothered me that I wasn’t as big of a smooth talker as he was. I hoped I would learn a thing or two from him at the bar.
* * *
Well, I learned something: Rodney could really drink. Usually, he didn’t drink so much—at least he hadn’t before, and we had been coming to this bar regularly since he got the job at EvolWeb a few months prior. I was worried at first that he wouldn’t be able to drive, but I’ve never seen him leave the bar more than buzzed, so I tried to relax. Unfortunately, relaxing for me requires a few drinks myself, and by 5:30 I found myself more 'relaxed' than usual.
The bar wasn’t as crowded as it usually was on a Friday, but it was the start of summer. Most people in the area ‘migrated’ to the outdoor bars as soon as the weather turned nice, presumably stir crazy from being stuck inside for the winter. Winters in Hemlock Springs were fairly mild, though; we actually hadn’t had any snow the past two.
Anyway, I preferred a quiet bar. There was nothing comfortable about something wet on your arm in a crowded bar, and praying it was someone’s glass, not...well, something else.
“So, Grant,” Rodney addressed me rather seriously.
I looked to him nervously. I hope this isn’t about Pearl, I wished.
“What about Pearl?” He finished.
Seriously? “Pearl?” I repeated, taking a much-needed sip of my Märzen. My mind goes to weird places when I’m nervous. I remember wondering why I ordered a German beer at an Irish bar. Whiskey would have done me better, anyway.
“I know you’ve got a thing for her,” he began, rubbing his index finger on the rim of his bottle. He was drinking a domestic beer, which made me feel better about my German drink-of-choice.
“It’s cute,” he added. The entire time he watched one of the big screens above the bar, so I followed suit. It was hockey, which I knew nothing about, but it was better than looking at him with red cheeks.
“Ah, look, man, it isn’t anything,” I began to apologize, because I assumed the reason he was bringing it up was because they had a thing. “I just come over to say ‘hi’ sometimes.”
Now he looked at me, and the pressure made my face burn hot like a furnace. But he looked surprisingly calm, before bursting out in subtle laughter that gradually increased in intensity.
I couldn’t avoid looking at him at this point, and so I did, offering a feeble, “What?”
“Pearl isn’t my style,” he assured, waving his hand to add emphasis. “You really thought I was seeing her? I guess she’s not bad.”
She’s kind of great, actually, I argued in my head. But I let out a short, relieved laugh. Now I was curious. “So…why did you ask?”
“Do you see her outside of work?” His question was odd, but I shook my head no in answer.
“Do you?” I added, to which he snorted.
“What did I just say?”
Well, he had a point.
“Anyway, you could, is all I’m saying.”
“Could…. See her?” my voice instinctively got lower, as if she somehow might hear us from wherever she was (which was clearly not at the bar). I was now neglecting my beer in serious interest, looking at him as if he had a treasure map to the world’s greatest riches in his back pocket.
“Yeah,” he began, pausing to take a drink of his beer. He finally looked back to the TV, and he gave a light shrug of his shoulders. “I know where she hangs out.”
“Oh,” I replied half-heartedly, pretending to study the vodka bottles lined up behind the bar. “I mean…I wouldn’t just show up there.”
“Show up? No, you couldn’t,” Rodney agreed, but suddenly his expression seemed to light up in a way that just didn’t seem quite so innocent. “But if you were invited…”
“Invited?” I tried not to sound excited. “Cool, I guess. But by whom? To where?”
“I could invite you,” he offered, in what sounded somewhat like a sales pitch. “And where to?” his grin widened. “The single most incredible club you will ever join.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at his joke, and to be fair, it was a pretty good one. My eyes watered from the genuine outburst as I pushed my empty beer glass towards the bartender. But as soon as I had calmed down enough to look at Rodney again, I immediately noticed his expression had changed. He looked to be a mixture of surprised and disappointed that I was laughing—it caught me off guard, forcing me to wipe the amusement off of my face and clear my throat uneasily.
“You’re not serious?” I asked, offering a more subtle smile to see if it would be better received.
Rodney’s expression softened, but he wasn’t smiling. He chugged the rest of his beer (to be fair, there wasn’t much left) before leaning in towards me.
“I couldn’t be more serious.”
I still wanted to laugh, but it was becoming more and more evident that this “club” was no joke. The way his eyes locked onto mine after he answered me made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. What was his deal?
“O…kay,” I began, biting my lip nervously. “So…do I sign up, or?”
“You don’t seem very interested.” Rodney suddenly broke eye contact and waved down the bartender, giving his empty beer bottle a little shake to signal he wanted another.
“I just thought you would like the opportunity to, you know,” he continued, finally grinning at me, “Connect with Pearl outside of work.”
The idea of it all was incredibly tempting, if not a bit fantastical. What were the chances Rodney belonged to some club that Pearl also belonged to? And even if it were true, would she want to see me there? She was nice to me at work, sure. Sometimes she even seemed a little flirty; although I was inclined to believe I was just remembering our interactions the way I wanted to remember them.
“I do!” I insisted with so much vigor, I was startled by the fresh Märzen the bartender sat in front of me. I placed a hand on the glass impulsively. “Does she?”
I nearly tripped on the words of my question. Waiting for Rodney’s answer seemed to take ages, but realistically he answered quite quickly with a shrug.
“I couldn’t say.”
Rodney’s tone didn’t seem sincere, leading me to believe he could, indeed, say. He now gave me a quick look-over before grabbing the reigns of the conversation.
“We could go there now; she might be there.”
Rodney’s offer was spoken softly, as if it were secretive. It made me second-guess whether or not I truly wanted to be a part of this.
But I remembered the office. I remembered my monotonous job at EvolWeb, and how the only thing I looked forward to there anymore was Pearl waving in the morning. My life was pretty dull at that time; I wasn’t really dating and I didn’t really go out much. Comparing this exciting opportunity to the state of my life made it seem even more exotic. My eyes, lit up like an amber torch, must have told him my answer as he motioned the bartender to bring us our checks before I even answered.
“Sure, why not?” I confirmed confidently, feeling the liquid courage of my beer.
“’Atta boy. I’ll call us a cab.”
I had so many questioned running through my mind at this point, but couldn’t push myself to ask them. Rodney chatted casually until the cab arrived as if he had never even mentioned this seemingly secretive club. I nodded and laughed where appropriate in response, but my mind was elsewhere. I began imagining this club and searching the corners of my mind for each possibility. What if it was a cult some extremist formed in his basement? Luckily, that thought dissipated with a firm pat to my shoulder from Rodney.
“Cab’s here, let’s go.”
I said my usual good-byes to the bartender before following him out and hopping in. Both the cab driver and Rodney looked to me.
“What’s your address?” Rodney asked, motioning towards the driver.
“My address?” I repeated. Why?
Rodney laughed with a shake of his head.
“You’ve gotta change. I guess that’s my fault. Do you have a suit at your place?”
I nodded as my answer and reluctantly gave the driver my address. Rodney began scrolling through his phone and texting someone, the soft glow of the screen highlighting his comely face, slightly flushed from drinking.
“Why do I have to wear a suit, if you don’t mind me asking?” My question was directed towards Rodney, but I stared out window to avoid any usual eye contact with him.
“First impressions.” He responded simply, as if it were old news.
“And the rules don’t apply to you?” I teased, still watching lamp posts and mail boxes as we neared my apartment. “You’re not wearing a suit.”
“I’ve already proven myself suitable. Besides, I look damn good in this shirt!”
I shook my head as he laughed, giving him a look that said ‘yeah, right!’ He had a point, though. He wore a collared shirt in a deep shade of violet that complimented his green eyes. I was overcome with sudden envy for Rodney and his ability to look so cool all the time. I didn’t necessarily lack self-confidence, but Rodney was the kind of guy whose sharp looks and suave demeanor made you reconsider everything you thought you loved about yourself.
When we arrived at my apartment building, I ran in and changed into one of two suits I owned. I was glad Rodney waited in the car so he couldn’t chide me for my lack of stylish wardrobe. It fit well enough, although ever so slightly large—but it was the more fashionable of the two. Todd had actually helped me pick it out one night. It was a deep grey, nearly black, and paired with a crimson shirt it really stood out.
The red of my shirt as I studied my reflection in the mirror reminded me of Pearl and her red hair, always in a bun. My gut began to ache with the anxiety of possibly seeing her outside of work. I almost called Rodney and told him to go without me, but as I adjusted the breast of the coast and ran a hand over my hair, I recovered some of the lingering beer-induced courage.
Here goes nothing… I thought, giving myself one last look in the mirror before returning to the cab.
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