If Arnold had gotten up ten minutes earlier, his stomach wouldn’t have been growling. Instead, his alarm clock hadn’t rung on time; he’d had to dig through his laundry basket for clean underwear; fling suit accoutrements across his bed searching for an appropriate combination; and scooped up the paperwork he’d left strewn over the table the night before. The usual toast and coffee he’d planned on nursing while he dressed and organized, had been left in the dust of his whirlwind exit.
From the curb before his stubby brownstone, Barry gave another two toots on his sedan’s horn.
Arnold juggled his briefcase, jacket, computer and the reams of documents precariously balanced in his arms, before finding the latch and tumbling into the waiting car. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right,” said Barry. He scrubbed at his trimmed beard and tapped at the steering wheel as Arnold clamored inside and shut the door. He dumped his case into the foot well, slung his coat over his lap along with the stacks, thumped his laptop on top and wiggled into the seatbelt.
“Got everything?” asked Barry.
“What did you forget?”
Arnold’s stomach gave a protesting howl.
“Oh,” said Barry.
“Do we have time to stop anywhere?”
Barry checked his watch. “You’re joking right? She’s going to be on edge as it is.”
Defeated, Arnold slouched into his seat as Barry pulled away from the sidewalk and melded into traffic. They snuck between hatchbacks and trucks, vans and sport cars, wending their way through the suburbs. Brake lights glowed as every stoplight flared in the same angry hue.
Arnold stared at the passing blocks, giving each coffee station and ubiquitous café a longing glance. “Next time I’m getting up earlier.”
“You always say that.”
Arnold smirked. Closing his eyes, he drifted toward sleep.
After an endless stream of slowdowns, rumbling stops and jerky accelerations, Barry turned on his blinker. “Brace yourself.”
The warning pulled Arnold from the edge of slumber. “Here already?”
“Yeah,” whispered Barry, “and who knows what kind of mood she’s in this morning.”
He pulled them up beside a claret suited woman dominating the curb before a glass-faced apartment building. The passenger door opened and Terra’s heady floral perfume preceded her into the car. Arnold held his breath while she shuffled her bulk into the back. The entire car tilted and swayed like a ship on a rocky sea. With a huff and a grunt, she closed the door. The seatbelt thudded at the end of the strap and then clicked.
“Morning,” she said through winded pants.
“Morning,” said Arnold.
“What are we waiting for?”
“Right.” Barry seized the steering wheel and began maneuvering back into traffic.
Terra adjusted her position in the back, jostling like a trapped elephant. Arnold shut his eyes as her knees poked through the seat and smacked his back. He avoided flinching when she snagged the headrest, along with a bit of his shower damp hair, and used the leverage to heft herself about. Rolling down the window an inch, he gained a reprieve from her clinging aroma, now soaking into his pores.
“We have the reports printed out?” asked Terra as she finished settling.
“Yes,” said Arnold. He waved the paperwork and then decided to risk carsickness by reading through the text he had long since memorized. His stomach gave a nauseous rumble as Terra’s flowery scents and financial data failed to quell his hunger.
“And the account information?”
“All in the back,” said Barry. “Take a look if you like.”
Arnold heard the bolts on Barry’s briefcase unlock, and then the rustle of more papers. A thud echoed by the time they’d reach the highway, their downtown destination hovering through the twisting web of concrete.
“Good,” said Terra, “then we’ve only forgotten one thing.”
Arnold raced through his mental list, checking off everything including matching socks and the name of the client’s children. “What?”
Arnold glanced over his shoulder in time to meet a cardboard tray occupied by two white paper cups, capped but with steam creeping through the slender holes in the lids. A baggie leaned against them, the sugary concoctions inside staining the recyclable paper. He stared past the decadence and met Terra’s squinting blue eyes trapped behind her owlish glasses, framed by her helmet of cherry-red hair and pudgy salmon cheeks.
“I figure you’d be running behind,” said Terra.
Arnold blinked and took the tray. “Thanks.”
She gave him a curt nod. “I expect you both at your best.”
Arnold brought the cup to his nose. The coffee smell finally wormed through the layers of Terra’s perfume, teasing him with earthy tones. His insides gurgled like an upturned water cooler and he took an initial sip, tempering his cravings. “This will definitely help.”
Arnold swung back into his seat and handed over the second cup. Barry wielded the beverage with ease while swerving around a portly delivery truck.
“Pastry?” asked Arnold after a cursory investigation into the baggie.
“No, all yours,” said Barry.
“Terra?” Arnold peeked over his shoulder again but froze.
Terra flattened her narrow lips and her eyes glistened like cut sapphires. “I’m cutting back.”
“Oh,” said Arnold, sliding back into his seat. Saccharine compliments they’d both see through as easily as cellophane, leapt to his tongue. He swallowed them down with a bite of lemon curd Danish.
“Is it good?” asked Terra, the hard edge on her voice wavering.
Arnold brushed confectionary sugar from his lips. “No. Terrible.”
Terra snorted and then a chuckle purred up from her ample torso. Barry released his tense grasp on the wheel, casually balancing his cup on his knee. With a growing grin, Arnold watched the oncoming skyscrapers, each sip and nibble making their looming mass, and the upcoming appointment, somehow less daunting than when their morning carpool had begun.