I didn’t let my forced smile drop until the doors closed.
Sunlight warmed the pasty air-conditioned chill from my cheeks, and car exhaust, pollen, and the stain of summer-heated asphalt washed over the pleasantries coating my tongue. I spat into the uniform grass, hoping to expel the rest of the last two hours of handshakes and hollow banter, but I couldn’t shake Allan Martin’s perpetual smirk or the haughty look of his assistant, Fitz.
It might have been my résumé, the wrinkles in my tie, or the answers I’d given to their barrage of delicately prodding questions worming into my personal life, my work ethic, my reasons for being unemployed for the past six months. Perhaps it was all of the above. At this point, I no longer cared. Despite what my bank account might argue, they could take this job and shove it into one of their cramped cubicles.
Fishing my keys from my slacks, I scanned the parking lot, noting the six-figure vehicles in the nearest marked stalls. The price tags decreased with each stride from the glass-façade towering at my back.
I had the key to my hatchback, made mine by the muddied axles and the scrapes from my last venture out of civilization, in hand when the phone rang.
The classical tune bellowed and I stared at the invisible notes of the unfamiliar ringtone emanating from my suit coat’s pocket. Trading my keys to my other hand, I dug out the device.
The screen illuminated with Kristine’s face, smiling like I’d seen her smile on our better days, full on teeth and dimples. My thumb swept over the green button before the fact it wasn’t my phone I’d be answering reached my better judgment.
“No.” I met my reflection in the driver’s window, ensuring I remained who I thought I was. My fresh haircut made my ears stick out the way they’d done since second grade. “It’s me, Jared.”
“What? I can’t—” Static bombarded the line. “I know—” Another hiss cut her off. “…work. But Jane’s—” More static peppered by growing panic. “…hospital. Okay? Just come—”
The phone cut out completely. I looked down at the options for making another call and the thumbnails of various other applications Allan had downloaded.
I waited for the phone to ring again. It didn’t.
I waited for a text message but none appeared.
Neither did a ding indicating new voicemail, not that I knew how to answer it.
Kristine’s voice, however, looped through the static filling my ears, the worry and concern in her tone hanging onto my suited shoulders like the summer swelter.
When my mind began churning again, it flung guilt at me first.
I should have been the one she’d been calling, but all that had ended five months ago when the unknown future had finally created too large a gorge between us. She’d obviously moved on and the knowledge stung like lemon juice on a paper cut I hadn’t known existed.
Allan’s smirks suddenly made a lot more sense, and the tiny slice on my fingertip turned into a slash across my guts. He’d known the whole time and had made me dance like a puppet on strings. I could see the satisfaction in his spectacled gaze, no doubt watching once competition now toadying for a job.
I balled my hands into fists, or would have except for the phone I still held.
Choices started pummeling me in the head before I had a chance to strike anything else.
Go back, urged my wounded gut, while my darker nature began a sailor-worthy assortment of curses and colorful expletives I couldn’t source.
Another round of guilt socked my stomach and I found myself turning from the blow. Regardless of the past’s baggage, something had happened. Kristy had called for a reason and as much as I didn’t want to admit it, she needed help, she needed to reach who she thought she’d called. She needed Allan Martin.
Reaching the tinted glass of the front doors, I depressed the intercom.
From his island desk, the security guard looked up and frowned. He pressed a button behind his wall and his voice popped through the speaker.
I licked my lips, suddenly finding myself more wary than I’d been upon my initial arrival when I’d been all smiles and self-confidence.
“I think I have Mr. Martin’s phone.”
“Mr. Martin’s phone.” I waggled the device at the glass, feeling a sudden surge of sympathy for the moron waving at me.
The line cut off as neatly as Kristy’s had. Peering through the glass I spied the guard bustling at his desk. He lifted a receiver to his ear and within a few seconds, the lobby’s elevator split open.
I rolled my eyes and turned my back, not wanting to give Fitz the impression I’d been anxiously waiting as long as I’d been anxiously waiting. A thud indicated the locks on the front door deactivating and when I swiveled around I met his pitted eyes and pointed chin accessorizing his pin-striped suit. I took some solace in the fresh sheen of sweat on his pale cheeks.
“This must be yours,” said Fitz thrusting a phone nearly identical to the one I held. I recognized the tell-tale scuffs, however, from the skid it’d taken when I’d pitched it like a stone across my coffee table and then my studio’s hardwood floors during my final exchange with Kristy.
“It is,” I said taking it and holding out Martin’s.
Before he claimed the phone, Fitz narrowed his beady eyes. “You didn’t touch anything?”
My ire rebound. “No.”
He gripped the offered end but I found myself unable to let go.
“Someone did call, though.”
“And you answered it?”
“Yeah,” I said, finally releasing the phone, “I thought it was mine.”
Fitz pursed his lips and stared at the screen.
“They didn’t leave a message,” I said, then suppressed the urge to kick myself for the obviousness of the statement.
“Who was it?”
“I think I’d rather tell Mr. Martin directly.”
Fitz aimed his chin at my nose. “Mr. Martin’s already in another meeting. I assure you I can convey any details he might require hearing.”
“Fine,” I said, suddenly inundated with a fresh desire to put as much distance between myself, Fitz, Martin, and the whole institute as possible. “The call was from Kristine Balk. The line was full of static but it sounded important, something about her daughter and a hospital.”
With his lips forming a sour pout, Fitz eyed the screen again. “I see….”
“You need to tell him, right away.”
Fitz began closing the door. “I’ll do so at my earliest opportunity.”
My palm burned when I slammed my hand against the glass and kept it ajar. “He needs to know. He needs to call her back.”
“I’m sure Mr. Martin will know how to handle this situation. I’ll be sure you mention your cooperation although I must say it will not have any kind of effect on your application.”
“I’m not worried about my damn application, I’m worried about Kristy.”
I snapped back when my own words smacked me across the face, and my blockading arm fell limp.
“Then perhaps,” said an unflustered Fitz, “you should be bellowing at her door, not ours.”
He yanked the door shut, the bolts locking with quick snaps. I stared at my own stunned expression. Then, looking through my wide-eyes and the tint, I spied Fitz at the security guard’s desk. Fitz threw back his head, implying a laugh from whatever the jibe the guard had released. Then they both glared at me, the guard across the expanse of his desk, Fitz over his suited shoulder.
“Get going,” I whispered.
My plea to Fitz fogged the glass and obscured my view of their snarky expressions. Pivoting, I showed them my back, feeling lame at the sole recourse left to me. I stuffed my hands into my pockets, gripping my keys in the fist I wanted to punch into that pointy chin. When my fingers tried the same clench around the beveled edge of my phone, I stopped short.
My phone. My numbers. Kristy’s number and the picture from our trip to the Key’s two summers earlier.
I seized the phone and found myself peering at the screen, my thumb hovering between the eyes of my mirrored gaze.
Kristy’s worried voice crackled in my thoughts amid the recent static. Her harsher and more joyful tones tumbled together, their timbre soften by time and creating a muddied cacophony between my ears.
She needs help, my gut prodded.
She needs Allan, countered my dark side.
“No,” I whispered to them both, “she needs me.”