Anomaly

“Well, if it isn’t Marie,” a male voice said loudly as they crossed the threshold into the club. Heads turned, and even over the music Marie could make out the ever-present murmur of voices that always greeted her arrival. She inclined her head slightly and gave the guy a once over as they made their way to the bar.

He was tall and broad, definitely cute, but there was nothing worth remembering about him. He was leaning against the bar in a gesture of constructed ease, but his toes pointed together rather than outwards, a sure sign of timidity. His chin was tucked in a submissive way, and he kept staring, gawking really. She smiled. He had most likely been waiting for them to arrive. She caught eyes with Alex, her best friend, and raised an eyebrow. Alex smirked.

It was not the first time Marie had been accosted as she entered the bar, nor would it be the last. Such was the price of popularity. Usually, she didn’t deign to speak to the nameless and the unranked, pariahs who roamed the outskirts of her social circles clinging to the undertow of what was “in”, but what the hell. She’d throw a dog a bone. She was in a good mood.

The bartender handed Alex a glass of white wine and Kate, the third member of their trio, a cosmopolitan, without being prompted. Her girls could be tirelessly predictable. The bartender waited for her order patiently. Marie slid past the nobody to get closer to the bar and leaned her head in conspiratorially.

“What’s the drink of the night, Larry?” she asked jovially.

Larry grinned. “Most of the girls are drinking mojitos tonight, and the group of boys in the corner just ordered a round of 9.”

“Number 9 it is, Larry. Thank you.”

She turned her attention to the boy still leaning on the bar top.

“To whom do I owe the pleasure of the greeting?” she asked lightly, watching as his fingers started to tighten around the neck of his own Magic Hat. He hesitated just a moment too long before answering.

“It’s Evan,” he said, leaning closer to her, trying to compensate for the noise of the club.

She smirked.

“I see,” Marie replied. “I’m Marie, and this is Alex and Kate. But you knew that, of course.”

Evan’s eyes shifted from her to Alex and Kate somewhat blankly.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, refocusing on Marie. “Glad to finally meet the girl behind M. You’re certainly popular on the circuit.”

Kate shifted her weight to one foot and put her hand on her hip.

“Bored,” she said icily.

Marie smiled at her.

“Now Kate, don’t be rude to our fan club. Or more accurately, mine.”

She fished a pen from her bag and dragged a cocktail napkin on the bar top towards her with one finger. Signing it, she handed it to Evan with the tips of the fingers.

“There’s an autograph to take home and frame, sweetheart. Always love to meet a fan.”

Without another word, Marie turned and walked deeper into the club, leaving a shell-shocked Evan behind. Kate followed briskly. Alex gave him her signature onceover, snorted, and left him in the dust.

Evan was left with the delicate paper dangling from his fingertips, ripped by the force of Marie’s signature. The bartender, Larry, leant over towards him. He gestured towards the three girls, who were walking through the club almost in slow motion, so everyone could get a good look at them. The blonde one, Kate, casually flicked her hair behind her shoulder as she passed by a table of girls clutching tumblers of bright green mojitos.

“They’re pretty to look at, but God, they’re all stuck-up bitches,” Larry said consolingly to Evan.

“I suppose so,” Evan replied, crumpling the napkin in his hand and directing his gaze to the table the Threesome had passed by. Two of the girls sitting there had their hands pressed to their mouths to stop the sound of their laughter from escaping as their friend imitated Kate’s pretentious hair flicking maneuver. Evan put an extra dollar on the bar for Larry and walked over to the table with the mojitos, leaving the napkin with Marie’s signature on it for the bartender to throw away.

***

“Well, if it isn’t Marie,” a male voice said loudly as they crossed the threshold into the club. Heads turned, and even over the music Marie could make out the ever-present murmur of voices that always greeted her arrival. She inclined her head slightly and gave the guy a once over as they made their way to the bar.

He was tall and broad, definitely cute, but there was nothing worth remembering about him. He was leaning against the bar in a gesture of constructed ease, but his toes pointed together rather than outwards, a sure sign of timidity. His chin was tucked in a submissive way, and he kept staring, gawking really. She smiled. He had most likely been waiting for them to arrive. She caught eyes with Alex, her best friend, and raised an eyebrow. Alex smirked.

It was not the first time Marie had been accosted as she entered the bar, nor would it be the last. Such was the price of popularity. Usually, she didn’t deign to speak to the nameless and the unranked, pariahs who roamed the outskirts of her social circles clinging to the undertow of what was “in”, but what the hell. She’d throw a dog a bone. She was in a good mood.

The bartender handed Alex a glass of white wine and Kate, the third member of their trio, a cosmopolitan, without being prompted. Her girls could be tirelessly predictable. The bartender waited for her order patiently. Marie slid past the nobody to get closer to the bar and leaned her head in conspiratorially.

“What’s the drink of the night, Larry?” she asked jovially.

Larry grinned. “Most of the girls are drinking mojitos tonight, and the group of boys in the corner just ordered a round of 9.”

“Number 9 it is, Larry. Thank you.”

She turned her attention to the boy still leaning on the bar top.

“To whom do I owe the pleasure of the greeting?” she asked lightly, watching as his fingers started to tighten around the neck of his own Magic Hat. He hesitated just a moment too long before answering.

“It’s Evan,” he said, leaning closer to her, trying to compensate for the noise of the club.

She smirked.

“I see,” Marie replied. “I’m Marie, and this is Alex and Kate. But you knew that, of course.”

Evan’s eyes shifted from her to Alex and Kate somewhat blankly.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, refocusing on Marie. “Glad to finally meet the girl behind M. You’re certainly popular on the circuit.”

Kate shifted her weight to one foot and put her hand on her hip.

“Bored,” she said icily.

Marie smiled at her.

“Now Kate, don’t be rude to our fan club. Or more accurately, mine.”

She fished a pen from her bag and dragged a cocktail napkin on the bar top towards her with one finger. Signing it, she handed it to Evan with the tips of the fingers.

“There’s an autograph to take home and frame, sweetheart. Always love to meet a fan.”

Without another word, Marie turned and walked deeper into the club, leaving a shell-shocked Evan behind. Kate followed briskly. Alex gave him her signature onceover, snorted, and left him in the dust.

Evan was left with the delicate paper dangling from his fingertips, ripped by the force of Marie’s signature. The bartender, Larry, leant over towards him. He gestured towards the three girls, who were walking through the club almost in slow motion, so everyone could get a good look at them. The blonde one, Kate, casually flicked her hair behind her shoulder as she passed by a table of girls clutching tumblers of bright green mojitos.

“They’re pretty to look at, but God, they’re all stuck-up bitches,” Larry said consolingly to Evan.

“I suppose so,” Evan replied, crumpling the napkin in his hand and directing his gaze to the table the Threesome had passed by. Two of the girls sitting there had their hands pressed to their mouths to stop the sound of their laughter from escaping as their friend imitated Kate’s pretentious hair flicking maneuver. Evan put an extra dollar on the bar for Larry and walked over to the table with the mojitos, leaving the napkin with Marie’s signature on it for the bartender to throw away.

***

“M.”

He said it with an air of finality, and the four girls sitting in the cluster of guys surrounding him began to quietly excuse themselves.

“Who, me?” she shot back coyly.

The guy who’d taken her seat was sitting in the back corner of a cluster of little tables, on the plush black leather bench that curved along the wall. The bench itself was built to resemble three circles overlapping each other, creating a series of small alcoves, each one only enterable by an opening slightly wider than a door. They were otherwise mostly open air and looked out onto the dance floor, which was set slightly lower. There were large panels of multicolored glass hanging from the ceiling down to the top of the curved bench that furthered the feeling of being exclusive without hindering being able to witness other people’s jealousy of your exclusivity.

This group had tucked itself into one of the more hidden alcoves in the back – you could see it from the bar, but not from the door or most of the dance floor. It was somewhat quieter than the rest of the club because of both the distance from the music and the fact that it was more closed from than the rest by the thick glass panels, which reflected like a kaleidoscope off of the white tables and walls. It was Marie’s favorite booth in the club and it was unhappily occupied by this stranger and his clique, which both annoyed and intrigued her.

The guy inclined his head and gestured to a plush armchair near him. She shifted her weight to one foot and took a swig of her beer, not breaking eye contact and not moving towards him. He smirked, his teeth flashing bright blue in the light from the colored glass. She lowered her gaze to the table and surveyed the drink selection – all five of the boys were drinking local craft.

“You have good taste in beer,” she said finally, moving delicately to the offered seat and sinking into it.

“I agree,” he said smoothly, and shifted slightly so that he could see her easily.

The move pulled his face abruptly out of the colored light and Marie looked at him more closely, intrigued. What his cultural background was, she couldn’t say. His skin, although it was hard to tell in the darkness, was more tawny than yellow tinted. He had dark brown eyes, slightly angular, and soft looking dark hair that was longish and messy, spiked up in the front.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said somewhat breathily as Alex and Kate started to settle in next to the choicest of the other men around the table.

He gave her a flirty half smile, the left smile of his mouth pulling up to reveal white teeth and a jaggedly pointed canine.

“I’m Dakota,” he said in a low, earthy voice. She frowned slightly.

“Why haven’t I heard of you, Dakota?” Marie asked.

“There’s nothing to hear about,” he replied shrugging.

Marie took another swig of her beer and eyed him carefully.

“What isn’t there to hear about?” she asked silkily, leaning in.

He chuckled.

“So what are you doing in my booth?” she asked him.

“I didn’t think it was yours,” Dakota answered, “It was vacant when we got her. There isn’t a sign on it.”

“Oh, don’t be coy. You clearly know who I am. You definitely knew this was my booth. So who are you?”

Dakota laughed.

“Dance with me,” he said suddenly, giving her a sidelong glance.

“What?” Marie blurted, off-balance, “Why?”

Dakota stood, extending a hand.

“Call it courtesy,” he said, smiling.

Marie blinked, but took his hand. Alex moved to follow, but Kate shot her hand out and clamped it over hers to stop her. Her eyes followed Dakota and Marie to the dance floor warily, but she stayed seated. Alex shrugged and resettled herself on the lap of the boy she was chatting with.

“So Jon, where were we again?” Alex said in a breathy voice, eyes wide. Jon blew her an air kiss. Alex smiled and leaned down like she hadn’t heard.

“What was that?” Alex asked coyly, ear close to Jon’s mouth. He responded by biting her earlobe gently.

“Mmmm,” he rumbled throatily, while Alex giggled. Kate rolled her eyes and turned away.

“So… Wanna make out?” the guy she’d gotten stuck with, Thomas, asked hopefully, as Alex and Jon started getting louder and most of the group were hastily escaping to either the bar or the dance floor. Kate snorted and waved her empty glass in his face.

“Refill?” she asked. The guy looked put out, but took the glass and left with it.

Kate reached for Alex’s arm and pulled on it. Alex detached her face from Jon’s and looked up.

“Alex, I need to pee,” Kate said sweetly. Alex gave her a furious look, but detangled herself.

A minute later Thomas came back to the table with Kate’s cosmopolitan to find the booth empty save for a somewhat put-out Jon, who was knocking back the rest of his beer.

***

Dakota took Marie’s hand and led her out into the middle of the dance floor, which was slowly but steady starting to fill with people. Marie scanned the crowd, but she didn’t recognize anyone important or worthwhile. The song that was playing was something from the Top 100’s list remix into a bass heavy rhythm, so thick you could barely make out the words the female vocalist was belting out. Dakota put his hand on Marie’s waist and pulled her in close, swaying much slower than everyone else.

“You know, I’m not much for dancing,” Marie yelled into his ear so he would hear her over the noise, “but I think the general point is that you’re suppose to keep with the rhythm.”

“We are, just not the same rhythm as everyone else,” he replied, his voice low and close to her ear.

Marie realized he was right. They were moving at about half the rate that everyone else was, and the others around them were giving them a wide berth, enough room so that that Dakota could spin her out and pull her back into him, whirling open in a large semicircle and stepping back in time to move forward again with the beat.

“Isn’t the waltz a little over-the-top for a first meeting?” Marie asked, when he drew her back into his arms again.

“Oh, are we going to do this again?” Dakota asked, flashing her a wide grin.

“You tell me,” she shot back.

“This really isn’t my kind of scene.”

“Why not?” Marie asked. “This is where everyone who’s anyone comes.”

“I don’t think I’m who you think I am, Marie,” Dakota admitted.

“Then who are you?” she asked.

“Just a guy out with his friends, looking to dance with a pretty girl,” Dakota replied.

Marie smiled.

“Mission accomplished, then, I guess.”

The song was starting to melt into the next club hit and the beat was changing, speeding up. Dakota faltered for long enough that Marie could gracefully push away from him, and for a moment they stood silently, as the dance floor around them began to push into their little bubble.

“Leaving so soon?” Dakota asked.

“Kate and Alex will be looking for me,” Marie lied. Dakota only smiled and nodded in response as she slid into the crowd, leaving him standing still in the middle of a pulsating dance floor. She pushed through three grinding couples and a bachelorette party before arriving safely on the other side.

***

“Marie, your father called,” Claire assaulted her as she stepped over the threshold into her office the next morning.

Typical Claire. Never even gives her time to take her coat off before starting into some new crisis.

“Of course he did,” Marie sighed, “What does he want this time?”

“A word with you as soon as possible. He’s in his office from noon to two today.”

Marie nodded and turned on her heel to leave. As an after-thought, she stripped off her jacket and threw it behind her as she left, trusting Claire to pick it up for her.

Her father’s office was a floor up from hers and directly overhead. She could sometimes hear him pacing back and forth on the phone with someone, circling his desk and walking from the window back to the door. It was a familiar habit. Marie used to watch him do the same thing at home when she was young, treading a path in the carpet around the dinner table in a perfect rectangle.

Their office floor plans were exactly the same, but unlike Marie’s pristine, militantly organized space, William Everard’s office was an explosion of papers, charts, and photographs. Where Marie had a single calendar hanging on her wall, her father had a huge bulletin board full of mockups, sticky notes, drawings, and samples. A rack of clothing was standing in the corner hung with pieces from the fall collection. Stacks of magazines, books and file folders burst from overloaded racks shoved against any unused wall space.

Marie ignored the empty chair and stood in front of the desk when she came in. Her father was, as usual, on the phone, pacing a circle around his desk. He didn’t notice her presence until he came around to the front and saw that she was in his way. William Everard nodded to her, turned around, and walked in the opposite direction, knocking a stack of envelopes off of his chair and sitting down.

Marie stared out the window at the lake while her father finished his conversation and idly mused on what a difference of one floor could make to the view. From her office, she could see masses of people; from his, she could look down from above and distinguish the smaller groups within the whole.

Everard finished his phone call and put the phone down on a binder full of model contracts.

“You wanted me?” Marie asked, before he could start.

“I wanted to see if you were in the office,” Everard replied.

“You called me up here just to see if I was in the office.”

“You haven’t been for the past two days.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“With work?”

“Maybe,” Marie said defensively. She shifted her weight to the opposite foot.

“Maybe,” her father repeated. “You’ve blown off two full days in the office doing work ‘maybe’.”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” Marie shot back.

“It’s my business, because it’s my company,” Everard said, his voice a low monotone.

Marie didn’t reply. She was far past the age where her dad was able to cow her just by dropping an octave.

“Look,” Everard continued, “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but in the past three months, you’ve been MIA for 10 days. I’ve had to cover your ass more than once now. This isn’t some minimum wage job where you can skip around and come in hung over.”

“I don’t come in hung over,” Marie objected.

“No, because when you’re hung over, you don’t come in at all,” her father shoot back.

“I don’t need to listen to this,” she replied, making a move for the door.

“Marie, for God’s sake, stop being so stubborn,” Everard continued. “If you weren’t my daughter I would have let you go by now. If you don’t start doing your job, I’m going to have to. That’s the final line. You’re 24. Act like it.”

Marie paused with her hand on the door.

“You’re 51,” she shot back. “Date someone your own age.”

She slammed the door.

Mr. Everard closed his eyes for a brief moment, then stood and resumed his walk around the desk.

***

“The next time you send me into a meeting like that without a warning, you’re fired,” Marie said to Claire as she stormed back into her office, side-stepping around her jacket, which was still on the floor. “And pick that up and put in away, for fuck’s sake. We don’t work in a god-damn barn.”

Claire slammed her fist on the desk. Marie flinched, surprised, and wheeled to face her.

“You are such a fucking bitch!” Claire screamed at her, bracing her hands on the desk and leaning forward, “Everyone in this office thinks you’re a laughingstock! Honestly, can you get over yourself for a minute?”

Marie stood still and stared at her secretary, who was staring back at her with wide green eyes and tight lips.

“You waltz in here like you’re the Queen of England,” Claire continued, “and throw orders around that half the time don’t make any sense – half the time you’re late or hung-over or god knows what – you haven’t been here for a week – everyone knows you got this job because your father gave it to you, which is a shame because, god, M, you could be good at this!”

Claire paused again, and Marie crossed her arms, running her fingers absentmindedly over the silk sleeves of her floral blouse.

“Listen, some of the things you come up with on a whim are brilliant,” Claire continued, softening somewhat. “If you tried, if you applied yourself to this job, you could excel at it, really. Why don’t you have any ambition?”

Claire stopped, apparently waiting for an answer. Marie shifted and looked up.

“Get out.”

Claire didn’t hesitate. She whirled on her heel and stomped to the door, yanking it open and pausing, standing with both feet right on top of Marie’s 3,000 dollar jacket. She turned her head back to her former boss.

“No one gives a shit that you’re pretty and popular. One of these days, you’re going to have to face the music, and what will you do then?”

She walked out, slamming the door behind her. Through the clear glass Marie watched her grab her purse from her desk, storm towards the elevators, and slam the button with one hand. As Claire disappeared behind the closing elevators, Marie felt the attention in the office turn towards her. She heard a low murmur of voices and grins concealed hastily behind hands, eyes reluctant to meet hers, but wanting to see her reaction.

Marie swiveled in her chair to face the giant picture window with its idyllic view. In a movie, she thought dryly, this is where the clouds would roll in so it could start raining to symbolize my internal turmoil. Unsurprisingly, it’s a beautiful day. She watched the sunlight glitter on the water until her urge to smash something had largely faded.

I’m turning twenty-five in three days, Marie mused. I’m still single. Most guys would sell their souls to sleep with me. I’m still attractive. I’m getting older. I’m still extremely popular. I have a high-paying job. My dad got it for me. My employees think I’m an idiot. Am I an idiot? Claire thinks I’m an alcoholic. I’m definitely not an alcoholic. Oh God, am I an alcoholic?

Marie rubbed her eyes hard with her fists.

“God damn it,” she said softly.

***

Marie hurried through the double doors and nearly walked straight into Dakota, who quickly grabbed her shoulders to prevent a straight-on collision. They stared at each other briefly in surprise before Dakota broke into a wide smile.

“Couldn’t get enough of me?” he asked jokingly. “I’ve never had a stalker, but it’s pretty flattering of you.”

Marie was thrown off guard, and blinked.

“No, this is my office building,” she explained, jerking her thumb back towards the Everline skyscraper. He looked up at it instinctively, following her motion.

“And of course I’d be stalking you, who else would I stalk?” she added coyly, a beat too late.

He shot her a sideways glance.

“Out for lunch?” he asked innocently.

She nodded.

“Care to join me?” he added.

“Listen, I’ve had a really shitty day,” Marie said apologetically.

“Okay, no pressure,” Dakota said, widening his empty hands in a sympathetic gesture, “but in my opinion, being alone on a shitty day always seems to make it that much worse.”

Marie smiled.

“You do have a point there,” she said.

Dakota started walking, and after a moment, Marie started to follow him.

“Where do you work?” she asked, to fill the silence.

“You know the old library down on King street?” he asked. Marie didn’t, but nodded anyway. “I work the special editions section, you know, all the really old or rare stuff. Cataloguing mostly, but some research stuff. It’s pretty fun.”

“So what are you doing in this part of town? King street’s nowhere close to here.”

“Oh, running some errands,” Dakota said vaguely. “You work in the Everline building?”

“Yeah. It’s alright.”

“You know a Claire Capeyetti?”

Marie bristled.

“Former assistant.”

“No kidding,” Dakota said, “bad blood?”

“Very bad.”

Dakota shrugged.

“That’s too bad.”

He stopped in front out of a small restaurant with Vera Jon’s painted above the door in a pink that stood out from the garrish green door frame.

“How’s this?” he asked, looking down at her for a reaction.

“Here?” she blurted out incredulously.

“Why not?”

She shrugged. Because I’ve never heard of this place? Because no one important probably ever comes here? Because hippies smell weird?

Dakota led her into the small restaurant, which had a bunch of small wooden tables packed between its crumbly brick walls. The chairs and tableware were mismatched and brightly colored, and several surrealist charcoal drawings hung on the otherwise unadorned brick walls. It had the air of a coffee shop, complete with several college students poring over piles of books and a shy couple out on their first or second date.

The perky hostess, who wore a brightly colored scarf wrapped around her weave and had different colored fingernails, led them to a back table between a student reading Shakespeare and a group of middle aged women clearly on lunch break. She handed them each an organic looking menu with Vera Jon written brazenly across the front, told them her name was Shay, and left them to her own devices.

They flicked open the menus and read in silence for a while. The restaurant was advertised as a ‘sandWhich’ shop, and the menu featured 3 or 4 pages of creative options. All could be eaten on gluten-free bread or as a wrap, and all could be halved and eaten with either a soup or a salad. The most expensive was 10 dollars and had lamb, avocado, basil, balsamic vinegar, walnuts, and pear slices between its two slices of challah.

“Ham and turkey on multigrain with cranberries, sliced apples, mayo, and cheddar cheese,” Dakota mused.

“Bacon and marmalade on pumpernickel?”

“Grilled cheese on country white with pesto, pine nuts, sundried tomatos, bacon, and garlic paste.”

“That sounds simultaneously terrible and amazing,” Marie said, looking at Dakota over the top of her menu.

“Most of these sound simultaneously terrible and amazing,” he replied. Marie nodded.

“But in a good way.”

“In a good way.”

They ordered. Marie went for the veggie wrap, no broccoli, no peppers, hold the hummus, add spinach. Dakota got a peanut butter and ham grilled cheese on sourdough.

“Do you have sparkling water here?” Marie asked their waitress, Shay, who just turned and walked away.

“Okay then,” Marie muttered to herself. Dakota smiled.

“So, Marie, what got you into the fashion world?” Dakota asked, resting his hands on the table.

Marie smirked.

“What is this, a business interview?” she asked playfully.

Dakota shrugged.

“What if it was?” he responded.

“Then I would have worn a different pair of shoes,” Marie said, smiling and stretching her legs out to the side so that Dakota could see her sky-high black Louboutins.

Dakota didn’t take the bait. He kept his gaze on her face and cocked his head slightly to the side as if he was trying to catalogue a library book on a shelf where all the letters were out of order.

“So, what errands were you conducting outside of my office building?” Marie asked, changing the subject.

“Marie, do you ever get the feeling like your existence on this planet is a complete and utter waste of time?” Dakota asked, blatantly ignoring her question.

Marie blinked.

“Excuse me?” she sputtered.

“What if I was to tell you that there’s something vitally important that you have to do, somewhere far, far away from here?” he pressed on.

“I think you’ve lost your mind,” Marie replied indignantly.

“Thats fine. I just need you to remember the name Clayessa Preton. Can you do that for me, Marie? Just hold on to that name. You’re going to need it very soon now.”

Shay appeared out of nowhere with their lunch. Marie gazed down at her plate, and then looked back up at Dakota, who was staring at her intently.

“I seem to have lost my appetite,” Marie hissed, grabbing her purse and running out the door.

Dakota watched her go. Shaking his head, he sighed, picked up his sandwich in his right hand, and dematerialized into thin air.

***

***

“Marie, your father called,” Claire assaulted her as she stepped over the threshold into her office the next morning.

Typical Claire. Never even gives her time to take her coat off before starting into some new crisis.

“Of course he did,” Marie sighed, “What does he want this time?”

“A word with you as soon as possible. He’s in his office from noon to two today.”

Marie nodded and turned on her heel to leave. As an after-thought, she stripped off her jacket and threw it behind her as she left, trusting Claire to pick it up for her.

Her father’s office was a floor up from hers and directly overhead. She could sometimes hear him pacing back and forth on the phone with someone, circling his desk and walking from the window back to the door. It was a familiar habit. Marie used to watch him do the same thing at home when she was young, treading a path in the carpet around the dinner table in a perfect rectangle.

Their office floor plans were exactly the same, but unlike Marie’s pristine, militantly organized space, William Everard’s office was an explosion of papers, charts, and photographs. Where Marie had a single calendar hanging on her wall, her father had a huge bulletin board full of mockups, sticky notes, drawings, and samples. A rack of clothing was standing in the corner hung with pieces from the fall collection. Stacks of magazines, books and file folders burst from overloaded racks shoved against any unused wall space.

Marie ignored the empty chair and stood in front of the desk when she came in. Her father was, as usual, on the phone, pacing a circle around his desk. He didn’t notice her presence until he came around to the front and saw that she was in his way. William Everard nodded to her, turned around, and walked in the opposite direction, knocking a stack of envelopes off of his chair and sitting down.

Marie stared out the window at the lake while her father finished his conversation and idly mused on what a difference of one floor could make to the view. From her office, she could see masses of people; from his, she could look down from above and distinguish the smaller groups within the whole.

Everard finished his phone call and put the phone down on a binder full of model contracts.

“You wanted me?” Marie asked, before he could start.

“I wanted to see if you were in the office,” Everard replied.

“You called me up here just to see if I was in the office.”

“You haven’t been for the past two days.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“With work?”

“Maybe,” Marie said defensively. She shifted her weight to the opposite foot.

“Maybe,” her father repeated. “You’ve blown off two full days in the office doing work ‘maybe’.”

“I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” Marie shot back.

“It’s my business, because it’s my company,” Everard said, his voice a low monotone.

Marie didn’t reply. She was far past the age where her dad was able to cow her just by dropping an octave.

“Look,” Everard continued, “I don’t know what’s going on with you, but in the past three months, you’ve been MIA for 10 days. I’ve had to cover your ass more than once now. This isn’t some minimum wage job where you can skip around and come in hung over.”

“I don’t come in hung over,” Marie objected.

“No, because when you’re hung over, you don’t come in at all,” her father shoot back.

“I don’t need to listen to this,” she replied, making a move for the door.

“Marie, for God’s sake, stop being so stubborn,” Everard continued. “If you weren’t my daughter I would have let you go by now. If you don’t start doing your job, I’m going to have to. That’s the final line. You’re 24. Act like it.”

Marie paused with her hand on the door.

“You’re 51,” she shot back. “Date someone your own age.”

She slammed the door.

Mr. Everard closed his eyes for a brief moment, then stood and resumed his walk around the desk.

***

“The next time you send me into a meeting like that without a warning, you’re fired,” Marie said to Claire as she stormed back into her office, side-stepping around her jacket, which was still on the floor. “And pick that up and put in away, for fuck’s sake. We don’t work in a god-damn barn.”

Claire slammed her fist on the desk. Marie flinched, surprised, and wheeled to face her.

“You are such a fucking bitch!” Claire screamed at her, bracing her hands on the desk and leaning forward, “Everyone in this office thinks you’re a laughingstock! Honestly, can you get over yourself for a minute?”

Marie stood still and stared at her secretary, who was staring back at her with wide green eyes and tight lips.

“You waltz in here like you’re the Queen of England,” Claire continued, “and throw orders around that half the time don’t make any sense – half the time you’re late or hung-over or god knows what – you haven’t been here for a week – everyone knows you got this job because your father gave it to you, which is a shame because, god, M, you could be good at this!”

Claire paused again, and Marie crossed her arms, running her fingers absentmindedly over the silk sleeves of her floral blouse.

“Listen, some of the things you come up with on a whim are brilliant,” Claire continued, softening somewhat. “If you tried, if you applied yourself to this job, you could excel at it, really. Why don’t you have any ambition?”

Claire stopped, apparently waiting for an answer. Marie shifted and looked up.

“Get out.”

Claire didn’t hesitate. She whirled on her heel and stomped to the door, yanking it open and pausing, standing with both feet right on top of Marie’s 3,000 dollar jacket. She turned her head back to her former boss.

“No one gives a shit that you’re pretty and popular. One of these days, you’re going to have to face the music, and what will you do then?”

She walked out, slamming the door behind her. Through the clear glass Marie watched her grab her purse from her desk, storm towards the elevators, and slam the button with one hand. As Claire disappeared behind the closing elevators, Marie felt the attention in the office turn towards her. She heard a low murmur of voices and grins concealed hastily behind hands, eyes reluctant to meet hers, but wanting to see her reaction.

Marie swiveled in her chair to face the giant picture window with its idyllic view. In a movie, she thought dryly, this is where the clouds would roll in so it could start raining to symbolize my internal turmoil. Unsurprisingly, it’s a beautiful day. She watched the sunlight glitter on the water until her urge to smash something had largely faded.

I’m turning twenty-five in three days, Marie mused. I’m still single. Most guys would sell their souls to sleep with me. I’m still attractive. I’m getting older. I’m still extremely popular. I have a high-paying job. My dad got it for me. My employees think I’m an idiot. Am I an idiot? Claire thinks I’m an alcoholic. I’m definitely not an alcoholic. Oh God, am I an alcoholic?

Marie rubbed her eyes hard with her fists.

“God damn it,” she said softly.

***

Marie hurried through the double doors and nearly walked straight into Dakota, who quickly grabbed her shoulders to prevent a straight-on collision. They stared at each other briefly in surprise before Dakota broke into a wide smile.

“Couldn’t get enough of me?” he asked jokingly. “I’ve never had a stalker, but it’s pretty flattering of you.”

Marie was thrown off guard, and blinked.

“No, this is my office building,” she explained, jerking her thumb back towards the Everline skyscraper. He looked up at it instinctively, following her motion.

“And of course I’d be stalking you, who else would I stalk?” she added coyly, a beat too late.

He shot her a sideways glance.

“Out for lunch?” he asked innocently.

She nodded.

“Care to join me?” he added.

“Listen, I’ve had a really shitty day,” Marie said apologetically.

“Okay, no pressure,” Dakota said, widening his empty hands in a sympathetic gesture, “but in my opinion, being alone on a shitty day always seems to make it that much worse.”

Marie smiled.

“You do have a point there,” she said.

Dakota started walking, and after a moment, Marie started to follow him.

“Where do you work?” she asked, to fill the silence.

“You know the old library down on King street?” he asked. Marie didn’t, but nodded anyway. “I work the special editions section, you know, all the really old or rare stuff. Cataloguing mostly, but some research stuff. It’s pretty fun.”

“So what are you doing in this part of town? King street’s nowhere close to here.”

“Oh, running some errands,” Dakota said vaguely. “You work in the Everline building?”

“Yeah. It’s alright.”

“You know a Claire Capeyetti?”

Marie bristled.

Former assistant.”

“No kidding,” Dakota said, “bad blood?”

“Very bad.”

Dakota shrugged.

“That’s too bad.”

He stopped in front out of a small restaurant with Vera Jon’s painted above the door in a pink that stood out from the garrish green door frame.

“How’s this?” he asked, looking down at her for a reaction.

“Here?” she blurted out incredulously.

“Why not?”

She shrugged. Because I’ve never heard of this place? Because no one important probably ever comes here? Because hippies smell weird?

Dakota led her into the small restaurant, which had a bunch of small wooden tables packed between its crumbly brick walls. The chairs and tableware were mismatched and brightly colored, and several surrealist charcoal drawings hung on the otherwise unadorned brick walls. It had the air of a coffee shop, complete with several college students poring over piles of books and a shy couple out on their first or second date.

The perky hostess, who wore a brightly colored scarf wrapped around her weave and had different colored fingernails, led them to a back table between a student reading Shakespeare and a group of middle aged women clearly on lunch break. She handed them each an organic looking menu with Vera Jon written brazenly across the front, told them her name was Shay, and left them to her own devices.

They flicked open the menus and read in silence for a while. The restaurant was advertised as a ‘sandWhich’ shop, and the menu featured 3 or 4 pages of creative options. All could be eaten on gluten-free bread or as a wrap, and all could be halved and eaten with either a soup or a salad. The most expensive was 10 dollars and had lamb, avocado, basil, balsamic vinegar, walnuts, and pear slices between its two slices of challah.

“Ham and turkey on multigrain with cranberries, sliced apples, mayo, and cheddar cheese,” Dakota mused.

“Bacon and marmalade on pumpernickel?”

“Grilled cheese on country white with pesto, pine nuts, sundried tomatos, bacon, and garlic paste.”

“That sounds simultaneously terrible and amazing,” Marie said, looking at Dakota over the top of her menu.

“Most of these sound simultaneously terrible and amazing,” he replied. Marie nodded.

“But in a good way.”

“In a good way.”

They ordered. Marie went for the veggie wrap, no broccoli, no peppers, hold the hummus, add spinach. Dakota got a peanut butter and ham grilled cheese on sourdough.

“Do you have sparkling water here?” Marie asked their waitress, Shay, who just turned and walked away.

“Okay then,” Marie muttered to herself. Dakota smiled.

“So, Marie, what got you into the fashion world?” Dakota asked, resting his hands on the table.

Marie smirked.

“What is this, a business interview?” she asked playfully.

Dakota shrugged.

“What if it was?” he responded.

“Then I would have worn a different pair of shoes,” Marie said, smiling and stretching her legs out to the side so that Dakota could see her sky-high black Louboutins.

Dakota didn’t take the bait. He kept his gaze on her face and cocked his head slightly to the side as if he was trying to catalogue a library book on a shelf where all the letters were out of order.

“So, what errands were you conducting outside of my office building?” Marie asked, changing the subject.

“Marie, do you ever get the feeling like your existence on this planet is a complete and utter waste of time?” Dakota asked, blatantly ignoring her question.

Marie blinked.

“Excuse me?” she sputtered.

“What if I was to tell you that there’s something vitally important that you have to do, somewhere far, far away from here?” he pressed on.

“I think you’ve lost your mind,” Marie replied indignantly.

“Thats fine. I just need you to remember the name Clayessa Preton. Can you do that for me, Marie? Just hold on to that name. You’re going to need it very soon now.”

Shay appeared out of nowhere with their lunch. Marie gazed down at her plate, and then looked back up at Dakota, who was staring at her intently.

“I seem to have lost my appetite,” Marie hissed, grabbing her purse and running out the door.

Dakota watched her go. Shaking his head, he sighed, picked up his sandwich in his right hand, and dematerialized into thin air.

***

Marie headed back for the office at a decent clip, brushed through security, and let the elevator doors slam shut before anyone else could join her.

When the elevator door opened, Marie was finishing a text message to Kate, asking if she wanted to meet up after work for happy hour.

If she had bothered to look up, she would have noticed that she was no longer in the Everline building.

She was not, for that matter, even on Earth.

She was in a tropical jungle where the afternoon sun was at the apex of its journey across the sky. It was about 88 degrees Farenheit, and there was a war on.

Marie did not look up, however, until she realized that she had no cell service where she was, and by that point it was far too late.

She blinked in the sudden sunlight, felt behind her for the elevator, and, feeling nothing, turned around.

The movement attracted the attention of the closest sniper, who fortunately enough for Marie, had been drinking before he was called in. He took aim with unsteady hands, swaying slightly in his tree perch.

The bullet whizzed by her right ear taking out a few branches behind her before embedding itself deep into an old palm tree. Marie had never been particularly athletic, but she executed a nearly perfect sideways jeté attempting to scramble out of the way of the attack, dropping her iPhone somewhere in the underbrush.

Upon landing, the spindly right heel of her favorite pair of Loubouton’s snapped off at the stem. Miraculously, she managed not to fall.

“Fuck!” Marie cried.

“Fuck,” the sniper thought to himself, taking aim again.

He shot and missed again as Marie bent down and grabbed the broken piece of her heel, staring at the shiny red underside.

Close by, somebody else screamed as they were successfully hit by a sober marksman.

With shaking hands, Marie opened her purse and took out the pair of folded-up black ballet flats she always kept on hand in case of emergency. She tucked the broken heel into her back pocket and stood up to change her shoes, as an insane looking woman came charging out of the bush and shoved her.

Marie fell back, losing her grip on the flats. She swore again.

“What the fuck?”

“Gurgh,” the woman replied, clutching at the bullet wound in her chest. She gave Marie a long look, as if she wanted to say something very important. Her dirty fingers clenched reflexively as the red stain in her shirt started to widen.

“Gurgh,” she said again, more insistently, before keeling over.

Marie took that as her cue. She kicked off her broken Loubouton’s and ran.

It was hours, or perhaps minutes, or perhaps days later when Marie broke into a clearing and took a few stabilizing breaths. She sank down onto a grassy patch in the shade and put her head between her knees. She had long since left beneath any signs of gunfire, and the only noise that accompanied her own ragged breathing was the occasional flirtatious chattering of the birds in the trees, and the shrill yodeling of a solitary monkey. The sun, which was hard enough to see through the dense foliage of the jungle, was flickering just a few feet from the horizon now, and had little chance of making much headway between the ranks of thick old tree trunks.

Marie took her right foot into her hands and pulled it into her lap. The bottom was cut and bleeding, and for the umpteenth time, she cursed herself for dropping her purse and her extra pair of shoes behind her. In New York, she had prided herself on her baby bottom soft skin, pampered by weekly pedicures and mud baths. Now, she wished she’d made a little less fun of girls who went barefoot habitually and had callused heels.

Out of habit, she reached into her back pocket for her cell phone. Her jewel encrusted iPhone was missing, but she pulled out the forgotten Loubouton heel and turned it over in her hands. She found the reminder of home vaguely satisfying.

At the thought of home, Marie finally confronted her surroundings. She had never been the outdoorsy type, but she distantly remembered watching a survival show on T.V. once, and her family had a vacation house in Puerto Rico. From the location of the sun, she was able to determine that it was almost nighttime. Marie recalled that there were other things she could determine from the sun, but she could not for the life of her remember what those things were.

Marie closed her eyes and leaned back against a palm tree trunk.

Okay, she thought to herself. Nighttime in a tropical jungle. I went from the office to a tropical jungle. How did that happen?

All of the sudden, she felt extremely tired. The adrenaline was finally wearing off, as was the last cup of coffee she’d had with lunch.

Lunch. Hmm.

She had had a weird lunch with Dakota earlier at a bizarre, hippy cult restaurant.

Perhaps I’m tripping.

The thought struck a satisfactory chord. Marie had never done any hallucinogens, but she knew what they were, and she had eaten a sandwich with mushrooms in it. Besides, she didn’t have a better explanation of how she’d gotten here.

I must be on drugs, Marie thought to herself.  I’ll wake up in my office, and my PR team can take care of everything tomorrow.

Reassured, she readjusted her grip on her piece of heel, squirmed down into the bed of wild grasses she was sitting on, and drifted to sleep.

Marie woke up in a cold sweat as the sun began to rise.

She was not in her office.

She was not having a hallucinogenic episode.

She was still barefoot in a tropical rain forest with no money, no purse and no way to get home, and there was something slimy touching her foot.

Marie shrieked and jumped out of the way. Instinctively, she slashed out with the hand that was still gripping the broken piece of Louboutin heel.

The dog that was sniffing at her instep merely blinked and sat down at her reaction. It was a chubby, short legged mutt of some kind with a snout that was too long for its small face. He snorted and licked his nose in a way that suggested that he was far too old and apathetic to care about her shenanigans, thank you very much.

Marie sat up and brandished the broken heel at the mutt, but the dog didn’t move.

“Shoo,” Marie hissed, fluttering her hands. She was not a dog person. Not even in a tropical jungle.

The dog wagged his tail once, hitting the earth with a soft whumph, and squirmed his way forward so that he could rest his head on her shins. Marie tugged her leg away.

“Shoo,” she repeated, a little louder. The dog got up, turned around in a full circle, and delicately sat down on top of her leg. Marie made one more futile attempt to scare it away, but the dog closed its eyes and wheezed a long sigh, and she decided to let the issue drop.

Marie rubbed the sleep out of her eyes with her left hand and sighed as the dog snuggled into her lap. Around her, the jungle was starting to wake itself up with all the customary screeches and calls.

The dog in her lap let out a contented fart.

Marie started to cry.

***

At some point the dog disappeared.

Marie wasn’t paying attention. The stream of tears and mucus and smeared mascara flowing from her face was coming too fast and too furiously to concentrate on anything other than trying to stem the waterworks. It was never ending. Marie kept trying to find the tissues in her purse, before remembering she no longer had her purse, which made her cry harder. She searched around her and found a large leaf, which she blew her nose into with a loud honking snort.

God, she hadn’t cried this hard since her former high school boyfriend had left prom with her former ex-best friend.

There was a rustling in the bushes. The dog reappeared, leaping from the long underbrush with his mottled tail held high. Marie gave a little shriek of surprise and threw her arms up over her face. It was a useless defense, because the dog managed to lick her face anyways, panting and mashing his huge head againse her chest. He seemed somewhat more exuberant than he’d been earlier.

“Milo, heel!” A gruff voice called, to which the dog immediately responded, bounding over to the side of the grizzled looking woman who had called him. She was leaning against a tree at the edge of the clearing, her tan arms crossed over her chest, which was neither young nor ample.

Marie stood up, sniffing.

“Who are you?” she managed in a thin whine. The woman, whose wild brown hair looked like it hadn’t seen a hairbrush in days, was tan and freckled and dressed like a conservative Lara Croft Tomb Raider – add more clothing, keep the weapons, subtract the big boobs and the ability to look good in any situation.

The woman gave her a once-over, snorted, and jerked her head without speaking.

Marie gave her a long uncomprehending stare.

“Follow me, you halfwitted idiot,” the woman finally said, “and stop sniffling. You’ll get us both shot.”

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