Friday, November 30, 2012

Fiction Friday: Terms and Conditions

 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

5. Second Thoughts

We found a 24-hour restaurant and stood inside the door, stiff-legged and squinting against the bright black-and-white tile and unsure whether we should wait to be seated. A skinny, freckled woman in an apron appeared and answered that question, motioning for us to follow her to a booth below one of the side windows. The van, unavoidably taking up two of the narrow parking spaces, was right outside. It stared in at us through the glass, frowning headlights accusing us of wasting time on such frivolities as food. I lowered the blinds before I tried to look at the menu.
            The waitress came by with a pot of coffee and Michael flipped his cup over without speaking. He sat hunched forward with his arms crossed on the tabletop, staring at the cracked burgundy vinyl behind my right shoulder and chewing the inside of his lower lip. He made no sign when the waitress asked if he knew what he wanted to eat. She raised an eyebrow and turned to me, so I ordered for both of us, keeping my voice low and watching in case he was listening. The waitress raised an eyebrow when I got to the end of the order, asked me to repeat the last item, then grinned, nodded and disappeared into the kitchen.
            The restaurant was leaning towards being half-full, but it looked like it would take another hour before things got busy. I scooted to the center of the bench and put myself in Michael’s line of sight. He didn’t look up, so I pulled the folded envelope out of my back pocket and set it between us. “Explain.”
            That got his attention. “I didn’t know they’d be there,” he said, seeming to notice his coffee for the first time. “I know you’re not his biggest fan.”
            “That’s putting it mildly. I don’t think anybody -- ” I stopped myself. “Parker said something about changes at the company?”
            That really got his attention. “Did he say anything specific?” he asked, sitting up straight. “Did he name names? What did he say?”
            “Nothing, really. And no names, unless you count him calling me ‘Houston’ instead of Rachel. Which, I might add, is a violation of my current contract.” I crossed my arms and leaned in over my side of the table. “And while we’re on the subject, so’s that RED file you’ve got in the van.”
            “I know,” Michael grimaced. He pushed his glasses onto his forehead and ground the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I know, I told him, I told White when he handed it to me. It didn’t do any good.” The hands came down, and he bent forward and literally thumped his forehead on the tabletop. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
            “Ew, Mike, that’s where the food goes. Get your face off it.”
            “Make me.” His defiance was somewhat dampened -- and muffled -- by his posture. “That’s what everybody else does.”
            I snorted. “No they don’t.”
            He took a deep breath and let it out, holding it too long in between to really count as a sigh. “No, they don’t.” He turned his head sideways and looked up at me fish-eyed. “If it’s any consolation, I don’t want to do it either.”
            “So turn it down,” I urged in a fierce (and admittedly unnecessary) whisper. I had to lean back slightly to keep from spitting in his ear. “Given the situation, if anyone has that prerogative, you do.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“The hell it isn’t. You’re the heir to the whole outfit, for God’s sake. Along with Rosie, I guess, but, you know: China.” A belated question occurred to me. “Hey, how come she’s in charge of an entire overseas office and you’re still running around in the van doing the envelope dance?”
            The fish eye narrowed a little. “You’re just now asking that?” I shrugged wordlessly, and he peeled himself off the table and sat up. “This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have brought you along.”
            Then why’d you drag me out of bed at four in the morning? “I’m glad to see you, too.”
            “No, I mean -- ugh.” He rubbed his eyes again. “Have we ordered yet? Did I miss something?”
            I shrugged again. “You were pretty zoned. I took care of it.”
            He looked wary. “When you say ‘took care of it’--”
            “I mean I did what I always do,” I replied, pushing the envelope to one side. “I made arrangements. It’s part of my job description.”
            As if on cue, our waitress had returned with a loaded tray, and we both leaned back from the table to give her room. My stomach growled as she set down two plates of hash browns and eggs -- over-hard and scrambled, respectively -- followed by a glass of orange juice. Everything went to my side of the table. Michael stared, ignoring his own plate as it landed in front of him. “That’s ... a lot of food.”
            I nodded and unwrapped my silverware from its paper napkin cocoon. “It is,” I said, and dug into the over-hard eggs. “Eat up, already.”
            I waited, fork poised between plate and mouth, as Michael looked down at his breakfast. It took a moment -- first a pause and a sharp intake of breath, followed by a confused frown, followed by a heavy sigh and more eye rubbing. Eventually he took his glasses off, laid them on the table and sat back heavily in the booth. “Rachel, really?
            I pushed the plate closer to him, tilting it so the whipped cream clown face on the pancakes rocked from side to side. “You know you love it,” I grinned.
“Rachel -- ”
“And you know the rules: If you don’t engage with the process, I reserve the right to make arrangements for you.” The corners of his mouth quirked upward, but despite the smile he looked physically pained. I decided not to milk it. “Lighten up, Mike. I thought we could use a laugh, is all.” I pushed the plate of scrambled eggs over to him. “This one’s yours. Eat.”