Friday, December 14, 2012

Fiction Friday: Terms & Conditions


            “So,” Michael said around a mouthful of hash browns, “tell me what you’ve been up to lately.”
            “Define ‘lately’,” I countered. This was the third time in the past six months Michael had let himself into my apartment and rousted me out of bed at stupid o’clock for a “consulting” gig, although after eight weeks I’d hoped we were done for good. My wall calendar bore a running countdown to the day my amended contract expired and I was officially off the payroll. The day after that was marked “RUN FAST, RUN FAR” in big red letters. AGATE was very good at drawing people back in when they wanted to leave, and they did not appreciate having to provide references for former employees. Not that I’d be able to use them, anyway. Not that I wanted to use them, either.
            Michael tapped his knife on the edge of his plate. “Since the team -- since you left full-time status at the company, I guess. It’s been almost eight months.”
            My loaded fork paused just before it passed my lips. “Eight months,” I echoed. “Criminy, is that all it’s been? It feels longer.”
            “Nope. You left at the end of July.”
            I finished the interrupted bite and wagged the handle of my fork at him while I chewed. “That’s why. I’ve been counting from -- from earlier.” I went to wash down the eggs with coffee and found my cup empty. “From April.”
            “April.” Michael looked down, to the left, up at the ceiling and down at his own coffee. “Of course.”
            “Of course.” I borrowed his half-full cup and took a drink. “If you can think of a better end-point, I’d love to hear it.” The coffee was lukewarm and bitter and left grit between my teeth. “Or maybe ‘before-and-after’ is a better word for it. I dunno.”
            Michael took his cup back without looking at it and poked at his potatoes in deliberate silence. It looked for all the world like he was in the throes of a powersulk, but it definitely wasn’t mere hurt feelings. Addressing it would undoubtedly prove futile. I decided to wait it out and got on with my meal. Just when the clink and scratch of cheap cutlery on equally cheap china began to grate on my nerves, Michael said, “You still haven’t answered my question.”
            I hate being put on the spot like that, especially by someone who’s technically in charge of me. It always feels like an interrogation, like any minute the bad cop’s going to come in, pounding on the table and telling me I can make a phone call after I ‘fess up, and I better make it quick because the DA’s disinclined to make a deal. I always assumed it was irrational. My work experience has taught me it otherwise. Paranoia can keep you alive of you’re smart about it.
            “I’ve been up to stuff,” I said, instead of clamming up until I could speak to my lawyer. (Like he’d do any good; Levitt was on AGATE’s payroll, not mine.)
            “What kind of stuff?” Michael pressed. His eyes narrowed just a little -- not enough to be sinister, but definitely off-putting. The morning light washed out his bright blue irises to near white and put a glare on his glasses. “Clarify it a little for me.”
            “Stuff and things and errands and occasionally a movie.” I took a huge bite of potatoes and made a show of enjoying it to buy me some time. I needed a hint as to where this line of questions was going.
            “Are you working anywhere yet?”
            And there it was. He wanted to know if the outplacement liaison had found something for me. Although -- why was he asking me? Nobody would have cared if he’d gone through channels to find out. Snooping on each other was a fact of life while we were active, almost like a game to see who could find out the most on whom. Matter of fact, the boss encouraged it. Said it kept his employees honest. I narrowed my eyes right back at him, simultaneously raising an eyebrow. “Yes...?”
            He leaned forward a little. “Where?”
            “In an office? Mike, why don’t you know this already? Since when do you not do all your research before an assignment?”
            The tips of his ears turned red. “Who says I didn’t? Maybe I’m testing you to see if your answers line up with my findings.”
            I put down my fork. “Are you?”
            The flush spread down the back of his neck and across his cheeks. “Maybe.”
            “You’re not.” This was pointless. “Fine. AGATE’s got me set up with a regional courier service. Right now I run the dispatch office. It’s the same thing I did when I worked with you, except my desk is in an office instead of a van, and when I send my people out on jobs -- ” I stopped, feeling my face glowing red to match his. “It’s safe. I have an apartment and a cat and a bamboo plant in my office, and next Tuesday I’m bringing cheesy potatoes to the pitch-in. It’s safe and it’s normal and it’s a life and I like it. And I need to call them and let them know I’m taking a personal day so I don’t get fired later.” I was angry. I was raising my voice. Other people in the restaurant were starting to glance in our direction. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that none of this was really Michael’s fault, and apologized. “That got away from me for a minute. Sorry.”
            He nodded, and the blush faded. “S’all right. It’s been a stressful morning.”
            “Yeah.” Deep, even breaths. “And I know you’re not the bad guy here. Not really.”
            “‘Not really’?” Michael echoed, with a bit of a laugh. “That’s the best I get?” He pushed his plate away and reached for the happy face pancakes. “Nice.”
            “Well, you know.” I drank some more of his coffee. “You’re an anti-hero at best.”
            “Says the fixer.”
            “It’s a sliding scale.”
            “Oh, I see. And which end are we at?” he asked, cutting off a piece of pancake and dipping it in the whipped cream. “Because real anti-heroes eat whisky and thermite for breakfast, not rainbow sprinkles.”
            “I never drink between 5 a.m. and noon,” I said, taking a bite from the other side of the pancake. “And I still gotta call work so they know to take over for me.”
            Michael stretched and sighed. “Right. You need to borrow my phone?”
            “Nah, I saw an old pay phone in the back. I’ll use that.” I stood up, cracked my back and dug in my pockets. “Um. Do you have any quarters?”

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