I almost dropped the hot cup of espresso I was holding as a pair of hands took hold of my waist from behind.
Steadying my hands, I said without looking back, "Chris! How many times do I have to tell you? When I'm like this, you do NOT touch me!" I punctuated it with an elbow up his ribcage.
"Ow," he said, "I didn't think you were serious. Come on, Pat, let's stop with all this bullshit and just be yourself. It has been a week since you ran out on me on Christmas morning. Just let go."
"I AM myself, you lousy piece of brain-dead bastard. Get your hands off me. NOW!"
"OK, fine. If that's the way you want to play it," he said as he released my waist and stepped back.
"That's better," I said, still holding my cup of espresso and not looking back, "Now you listen to me, when I'm like this, you treat me like you always treated me. When I'm in my other form, that's a different story."
I heard him open the fridge and rummage around for something in there.
I took a sip of the espresso and said without looking at him, "Do you get me?"
"Sure, I get you," he said, his voice sounded so close, before he proceeded to pour some water on my head.
"What the fuck?!!!" I said, putting the cup on the counter before wiping my hair with my hands and untying my ponytail.
Despite the transformation from female to male, my hair still remained blood-red and long. I tried to cut it, but apparently, my new hair was invulnerable. Who ever heard of an immortal hair? The only consolation was that at least it only reached a little way down my back now.
"Is this OJ?" I asked after a few drops entered my mouth.
"Make up your mind, will you? Do you want me to act lovey dovey or do you want me to be a jerk? Maybe this will help clear that cobweb between your ears," he said before again giving my head another pour of the OJ.
I turned around and shoved him away. "Stop it!" I said as I walked out of the lounge.
As I headed to the washroom, I wondered what exactly I ever saw in him last Christmas.
"Willows, come to my office now," was the IM that Mr. Stuart, my boss sent.
I wonder what that was about as I sent, "Coming."
I got up from my chair, then grabbed my 'misc' folder along with a pen. It's a habit of mine whenever I was summoned to Mr. Stuarts' office. I never went there empty handed, Sue said it was likely because I didn't want to appear idle in front of the boss, but really, I only brought the folder so that I'll have something to hold in my hands.
"Lynda, Mr. Stuart asked me to come. Can I see him now?" I said to his personal secretary. Lynda's workspace is a small room filled with cabinets all around and connects Mr. Stuart's entrance to the rest of the office. That doesn't mean Mr. Stuart's office is isolated though. He could still spy on us from his blinds.
"You must be here about the newbie. Just go in, he's waiting for you," she said right before she went back to doing some kind of spreadsheet.
What's this about a newbie though?
I knocked on the door to Mr. Stuart's room and pushed it open when I heard him say, "Come in."
Mr. Stuart is a somewhat elderly man, though not by much. He's only 45 years old, give or take, but already sporting a very obvious potbelly and half-bald. When I walked in, I saw that he was shuffling some blank papers and looking intently at another blank paper. In front of him, sat a gorgeous brunette who was sitting crosslegged. She looked very european, as in east european.
"Ah, Mr. Willows, please have a seat," he said giving me a glance and went back to looking at those papers before snapping his head up to give me another look. It wasn't a very comfortable feeling to be stared in such a way.
"Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Stuart?" I asked, the very same words I often said whenever I was summoned to his office. Although he's a bit laid back in office affairs, he is extremely strict when it concerns formality. He never calls anyone in the office with their first names. I heard he was a West Point graduate and went for a military career for a few years before he was dishonorably discharged. Nobody dared to ask him if it was true though. The last one who tried asking him that, disappeared the week after. Nobody dared to ask Mr. Stuart if he killed and buried her in his backyard either.
"As a matter of fact, there is. This is Ms. Ariel Ivanova. She'll be joining our department following the resignation of Mr. Henry."
"George is quitting? I've never heard that." I asked. George Henry, or as we call him, 'Mr. Comedian' was a great guy. He always filled the office with laughter. But I have not heard of a single rumor that says he's going to quit.
"Well, now you know, Mr. Willows. Please tell your coworkers that the company will pay for anything you need for Mr. Henry's farewell party, but that is not what I ask you to come here for."
"Anything else then?" I said after giving the girl, Ariel Ivanova, a glance.
"I want you to show Ms. Ivanova the ropes. She's just out of Caltech and this is her first job."
"First real job, sir. I used to be a part-timer at Macy's," she interjected with a giggle.
I wasn't prepared to hear Mr. Stuart's guffaw. "Please, call me John." 'Call me John'? What the fuck's got into him?
"OK, John. I'm sure Miss Willows will get me settled in," she said as she gave me a wink.
"Miss Willows!" he said as he guffawed again. I could see tears flow from his eyes. "She does have a point, Willows. Cut that hair," he said right before he fell backward along with his chair. Even while on the floor, he was still laughing. I've never seen him like this. Did he get super lucky on the slopes of Switzerland or something?
Just great. I really need to get rid of this hair. Why is it that people make such a big deal out of this? Steve in the mail room had longer hair, yet nobody called him a girl. Sure, my hairs much softer and more beautiful than his, but still ... plenty of guys have long hair.
"Well, if that's all, I shall take my leave, Mr. Stuart," I said to an empty table, as Mr. Stuart was still rolling on the floor laughing his ass off.
The girl, (Ariel Ivanova) followed me as I left his office and closed the door behind her.
"Hi," she said, her voice was like a thousand flowers in a spring garden, "I'm Ariel Ivanova. You can call me Ariel." She extended her hand and gave me a smile.
I took her hand, and said, "Pleasure to meet you. I'm Patrick Willows, you can call me Rick. Is that Ariel as in, the little mermaid?" I laughed a little, to show her that it was just a joke.
"Hehe, my mother loved the cartoon. I suppose maybe that was the inspiration for my name. So, where are we going now?" she asked as she stepped out of Lynda's room.
I gave a wave to Lynda, who didn't seem to notice, before I left.
"First, we'll get you sorted up. I think there's an empty cubicle near mine. You can't take George's place as he's still using it. Are you going to be taking his job?" I asked as I walked to the empty cubicle I mentioned. I noticed that aside from a handbag, she didn't carry anything else.
"What job would that be?"
"Systems analyst," I said, wondering if she agreed to the job without having any idea what she was supposed to do.
"Oh yes, that's it. What does a systems analyst do, though?" she said in a bimbo-ish tone.
I proceeded to tell her everything a systems analyst do the moment she sat on her chair. Thank goodness I didn't have to teach her everything from A to Z.
We were sitting at the cafe across the street from our building when I spotted Sue coming in. Behind her was Liz and Tammy, as always.
"Sue! Over here!" I waved at her.
Sue saw me and walked over. The moment she came eye to eye with Ariel though, she froze, causing Liz and Tammy to collide with her back.
"Oy! Don't stop so suddenly, will you?" said Liz, who had to pick up the handbag she dropped to the floor when she collided with Sue.
Sue mumbled a 'sorry' before taking a seat in front of us. Her eyes fixed on Ariel's. I looked at Ariel and saw that she also had her eyes fixed on Sue's, except that instead of Sue's shocked expression, Ariel had a bit of a snarl.
"You guys know each other?" I enquired, seeing how intent they were at trying to outstare each other.
"Umm, what?" she turned to look at me for a moment before saying, "No, I don't think we've met. Hi, I'm Susan Preston. You can call me Sue." She didn't offer her hand for a shake.
"Ariel Ivanova. Call me Ariel," she said, also not offering her hand for a shake.
"Ariel? As in the mermaid?" Liz enquired, probably trying to break the tension between Sue and Ariel. I could see however that she was licking her lips and looking at Ariel lustily, which annoyed me because she was dating my sister.
Suddenly the atmosphere changed as Ariel giggled and said, "You must be the hundredth person to say that. And what do I call you?"
"Oh, just call me Liz. Never call me Elizabeth, it sounds so ... Shakespeare," she said as they shook hands.
"I'm Tammy, are you Patty's friend?" Tammy said as they also shook hands.
Ariel took a look at me and said, "Patty?" then she looked back to Tammy to say, "I don't know, he's like, my tour guide. I just joined the company."
"Oh, the IT department? With Patty?" Tammy asked again.
"Yes, My cubicle's just a few step's away from his," she said as she sipped on her tomato juice.
"Mmm, guess I should spend some time in IT from now on." Again with the lip-licking.
Sue interjected, "Careful, Liz. Her brother's here."
Liz looked at me in shock as if seeing me for the first time, "You're her brother? I thought you're her sister!" They all, including Ariel, broke into a great laugh at that remark. I imagined the other patrons of the cafe must've been wondering what was so funny.
I swear, the next person who makes fun of my hair will be stabbed in the face with a steak knife.
I was in the living room, trying to do some work with my laptop while listening to some Eminem when I heard the door chime, "Tell! Can you open the door, please?" I called to Tell who was in the kitchen baking some cookies.
Tell instead yelled back with, "Why don't you open it yourself? You're closer."
"I'm working," I yelled back.
"For Pete's sake, you're only a few feet away from the door. Get off your ass and open it yourself!" she yelled back as the door chimed again.
"I can't, I'll lose all my inspiration. Please? I'll buy you some Baskin-Robbins tomorrow."
Then from the corner of my eyes, I noticed her crossing the walkway to the front door, "I'm not a child anymore, dear brother, but you better not forget your promise!"
Then I heard some voices at the front door.
A short while later, Tell brought a dark-haired woman and a young boy of grade school years into the living room. Tell told me that the woman asked to see me. I got up and offered a hand to the woman which she shook. She obviously disapproved of my ponytail, judging from the way she was looking at it.
I asked them to take a seat as Tell went back to the kitchen to prepare some drinks. I told them to make themselves comfortable while I fix the mess I made during the hour-long working in the living room. I didn't realize how much junk food I've had since I sat down an hour earlier. No wonder the keyboard's all oily.
Tell came in bringing four glasses of juice just as I finished tidying up the living room.
"You're staying?" I asked Tell.
"Damned right, oops, forgive my french, heehee. She said she wants to talk to you about Vicky, it's been such a long time since I heard from her."
"Your classmate Vicky! You know, the one whose father ... umm-umm ... her mother."
"Oh!" I said, finally realizing who she was talking about. She was talking about Vicky Sanchez whose father went insane one day and ended up shooting her mother, before shooting himself with the same shotgun.
"How is Vicky?" I asked.
"Dead," she answered coldly.
"How?" I asked, a bit stunned, to have Vicky's friend coming over to tell me that she had died. Call me sentimental, but Vicky had always been special to me.
"Before I answer, can Victor sit here and watch cartoons? I think we can benefit from a little work in the kitchen."
"Of course," Tell interjected, before pressing the number on the remote for Cartoon Network, "The kitchen's this way."
We left the boy, Victor, alone watching TV in the living room while we quietly made our way to the kitchen.
"Okay, something you can't say in front of the boy?" I enquired the moment we arrived in the kitchen.
"I suppose I should introduce myself first. I am Lauren Thornton, Vicky's cousin. My family took Vicky in after what happened with her mom and dad. That boy, Victor, is Vicky's son."
"Oh," I said, not knowing what else to say.
"Vicky didn't die. Or at least we have no proof that she died. That was a lie we told Victor to stop him from asking about her. All we know is that when Victor was about 3 days old, she simply disappeared. We had no idea what happened to her or why she ran away. My parents never wanted the child, you see. When Vicky was pregnant, they urged her to abort the fetus, but she refused. She said that it was the only thing left from her previous life and she wouldn't let anyone take it away from her."
She took a sip from the juice in her hand and took a seat as Tell offered her one of the kitchen stools. "Vicky loved the child so much, we couldn't understand why she would abandon him so. Before she left though, she left behind a letter, for my eyes only. I only found the letter last Christmas, when I was packing up." Then she broke into tears.
I quickly pulled a few sheets of tissues and handed it to her, to which she said thanks.
"You must understand. I love him like my own son, but I have to think of my own future too."
"OK, calm down. It's OK, take your time," Tell said as she grabbed a couple more sheets of tissue and handing it to her.
"I ... I think it's better if you read it yourself," she said as she handed me a piece of yellowed paper.
At Tell's urging, I read it aloud:
To my dearest cousin and friend Lori,
Mere words can not explain how sorry I am to be writing this letter, but it seems that fate has been cruel to me. First my mom went insane, then my dad followed in her footsteps. And now, now I feel like I'm going insane as well. I have seen the days following my mom and dad's death, and I know all the symptoms. I can see the symptom of my mom's madness in me now. When she came to me after Victor's birth, I just knew that I can't stay here anymore, if I were to keep all of you safe.
I'm sorry to have to leave Victor in your hands, but I can't bring him with me. I'm afraid what will happen if I were to go insane like my mom. All these times, I never mentioned who the father was. I shall tell you now, because I'm afraid that after this, I will never be able to tell you again. The reason I kept it secret before, was because I didn't want anyone to cause him any trouble. Not even he knows about Victor, but I don't want the truth to be buried forever.
I shall tell you now, dear cousin, because I believe that both he and my son deserve to know each other one day. But please, don't tell him this until he's ready. And if you do tell him, please also tell him that it wasn't a mistake. I have loved him for a long time, and I never regretted even for a second what happened that night. When your mother called to tell me that your family will be taking care of me, I just had to do it. I felt that if I couldn't feel his love that night, I will never be able to love anyone again. So please, don't be too hard on him.
You can find him in my old neighborhood. His name is Patrick Willows and he was the nicest boy I have ever met. I named my son Victor Sanchez, but I'd like his name to be Victor Willows, if Patrick wouldn't mind.
When I read the name, it didn't exactly register in my head that it was me. The moment the realization hit me though, I just couldn't believe my own eyes, and I read and reread the sentence over and over again. Tell was open-mouthed and Lauren was still sobbing.
Somehow, I found my voice. "My son?" I asked to no one in particular.
"YOU SLEPT WITH VICKY?!!!" yelled my dear little sister, right into my left ear.