The alarm went off, and Victoria Garcia rolled out of bed the way she did every morning, hitting the ground with a thump. She yawned, still half-asleep, and started doing push-ups. Kept doing them, until she didn’t think she could fall back asleep if she tried. Then she turned off her alarm and picked up her phone. A few quick swipes to start playing an audiobook over speakers—she didn’t care which one. Anything that would let her read at the same time as she went through her morning routine. Efficiency was important.
She stripped in her bedroom to put her clothes in the laundry, and walked naked through her apartment to her shower. Fingers wound through her braid to unwind it, until it fell long and straight and jet-black down her back, not even a slight wave from the twists they’d been in. She took her showers too hot, it was bad for her hair and her skin both; the crowded shelves of pricey plastic bottles were meant to compensate. She brushed her teeth while she rinsed, waiting for the buzz that let her know that it had been exactly two minutes. No more, no less.
Left to its own devices, her hair would dry completely in about three weeks. Hardly an option. She picked out the day’s color while she blasted her head with damaging heat.
She had a system. A little wooden set of drawers on her vanity, and on the front were painted gradients in polish to let her know which shelves had which colors. Redder shades to the right, darker tones toward the bottom. It was a very carefully organized palette. Deciding on peach, she opened a drawer and retrieved the bottle and the matching lipstick.
The polishes were all light-curing gels, and they all had matching lipsticks. Efficiency was important.
Nails stripped the night before were polished in quick, well-practiced strokes. While one hand cured under a light that could not have been good for her skin, the other worked to get her hair into the beginnings of an updo.
Today was a circle bun. Sometimes she went for a French twist. If she decided to wear the same color two days in a row, she might braid herself something interesting. Usually it was easier to fake variety with a comb or a pin. She didn’t have any peach combs, so she settled for something silver and sparkling. Colors with better matches were saved for particularly trying days.
Her face she had down to a science, all of her bottles and tools and brushes in the exact order that she needed them. It was like carving a new face out of her old face. At the very least, she looked less round. It was unfair that no amount of shapeliness could compensate for the impression given by a round face. The only thing she ever changed was the color of her eyelids, since matching those to red wasn’t a great look. Peach worked as well as anything else to bring out brown. She checked the time on her phone; it had taken her an hour. Fairly standard.
The audiobook she’d picked was something about American history; she didn’t remember when she’d bought it, or why. It had probably been on sale. She was a digital hoarder, snatching up anything that went on sale and didn’t take up physical space. It wasn’t too bad, so she kept it playing as she carried her phone back to her office. The man narrating had a nice voice, and for that, the content became secondary. She’d listen to a nice voice read her the phone book.
Victoria had turned the extra bedroom in her apartment into a combination office and closet. It was easier than trying to organize everything in the tiny wall shelves of her bedroom. Hidden behind a curtain, her clothes were more careful gradients, practically spelled out R-O-Y-G-B-I-V. Fall on the left, into Winter and Spring and finally Summer on the right; work on the bottom, special occasions on the top. She didn’t have enough special occasions to require the footstool often, but she held onto the clothes anyway. Better to have them and not need them.
She dragged her hand along the summer clothes in the range of R-O-Y until something matched her nails, pulled out the hanger to consider it. Knee-length skirt in a close shade of peach, a hint of a ruffle but nothing too frivolous. They were almost always skirts; finding pants that worked with her thighs and her hips wasn’t worth the trouble. She was dubious about the collar on the blouse. It might have looked a little young. Hopefully the hair would offset it.
Frivolity was reserved for undergarments, because that was the advantage of clothes that no one could see. Flimsy lace and carefully stitched fake pearls and little ribbons, it was as uncomfortable as it was pretty but it was still completely worth it. Not that she was likely to be taking her clothes off, but it was nice to know she could.
Well. She could always take her clothes off. But if she couldn’t blind anyone with her glory, what was even the point?
After picking out a necklace that matched the comb in her hair, she considered herself in the mirror.
Not bad. The white heels would do. Checking the time, she smiled. An hour until she needed to be at work. Fifteen minutes to drive, plus fifteen minutes to account for the unforeseen. That left her a half hour with nothing to do. She turned off the cute-voiced narrator mid-sentence, and picked out music as she walked to the kitchen.
Something loud. Something angry. She set it on the counter with the volume up, and opened up her fridge. She’d bought an orange cake the last time she went to the store, more because it looked pretty than out of any affection for oranges. She cut herself a slice, because if pancakes could be breakfast, regular cake could be breakfast.
Besides. She deserved it in advance for the bullshit fucking day she was about to have. Not that she had any reason to believe it would be any more bullshit than most days, but the baseline level of bullshit was bad enough. She eyeballed her calendar, the carefully arranged stickers letting her know which chores she needed to do how often. Mid-June. She’d had her Masters for two months. She’d had this job for two weeks. She’d fall into a rhythm, same as she had with school. It would get easier.
July, probably, By July, she would stop wanting to fucking murder everyone. By July, they would turn into white noise instead of reminders that she should have done better. That she wasn’t in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles or even New Jersey, just Louvenia, just Indiana, just nowhere at all. They would shut the fuck up and they would leave her alone and she would get her fucking job done, she would collect her paychecks and pay her rent and everything would stay exactly the way she liked it. She wasn’t fucking settling. She was exactly where she wanted to be, because everywhere else came with it’s own stupid fucking problems.
She would not curse. She wouldn’t fucking curse. She’d be the Stepford fucking Wife of the AAI Finance Department. Exactly the way she’d gotten so good at being in college, big dumb eyes and a blank fucking face to make everyone else feel better about themselves. She licked her fork a little too aggressively, checked her makeup in the kitchen mirror.
EverettFalse’s status has been changed to Available
oinkman: did you see that picture mutton posted?
EverettFalse: God, I was so jealous.
oinkman: imagine spending that much on a book
EverettFalse: I could probably afford it.
EverettFalse: I just hate paper books.
oinkman: haha you’re so backward
EverettFalse: They take up space, I don’t need that shit.
EverettFalse: I’ve got limited square footage and infinite GB.
EverettFalse: Do you think she’ll post scans?
oinkman: she’d better
oinkman: her scans always look like shit though
oinkman: maybe you can fix them?
oinkman: that pdf you did of rarebit fiend looked great
EverettFalse: Yeah, it’s just a huge pain in the ass.
EverettFalse: And I’m busy with work now.
oinkman: i’ll take your job if you don’t want it
EverettFalse: Only if I get to keep the paychecks.
oinkman: that’s the opposite of what i want
oinkman: how’s everything working out with that?
EverettFalse: Mostly unobjectionable.
oinkman: haha from you that’s like a five star review
EverettFalse’s status has been changed to Offline
A knock at her open door drew Victoria’s attention away from her keyboard. “Miss Garcia, right?”
She froze. She hoped that it wasn’t obvious that she froze. That—that was simply unfair. That was a fucking crime, was what it was. The suit, for one thing, the impeccable fucking suit. Everyone in this office wore suits, but she hadn’t yet seen anyone in an impeccable fucking suit. Until this asshole. A mop of black hair, neatly arranged but she could tell it was a fucking mop, the kind of hair that stayed exactly where he put it even without anything in it. Dark skin, undertones she’d fucking kill for except that they’d be hell to color match, but he was exactly as angular as she wasn’t and she didn’t think she’d ever hated anyone faster in her entire fucking life.
She sat straighter in her chair, kept her face blank. She was definitely not going to give him the satisfaction of admiring him, even if he clearly deserved it. “That’s me, yes.” The dulcet tones of convincing men that she was a harmless fucking sweetheart so they’d ignore her.
He looked over her office with a low whistle as he entered. “They really spoil you in Finance,” he said. “Your own office and everything.” If he’d narrated an audiobook, she’d turn the volume up and put him on repeat. Instead he was in her office, and that made him fucking awful. Much like her office. It was tiny, the ventilation was poor, and the only windows were into the rest of the building. If this was spoiled, the other offices must have been travesties.
“Absolutely rotten,” she agreed. He turned his attention back to her, hazel eyes flitting over her in an appraisal she was certain was not deliberate on his part. He held up a sheaf of papers.
“So you’re the new girl who got Mrs. Morgan’s presentation actually looking good, for once?” His tone was expectant.
“… ah.” She hesitated.
He grinned, suddenly wolfish. Which just irritated her more, because it suited him so fucking well, because his tie clip gleamed and the longer she looked at him the more she thought her outfit was fucking garbage. Peach had been a bad move. “Let me guess,” he said, leaning down to rest his hands on her desk uninvited. “Sweet old lady Anna Morgan came to talk to you when you first got here, to let you in on all the important gossip and tell you who to avoid. Then she asked if you could take a look at her presentation, as a favor between girls. And now everyone’s expecting you to help them with theirs, even though it isn’t even remotely one of your responsibilities.”
When he was leaning closer, she could see that he had freckles. How absurdly boyish. How obnoxiously charming. Were they only on his face? She did her best not to give anything away, but her gaze left him to check the time on her monitor. That seemed to be enough for him to decide he’d been right.
“Never do anything outside your job description, Garcia,” he told her, as if she hadn’t damn well figured that out on her own by now. “As far as everyone in this office is concerned, that’s part of your job now.”
Her eyes flicked downward to the stack of papers he still held. “It really isn’t, though,” she said, as diplomatically as she could manage.
His smile was not nice. He made a show of setting the papers down and sliding them across the desk towards her. “It is,” he corrected, and in theory he was gentle about it. In practice, she wanted to grab his tie and yank it so he slammed his perfect freckled nose against the desk. “But now you know for next time.”
She considered the stack of papers, but still did not accept them. She looked back up at him, still leaning casually against her desk. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Did I not say?” He offered her his hand across the table. Either he got manicures, or his nails were naturally that shiny. She refused to accept that possibility. “Jeremy Williams,” he said, “head of Accounting and IT.” She hated that she noticed he wasn’t wearing a ring.
She accepted his hand, but he only gave hers a gentle squeeze. She thought about trying to crush his fingers. Would he admit that it hurt if she did? “Accounting and IT,” she repeated, endeavoring to sound impressed as she took her hand back. She liked to think she was pretty good at letting men feel impressive.
“I’m a man of many talents,” he said as he stood straight again, which at least meant his hands were no longer on her desk.
Not directly above her on the corporate ladder, but definitely higher. No way she could get away with telling him to fuck off. Not unless she tried snitching to her boss. She thought she knew who he’d side with.
Taking the stack of papers and flipping it around so she could look at it, she tried to maintain her perfect blankness. And not look irritated. Not look really, really irritated. A man of many talents, her fat ass. “At least two,” she murmured as she flipped through what he had.
“What was that?”
She looked up from his presentation, all blank wide-eyed innocence. “Hm?”
“Did you say something?”
“Oh, no,” she said, airheaded. “Do you have the actual files for this, or…?”
“I can email them to you,” he said, “if you think you’ll need them.”
Jesus fucking Christ. Did he expect her to type all this back up? What the fuck. How could he possibly be the head of IT?
“I would really appreciate it,” she said instead, trying to sound grateful.
“All right. I should have that to you in about an hour. Try to get it back to me by the end of the week.”
What a bullshit excuse for a fucking deadline. God, what an asshole.
“I’ll get right on that, Mr. Williams.” At the end of the week. If she wasn’t busy. Otherwise she was slapping a template on that piece of shit and he could fucking deal.
“Pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Garcia,” he said as he headed for the door.
“Oh, the pleasure is all mine,” she lied.
He stopped in the doorway and grinned. “You shouldn’t sell yourself short.” He paused. “Morgan’s telling everyone you’re a bitch.”
She blinked. “What?”
“Morgan. She’s been saying you think you’re too good for this company.”
She did. Because she was. “Huh.”
“Just figured I’d let you know.” He tapped on the doorframe, an incongruous knock on wood. “Later.”
The most irritating thing was that she couldn’t tell if she found him attractive despite the fact that he was awful, or because of it.
She really did have the worst taste.
Victoria walked to the railroad tracks.
Not for any particular reason. She just liked to, sometimes. There was something nostalgic and oddly therapeutic about walking until her legs were sore, taking her time with it. She wore ballet flats because tennis shoes wouldn’t match her outfit. Which was a stupid fucking reason to get blisters all over her fucking feet, but whatever.
She kind of liked those, too. Not really, but kind of. They hurt, and that sucked, but there was satisfaction in not letting on that they hurt. Acting like they didn’t hurt at all. Knowing that she’d done something that someone might find impressive if they’d known. She liked having secrets. Even stupid secrets.
She hadn’t smoked since she was a teenager, but sometimes she missed it. Mostly for things like this. No one ever asked why someone was walking by the railroad tracks smoking a cigarette. They just assumed they were brooding and moved on. But a well-dressed woman doing nothing but putting one foot in front of the other invited intervention. Irritating.
She liked to see how far she could get. She was good at gauging when she’d need to start heading back if she wanted to make it back at all, though sometimes she pushed it. If she wanted to be tired, if she wanted to pass out right when she got home. She wondered if she could make it all the way to the next stop. It was a fun thought, showing up in some bumfuck outskirts town and calling herself a cab. She liked to think she had the option.
Maybe that was what she liked about it, these stupid walks. Telling herself that it was an option.
Her job was getting worse before it got better. She could handle it. She could handle all sorts of shit.
Even attractive fucking assholes.
She’d take it one day at a time. She’d bite her tongue, she’d wait until she stopped being the new girl and everyone stopped paying attention to her. One foot in front of another, and eventually she’d get there.
“What happened to my little cube chart?”
This was like a perfect fucking storm of bullshit. She was doing Williams’ job for him, he was micromanaging her, and he was doing it wrong.
“Your 3-D column chart?” she said, slowly, as if she wasn’t aware he was a goddamn moron.
“Yeah,” he said, “the little cube thing.”
“That’s called a 3-D column chart,” she said again, helpful as could be. “The data you were using is better visualized with a line graph.”
He frowned as he flipped through her modified pages, resting his ass on the edge of her desk like she didn’t have a perfectly good chair he could use. “No one actually cares about visualizing the data,” he said. “The cube thing looks cooler. It’s all… future-y.”
“3-D column chart. If no one really looks at it, you might as well keep the line graph.”
He turned so he could actually see her. He used the pages to point to himself. “Head of Accounting and IT.” Then he pointed them at her. “New girl in Finance.” He pointed at the line graph. “What should be here?”
Victoria cocked her head to the side, fluttered her eyelashes in wide-eyed confusion. “A line graph?” she suggested.
She didn’t know why he bothered knocking after he’d walked into her office.
“Yes, Mr. Williams?” Professional. So fucking professional.
“I need a landing page for a client done by tomorrow, how’d you like to do layout?”
She plastered on the fakest little pout of a frown that ever was fake. “Oh, I wish I could help, but I’ve got a big project deadline coming up.” It was a month away. “I couldn’t possibly make time for anything else.” She’d automated the whole thing weeks ago. “I barely have time for lunch.” She was playing Solitaire.
Her brought a hand down on her desk with a sudden bang, then pointed at her. She recoiled, blinking in surprise. Then he grinned. “You’re learning.”
He didn’t have to sound so fucking smug about it. He had nothing to do with it, really.
She feigned ignorance with slow, cow-eyed blinks as he headed back out of her office. He tapped on the doorframe on the way out. “Good girl,” he said, and then he was gone.
What the fuck was that?
(He’d meant to say ‘good work’.)
(Of all the goddamn Freudian slips.)
“I just think the mountain charts better visualize the data.”
“Line graphs,” Victoria corrected automatically, not looking up from where she was writing notes on the handout. She wasn’t even going to address the part where Williams was completely full of shit, and had spent twenty fucking minutes trying to get her to put the ugliest goddamn chart in the world on his report. He’d wanted it to be yellow and fucking orange. He’d wanted her to add fucking shiny effects for ‘extra 3-D’. Better visualize the data, her ass.
“I’m fairly certain that Mr. Williams knows what they’re called, Miss Garcia.”
She looked up in mild surprise, having forgotten that Johnson was in the room. As he was her boss, this was less than ideal.
She could feel herself turn red. Her boss had just fucking scolded her, in front of Jeremy fucking Williams, because Jeremy fucking Williams was wrong.
“Don’t worry about it,” Williams said to Johnson, and she wanted to fucking die. “I’m sure she’s right, I can never remember the technical names for things.”
Everyone knew the fucking name for fucking line graphs.
“This is why you’re the most popular guy in management,” Johnson said, shaking his head. “You’re too nice, you know that?” Williams flashed her a grin that Johnson couldn’t see, perfect white teeth.
She was going to gouge his fucking eyes out with a spoon.
“Leaving so soon?”
Victoria bit down on her tongue as she jumped, startled. The biting was deliberate; the alternative was a stream of expletives that even the informal setting of the Christmas party would not make acceptable. “Mmph.” She shielded her mouth with her hand so she wouldn’t be walking around with her tongue hanging out.
“Wait—did I scare you? Did you hurt yourself?” She turned her head to glower at Williams in accusatory silence. He hadn’t scared her, he’d surprised her. There was a difference. What did he think was going to happen, sneaking up behind her in the coat room?
She was pretty sure it was usually a meeting room. Right now it was a coat room.
He was wearing a monstrously hideous sweater. Most people in the office were. She was wearing a white dress. It was, she thought, adequately understated to be unremarkable. She didn’t own any ugly Christmas sweaters, nor was she planning to.
The fact that he was still wearing a suit, and had just taken off his jacket in order to replace it with an eye-searing piece of knitwear, did nothing to reduce the absurdity.
“Wait here,” he ordered, as if he was in any position to be ordering her around. “I’ll be right back.”
Her tongue was starting to swell. It was extraordinarily unpleasant. The last thing she needed was to try and be polite when she could barely even talk. She continued to look for her coat in the pile.
This time, he knocked before he announced himself. “Back. Here, I brought ice.” His legs really were entirely too long if he made it to her side so quickly. He offered her a red plastic cup filled with half-melted ice cubes. She hesitated. “I can put ice on your tongue for you,” he suggested, “but somehow I feel like you wouldn’t care for that too much.”
She took the cup, and fished for a piece big enough to rest on her tongue.
She nodded and resumed her search for her coat. He set his hand on top of the pile, impeding her progress.
“You can’t leave yet.” She raised an eyebrow at him, because under the circumstances, it was the best she could do. “You didn’t get your Secret Santa.” She made a brief series of gestures before giving up, because she wasn’t convinced that she was conveying anything at all. “I am well aware that you already gave Janine her present,” he said despite this, and she was suddenly hit with the terrible knowledge of what it felt like to be a Wookiee. “I mean the present you’re supposed to get.”
Victoria huffed through her nose, because circumstances were making it very difficult for her to maintain her usual veneer of civility.
“I’ve never seen anyone so eager not to get a present,” he said, shaking his head. Then he reached into his pocket, and handed her a small gift box, longer than it was wide. She stared at it. “It’s not going to open itself,” he said. “Unless you drop it, because I just bought a pretty box, I didn’t actually wrap it or anything.” She looked from the box back to him. “Ta-da,” he said, wiggling his fingers. “Santa.”
Of all the fucking luck.
Setting the cup of ice down, she lifted the top of the box gingerly, trying to prepare herself for whatever would be inside. How would he even know what she liked? No one knew what she liked, because it was none of their goddamn business. The most anyone knew was that she liked coffee, but this box wasn’t big enough for any kind of a mug. A novelty flash drive, maybe? That seemed like a horrible IT gift. Maybe it would be pink, so that she, a girl, could use it.
The top of the box came free from the bottom. She stared at the contents.
“It’s a hair stick,” he explained, though he didn’t usually bother explaining when she looked confused. “Because you always have your hair up?” She nested the bottom of the box inside the top so that she could lift the stick out of it and see it better, the pearls that trailed from the top of it. They must have been fake, since there was a twenty dollar limit on gifts. She swallowed some of the melted ice that had filled her mouth. “Also, you can use it to stab people with.”
Victoria nearly smiled. She suppressed it immediately.
“Aha! Almost got you.” She did her best to convey confusion. “No, you can’t fool me,” he said. “That was a real smile that almost happened there. It was like glimpsing Bigfoot.”
She swallowed again, and covered her mouth with her hand. “Thank you,” she managed, with some effort.
She couldn’t read his expression. “Merry Christmas, Miss Garcia.” Wishing him a merry Christmas would be entirely too many syllables for her, so she simply nodded. Then she looked back to the pile of coats on the table. “Here,” he said, “give me a second.” He left the room again, and she watched him go. When he came back, it was with… her coat.
Which she had definitely left in the coat room.
She narrowed her eyes at him, and he shrugged. “I may have suspected that someone was going to try to fulfill her obligations as quickly as possible and then leave,” he said. “Which would kind of screw me over when it came to my obligations.”
Victoria huffed again as she shut the gift box once more. He held out her coat, but then pulled it out of her reach when she tried to take it. “What’s the magic word?” he asked.
She lifted her chin and tried to walk past him to leave.
“Kidding! Kidding kidding kidding, don’t leave without your coat.” He caught her sideways, his arm wrapping around her as he put her coat over her shoulders. He moved in front of her and plucked the gift box from her hand so she could put her arms properly through the sleeves. When she’d sorted herself out, he gave the box back to her, but his hands lingered against hers.
“Sorry I scared you,” he said, and she felt herself start to blush. He was very close, and they were very alone, and he smelled like apple cider and peppermints. He had a freckle beneath his left eye that looked like a crescent. She jerked away from him, nodded stiffly, clutched the little box to her chest as a natural consequence of trying to keep her hands to herself.
“See you next week,” he called after her as she left.
Office Christmas parties were the worst.
(He’d rigged the Secret Santa.)
(He went way over budget.)