The melded smell of fresh paint and heated rubber fills your airways as you step inside the unfinished building, the compact space teeming with the energy of a typical South Oakland afternoon—save for the sounds of power drills and hammering mingled with the yells of construction workers.
You bypass a few vaguely familiar faces, nodding in acknowledgment as you walk toward the single elevator. You hit the button pad a few times, frowning when it doesn’t light up—until you see the tiny “Out of Order” notice to the left.
The one time you actually choose to take the damn thing and it’s busted.
This is what I get for coming in during the holidays.
You exhale audibly, too out of it to so much as sigh in frustration. You make your way to the stairwell begrudgingly, wishing for the very first time that you were cuddled up in your apartment instead of making an exhausting ascension to yet another office.
You mount countless stairs in something of a daze, feeling both tired and restless. That interview took its toll, and you didn’t realize just how much until now. You should be relieved it’s over, and you suppose a part of you is, but honestly, you’re even more anxious now than you were going into it.
You want desperately to not dwell on it; to not think about what the outcome will be, but you’re more desperate for finality to this year-long process. For a conclusion that’s set in stone so that you can move on, regardless of what it is.
However, that won’t happen for two weeks.
You have to play this torturous, mind-wrenching waiting game for two whole weeks just to find out whether you’re rejected or not when you can’t even take two more minutes of feeling like this.
You’re completely winded when you reach the top, an unusual occurrence given how frequently you run—and another major sign of just how much life that interview sucked out of you.
With diminished strength and enthusiasm, you push, nudging the bulky stairwell door a few times before it relents. Unlike your breathlessness, that’s one hundred percent normal; an inconvenience that has evolved into something of a ritual over time. As it is, this exit is a major potential fire hazard but, in spite of all the complaints you’ve filed for it, it’s still not fixed after almost a year. Even with all the reconstruction going on, you’re not holding your breath that that’ll change any time soon.
A queue of office doors lie just beyond it, and you come to the first one, distinguishable only by its fading knob. You’re already reaching into your bag for its keys when you realize it’s cracked open. You frown, your forehead creasing as irritation laces your already dampened mood.
Dammit, who forgot to lock up again?
A sense of urgency fills you, and your heart sinks into your stomach at the thought of office files and equipment either stolen or destroyed.
Instinctively, you reach for the pepper spray in your bag, gripping it tightly as you shove the door all the way open, hoping to startle any potential intruder…only to come face to face with a man’s figure.
He turns around, his brow arched, clearly confused and shocked by your sudden, forceful entrance.
You’re just as surprised by his presence, but relief quickly washes over you when your eyes meet.
“Oh, thank God,” you breathe, stepping inside and closing the door. “I didn’t hear you so I freaked out when I saw the door open. I thought someone forgot to lock up again.”
“Ah. So that’s why you look like you’re two seconds away from beating me to a pulp.”
You chuckle, shaking your head. “Sorry. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be here.”
“Likewise,” he smiles, closing the folder splayed out in front of him. “Thought you’d still be in Kansas by now, riding elk or doing whatever Kansan folk do this time of year.”
In spite of his humor, your smile tightens without your permission.
“I came back early.”
Your very first lie of the New Year.
I never left.
But you’re not about to get into that whole fiasco—especially not with him.
“What about you?” you deflect, walking through the confined space and squeezing between repurposed desks until you reach yours.
“Same,” he shrugs indifferently, exhaling as though he’s been holding his breath without realizing it. “The holidays this year weren’t exactly…festive for me.”
“I hear you,” you blurt, giving yourself away without meaning to, but you don’t divulge any further, even though you want nothing more than for you to be able to elaborate on your seasonal woes with each other.
You set your bag on the table and sink into the chair of your makeshift cubicle, kicking off your shoes and sighing from the pressure release on your feet.
You look over your shoulder, glancing his way inconspicuously.
The words he just uttered resonate a little too well with you, and you can’t help but wonder what exactly he means by them. But, in spite of your burning curiosity, you know you won’t ask. Because no matter how drained or vulnerable or courageous you’re feeling, you can’t go back down that road.
You just can’t.
Nonetheless, it’s kind of weird to think it’s just you right now, alone for the very first time with no one to act as either a buffer or distraction because everyone else is still on winter break. That would have definitely been an issue before, but things are different now.
Still, he’s the absolute last person you expected would turn up today and, as it turns out, to also drown out the stress of other things in his life with volunteer work.
It wouldn’t be the first time, you guess.
For either of you.
This tiny office has become something of a sanctuary; what started out as a deteriorating, downtrodden storage room half a decade ago has morphed into the headquarters of Peace by Peace: the environmental activist group you’ve been a very active part of since you were a freshman, even before you switched majors to environmental science—though it definitely played a major role in that decision—which you’re now the vice president of.
Adam, the president, yourself, five other full-time volunteers and a few part-timers currently make a total of thirteen members. It’s become a family of sorts for you over the last five years.
You can’t believe it’s already been that long. You can’t help but think about how the dynamic of your relationship has changed over time. Even though it’s about surface, trivial stuff, it’s kind of hard to believe you’re conversing with him so casually—for a girl who was raised to think that if you so much as looked a boy’s way, you’d end up pregnant and consequently sentenced to an eternity of fire and brimstone.
Your parents’ dogma notwithstanding, you had the biggest crush on Adam when you first joined, and you’d never admit it to anyone, but he’s a big part of why you’ve stayed with this group over countless others.
A hot guy who’s genuinely nice and a great leader.
Perfect boyfriend material…if he wasn’t already taken.