The melded smell of fresh paint and heated rubber fills my airways as I 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.


I bypass a few vaguely familiar faces, nodding in acknowledgment as I walk toward the single elevator. I hit the button pad a few times, frowning when it doesn’t light up—until I see the tiny “Out of Order” notice to the left.


Of course.


The one time I actually choose to take the damn thing and it’s busted.


This is what I get for coming in during the holidays.


I exhale audibly, too out of it to so much as sigh in frustration. I make my way to the stairwell begrudgingly, wishing for the very first time that I was cuddled up in my apartment instead of making an exhausting ascension to yet another office.


I mount countless stairs in something of a daze, feeling both tired and restless. That interview took its toll, and I didn’t realize just how much until now. I should be relieved it’s over, and I suppose a part of me is, but honestly, I’m even more anxious now than I was going into it.


I want desperately to not dwell on it; to not think about what the outcome will be, but I’m more desperate for finality to this year-long process. For a conclusion that’s set in stone so that I can move on, regardless of what it is.


However, that won’t happen for two weeks.


I have to play this torturous, mind-wrenching waiting game for two whole weeks just to find out whether I’m rejected or not when I can’t even take two more minutes of feeling like this.


I’m completely winded when I reach the top, an unusual occurrence given how frequently I run—and another major sign of just how much life that interview sucked out of me.


With diminished strength and enthusiasm, I push, nudging the bulky stairwell door a few times before it relents. Unlike my 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 I’ve filed for it, it’s still not fixed after almost a year. Even with all the reconstruction going on, I’m not holding my breath that that’ll change any time soon.


A queue of office doors lie just beyond it, and I come to the first one, distinguishable only by its fading knob. I’m already reaching into my bag for its keys when I realize it’s cracked open. I frown, my forehead creasing as irritation laces my already dampened mood.


Dammit, who forgot to lock up again?


A sense of urgency fills me, and my heart sinks into my stomach at the thought of office files and equipment either stolen or destroyed.


Instinctively, I reach for the pepper spray in my bag, gripping it tightly as I 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 my sudden, forceful entrance.


I’m just as surprised by his presence, but relief quickly washes over me when our eyes meet.


“Oh, thank God,” I 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.”


I chuckle, shaking my 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, my smile tightens without my permission.


“I came back early.”


My very first lie of the New Year.


I never left.


But I’m not about to get into that whole fiasco—especially not with him.


“What about you?” I deflect, walking through the confined space and squeezing between repurposed desks until I reach mine.


“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,” I blurt, giving myself away without meaning to, but I don’t divulge any further, even though I want nothing more than for us to be able to elaborate on our seasonal woes with each other.


I set my bag on the table and sink into the chair of my makeshift cubicle, kicking off my shoes and sighing from the pressure release on my feet.


I look over my shoulder, glancing his way inconspicuously.


Adam Walker.


The words he just uttered resonate a little too well with me, and I can’t help but wonder what exactly he means by them. But, in spite of my burning curiosity, I know I won’t ask. Because no matter how drained or vulnerable or courageous I’m feeling, I can’t go back down that road.


I just can’t.


Nonetheless, it’s kind of weird to think it’s just us 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.


I’m different.


Still, he’s the absolute last person I 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, I guess.


For either of us.


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 I’ve been a very active part of since I was a freshman, even before I switched majors to environmental science—though it definitely played a major role in that decision—which I’m now the vice president of.


Adam, the president, myself, 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 me over the last five years.


I can’t believe it’s already been that long. I can’t help but think about how the dynamic of our relationship has changed over time. Even though it’s about surface, trivial stuff, it’s kind of hard to believe I’m 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.


My parents’ dogma notwithstanding, I had the biggest crush on Adam when I first joined, and I’d never admit it to anyone, but he’s a big part of why I’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.



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