Almost six months had passed since Marissa walked away from her job at Rogan-Handley Construction, but as she pulled into her usual parking slot at the end of the building, beneath the bare-branch canopy of the cottonwood tree, it felt as though she had only left for the night. As she opened the door to the office, she was welcomed by the familiar jiggle from the trio of bells hanging from the handle. The air carried the same undertone of motor oil and cedar as she remembered, but now the combination was heavily laced with cinnamon and Chantilly.
“Good morning, dear. What can I do for you today?”
Behind the front counter, at Marissa’s old desk, sat a pleasantly plump, older woman in a light pink cardigan and floral blouse. A pair of reading glasses hung around her neck on a jeweled chain. Her gray hair had been recently styled, her cheeks rouged.
“You’re Vivian, right?” Marissa asked.
“Why, yes. Yes, I am,” Vivian replied, a pleasant, yet curious, smile on her face. “And you are?”
“Very nice to meet you, Marissa.” Vivian’s smile remained the same, without a hint of recognition of her name. She repeated, “Now, what can I do for you today?”
A jab of disappointment caused her pause. Out of sight, out of mind, apparently, she thought before asking, “Is Dan here?”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” Marissa snapped, harsher than she intended, yet she felt no need to apologize. Who does this lady think she is, anyway? “He left some paperwork at the bank yesterday. I’m here to return it.”
Vivian held out her hand, nodded to the manila envelope Marissa held in her hand. “You can leave it with me.”
Marissa clutched the packet to her chest, defended her ground. “No, thank you. If he’s not here, I’ll just come back later.”
Vivian narrowed her eyes, as though sizing up Marissa for battle. “I’ll tell him you stopped by.”
As Marissa turned to leave, she heard Dan’s deep, hearty, unmistakable laugh carry from the small kitchenette in the back corner of the office. She stopped, mid stride, and spun back around to the smug woman who occupied her desk.
Vivian shrugged innocence. “I thought he’d left.”
Marissa didn’t have time to play games. As it was, doing this favor had already made her late to work. Ignoring Vivian’s protests, Marissa rounded the front desk and headed into the kitchenette, where she found Dan, along with Jimmy, Brent and Jason, all standing around the microwave.
“Hey, guys,” Marissa called out in greeting, just as the timer dinged.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, they all pounced, elbowing and jabbing for their turn to warm their breakfast. Brent popped open the door, pulled out a bowl, and shoved it down the counter to Jason, who kept his distance, though it put him at a disadvantage.
“Hey! It’s still cold!” he complained.
“Tough shit,” Jimmy barked. He grabbed Brent by the collar and wrestled him back, unwittingly giving Dan the advantage, who snuck in his bowl and slammed the door.
“Son of a bitch!” Brent grumbled, and rubbed at his neck where his shirt had dug in.
Jimmy shoved Dan. Dan shoved back.
Marissa stepped into the middle of the melee. “Boys!”
“What in the world are you fighting over?” She plucked Jason’s bowl from his hands, sampled the treat. “Damn, this is really good apple crisp. Stacy’s?”
“Vivian’s,” Brent corrected with a dreamy sigh.
Instantly, Marissa’s mouth opened. The bite of crisp slid off her tongue and plopped into the bowl. She handed it back to Jason, who gazed down on the mess in disgust.
“You forgot this at the bank last night.” She slapped the packet of paperwork against Dan’s chest. “See you around, ya weirdos.”
The envelope fell to the floor as Dan and Jimmy resumed their shoving match. Believing them distracted, Brent popped open the microwave and attempted to ferret off with Dan’s lukewarm crisp. Jimmy caught him mid-stride and wrestled him to the ground with a cross-face cradle, leaving him defenseless against the expanding stream of whipped cream spraying from the can Dan welded.
Above the fray, Jason rushed to catch up to Marissa, stopping her just as she stepped outside the office, into the bitter cold, morning sunshine.
Awkwardly, he held onto her arm with an oversized hand. Built a lot like Dan, but not as tall, he came across as guileless and cornfed as any other local boy. Not overly attractive, nor particularly ugly, he was always friendly, somewhat shy. But he possessed a killer smile that could knock her on her ass. Without warning, he used it.
“Hey,” he repeated.
“Hey,” she echoed.
Where his hand clutched her arm, she felt comfortably warm. The rest of her body shivered from the gust of winter air circling the parking lot. As though noticing her discomfort, and misinterpreting it, he released his hold on her.
Instantly, she missed his touch.
Stupid, she mentally chastised herself. Aloud, she apologized. “Sorry about spitting in your apple crisp. That was gross.”
“Stacy’s is better anyway.”
“I wouldn’t know.” She fell silent, unsure that more to say.
He seemed at a loss as well.
Not since grade school had she felt like this around a boy, giddy and dumb, with that nauseous tickle expanding in her stomach, making it hard to breathe.
The tips of his ears turned red from the cold. She lost feeling in her toes.
He glanced over his shoulder, at nothing, then back to her. “Call me some time?”
“Okay.” She bit her lip to hide the involuntary smile she felt building below the surface.
He exhaled a frosty breath. “Okay.”
“Well… I should go.”
He inched a nervous step toward her, then stuffed his hands in his pockets and abruptly turned on his heel. Before she could reach to stop him, he was gone.
Back in her car, she cranked the heater to thaw her face, and dug to the bottom of her purse to find her cellphone. Jason answered on the third ring.
“Hi. It’s me… Marissa. You, uh… You said to call you sometime. So, I, um… I did.” Feeling tongue-tied and foolish, she couldn’t stop a giggle from escaping. Then, much too loudly, she added, “Goodbye!”
She could hear his laugh as she hung up the phone.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she whispered while smacking her head against the steering wheel in repetition.
But still, as mortified as she felt in that moment, and for the rest of the day, she couldn’t wait to call him again.