No sooner do I hang up the phone then Jennifer calls.
“Do you live like three feet from here or something?” I ask sarcastically.
“I’m actually in my car right now. How’s the clean up going? Did your work thing get sorted out?” She inquires. This day just won’t quit. When I get home I’m going to have a long hot shower, watch a couple reruns of some old Disney shows while eating microwave pizza, and then I’m going straight to bed.
“Uh, pretty good, I’m already done. The work thing wrapped up and I was planning on driving home soon, but I have a manual transmission and my speaker phone is terrible so I can’t exactly talk and drive at the same time if you know what I mean.” I’m not trying to blow her off, but this is kind of weird.
“Oh I know. So how about we play a game?” I glance up at the sky.
“You know it’s going to be dark soon right?” I ask. Did I press a ‘everything is going to be unexpected and crazy’ button when I woke up.
“Sure do, give it twenty minutes until full dark. No need to worry though. I’m nice and safe in my well lit and locked car.” It’s a good thing the crime rate is super low around here. Worst comes to worst I can always just find a piece of that watermelon to throw at anybody who tries to attack me.
“Alright, let’s play. You know this is weird right?” On the one hand this is kind of cute. On the other hand this is genuinely odd behavior that I’m not 100% sure how I feel about.
“You know what else is weird? Making someone blow up a watermelon using the elastic tension in rubber bands. Then making them open a couple bottles of coke and Mentos before whisking them away after you’ve only been talking for tops thirty minutes.” She had a point. I guess she was just returning the favor. I lean back on the park bench. It was probably unrealistic to make someone to do a bunch of extremely unorthodox stuff without expecting some sort of retaliation.
“Fair enough, let’s keep this pretty quick though yeah? I’ve got to be in to work early tomorrow and I still need to get home and unwind.”
“Sounds reasonable to me. I don’t want to take up too much of your time, just enough so that you feel the same fish out of water vibe that I’m feeling right now.” She was being understanding and cognizant of my time. That calmed my apprehension about making the phone call so quick.
“So how does this game work?” I ask.
“Well, it’s pretty straight forward. I ask you a question. Then you ask me a question. You can’t repeat questions, and you have to answer honestly. We already did the fun part of the date, and almost entirely skipped the getting to know you bit. So I thought this would be a good way to wrap up the evening.” It was a very straight forward game, but it also sounded like the perfect conclusion to our date.
“Good this sounds to me. Fun it should be.” I say in a perfect Yoda impression. Being able to physically morph your vocal chords, and the rest of your respiratory tract, makes it super easy to do spot on impressions every time.
“That was so good! Where did you learn to do that?” She asks.
“Stick around, and you’ll see how deep the rabbit hole goes.” I say, this time going for Lawrence Fishbourne as Morpheus. “Does that count as your first question?”
“No, no, that was uh. We hadn’t started yet, clearly.” I’m delighted that my surprise rapid fire funny voices are having a flustering effect on her. “No, uh, no, my first question is, uh, if you had a superpower what would it be? Besides doing silly voices I mean.” The increase in pitch in her voice tells me she’s having a good time.
Going for a deep growling batman I respond. “I always thought cheesecake summoning was pretty cool.”
She’ laughing out loud on the other end. “You should totally get a job doing this. But cheesecake? Seriously? You’re not going to go for flight or anything?”
“In all seriousness I’d like to go for mind reading.” I’ve decided to mix it up and use my normal voice. “I’m pretty good at reading people, but I don’t like how any empathy I feel is incomplete. I can only guess at how someone is feeling and I really just want to like copy and paste their emotional state on my own so I can really understand what they’re going through.”
“That sounds more like empathy than mind reading.” She comments. “But that’s really cool. I like the spin you put on it. That’s honestly one of the more thoughtful answers I’ve gotten to that question.”
“My turn now right?” I ask, still using my boring old regular voice.
“Yeah totally, fire away.”
“You’ve got to ask yourself one question.” I say, going for dirty harry. “If you had to be dropped onto a desert island with one person, who would it be?” The sound of her giggling is music to my ears.
“That’s a tough one, but I think I’d have to go with my dad.” She says. “I know like the president would be really cool, or a survivalist would be really useful, but honestly. If I’m going to stuck somewhere and I don’t know if or when I’ll ever get out. I want my dad with me. He’s just always been there for me, and my mom is great and all, but if it’s a life and death kind of thing, there really isn’t anyone I trust more than my dad.” I mentally gave her a whole bunch of bonus points. They say you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat waiters and waitresses. I think the same is true for parents. Your mother and father are two people who basically have to put up with you no matter what. So how you feel about them can tell you a lot about how they’re going to feel about you once the honeymoon phase is over. Deciding to take the most important man in your life on a scary vacation instead of any other guy, even when other guys were more capable than him, was a definite good thing in my mind.
“I respect.” I say in my unaccented voice. “I think it’s important that you have strong relationships with your parents.”
“Well, they kind of raised me you know? They’ve seen me at my worst. If I’m going to be stuck somewhere desolate I want somebody who really cares for me like that.” Very cool, that was very cool of her. “So my turn, I think we will do one last question each and then I’ll let you go. I know it’s really starting to get dark and I don’t actually want you out and about without any light.”
“I appreciate that.” I don’t even have to look at the sky to tell that it’s sundown. The light’s already starting to fade, and before too much longer I was going to have to use my phone as a flashlight to find my way back to my car.
“So last question then, if you could have any kind of horse, what would it be?” That was certainly random. No more random than anything else had been this day, but still random.
I pop into a southern accent for this one. “I reckon just a regular old mare. Nothing fancy, just reliable and loyal, she just needs ta be there when I call and get me safely through the journey. Y’all talk about racing thoroughbreds or warhorses, and that’s all well and good, but for me, just a steady companion is all I need.” There’s a noise from the other side of the line, it sounds faintly like ‘awww’, but I can’t be sure.
It’s only after I answer this question that I realize I’ve heard it before. It was one of those ‘figure out your future’ kind of questions. You asked them about how you’d climb on boxes or use ladders or something, and at the end of it they’d tell you some blurb about how you’d succeed in life. I never put much stock in them, but I remembered this question was about your future spouse. Supposedly the way you answered this question reflected how you thought about your hypothetical future lifemate. If you answered something outlandish like a unicorn, people knew you had unrealistic expectations. I didn’t think there was much truth to it, but I think I had just knocked it out of the park with my answer.
“Alright, now you ask me one.” She said. It’s getting dark enough to the point where you’d have trouble reading a book, so I try and make it quick. I say the first thing that pops into my mind, and unintentionally ask something that’s a little too close to home.
“How do you feel about dating coworkers?”
“Are you trying to tell me something? Lol, um, I think it’s something to be frowned on. I mean, I’ve dated classmates before and even that gets awkward. It’s fine in theory I guess, but it’s just not something that works out in real life. I see that ending badly most of the time.” Well, I made her feel bad earlier with all that talk about work. It was only fair I made myself feel bad. Some part of me was glad that she had that attitude, it would certainly serve her well in her career, but it was going to make it so much harder when I had to tell her I was the shifter she had visited earlier.
“That’s the sensible approach.” I say. “It might be something to try once, but definitely not anything to make a habit out of.” I’m trying to get her to back off her stance a little bit.
“I don’t think even once, but yeah, not something you want to mess around with.” So much for getting her to back off a bit. Talk about when you’re in a hole stop digging.
“Hey, I want to respect your time. It’s now full dark and I know you’ve got a busy day tomorrow. I’ll let you go now. Thanks for a wonderful time, and thanks for putting up with my phone call.”
“It was my pleasure. I’ll text you tomorrow with plans for our next date.”
“I look forward to it, have a good night.”
“You too princess.” And then the conversation was done.
I slipped my phone. Think for a moment, then take it out and turn it off. I don’t care if somebody else has something they just have to tell me tonight. I’m going to bed.
The next morning I trudge into work with a sense of apprehension. I know Ryan is going to say something to me, and I’m not going to like it.
My fears are magnified when I step out of the stair well and see that Ryan is talking to someone I don’t recognize at his desk, and it’s not a griever.
The two glance up at me when I walk in. A few whispers are exchanged, and then the strange man departs. I can’t know this for certain, but my gut tells me that was some high level supervisor who somehow knew about my unprofessional foray with a patient last night.
“Hey Jason.” Ryan says. “Why don’t we step into your office for a quick chat okay?”
“Sure thing Ryan.” I say, and when we’re both inside I close the door behind me.
“Nice face by the way.” He says.
“What?” I ask, confused.
“Your face, normally you just wear somebody’s from the office. Now you’ve got this new face on. Where did you get it?” I had completely forgotten that the face I was wearing was not my own. Which was somewhat a good thing. I had internalized this new facial structure to the point where it was my natural resting face. It was a bit like learning a new way of folding your hands, and then folding your hands that way often enough so that it became a habit.
“Internet.” I say. “But that’s not why you called me in here is it?” Ryan sat on the edge of my desk.
“No, no it’s not. I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m really not comfortable with you seeing this girl. Are you sure there’s going to be a second date?” He really was serious about this.
“For sure, she called me back and I’m going to be texting her about the next time we’re going on a date during my lunch break.” I began to wonder if Ryan had a bad experience with this sort of thing in the past. His concern was clearly starting to become excessive.
“That’s unfortunate. Have you thought about breaking it off man? I mean it’s not just that you’re sort of working together.” That was flat out not true. In all probability I would never work with this girl in a professional capacity again. I folded my arms and found a wall to lean against. “You’re like a therapist, or a priest or something. There’s this emotional bond
“No, no I haven’t. I actually kind of like her and am optimistic about how far this could go. I’m not going to break it off just because you’re a little apprehensive about this. I’m sorry man, but it’s not like I’m a therapist or a priest, and it’s definitely not like I’m a doctor. All three of those people see their patients on a regular basis. Also, and most importantly, none of those people are shifters. She didn’t really talk to me. She talked to her friend who I happened to look just like at the moment. The worst thing about this is really just that I know some personal stuff about her that she might not be comfortable with me knowing.” Ryan drummed his fingers against the desk when I had finished my little speech.
“So you think you’re going to see this girl again?” He asked, once again, discrediting my dating skills.
“Yes, I ‘think’, I’m going to see her again.” Using air quotes around the word think.
“Well you’re going to feel differently later, so just prepare yourself.” With that he got up and went to prepare the first client for me.
You’ll feel differently later, he says. Ryan was crossing the border between being concerned and being flat out rude. What was his deal? Was this something that had happened before at this company? Was this something Ryan had done? Either way he was projecting some negative past experience onto me, and it was not called for.
I push my frustration with Ryan aside for the moment and sit down at my desk. As I bring my computer online I remind myself that I’m here to help others and not to fume over work place drama. I calm myself and try to think about the people who I’ll be seeing shortly. They’ll be sensitive spots and I need to be focused to make sure they have the best possible experience.
An image pops up onto my screen along with a description of the deceased and a little blurb on their relation to the griever. It was time to go to work.
It’s a busy day, and the time passes quickly. When you’re intently present to someone you don’t really notice the clock, and I don’t notice it’s lunch time until I get a cheesy dad joke from Jennifer.
We have fun exchanging cheesy joke after cheesy joke. We talk a little bit about how much fun yesterday was, and then we progress into discussing where we’re going to go for our next date. We eventually both agree on paintball, and then Jennifer has to go. All in all, a rather pleasant lunch break.
I’m feeling refreshed, and have almost forgotten about Ryan’s little rant this morning when it was time for my first post lunch griever.
I thought something was fishy when she was the exact same age as Jennifer. She had a similar career path too, only, more high profile. This new griever instead of going on to teach volleyball Post College was an Olympic track athlete who had lost her friend in a very tragic training accident.
The manner of death being included struck me as odd. That’s normally a detail that’s excluded, and I only grow more suspicious when a photo of the griever pops up. They don’t send me photos of grievers, and the photo looks fake. Not because there are obvious editing marks or Photoshop artifacts, but because the photo is too good.
Normally to get me photos they scan in something from an official document. Something that could be accessed by law enforcement, like a driver’s license. There’s a plain background. The person’s hair is normally skewed, and they have a fake looking smile on typically. I see a lot of photos like this and I can tell that the photo of the griever is not a driver’s license photo. The background is some tropical island. She’s got a smile that looks improbably white, not to mention gorgeous, and her hair has been obviously prepared just for this photo.
To say nothing of her looks. I didn’t want to think about it too much with a date later, but suffice it to say meeting someone as attractive as her was statistically impossible for anyone who didn’t work in the modeling or entertainment industry.
I have to remind myself again that however odd this file may be, there’s a real person here with a real problem that they need to have a real solution to. I force my suspicions down, and use the mirror to adopt the face of the loved one who has passed on.
The door opens just as I finish, and I put on my professional ‘supportive and understanding’ face.
The girl walks in, and she looks just like her photo. Her hair has been done cut and styled in the same way. She’s smiling in the same way. I think she might even be wearing the same clothes. She waves at me as she eagerly comes and sits down in front of my desk. With a controlled delicacy I move to the chair next to my desk and wait for her to start.
“Hey, I’m Linda, nice to meet you.” She extends a hand, but I don’t take it. This is ridiculous. The smiling and bouncy behavior I get. Everyone deals with grief differently. Just this morning I had a mother who dealt with her loss by laughing about it. Some people are just like that. I didn’t judge. I was just here to help.
Her bouncy reaction to her friend’s passing I could understand. What I didn’t understand was why she was trying to talk to me, and not her friend. Both Ryan and whatever therapist refers them here discuss in detail how this is supposed to work. They explain very clearly that they’re not to talk directly to me, at least not until they’ve said their goodbyes to their friend. It disrupts what they’re here to do and makes it harder on them to move on, and me to do my job.
Even with the ridiculous picture, her improbably good looks, and the breach in protocol, I manage to keep a lid on my frustrations. I’m positive somebody is messing with me now, but I still maintain my supportive expression and gesture for her to continue.
“What’s your name?” She asks. That was it. I was done. This was an insult to me, and to her friend. People came here to move on from a heavy loss in their life, not to play games.
“What’s your name?” She asks again, playfully touching my knee.
“Get out.” I say through gritted out.
“What?” She asks, pretending not to see my obvious displeasure at her behavior.
“Get. Out.” I say. Biting off each word. She’s taken aback by my strong negative reaction. I don’t know why. This was clearly a bad move on her part.
“The door. Is there.” I point. “Leave.” She resists, but when she sees just how tight my jawline is. She leaves.
I count to thirty to try and keep calm but this is an outrage. First all of Ryan’s meddling, and now this. I don’t know how she had done it. She would’ve had to fake a death certificate and a doctor’s note. Not to mention slipping through our own information gathering system. We had some really smart people on staff. It was their job to keep this sort of thing from happening.
Ryan, he should have stopped this. I hope it’s just an honest mistake, and that he didn’t let that woman through on purpose, but I’m going to find out. This was not what I was here for. I don’t wait for the end of the day, or even a break in the shift. I burst out of my office to confront Ryan here and now.
“What is your problem?” I demand. If I had been paying attention I would’ve noticed that there weren’t any patients waiting in line. The office is empty except for me and Ryan.
I do notice that Ryan doesn’t react very strongly to me breaking protocol and storming out of my office. But I’m too angry to really care.
“What do you mean?” Ryan asks, trying to pretend like he didn’t just let some random girl with obviously suspicious documentation slip by.
“That girl.” I point to the door. “Did not come here to grieve. That girl came here because she wanted to take a shifter on a date. Why did you let her in?”
“That girl?” Ryan asks, mimicking my pointing motion. “So you have a problem with ‘that girl’ taking you on a date, but not Jennifer.” I ball my hand into a fist.
“Jennifer followed protocol perfectly. I told you, she has no idea that I had anything to do with her seeing a shifter. She thinks I’m just some guy her friend set her up with.” Ryan’s eyes narrow ever so slightly when I mention her friend setting us up.
“So that’s how you two met.” He says in a whisper that he doesn’t think I can hear.
“Why does it matter how we met?” I demand. I want to punch my fist into his desk, but I’m going to control myself. I start mentally reaching for some trick to calm myself down.
“It doesn’t. Say you look pretty angry Ryan, do you want to punch my desk?” Now I want to punch more than his desk, but I control myself.
“Yeah, I think you want to punch my desk. By the way, did you see that guy I was talking to earlier? He was from security. Because you’re talking to a patient outside of work I’m going to need to see your phone.”
“I don’t believe you. You’ve never asked for this before. How do I know you’re not just going to sabotage my phone to end things with me and Jennifer? I mean, clearly you have no problem breaking rules to mess with me. Why would I trust you now?”
“You can not believe me all you want, but if you don’t want to have a meeting with security later today I’m going to need to see your phone.” I glance at the security cameras pointing at this desk. At least if he’s lying I can report this incident and have proof.
I take my phone out and set it on his desk in a less than gentle manner.
“Thank you.” He unlocks it right in front of me. He must’ve been watching through the camera in my office to get the password. I can see he’s doing something to it. “Now, do you feel angry right now Jason? You’ve got me poking at you all day trying to get you to break things off with this girl you clearly have a thing for. I’m letting strange women into your office. Your sacred space, the very same space where you met this girl, and now you’ve got me rifling through your phone doing who knows what to it.
“How are you feeling?” I’m trying to keep a lid on my boiling emotion, and his prodding is not helping. I definitely should not vocalize how I’m feeling. I’m having enough trouble avoiding doing something I’d regret, giving voice to that kind of strong emotion will not be helpful.
“I can see you’re about ready to pop. That’s good.”
‘Good! He thinks white hot rage is a good thing!?’ I shout inside my own head.
“Now, you’re about ready to explode aren’t you? You need some help getting a hold of it don’t you? Well you’re in luck. Do you remember that I’m the one who taught you how to maintain that ‘supportive’ smile you’re so good at holding? I also know all the tricks to getting around inside your brain.” If I had been thinking straight this should’ve scared. I wasn’t thinking straight. “As much as you hate me right now you’re going to have to listen to me in order to get rid of your anger.” He finishes messing with my phone and sets it down on his desk. I’m now the sole focus of his attention.
“Ryan, I know you just want to do some really unfriendly things right now. You need to channel those feelings. Focus on them, think exactly why I’m making you feel this way.” I don’t want to follow his command, but I can’t afford to ignore him either. He’s offering me the only way away from this anger. I heartily obey his command and start listing off the many reasons I’m boiling over. He’s trying to break things off with this girl for me. He took my phone. He let that girl into my office. He’s got this bond supervillain relaxed way of completely shredding my peace of mind.
“Good, now see those reasons floating in front of you like little balls. Each reason is a sphere hovering before you. A white hot sphere, see them like that, white hot burning spheres.” It’s such an odd command but I can see them before me, little floating pictures wreathed in flame. “Excellent, now merge them together, everything, all of it, flow it together into a single glowing white ball. See all the little reasons tumbling around inside this white hot ball. Fantastic, you’re doing great.” I added his relaxed encouragement to the white hot ball.
“We’re getting there Ryan. Let hat ball burn. Let it spin, and let it burn, hotter and hotter, brighter and brighter. It’s so hot you can feel the heat.” I really can. I can almost feel the heat it’s burning so hot in my mind.
“Now comes the fun part, let it cool. Let it relax until it’s just a soft white globe. Like a ball of pudding floating in the air.” I can’t believe he thinks this is going to fix my anger. If anything it only….it only…. Wait, why was I angry again? Something about a girl and phone? I think it was bad, but I really shouldn’t get this mad at work
“Perfect, you’re calming down now. That’s great, now think about the girl. You remember the girl? Put her face in the globe. Put her number in the globe. Put your meeting in the globe, and definitely put your date in the globe. Put everything in the globe that has to do with her, every last scrap of memory that has to do with her, down to the cut of her hair when you first saw her.” I feel like I shouldn’t do what he’s telling me, but now that the globe has cooled I feel like it’s just pulling things out of me. I see every memory of Jennifer appear inside of this great white orb. Her name was Jennifer right? Wait, what was I thinking about it again.
“Almost there, just a little further. All you need to do is add your name.” I want to hold onto my name. I try and grasp onto it harder, but the orb’s magnetism is too strong. I feel my name rip free from my mind. “and now add your face.”
It’s the last thing this shifter was holding onto, and I can see it leave his mind. The instant he lets it go His face reverts to that of the last girl he’s seen. We paid her good money to do her part, and she had gotten under his skin perfectly. Very good, now let the orb dissolve. Imagine it melting like a ball of snow. You see it spreading out and sinking into the carpet. It’s going….It’s going….Now it’s gone.” This new man, this freshly formed man snaps up straight as soon as the orb is done melting. He won’t even remember what he’s been doing for the last several minutes.
“Oh, hey Ryan, I thought I’d… I’d um.” He fumbles. “What am I doing out here?”
“You were just heading home Marcus.” I tell him.
“Marcus?” He asks. I point to his chest.
“Marcus.” I say.
“Oh right, I’m Marcus.” He face palms like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “Sorry man, so I was just heading home?”
“Yup, it’s been a light day with patients, and you worked so hard yesterday we figured we’d let you out early.” Right on cue a security guard pops out of the stairwell. “Here, you’ve been feeling a bit out of sorts so James here was going to escort you to your car.”
‘Marcus’ turns to see the guard. “Oh hey James. I’m Marcus.” The guard nods to ‘Marcus’, acknowledging him, and ‘Marcus’ begins to walk over to him.
“Hang on a second there Marcus.” I say. “You don’t want to forget your phone man.” He turns and I pass it to him. “Yeah, that glitch you were telling me about is annoying but I think I fixed it. You shouldn’t have any more trouble with it.”
“Yeah, that glitch, yeah, man that glitch was annoying wasn’t it?” I hope that guard was properly debriefed. His mind would be fragile for a few more minutes and he needed to be kept away from anyone with a strong personality.
“It sure was. Hey, one more thing buddy. You’re still wearing the face of a patient. If you’re having trouble remembering what your face looks like, just use mine. I don’t mind, and I don’t get out much so there’s not much chance that anyone will recognize you.” And if anyone did make the connection I would hear about it and see that the little slip up was resolved.
“Oh yeah, I probably don’t want to walk around looking like a girl do I?” He jokes, smirking a bit.
“That could get awkward for you.” I comment, mirroring his smirk.
“See you tomorrow Ryan.” He says, waving goodbye to me.
“See you tomorrow Marcus.” I wave back.
As the door closes behind the security guard and ‘Marcus’ I mentally pat myself on the back. Another crisis had been averted. We had spent too much time molding ‘Marcus’ for some girl to ruin everything now.