Lauren and I are alone now and I got to admit I grow a bit nervous, busying myself with the talker. I type with the knuckles of my right hand, by leaning my fist to the side from the position of the joystick. I can only reach half of the screen that way and need to scroll through some of the alphabet to type anything. The word prediction algorithm is a blessing.
“Slide 3,” the computer voice reads.
Lauren changes her slides to the correct number.
“Graph on the right. Conclusive with statement B on slide 6?”
Lauren is fast in decoding the stunted sentences I use and she understands immediately.
“Oh! I hadn’t thought about this… but… yes, that's a great idea!” Her eyes light up. “So what about—”
We dive into a discussion of different methods and all kinds of details, and, bit by bit, we develop a strategy to help her move her work forward. Somehow our entire conversation flows easily, much easier than is usually the case with strangers. Lauren is endlessly patient with me composing the sentences on the screen and she doesn’t seem to mind when I get distracted by spasms for a few seconds. But anyway there isn’t much I need to say once I’ve started the ball rolling. Lauren is indeed just very good at what she does and so she does most of the talking. All I need to do is give a few hints and suggestions.
In the end Lauren thanks me a thousand times, her eyes sparkling with excitement. Her enthusiasm is contagious and I can’t help but smile at her. She’s so much in her own headspace in this moment, it reminds me of myself a couple of years ago.
“I’d maybe need to find more data to support this argument but yes… it could work. Thank you so much Mr.-”
“Patrick.” My name is on speed dial, so to say.
“I’m very excited to hear about your progress.”
I mean it. She’s doing great work.
Lauren beams happily. “I make sure to inform you. I suppose I can find your contact data online?”
I nod. The company's website should pop up whenever someone searches my name online.
“It was very kind of you to help me, Patrick.” Lauren smiles at me, her lips cherry red and full.
I swallow laboriously, warmth creeping into my face as I watch her. Gosh, Lauren is damn beautiful and I apparently really need it bad. Unbidden, the idea of what her body looks like underneath her cute blue dress creeps into my mind and I wonder how those amazing lips would taste. The thought alone has my arousal peak again, which unfortunately cranks up my spasms. My arms and hands stiffen and keep me from typing on the screen.
Lauren continues smiling at me when I reply nothing save for a few completely unintentional grunts as my neck flexes abruptly and my head bounces against the headrest. She closes the laptop, wedges it under her arm and hops off the table. “I’d be honored if we could continue this conversation during dinner tonight,” she says.
As she steps past me her hand brushes along my arm, if on purpose I can’t really tell. Still being in the middle of an episode I jump in surprise, reflexively gasping.
And choke on my own spit.
That happens sometimes. I have difficulties swallowing or controlling my tongue and I can’t cough well either. Usually it’s not immediately dangerous and just takes a few wheezing attempts until I can breathe normally again. If you want to call it normal, because I make all kinds of sounds just by breathing.
I can see Lauren is concerned as she watches me struggle for air but thankfully she doesn’t freak out. Someone crying for an ambulance now is all I need. Not that it would be a first, though.
“Are you, um… okay?”
I nod as soon as I’ve taken a few rattling breaths, not meeting Lauren's eyes. Very sexy, Patrick. Very. “Sorry,” I type, feeling my cheeks heat again.
Lauren laughs merrily. She has a beautiful laugh, loud and rich. “No worries. I have to apologize for being so straight forward.”
“You don’t have to,” the computer voice reads after a while. Did I mention I’m slow at typing?
Lauren giggles. “Okay, I’m glad to hear that. Because of dinner, does that mean you—”
“So, all done!”
Romina has returned and approaches us quickly, only regarding Lauren with a fleeting glance. “Are you ready?” She gesticulates to the exit.
I groan inwardly. I just had a couple of minutes alone with a woman and all but thoroughly managed to make an idiot out of myself.
To my surprise, Lauren doesn’t seem to think that or if she does, she doesn’t seem to care, because she acts quickly. “If we hurry we might get a table together,” she says and turns to me with her eyebrows lifted.
Romina frowns. “A table?”
“For dinner,” Lauren clarifies.
I look at the two women towering over me and hesitate a second. I hadn’t planned to attend dinner tonight and I’m really reluctant to go. There will be a large number of influential people present and I loathe being on display in general, but eating is my absolutely weakest point by far.
But then I nod. How can I say no to Lauren? I’d try to pull an entire unblended lobster through a straw if it meant sharing a few more minutes with her.
Lauren beams happily at me and that alone convinces me that I’ve made the right decision.
“Oh…” Romina’s face falls a little. “In that case I need to make arrangements with the kitchen.”
“I’m sorry,” I hurriedly apologize to her, my head lolling around. I can’t have my aide be pissed off at me. “I know I hadn’t planned to go tonight but… um… Plans have changed. Is that a problem?”
Romina shakes her head, eyes distant. Probably she’s already going through the list of things she needs to inform people about. Enough space for the chair and for her at my side, straws for the drinks and blended food. I know it’s a lot on short notice. “Okay,” she finally says. “I’m going to head over and make sure everything is ready for you, alright? And you two… uh…”
“We’ll have drinks in the foyer,” Lauren says. As Romina and I’ve discussed she's watched me with her eyebrows lifted but I’ve subtly ignored the question. “And then search for a table.”
“Okay…?” Romina looks at me and I nod.
It’s okay, really. I know my aide doesn’t like the idea of leaving me alone with a stranger and to be frank, neither do I. Lauren is nice but she has no experience with me. It isn’t like I come with an operations manual tacked to my forehead, but maybe I should. I’m pretty sure I am going to survive, though. I mean, relatively sure. Provided I manage to forget all about Lauren’s beauty and concentrate on the basic necessities, like breathing correctly and just generally not embarrassing myself. That’d be awesome.
We all exit the conference room, Romina hurrying in front of us and Lauren walking slower next to my humming wheelchair. It’s rigged to go rather slow, since I don’t have the best command over the joystick, and Romina is soon vanished from my field of vision. The dining hall and the foyer are located two more floors up in the conference building and people are streaming up the broad stairs and the two sets of escalators. I lead the way in front of Lauren away from the main crowd, toward the elevators.
There's too much noise and I can't type while steering the powerchair anyway, so we don't talk. The area in front of the elevators is occupied by a bunch of people who haven't yet given up on the hope that the elevators will bring them faster to the desired drinks than the stairs. Lauren and I stop at the edge of it, waiting for the next cabin to arrive.
“Did you visit Uluru on holidays?” I ask her. As always, a few people standing next to us turn around upon hearing the computer voice of the talker. It’s not so much different from a human’s voice but it’s not as perfect as to fool anyone. It’s decidedly better than my own voice, though.
As usual I try my best to ignore the stares.
Lauren chuckles surprised. “How do you know?”
“Your wallpaper.” I caught a glimpse at the photo of her in front of the massive red rock formation in the Australian desert before she closed her laptop.
Lauren laughs and shakes her head. “No, that was work-related. Still a great spot. Have you been there?”
I shake my head. Although I'm a frequent flyer, I've never actually undertaken such a long flight. It's possible for me with some major planning effort in advance, I guess, and in fact I'd like to visit Australia one time. But so far I’ve been lacking the motivation to go through the trouble.
The elevator arrives with a ding and the doors open. It's empty. A handful of people detach from the waiting crowd and walk inside. The rest hesitates, some turning to look at me expectantly. It's clear we won't all fit inside. I'd wait for my turn like everyone else but I'm not going to discuss this now, so I tilt the joystick forward and maneuver the powerchair into the small cubicle. Once I'm in, there's hardly space for an additional person. Lauren squeezes in behind me and then the doors close.
The ride up is quiet except for my left dress shoe clanging against the footrest rhythmically. It's an awkward situation with the people in the elevator in front of me giving their best not to stare. I still catch a few quickly glancing my way before they direct their gazes over my head again. I think I can’t blame them, I’m too much of an attraction not to be watched. Thankfully it's over quickly. Lauren steps out of the elevator first and I steer the powerchair out backward, hoping that people have made enough room for me. Thankfully, I manage not to run over anyone's feet and Lauren and I try to get out of the crowd quickly.
As soon as we've found a calm spot at the edge of the crowd in the hall Lauren tells me about her field work near Uluru. She's full of funny anecdotes involving camping in the desert and cranky researchers that spend most of their time in the outback. When she tells me about their dinner specialty of honey ants and witchetty grubs, I make a face, utterly disgusted, and Lauren laughs at it.
“Oh, and it gets so cold during nights. We used to do one minute of jumping jacks before we went to bed. Everyone in a circle around the campfire.”
That certainly sounds hilarious and, damn, now I’m picturing her in a very short nightdress dancing in the dark.
“It was a great time but also… You know, with fieldwork, it always depends a lot on the people. It was amazing because it was a fun team to work with. Everyone was just damn nice, even to a noob like me.” She grins at me and shrugs. “I know how to make a mean stew, though, so maybe that was why.” She laughs beautifully. “I can imagine it could be horrible if you’re forced to live and work 24/7 with a bunch of jackasses, though…”
I nod, my legs quivering. “I know. I’ll never forget being snowed in for a while with the guys in Canada. That’s when you get to know a whole new side of your team.”
Lauren’s eyes light up. “You do fieldwork?” The surprise is evident in her voice. Almost immediately after she said that her eyes widen and her cheeks turn a light shade of pink. “Um, I mean… sorry…”
I chuckle. “It’s okay. Obviously I’m no Indiana Jones.”
“Thank god,” Lauren mumbles. She turns a bit redder than before upon that.
I squint at her, mildly surprised. Don’t all girls dream of a smart, muscled adventurer who carries them in his strong arms over a river foaming with giant crocodiles? Or whatever it is that Indiana Jones does.
I clear my throat and almost forget to use the talker. “I was only checking in on one of our projects and definitely didn’t intend to stay that long.” I still remember the resentment toward my brother when I realized I’d be forced to stay for much longer than planned. He’d made me go in the first place, although trips like these are more his job. I prefer staying behind my laptop in well air-conditioned buildings in large cities with a wide range of good, accessible hotels. In the end, spending two weeks in a rather remote hut in the wild, almost skin to skin with the other workers has probably been an unforgettable experience for everyone. In fact, it was far less horrible than I'd expected it to be and I made friends for life. Not that I’m keen on a repetition, though.
“Oh look at that! Champagne for you as well?” Lauren has already picked up two glasses from the tray of a passing waiter before I have a chance to answer.
I can’t hold a glass in my hands. That much might be obvious. And I can’t drink well from any glass because of the same reason that causes me to choke on my own spit and inhibits my speech.
“Cheers,” Lauren clinks the two glasses in her hands together and sips from hers. “Good stuff. You too?”
I suppress a sigh. I don’t want to explain myself and seriously, what can go wrong. I nod and Lauren lifts the glass to my lips.
Apparently a lot can go wrong.
The second the glass touches my lips my head jerks to the side and my left arm drives outward, knocking Lauren square into the stomach. She yelps, more taken by surprise than in pain I hope because I’m not very strong, and loses the grip on the champagne glass. Thankfully it doesn’t fall to the floor and shatters, but instead lands in my lap, where the cold, sparkling liquid washes all over my shirt and pants, hissing softly.
“Shit…” Lauren stares at me, wide-eyed and holding her hands up. “Fuck…” She clasps one hand over her mouth immediately. “I mean… sorry, uh… Oh my god, I’m such a klutz!”
I look at her shocked (and rather cute) expression and… start to giggle. Here we are, standing in a hall full of perfectly dressed people that we desperately want to impress, and I just took a shower in possibly very expensive champagne. At least the glass is still intact.
Lauren stares at me, a bit bewildered no doubt by the sound of my laughter that honest to god resembles a donkey’s cry, but then she’s joining in. We both try to keep it quiet but still a few people perk up and look at us before hurriedly turning back around again when they notice me.
Lauren carefully picks up the empty glass from my lap, grinning and blinking away tears of joy. “Geez… I should really wear a sign. Attention! Catastrophic person! Don’t get near.” She giggles, her eyes sparkling as they lock with mine.
I chuckle, a bit out of breath, and find that in fact I don’t agree with her at all. I’d like to be as close to her as possible, disregarding of whatever liquid she pours down over my head. Especially if it makes her laugh like that.
Lauren turns to a set-back corner at the long side of the room, with two empty tables in front of large windows going out to the busy street below us. I follow her, glad to get away from the prying eyes of the masses. I can feel spit leaking out at the corner of my mouth and subtly try to remove it, merely succeeding in my left arm only narrowly missing Lauren this time as I join her. Well, no chance here. My legs go into spasm again and the movement causes the champagne that hasn’t leaked into my clothes yet to spread further.
“Okay, wait…” Lauren grabs a handful of napkins from one of the tables. She dabs with the tissue at my shirt. Where the liquid has seeped in, the bright blue color of my shirt has darkened. “Don’t move. Uh… fuck. Sorry.”
She looks at me with wide eyes, mortified, and I burst out into laughter again. No one’s ever had the guts to tell me to stop moving. I’m shaking so much with half-suppressed laughter I can’t even access my talker anymore, tears streaming over my face. Lauren stops cleaning my clothes and buries her head in her hands with a low groan, her shoulders jumping with the giggles.
When we both have some control again, Lauren crouches down in front of me and presses the napkins onto the wet patches in my lap.
So here’s the thing. If you’re notoriously underfucked and a beautiful woman rubs her hands over your pants near your private parts, there’s zero you can do to prevent a reaction. Like, not even your best image of your math teacher naked or whatever turns you off. It won’t work. Because nature is stronger.
I react instinctively, knock my right fist against the joystick and back away from Lauren before she can notice my predicament. “It’s fine,” I drawl, not daring to look up at her, my cheeks burning. This really isn’t what I need right now. Or maybe it kind of is, in fact. But it’s definitely the wrong time for it.
Right, she doesn’t understand me. I force my hand to lean over to the talker. “It’s okay. Don’t bother with the champagne. It’s not your fault.”
Lauren is silent next to me. I still don’t manage to look properly at her but this time it’s because of tight muscles in my neck forcing my head to turn into another direction. “Sorry,” I add in my computer voice. The word was still saved among ‘recently used’ as it seems to be the word of the evening.
Lauren shifts uneasily.
Is she pissed off at me? I probably came across like some kind of dick, refusing her help in cleaning my clothes. God, why did I have to fuck it up? I’m just terrible at this, I guess. I’d give everything to be able to vanish right now. If I attempted to leave, though, I probably wouldn’t even make it out of the building on my own because I can’t open doors or push buttons in an elevator. Although it’s always the case wherever I go, it’s never been clearer to me than now that I’m literally trapped in here.
Lauren swallows nervously and steps a bit closer, tentatively as if I might bite, her perfume torturing my nose with its pleasantness. Why is she still here? It’d be a piece of cake for her to walk away. As far as I’m informed Lauren shouldn’t have any problems with opening doors. My growing anger gets ramped up even more when I realize she probably wants to leave but feels responsible for me and doesn’t dare to leave me alone. Geez, I’m not completely helpless, I can survive very well without an assistant for a while. Okay, not for a long while, I guess, and not particularly well. But it’s not like I need Lauren to stay for me.
I’ve just started to type that last part in when Lauren clears her throat. The muscles in my neck finally loosen up enough to allow me to look up at her. Lauren’s cheeks are almost as pink as mine probably are and her eyes are strangely wide. What’s going on with her?
“No, I should apologize…” she whispers and blinks. “I’m… That was… I’m sorry.”
I stare at her, my throat going instantly dry as her glazed-over eyes meet mine. My gaze is drawn to her hand still holding the napkins and for a split moment I wonder how it would be to reach out and take hold of it. I could maybe feel the pulse racing under her skin, could see if her heart beats in her throat just as wildly as mine does. My arm moves, but instead of taking her hand in mine it simply slides from the armrest while my left fist snaps to my chest with a soft thud. I can’t suppress a groan as a wicked spasm contorts my face.
Definitely not the right time for an embarrassing attack.
My legs fold tighter at the knees and lift off the footrest, while my upper body starts shaking against the support of my wheelchair. I don’t try to fight it because I know there’s no point, it’s better to let the spasm take its course. I hear Lauren gasp above me and my heart sinks.
That’s probably it for me now.
Lauren won’t want to put up with something like this. I can’t blame her, I’m pretty sure I look ridiculous when my muscles lock up in one of those more severe storms, and drool’s running down my chin with nothing to hold it back. I don’t think anyone can take me seriously who has seen that.
If they ever did take me seriously before.
Lauren makes a muffled sound and steps closer, her eyes huge and timid. Her full lips part and I can see her chest heaving under the fabric of her dress. Surprisingly, she doesn’t look like she wants to leave. If I had the momentary control to move my arm in a direction I wanted it to be, I’m pretty sure I could actually touch her because she’s much closer than she’s ever been before. Lauren exhales and I can feel the air moving over my cheeks. I can barely make sense of what is going on, my body is buzzing and I feel a bit dizzy. That must be the reason for believing that for one second it looks like Lauren is bending down to me and—
“Okay, everything’s ready!”
Lauren startles and turns around abruptly. A whimper of protest dies in my throat with the instant reminder where we are and that we’re not alone, not by any means.
Romina makes her way through the crowd, waving, and then stops in front of us, grinning triumphantly. “I got a table for all of us, as well.”
“Oh… uh… that’s good,” Lauren squeaks and tucks back strands of hair that have fallen into her face. She smiles at Romina and balls the napkins in her hands. “We haven’t had time to… uh… search for a table yet.”
Romina quickly wipes spit from my lips and then hesitates, pulling her eyebrows together. “What happened here?” She has noticed the wet patch on my shirt and pants.
I can’t speak with my jaw still painfully locked and I can’t access the talker in the moment, either, but I don’t need to because Lauren is acting quickly. “I spilled my champagne,” she explains, grinning rather convincingly. “Stupid me, huh?” She titters and waves the empty glass of champagne through the air.
Romina makes a noncommittal sound in the back of her throat and bends down to place my trembling right hand on the joystick. The muscles in my arm are too tight though, so it just slides back into my lap again, fingers twitching.
Romina eyes darken a bit with understanding and she studies my screwed-up face. “Leave?” her lips form the silent question. She knows I hate being in public when I’m having a bad time with my body.
I shake my head minutely and exhale slowly. This will be over in a bit, or at least I desperately hope so. Otherwise I’m not sure I’ll be able to down a single spoon of food, least communicate properly, and I’d really hate letting this opportunity slide to get to know Lauren better.
Romina reads my pleading gaze correctly. “We’ll give it a minute,” she says, and gently squeezes my quivering arm that is folded across my chest.
I catch Lauren throwing a furtive glance at me as Romina doesn’t watch, her cheeks still a little pink. She bites on her lips and it makes a warm shiver run down my spine.
So I haven’ been totally wrong. She felt something, too.
When the foyer has almost emptied, I gain back some limited amount of control over my body and manage to steer the powerchair to the large open doors leading into the dining hall. As we go through, Romina turns around to me and lifts her eyebrows. She gives me an inquiring look, pointing with her head to Lauren who walks in the front.
My brain is still a bit foggy and my muscles are only very slowly returning to their normal state of stiffness, so I shrug at Romina as best as I can and choose to say... nothing.
---> Chapter 3
---> Chapter 3