“Is Romina waiting inside?”
The second part of the taxi drive to the airport was even shorter than the first half, at least in my memory. The city was flying by outside the windows as Lauren’s hands were roaming over my body, her fingertips gliding over twitching muscles and writhing limbs, caressing every inch she could reach with a tender determination that made hot waves of pleasure run through my bones. Her lips were sweet and warm on mine and her tongue carefully exploring between them, tentatively licking into my mouth. She tasted better than anything I’ve ever had and I couldn’t get enough of her.
I never wanted it to stop. I wanted the taxi to drive rounds and rounds through the city and never come to its destination.
But of course it did and because traffic was still much less congested than expected, we arrived much earlier than we’d thought, even though we’d stopped along the way.
Lauren paid with my money and the disgruntled look partly vanished from the driver's face when she almost doubled the price with her tip. He even demeaned himself to help her detach the straps that fix the wheelchair in the car. Lauren then used the attendant controls to steer my chair down the ramp backward.
Lauren is standing next to me now by the road while people stream around us. She clutches the handle of her red suitcase closely to herself. I don’t have my suitcase with me because Romina is taking care of my luggage, as always.
Lauren stares at the rotating doors of the entrance to the terminal and I can tell she’s nervous to say goodbye. She has to catch a bus to the international terminal and there’s no real point for her to go inside the building with me. She turns around to me. “Will we try to stay in contact?” she asks.
I nod. We can always try, can’t we?
It’s now or never. I’ve made my decision. I’ve made it long before, actually. Maybe already when Lauren showed up at the speaker’s table after my talk yesterday.
“Would you… um, help me find Romina?” I ask her and jerk my head to the terminal building. Behind the glass wall, people with their luggage are bustling around, families and business travelers, flight assistants and airport workers. In regular intervals announcements over the speakers can be heard, slightly muffled. It’s not that far-fetched to ask for help finding someone in those conditions, especially when your line of sight is below most people’s chest height.
Lauren’s head flies up and she beams. “Yes, of course.” Seems like she’s equally as eager to prolong time with me until we have to part. Her flight is in a couple of hours, so she has time for that, too.
That makes it easy.
I would find Romina on my own, that’s for sure. The airport is fully accessible even to me and I know pretty exactly where she’ll be. But I have other plans and they require Lauren to stay with me for a short while longer.
We enter through the wide wheelchair entrance to the right of the rotating doors after I bumped the front part of my right armrest against the large button that opens the automatic door.
“Did you agree upon a meeting point?” Lauren asks as soon as we’re standing in the middle of the foyer.
I nod and need only a few seconds to orient myself. I know some international airports better than the supermarket at home. Granted, that might have to do a lot more with the fact that I almost never do the grocery shopping and less with me being a frequent flyer. But it’s true.
We slowly make our way through the thick flock of people and into one of the many large elevators that are already waiting. We ride up to the waiting area with shops and restaurants and I lead the way to cross through to the side of the building facing the runway, pretending I’m looking out for signs and directions although I pretty well know where we’re going.
“Patrick…” Lauren’s footsteps stop shortly before resuming following me. By now, we’ve managed to let the crowd behind us and are moving down a clean, empty corridor.
“Where are we going? Are you sure-“
We round a corner and stop in front of two large sliding doors with milky glass panes and golden ornaments painted on.
“Hello ma’am, sir. What can I do for you?”
The young guy in a spotless black suit standing right behind a small counter on the side and smiling at us in a practiced way doesn’t look familiar to me. Damn, why do they change out personnel so quickly?
The guy’s smile doesn’t waver the slightest when a small groan escapes me. “Are you members?”
I’d like to nod but my neck has other plans unfortunately. My head cranes back and a couple of grimaces flit over my face.
“Can I see your membership cards? Ma’am?”
“Um…” Lauren bows down to me. “This looks like a business lounge or something, Patrick. I think we should just-”
Frustrated with my body, I grunt something and force the knuckles of my right hand to lean against the screen. I’ve just started the slow process of typing when a second, middle-aged man comes through the door behind the counter. Immediately when he sees us a smile spreads on his round face. “Ah, Mr. Hallman. We’ve been awaiting you.”
“Suresh… hi…” I don’t think I’ve ever felt more grateful for being the most recognizable guy in an airport lounge.
Suresh comes round the counter, squeezes my upper right arm and cups my right fist on the joystick in a sort-of handshake. Although it surprises me I certainly like it more than people standing around awkwardly with no clue what to do. “Ah…” Suresh turns to Lauren. “Well, well… Who is the beautiful lady?” he asks with a beaming smile and offers his hand to Lauren.
“Um… Lauren Brooks,” Lauren says, shaking his hand and throwing confused looks at me.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Brooks.” Suresh gesticulates to the sliding doors. “Please, please, follow me through here. Would you like something to drink, Miss Brooks, champagne perhaps?”
“Alex, go and fetch two glasses of our best, would you? And one straw.”
“Oh… um… of course.” The young guy startles, his gaze flits over me before he vanishes behind the door in his back while we follow Suresh into the lounge.
It’s not the largest lounge in this airport, nor has it the best view or the best drinks. The better lounges are located after security. But this one is still rather convenient if you have a meeting scheduled directly after arrival or just simply need an undisturbed place in the city. Right now there are not many people present. There’s an older guy in a corner with red plush chairs, reading a newspaper and checking his watch every few seconds, obviously waiting for someone. And at a table in the back there’s Romina.
“I already checked our bags,” she says in lieu of greeting when we approach.
“Thanks,” I say. I know from experience with this airport that I can stay in my powerchair until shortly before boarding, which is a blessing. There’s nothing worse for me than being forced into an airport wheelchair that doesn’t provide nearly enough support for me. I always feel like falling out every time even moderate spasms grab my body or simply when I go round a corner, because the seat is not molded to fit my crooked body. Plus I can’t steer those manual chairs myself and I tend to slide into uncomfortable positions that make it hard to breathe. So yes, as much as I despise my own chair at times, I know that in reality it’s one of the most valuable things I own.
I maneuver the wheelchair around the last table and arrive at Romina’s place. Suresh has made sure to move all chairs out of my way but I guess he can’t make the tables vanish. “Thanks, Suresh.”
Suresh bows a little. “If you need anything you’ll only need to ask, Mr. Hallman. Your drinks will be with you in no time.”
I smile at him and he leaves. I turn the chair to face Romina. “Have you gotten what I asked you for?” My stomach churns a bit because most of my plan is dependent on several people working seamlessly together in a very limited amount of time.
Romina nods and places my tablet down on the table. I steer the wheelchair behind the table and Romina pulls the tablet closer so that I can read its content.
“Um… Patrick, what-?”
I look up at Lauren who is standing somewhat forlorn near the table. “Please, Miss Brooks, take a seat.”
It takes a few seconds for Lauren to understand me. She snorts a little but takes out the chair across from me and sits. Her smile grows unsure, however, when I don’t acknowledge her any further. “Fancy lounge…” She giggles, slightly nervous. “Why are we here, Patrick?”
Our drinks arrive but no one takes notice of it. Lauren is staring at me and I’m still studying the tablet.
I move my hand to the talker and then look at Lauren across from me. “So, Miss Brooks. As I see you have applied for a position as a…” I jerk my chin at Romina and she scrolls a bit further down on the tablet. “As a…” I pause, waiting for Romina to continue scrolling. “Ah, that’s a good one, I guess. Thanks Romina,” I say to my aide. I busy myself with the talker again. “As a senior researcher in our research division,” the talker says.
Lauren’s eyebrows jump up. “What?”
I struggle to reach the tablet on the table and manage to slide the device over a bit with the back of my hand. Lauren takes it and turns it around to herself to read the application form on the screen. Most of her personal data is already plugged in, almost all, in fact, except for her signature. Whoever my brother instructed with researching personal information about Lauren, I’m mildly impressed by the quick and thorough work, and I make a mental note to ask who he set up to it.
Lauren lets the tablet sink, her eyebrows furrowed. “I’ve never-”
I cough weakly, my upper body slumping into the strap around my chest. It makes Lauren stop talking effectively. “We’ll talk about the details later, won’t we,” I rasp, and Romina relays quickly. I return my hand to the talker. “Now, Miss Brooks. Let’s talk about your expectations in this job. And our expectations in you.”
“Is this a… is this a job interview?” Lauren asks, blood draining from her face quickly.
“But…” Lauren turns the tablet around in her hands, nervously. “How can… don’t you have to contact your boss first?”
I chuckle a bit. She is cute when she’s clueless. “I talked to my brother,” I say. “But technically I don’t need to ask anyone.”
When Lauren keeps staring at me with a confused expression in her face I nod to the tablet. “Do you see the company’s logo?”
Lauren blinks and looks down at the tablet between her hands. “The H squared?”
“H and H… Hallman and Hallman?” Comprehension lights up in her eyes. “Oh my goodness, this isn’t …? I had no … That’s incredible!”
I grin at Lauren’s incredulous face. Yes, the company that my brother and I started a few years ago might not be overly large, but we’ve been growing steadily since then. And you don’t need to be big or popular to be important. You only need to do what no one else does, and make it good. And we are good at what we do, as has been shown again by the invitation to this conference.
Something fierce flashes in Lauren’s eyes. “You don’t need to do this,” she says suddenly and places the tablet down on the table.
I look at her questioningly.
Lauren crosses her arms. “I know why you’re doing it and I appreciate it. It’s really sweet. If I’d work in your company I could move back, and I want that. But not at any cost.”
“And what cost would that be?” I ask her, letting Romina relay again.
“I’d be forever indebted to you.”
I shake my head. “Only if you’d prove to be an absolute failure at work. Otherwise we’d be lucky to have you.”
“And how do you know I’m good for your company?” Lauren asks, narrowing her eyes. “Maybe I’m a completely lost case and you’re wasting your money on me.”
I nod. “That’s what a job interview is for, isn’t it? To find that out. Of course there’s always a residual risk. That will be on me, I guess.”
I don’t think there is, though. I’d definitely never offer Lauren a position if I were not a hundred percent sure she’ll be great working with us. When I talked to my brother about open positions it wasn’t hard to convince him. Yes, it may have helped that he could barely suppress his obvious delight hearing that I’m doing actual recruiting for once. But I only needed to tell him what I’d gathered from Lauren’s conversation with me after my talk and she was basically hired.
I still need to confide in him that I’m also stupidly in love with our newest possible hire. But that has time until her contract is safe and sound, I think.
If he hasn’t already put one and one together, anyway.
First, though, we need to bring this job interview behind us.
Lauren’s shoulders relax a bit. “You’d hire me even if we hadn’t… you now…? Even if I were just someone you’ve met on the conference?”
I hesitate. In reality, I probably wouldn’t have. I hate recruiting. Picture me in a regular job interview and you know why. There’s nothing worse than having a candidate stare at you the entire time, knowing that the most important question on their mind is if this guy is for real or someone is having a very cruel joke with them. So nope, I probably wouldn’t even have asked Lauren if she was searching for a job, simply to avoid having to go through just that. But she doesn’t need to know that now. I hope we’ll have time for more conversations later. Anyway, it doesn’t change my view of her as a very valuable addition to our company.
Lauren finally nods. “Okay… let’s do this, I guess.” She folds her hands on the table, squeezing them together. She looks nervous again.
I move my hand to the talker. “To make things equal between us I suggest you let Romina set the tablet up for text to speech.”
Romina catches my look, nods and goes over to prepare the tablet. I use it as a spare if ever my talker should break on a journey and it has the same programs installed. Lauren frowns at me, surprised and apprehensive.
“A little test, perhaps,” I say through the talker once Lauren is set up. “How are you Miss Brooks?”
“Um…” Lauren blushes when I grunt somewhat gruffly at her attempt at speaking and obediently she returns her hand to the tablet. “Good,” the tablet reads out loud after a few seconds. Romina has switched it to a female voice that I haven't heard before. It’s nice.
Lauren looks at the tablet and then at me, a bit uncomfortable. She’ll get the hang of things quickly, I’m sure. “Excellent. Now, let us begin.”
With Lauren and me both typing out our questions and answers we don’t really manage to cover all what is necessary in a proper job interview in the short time that is left until I’ll have to go through security. But as I said, we can talk about details later. I make sure that Lauren knows the most important facts about the job we’re offering her, and we fix a few dates, like the time she’ll be able to start working with us. She’s nervous in the beginning, but it vanishes quickly. Typing gives her plenty of time to gather her thoughts, I assume, and also I hope my presence is not the most menacing she’s ever experienced in a job interview.
“If you’re still interested, Miss Brooks, we’ll be happy to have you,” I type finally. The contract will be send to her as soon as we have clarified all remaining open questions.
Lauren sits back in her chair, her cheeks a bit rosy but a huge, relieved smile on her face. “Of course I am. This sounds great.” She chuckles and moves her hand off the tablet. “Thanks for everything… Patrick,” she says in her own voice, her eyes resting on me.
I smile back at her, my stomach making tiny flips of joy. She’ll move back and I’ll be able to see her regularly. I allow myself to start dreaming about the things we will do. We can go have lunch together and after work we can do those ordinary things that people do in their free time. I won’t be her direct boss, so that won’t make things awkward, I hope. We can go to a museum again, go to the theater, have dinner together… There are endless possibilities ahead of us and I can hardly wait for it to start. It’s still almost a year until her current job position ends, though, and I already feel impatient now.
We don’t have time to finish our drinks in the lounge before Romina announces it’s time for us to leave. Lauren takes the handle of her suitcase in hand and we exit, Suresh and Alex escorting us out with lots of well-wishes. I promise to come back next time I’ll stay in the city.
The dreaded entrance to the security line that can only be crossed by passengers with a domestic flight ticket arrives much too early. I turn the wheelchair around to face Lauren. In the corner of my eyes I can see that Romina gives us space, talking to the security personnel guarding the area.
“I’ll miss you,” I say to Lauren before I grow too anxious to say it.
Lauren smiles when she understands it, her eyes glistening a bit. “Me too,” she says. She watches my right arm slip from the armrest and the fingers twitch at bit in my lap, before taking my hand in hers, squeezing lightly. I can’t believe how well she can gauge what I’d like to do even if my body doesn’t always let me. “We’ll talk over skype, okay?”
I nod, my legs quivering as I try to squeeze her hand back. “I can’t wait,” I say out loud what’s on my mind. “I really… want to see you again.”
“We’ll see each other again.”
I suppress a sigh. “If only I could make you stay now...” I’ve done what I could, though. There’s no way to make her stay here right now, I know that. And it’s not her fault, either.
Lauren shakes her head with her lips pressed together and I’m left wondering if she understood me when she bends down and kisses me softly on the lips, shortly before my head is jerking away.
“I’d stay if I could,” she whispers. “I like you a lot, Patrick, you know?” She replaces my hand on the joystick and gently thumbs away some wetness under my left eye. My face is hot but somehow I’m not embarrassed because I can see Lauren is fighting tears, too.
“Give my greetings to Uluru,” I say slowly, already moving the wheelchair around toward the entrance to security, where Romina is waiting.
“Maybe you can give them yourself,” Lauren says. She keeps standing with her suitcase, watching me wheel away. “Not in a way you like, perhaps…”
I grimace but yes, she’s right. “Maybe.”
She lifts her hand and waves at me, and I swivel the chair around to her fully again and lift a finger from the armrest, my left arm snapping to my chest and my face contorting again. Well, what a wonderful last image of me.
Lauren smiles, though, and then she’s swallowed by the crowd and I concentrate on steering the wheelchair through the narrow gap to the short line of first and business class security, Romina following me. A middle-aged man in an airport uniform is already waiting at the front of the line and waving at me with a pair of plastic gloves in his hands. I sigh but I manage to give him a friendly nod.
It’s only one year. And maybe, if I can make myself go through with it and board a plane to freaking Australia once or twice in the course of it, it may be even shorter than that. I’m already now dreading the journey but I know one thing for sure…
It will be worth it.