Now for this holiday season, I decided to finish off Dean and Callie's story with a final novella that can only be read as part of the Santa's Girl Box Set:
So I don't want anyone who is a fan of the series to have to pay full price for the entire box set just to read the final novella, so I am keeping it at 99 cents (the minimum Amazon will allow) if you get it on preorder now. This is just for you guys. When it releases on Nov 12, the price will go up to $3.99.
Buy it now on Amazon. Or else read an excerpt....
This suit fits like shit.
Suits are not meant to be worn by people sitting down. That is not to say that when you are wearing a suit, you’re not allowed to sit down. But obviously, the ideal position for someone wearing a suit (or really, any clothing) is standing up. That’s why they usually show models standing up, not sitting in a chair.
The jacket I’m wearing, for example, is too long in the back. I don’t want to sit on the hem of it, because it will cause pressure on my butt, but if I’m not sitting on it, it bunches up. The pants are wrong too. When I sit, they slide down in the back, and the fly zipper pouches out a little too much. But my mom thankfully removed all the back pockets from my pants soon after my injury, so at least I don’t have to worry about pressure injuries caused by pockets.
Like I said, it’s exhausting sometimes.
I wish I could stand. Just for this interview. I wish I could stride into VP Howard Thornton’s office, look him straight in the eyes without having to tilt my head up, and shake his hand. I wish just for today, I could leave the wheelchair behind at home.
But I can’t, of course. I can never leave the wheelchair behind. I will never be able to leave the wheelchair behind. Not short of a medical miracle.
Most days it doesn’t bother me anymore. It really doesn’t. It’s been almost three years—actually, coming up on the three-year anniversary—and I’ve heard that’s the point where it doesn’t bother you as much anymore. Two years was really rough, for some reason. I spent most of Christmas wallowing in self-pity and drinking a lot, until Callie yelled at me to get over myself. If not for her, it would have been a lot harder.
Anyway, even though most days it doesn’t bother me, there are times when it does. For instance, when I’m meeting a new person, and I see that flicker of surprise and discomfort. And then they don’t know quite how to talk to me. I want to snap at them that I’m just a normal person sitting down, but I feel like that would make the situation worse.
Priscilla took a full day to get back to me, as I predicted. She sent me a really long email where she was tripping all over herself to explain about all the options for getting into the building, and how she’d be available to help with “absolutely anything” I need. I told her I’d be fine as long as I could get inside and there’s an elevator (TriCorp is located on the twelfth floor), although part of me is scared I’ll get stymied by some doorway that’s not as wide as I need it to be.
My best shot is to keep from calling attention to my disability. But I don’t have much control over that.
I want this job. I need steady employment to feel worthy of a woman like Callie Quinn. I have a ring I bought her last month that’s been hidden away at the bottom of my underwear drawer, waiting for the right moment to bring it out. I can’t picture my life without her—that part I’m sure of. But I want to be absolutely sure she feels the same way about me. I don’t want there to be any hesitation when she says yes. I don’t want her to ever look back on a “yes” with regret.
No pressure or anything.
I try not to think about any of this as I drive to TriCorp, but it’s not easy. I’m gripping the wheel so hard with my left hand that my knuckles turn white. I pull into the parking lot below the building and locate the handicapped spots near the entrance. It’s funny how automatic it’s become in the last few years to go right to those spaces—in the beginning, I would feel guilty for parking there, because for the first twenty-something years of my life, those were the spots meant for other people—older, more infirm people. Now those are the spots meant for me. They’re the only ones I can use.
There are four of them, only one of which is taken. But I notice, to my horror, that only the occupied spot has extra room on the side. The others are close to the entrance but don’t have extra space for me to get out of the car and into my wheelchair.
I don’t give a shit if I nab parking close to the entrance. I’ve got two working arms and can wheel as far as I need to. What I need is that extra space on the side. There are plenty of places I could park that have an open spot next to it, but then if someone else parks next to me, I’ll be screwed when I want to get back in my car.
None of this makes me feel optimistic about this job.
My solution is to park between two consecutive handicapped spots, which will hopefully keep anyone from parking directly alongside my car. It’s not a perfect solution, but I don’t have a ton of time to problem-solve this. If I get a ticket, so be it. After all, I’ve got a lawyer in the family who can help me fight it.
The company is located on the twelfth floor of the building. When I get out of the elevators, I see a men’s room, so I take a detour. Not that I need to go (I took care of all that prior to leaving the house), but I want to make sure I look okay. A full-length mirror is probably too much to hope for, but at least I can make sure I don’t have spinach in my teeth or something obvious like that.
Unfortunately, even though there’s a sink lowered to my height in the chair, the genius who designed this bathroom didn’t think to lower the mirror as well. So all I can really see is my eyes in a mirror that’s way too high for me. Perfect. I don’t want to take this as a bad sign, but it’s hard not to. Priscilla assured me the building was “very accessible,” but so far, I’ve been met with difficulty parking and an inaccessible bathroom. I’m not feeling great about any of this. But I square my shoulders and head over to the company office.
Priscilla Baker is waiting for me outside the office when I arrive. I recognize her immediately—she looks exactly as I pictured her from the slim build to the efficient blond ponytail. She’s clutching a large packet of papers in her left hand as she waves frantically at me with her right, in case I somehow can’t see her standing right in front of me.
“Priscilla?” I say, even though there’s no one else it could possibly be.
“Yes!” She hesitantly reaches out to offer her hand, almost doesn’t do it, but then eventually decides whatever I’ve got isn’t contagious. Her hand feels small and fragile in mine. “It’s so nice to finally meet you, Dean. Did you have any trouble getting into the building?”
I hesitate. I don’t want to make a fuss before I’ve even got the job. “No, it was fine.”
Her shoulders sag with relief. “I’m so glad to hear that. Mr. Thornton is in the middle of something, but he asked if you could fill out some paperwork.”
“Paperwork?” I already filled out an extensive application. What more do they want to know about me? Alarm bells are going off. Maybe I need to talk to Callie.
“It’s just something Mr. Thornton likes to do with all his applicants,” she explains.
Again, I’m in no position to refuse. I want this job—I want the steady income, the benefits, and to feel like I’m good enough to ask Callie to marry me. So whatever this guy wants me to do, I’ve got to suck it up and do it.
Priscilla gives me a clipboard and a pen, and leaves me alone with the packet of papers, which feels like it’s at least twenty pages long. I flip through the questions, growing more and more perplexed by the contents.
Describe yourself in three words.
If you could be any Muppet, who would you be?
What is the color of success?
If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?
What kitchen appliance would you be?
Draw a dog.
Why are manhole covers circular?
That last one has thrown me for a loop. Why wouldn’t manhole covers be circular? It took me a good five minutes to draw a passable dog and I feel like I’m running out of time, so I quickly scribble:
Because people are cylindrical.
Hopefully that answer is sufficient. I don’t know what this guy wants from me. If saying Bunsen is my favorite Muppet means I don’t get this job, I’m going to be pretty upset. At least none of the questions have anything to do with my disability. They’re just weird in a general sort of way.
After about twenty minutes of working my way through these inane questions, Priscilla comes out, her eyebrows bunched together. “Mr. Thornton can see you now,” she says.
I gesture helplessly at the clipboard. “I didn’t finish…”
“Oh, it’s okay. He never reads the responses anyway.”
What the hell? So why did I spent twenty minutes working on it? Was this just a task to entertain me while I waited?
Priscilla opens the door to the office in the corner with the nameplate that reads “Howard Thornton.” It’s a gigantic office, with a plush dark leather sofa, a mahogany desk, a spectacular view, and it’s spacious enough that there’s enough room for a treadmill in the corner. And I know that because there is, in fact, a treadmill in the corner of the room. On which Howard Thornton is currently walking.
“Uh, hi,” I say awkwardly. “I’m Dean Palmer…”
“Hello, Dean.” Thornton doesn’t pause from walking on the treadmill. He’s wearing expensive-looking pants and a white dress shirt, although he’s paired them with sneakers. Still, he’s not exactly in workout gear. Not that being in gym shorts would make any of this more appropriate. “My name is Howard Thornton.”
He holds his hand out to me, but he’s still walking on the goddamn treadmill. I wheel over, squeezing into the tiny space between his desk and the machine, lean forward as much as I possibly can, and reach out my hand. I have to grab onto the pushrim of one of my wheels to keep from falling out of the chair in the process.
“I’m trying to get my ten-thousand steps in,” Thornton explains as he taps on the Fitbit on his wrist. “I hope you don’t mind.”
How can I mind? I’m the one being interviewed.
Thornton brushes a few sweaty strands of dark hair from his forehead. He looks in his early forties maybe—a youngish tech genius. Some of the tech guys are a little clueless, which probably explains the fact that he thinks it’s appropriate to conduct an interview from a treadmill.
“I make sure to do my ten-thousand steps every day,” Thornton tells me. “It’s just… well, I feel like it’s mentally therapeutic.”
“Oh,” I say.
“I’m not sure how to describe it to you,” he says, gesturing at my legs. “It would be like… describing yellow to a blind person.”
I don’t know whether or not to tell him that I was able to walk for the first twenty-six years of my life, and I know exactly what it’s like to take ten-thousand steps. In the end, I keep my mouth shut. The truth will bring up a whole lot of other questions I don’t feel like answering. Let him think I was born this way.
Thornton picks up a remote, and suddenly, Guns N’ Roses is blasting through the office. November Rain.
I can’t believe this.
“You like Guns N’ Roses?” Thornton asks me.
“Sure,” I say.
“What’s your favorite band?”
I’m not sure I have a favorite band anymore. I used to when I was a kid, but sometime in my twenties, I stopped feeling that sort of loyalty to musicians. But Thornton’s looking at me intently, waiting for my response. I’ve got to answer this question.
“Maroon 5?” I say. It comes out more like a question. So much for being confident.
Thornton looks disappointed by my answer. Maybe I should have said Guns N’ Roses. “How old are you?” he asks me.
“Uh. I’m twenty-nine.”
He nods, as if that explains my prior answer, although I’m not entirely sure why. “Do you get a lot of email?”
“Um… yes?” This is the craziest interview I’ve ever been to. I can barely even hear the guy over the blasting music.
“So say you had three-thousand emails in your inbox,” he says, “and you could only answer three of them, how would you pick which ones to answer?”
What. The. Fuck?
I rub my knees, trying to puzzle this one out. I wish he’d just ask me about Muppets. “I’d answer the ones from my boss?”
“I see.” His expression is unreadable. He presses a button on the treadmill and it speeds up. I wonder if at any point, he’s going to start outright sprinting. “If you could wish for only one thing in the whole world, what would you wish for?”
Don’t say something stupid. Don’t say something stupid.
“World peace,” I say.
What the hell kind of answer was that? What am I interviewing for—Miss America?
He blinks at me. “So you wouldn’t wish you could walk?”
“No,” I say, “that wouldn’t be my wish.”
“That’s hard to believe.”
If Callie were here, she’d be screaming out her objections. But she isn’t here. I’m all alone with this crazy guy. Anyway, it’s true. I do wish I could still walk. I really, really do. There isn’t one day that goes by where I don’t wish that. But if I only had one wish? That wouldn’t be it. Not anymore.
I shrug. “It’s the truth.”
Thornton presses a button on his treadmill, but instead of the thing going faster, it slows to a halt. And the music shuts off. He hops off the machine and slides behind his desk, into his leather armchair. At this point, I notice he’s got about two dozen multicolored pens scattered on his desk.
“Hang on,” he says to me. “I’ve got to take this call.”
I start to protest that his phone isn’t ringing or buzzing or doing anything to indicate he has a call, but then I figure, what’s the point? He picks up his Android, clearly dials a number, and waits for the other person to pick up. He then proceeds to have a ten-minute conversation right in front of me. The conversation spans a series of topics, but most of it involves some sort of online fantasy game Thornton has been playing, in which he’s “stuck” until he’s able to “get more Waordsholds,” except he can’t because of “those damned elves.”
At some point, I’m convinced he’s forgotten I’m even sitting in front of him. But then he hangs up as abruptly as he made the call, without even a goodbye.
“Sorry about that,” he says. “I had to take that call.”
“No problem,” I mutter.
He turns back to his array of pens, which he starts lining up in a row. He spends a good minute doing this before he looks up at me again.
“One thing I value more than anything, Dean,” he says, “is honesty.”
I nod. “Me too.”
“So tell me honestly.” He tilts a green pen so it’s perfectly aligned with the blue pen next to it. “What’s the value of the most expensive thing you’ve ever stolen?”
“Zero,” I answer instantly. “I’ve never stolen anything.”
“Please.” He picks up an orange pen and taps it against the table. “I said I wanted honesty. Be honest.”
I shift in my chair. “I’ve never stolen anything.”
“Please don’t lie to me, Dean. Just give me a number.”
“Um…” I don’t know what to say. I’ve never stolen anything in my life, but Thornton won’t accept that. “Eight dollars and twenty-three cents.”
His face brightens. “See? That wasn’t so hard!”
“What did you steal?”
I wrack my brain, trying to think what would cost eight dollars and twenty-three cents. “A stapler.”
He puts the orange pen back in the row. “Well, that’s not so bad. And I appreciate your honesty, Dean.”
I don’t even know what to say. I’m not sure what I would have eventually come up with, except at that moment, a fire alarm starts going off overhead. My heart speeds up and I glance behind me, then back at Thornton, who doesn’t seem concerned.
“It’s just a drill,” he says. “Don’t worry about it.”
Do office buildings have fire drills? I’ve never heard of it before, but I guess he would know better than me.
Thornton reaches into his desk and pulls out a piece of paper filled with tiny black print, organized in blocks. He slides it across his desk toward me. “I’d like you to take a look at this code and tell me what it does.”
I lean forward to grab the paper. My hands have grown so sweaty, they smudge the print on the paper. There’s so much code on this page and the print is so small, I have to hold it about a foot from my face in order to read it.
In the comfort of my own home, I’m sure this task would take five minutes tops. But with the tiny print and Thornton staring at me and the fire alarm still blaring overhead, I can’t make any sense of this code. I wish Thornton would do something with his computer or get back on the treadmill or even take/make another call, but instead he just stares.
I try to adjust myself in my chair, and then my right leg starts spasming. It jumps in the chair, even as I grab my knee to try to settle the spasm. Thornton’s eyes widen. “Are you having a seizure?”
“No,” I say quickly. “It’s just a muscle spasm.”
Stop jumping, Knee. Please stop.
“Are you sure? It’s okay if you have seizures. My second cousin’s son with cerebral palsy is in a wheelchair and he has seizures.”
Please stop moving. For Christ’s sake…
“It’s not a seizure.” My leg finally settles down, and I add, “Really.”
Thornton doesn’t look like he believes me, but I can’t worry about that now. I try to focus my attention back on the code, even though my temple is throbbing from the fire alarm. I want to solve it and end this interview. I’m not going to get this job. I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. I don’t even really want it anymore.
The Android on Thornton’s desk starts playing Alice Cooper’s “Poison.” He picks up and talks to someone for a few minutes, which doesn’t make it any easier to concentrate. After several minutes of chatting, he puts down the phone.
“Well,” he says, “it turns out the fire alarm isn’t a drill. There’s a fire in the building and we need to evacuate.”
“What?” I choke out.
Thornton rises from his seat. “Come on. The fire department is on its way.”
When I get out of Thornton’s office, all the lights are out and absolutely everyone has vanished—it looks like they left in quite a hurry. The scariest part is I can actually smell smoke. There is a fire somewhere in this building and I’m up on the twelfth floor. And I’m in a fucking wheelchair. What are the chances I’ll be able to get in the elevator?
I follow Thornton to the hallway, but just as I feared, the elevator isn’t functional. The first thing that happens when there’s a fire is the elevators get shut down. Thornton gestures at the door to the stairwell. “This is the only way out.”
Well, fuck me.
Thornton holds the door open for me so I can see how difficult the stairs situation is. It’s not great. Bumping down stairs is something I’m able to do, but these stairs will be tricky, if not impossible. They are really narrow and steep. One wrong move and I’ll go flying down the stairs, get thrown from my chair, and probably break a limb.
Thornton looks between me and the stairs, assessing the situation. “Your wheelchair doesn’t climb down stairs, does it?”
“No,” I say tightly.
He hesitates. “I could probably carry you.”
I’m no expert on job interviews, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no successful job interview has ever ended with being carried down twelve flights of stairs by your interviewer.
On the other hand, I don’t want to die.
“Okay,” I say.