I made an art of being late. Unfortunate acts of clumsiness were my paintbrush, and New York City was my canvas. There was the time I didn't show up to work because I thought I had won the lottery. As it turned out, I was reading last week's numbers. I had texted my boss on the way to pick up my winnings. I told him I'd never need to attend another should have been an email meeting on my mega yacht, where beautiful, tanned men would be hand-feeding me grapes. Unfortunately, my boss had actually printed out the text and framed it for the office, and the only thing being hand-fed to me that night was stale popcorn… by myself.
Then there was the time I watched Marley and Me the night before work and couldn’t stop crying long enough to make myself presentable. I’d gotten on the wrong trains, spent thirty minutes looking for keys to the car I didn’t own, and once even missed dinner with my best friend because my dog was having a mental breakdown.
Yeah. I wasn't proud of it, but I was kind of a walking disaster. Okay. More than kind of. I was a chaos magnet. If there was a button you absolutely should not under any circumstances push, a priceless vase, a heart-attack-prone old man, or just about anything that can be messed up, I was probably the last person you wanted around. But hey. I was a damn good journalist. The fact that I still had a job was a testament to that. Of course, the bottom-of-the-barrel assignments I always seemed to land were also a reminder that I was permanently and irrevocably on the shit list. It was hard to get ahead when you had a tendency to accidentally shoot yourself in the foot, no matter how good your stories were.
“Wake up,” I said, kicking my brother in the ribs. Braeden groaned and rolled over. He was turning thirty in a week, and he still lived with my parents. Their one requirement was that he help with chores around the house. Of course, he never did, which meant they would occasionally make the empty threat to kick him out. He’d crash on the floor of my closet of an apartment for a day or two until things blew over with them, and then he’d be out of my hair again.
If I was a functional mess, Braeden was my dysfunctional counterpart. He had all the same self-sabotaging genetics without the perseverance to fix his mistakes. The result was a twenty-nine-year-old whose primary hobby was playing Pokemon Go on his phone, who sometimes moonlighted as a "sanitation officer," which was basically a minimum-wage gig picking up trash for the city.
“The sun isn’t even up yet,” he groaned.
“Yeah, well, your two-day grace period is up, B. I need you to go patch things up with mom and dad so I can have my shoebox to myself again.”
“We’ll see. I’ve got a pokemon I wanted to catch while I’m downtown. Maybe after that.”
I threw on my coat, settled for two different shoes—one dark brown and one navy blue, because I was out of time to keep searching—and crept through the hallway of my apartment. I lived across the hall from the landlord, and she never missed an opportunity to remind me how much money I owed her.
Yes, I paid my rent. Eventually. My shit list assignments weren’t exactly the top paying jobs at the magazine, so sometimes I had to pay other bills. Like electricity. If I was feeling really adventurous, I even bought food. My parents weren’t loaded, but they were both teachers, and they made enough money to lend me some if I was ever in desperate need. I wasn’t exactly too proud to ask, but I didn’t want them to worry about me, so I swore Braeden to secrecy on the bare contents of my fridge and pantry. I’d get on my feet soon, anyway, so there was no point in making a big deal out of it.
Living in New York wasn’t cheap, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. If there was ever a city that understood my own particular brand of chaos, it was here. With so many people choking the streets at every hour of the day, I couldn’t help but blend in, no matter how much of a mess I was or if my shoes didn’t match.
I enjoyed my commute, even on the days when I was running so far behind schedule that I knew I was going to get reamed out when I got there.
The office I worked in was bare-bones, to put it delicately. Our desks were particle board with peeling coats of gray paint. The walls were thin and let in almost every possible sound from the traffic outside. Many of our computers were still the old bulky kind where the monitor weighed about thirty pounds and was the size of an overfed toddler. Print journalism was dying an ugly death, and my workplace made no secret of it. The only people left in the business were the ones too stupid to smell the roses or the ones who enjoyed it too much to care. I liked to think I was a little bit of both.
As soon as I arrived, Hank came storming out from his corner office—a desk just like the rest of ours, except his was tucked in the corner of the large space we all shared. He was our lead editor, and pretty much the only person I ever directly dealt with. There was, of course, Mr. Weinstead, but he didn’t bother with the grunt-work. He just made sure we had advertisers for our magazine and that somebody paid the rent for our little slice of the skyscraper we called an office.
My best friend, Candace, was waving her arms and bulging her eyes at me from her desk as Hank approached. I gathered that she was trying to warn me, but wasn’t sure what it was she thought I could do if Hank was about to lay another dumpster assignment on me.
Hank sized me up, as he had a habit of doing. He had thick eyebrows that looked disturbingly similar to his mustache, which also had the confusing effect of making it look like he had a third eyebrow above his lip, or maybe two mustaches over his eyes. I could never decide which. He was gray at the temples but still had all the nervous energy of a young man.
“On time today?” he barked. It was almost an accusation, like he was trying to figure out what my angle was.
“Yes?” I tried.
“Good. Maybe I won’t fire you quite yet.”
“You’ve been threatening to fire me since I started working here. What’s that, three years now? Just admit it, Hank. You couldn’t bear the thought of losing me or my talent.”
Candace, who was listening in from her desk, stuck her finger in her mouth and mocked gagging. I tried not to grin back at her, because I knew Hank sniffed out fun like a bloodhound and would do whatever it took to squash it.
Hank lowered his mustaches—or eyebrows—in annoyance. “The only thing I’ll admit is I enjoy having someone to dump the assignments no one else will take on. Speaking of which…”
“Wild guess. You’re going to have me interview the owner of a garbage hauling company. No, wait. Maybe it’ll be the guy who owns that business where they pick up dog poop from in front of your house for a low monthly fee. Am I close?”
“No,” growled Hank. “You’re going to pose as an intern at Galleon Enterprises. They’re a—”
“Hotshot marketing business. Yeah,” I said. “I know. You may keep my nose buried in crap, but believe it or not, I do actually stay up to date with the business world.” I said it with a hint of pride. It was true, after all. Everybody here could make me into a joke or a laughing stock, and sometimes it was even easier to play along. But at the end of the day, I was a journalist, and I took my job seriously. I read editorials, I kept apprised on stock market performance to sniff up-and-comers in the business world, and I even read several blogs about journalism and writing to keep sharp.
“You’re going to do whatever it takes to gather dirt on Bruce Chamberson.”
“What kind of dirt?” I asked.
“If I knew that, do you think I’d be sending you in there?”
“Hank… This sounds suspiciously like a good assignment. Am I missing a punchline somewhere?”
For once, the hard expression on his face softened, even if it was just a touch. “I’m giving you a chance to prove you’re not a fuck up. I expect you to fail miserably, for the record.”
I set my jaw. “I won’t let you down.”
He looked at me like an idiot for a few seconds until I realized he had just said he expected me to fail.
“You know what I meant,” I groaned before heading to Candace’s desk.
She leaned forward, smiling wide. Candace was somewhere around my age. Twenty-five, maybe a little younger. I met her two years ago when I started working for Hank and Business Insights magazine. She had boyishly short blonde hair, but a cute enough face to pull it off and huge blue eyes. “Galleon Enterprises?” she asked. “They’re a fortune 500 company, you know.”
“Do you think it would be okay if I peed my pants now, or should I maybe wait until no one’s watching?” I asked.
Candace shrugged. “If you pee on Jackson’s desk, I’ll cover for you. I think he has been stealing my yogurts out of the fridge.”
“I’m not your biological weapon, Candace.”
“Galleon Enterprises,” she mused, almost wistfully. “You have seen pictures of the CEO, Bruce Chamberson and his brother, right?”
“Should I have?”
“Only if you’re into gorgeous twins with a side of melted panties.”
“Okay. Ew. I think if hot guys are melting your panties, you may want to get that checked out.”
“All I’m saying is, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you to buy some thermal panties before your first day.”
I squinted. “Please tell me that’s not really a thing.”
She jutted her head forward, mouth open in a duh kind of way. “Come on, Nat. What do you think female astronauts wear?”
As usual, I was left feeling dazed, confused, and a little disturbed after my conversation with Candace. I enjoyed her, though. I didn’t have time for friends in the traditional sense—the kind of way sitcoms made you think everybody with a pulse lived their lives. Watch a few TV shows and you’d think the average adult spent ninety to ninety-five percent of their lives just hanging out with friends or working. Not to mention how the whole “working” part was also just a different backdrop to hanging out with friends.
Maybe it was just me, but my life was more like five percent friends, sixty percent work, and thirty-five percent worrying about work. Oh, and ten percent sleeping. Yes, I know that’s more than one hundred percent, and no, I don’t care. The point is that my life was no sitcom. It was a whole lot of lonely with a healthy dose of fear that I’d end up homeless, or worse, forced to move somewhere else and give up on my dream. And worse than all of that was the looming possibility that I was going to become Braeden. I’d end up in my old room with silly-putty stains on the walls from where my One Direction and Twilight posters used to hang.
Candace was a small dose of the life I wanted, and she was one I wished I had more time for, so I happily took the lasting feeling of confusion I was always left with after speaking to her.
Once I was back at my desk, the reality of my assignment started to sink in. Candace could make it into a joke if she wanted, but after two years, I was finally getting a chance to prove myself. I could write an amazing story. I could prove I deserved the better jobs—the higher paying jobs. For once, I wasn’t going to mess it up.