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Suspense Funny Thriller

Why did I have to volunteer for everything? Stupid. I am stupid. It’s all Austin’s fault.

Beautiful, dark-horse, bed-head Austin—totally untouchable, utterly un-haveable but pathetic me must fantasize about it anyway.

Him and me, accidentally brushing hands as we reach for the coffee pot. Him and me, tangling eyes behind the potted ferns. Him and me, alone in the nap pods. Oh, hey you. Didn’t see you there. Ensue awkward but cute joke exchange. Followed by Long Personal Talk where we ‘totally connected’. That’s us--stumbling upon each other in all the right places, colliding into one another at all the perfect times--of course never on purpose but it doesn’t need to be because it was engineered by the love gods.

Only, that’s not us. That will never be us and I need to stop myself here, have to stop myself because once I start down this road, coming back to reality is all the more jarring. The sad truth is I have barely exchanged more than formal sentences with this man. We are professionals. Work mates. We aren’t even the co-workers who ‘get a drink after work’ or invite each other to group Sunday brunches where we share fountains of mimosas. Those are the other people. Austin and me, that isn’t us.

So when he asks who wants to stay for the ‘graveyard shift’ on Friday I raise my hand. Because he’s the co-founder of the Agency and someone has to do it…at least, that’s what I tell myself when I realize I have volunteered for the shit shift for the third month in a row.

That’s charitable of you Julia, he says with a smile and I shrug and say, Yeah I don’t have plans tonight anyway. Because I never have plans, unless of course you count a sad bottle of pinot and Bachelor in Paradise that I simultaneously hate but can’t stop watching (When are they going to shack up, anyway? Do I even care? Show it to me anyway) .

I wonder what Austin is doing now—no, no stop that. I have work to do and it’s far too late to be imagining Austin sorting through papers on his kitchen island in his penthouse loft, in a half unbuttoned shirt, glasses perched elegantly on his slender nose, long strong fingers leafing through—

Okay, seriously.

There is something peaceful about the office at night, though. I know I should have left a while ago but when I glance out the window there is a surprising amount of snow cascading over the city. There’s something majestic about it. Powerful yet silent at the same time. It’s as if the winter can finally let go, finally get to be itself.

Now I just sound ridiculous. That could be the cider talking. I found a lonesome can of it in the communal refrigerator. At first I thought maybe Austin left it for me, a thank-you note of sorts. But then I realized it was bubble gum flavored and who even drinks that? Yes, I most certainly did. Because I was desperate.

The longer I sit at my desk the harder the snow starts falling. Thick, wild swirls whitening the night. There is no way I am going to get an Uber in this weather. Let alone venture outside for the twenty minute walk home. I throw the empty cider can in the trash. There is nothing more depressing than being stuck doing profile vetting on a Friday night when you’re in your mid-twenties and oh, did I mention, work for an agency that specializes in finding the love of your life?

I get to look at literally thousands of profiles of saddos searching for that special someone and help them re-write their sadly desperate profiles. Because, of course, we at the Agency are masters at love. That’s right. Little old single me who’s never had a boyfriend past six months and still doesn’t know how to sew on a button gets to tell everyone just what all the other single everyones are looking for in a soulmate. Aren’t I brilliant?

Here goes. There’s middle-aged Miranda the high-powered realtor who’s looking for ‘a man who can handle all of me’. Yikes. Then there’s Charlie the magician who attests he can ‘make magic between the sheets’. Tempting. There’s also Sam the widow with the tragic eyes who’s ‘just looking to stay with that one woman until death do us part’.

Dear God.

I’m going to need something stronger.

Did I mention, we are all scams? And we will probably keep scamming each other until we are old and pitiful and there’s no one left alive to want us. I wonder if every dating agency is like this. Selling a product they can never truthfully deliver, a product no one else really uses or swears by. There’s no actual poster child, is there? But here we are.

That’s when I see it—the keycard to Austin’s office. Sitting on reception. Just sitting there. I wonder if he left it on purpose and I guiltily glance up at the ceiling at the cameras. Maybe it’s a test. Maybe he thinks I’m dumb enough to fall for it.

Maybe I am. Because, did I mention, I’m desperate?

It’s been a rough night.

Actually, it’s been a rough year. 

I take the keycard and slide it into Austin’s office door before I can overthink it. A ripple of excitement passes through me, the kind you get from stealing pool towels or taking extra mints from the doctor’s office. But I’m not breaking the law, not really. I mean, it’s not like Austin ever said ‘don’t go into my office, Julia’. Not technically, anyway.

The scent of him assaults me. Leather. Cacao. Mixed with something else deliriously alluring and heady. Heat flushes my neck and I have to grip the door handle. It’s like he’s inside the room and I almost expect him to jump out of his chair or pop out of a corner. Of course, his office is empty. Floor to ceiling windows claim two of the walls. Snow plasters the glass and shrouds the city twenty stories up. Austin, of course, has the best view. The windows in the rest of the office look like door mail slots in comparison. Whoever designed this building was definitely a douche.

I rifle through Austin’s desk drawers. He always was a neat freak. ‘Make sure that’s color coded, would you, Julia?’ Conveniently, the desk is glass and so are the drawers, so I don’t have to search long for what I’m looking for. I unscrew the cap of the bourbon bottle and take a tentative sip. It scorches my throat and makes me hack up half a lung.

No, I don’t ‘know my bourbons’, as the other guys in the office often brag to Austin, hoping for an admiring back pat or a bromance nightcap. But it’ll do the job. And while I’m here, what the hell? I plop into Austin’s chair and put my feet up on his desk. The bourbon is making me ballsy. The chair reclines all the way back and has incredible lumbar support. It probably cost a fortune.

I try not to think about the squeaky chairs just outside the door where the common folk live.

I think instead of Austin sitting in this very chair, his long, lean body pressed into the white leather, pondering great things…

Then I see something else. A sticky note tacked to the computer screen.

Mypassword123.

Austin, are you really that forgetful?

Are you really that trusting?

The walls shudder and I jump. It’s just the snow—but it’s picked up surprising force, barreling against the windows. The buildings have disappeared.

I type in the password. It’s a match. Who would have guessed. The computer opens to the dating app system page. I am in Austin’s profile, I realize with a start. Austin the account manager. A surge of power makes my head spin. 

I am the account manager. 

But that’s probably the bourbon. I should probably quit while I’m ahead, before the lowering bottle level becomes obvious. But just a few more sips won’t be missed.

There’s an ongoing caper at the office—people create fake dating profiles for each other—anonymously of course. Now and again information appears by your photo—verging on the random, sometimes funny, mostly ridiculous. It’s been happening for years— way before I came here, anyway. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been in on it--I’m not a veteran. I’ve never been invited. Yes, it’s as pathetic as it sounds. It’s almost like you have to know someone who knows someone, or get a passcode like at a secret party. At this point, let’s just say it’s more like a spectator sport.

Austin though is one of those Someone’s. Someone who you have to know to get in. A list of the mock created profiles are right there in front of me—a grid of little pictures of everyone in the office.

Everyone, I suddenly notice, except Austin. 

Me and Austin. Austin and Julia. It has a nice ring to it. But I’m getting sidetracked.

I lean over the computer screen, an idea forming. A bad idea. It’s bold and absurd and terribly bourbon fueled, but the opportunity is almost too delicious to deny.

Adrenaline courses through me, my fingers hover over the keyboard. This is my chance. The only one I will ever get. 

I open a new profile. I choose a photo. My favorite photo of him (Don’t ask me how I got it. It’s too embarrassing) . Looking casual, wind-swept and sea-sprayed sitting on a dock somewhere. Dark hair mussed. Unshaven. A little tan, a small smile. Never giving too much away.

Okay, it’s audacious, I get that now. So audacious that no one has ever done it. Why has no one ever done it, though? Maybe they’ve never thought of it. No, that can’t be it. Maybe everyone is too afraid. Austin the untouchable. Austin the overlord. Austin who could have your head severed if he wanted to.

Okay. Maybe it’s borderline suicidal. 

Or maybe...it’s the only way I will ever get this man to want me.

I start typing. 

Exactly what I think of him. I get a little carried away. I drink more. I’m enjoying myself. Too much.

Monday morning, Austin’s ‘dating profile’ is set to go live.

The best part about it is that Austin will never know who wrote it. But he’ll want to.

Won’t he?

My stomach churns. I need to go back and erase everything. This is all wrong. This was all a terrible mistake.

God. What have I done?

The screen clicks off. Everything turns black. I freeze in horror in Austin’s chair. 

Power cut.

I try but I can’t remember what I wrote. Not enough of it, anyway. I wonder if I’ll remember tomorrow once the alcohol is gone. Maybe it’s better if I don’t.

The building groans as it descends into darkness. Except the world outside.

Outside, it’s all white.

January 21, 2021 00:49

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