Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Late for Work Resumes

Late for Work is an interactive Choose Your Own Path story. Each episode, readers vote for the path they would like to take. Together, we will follow the path with the most votes.

Since it has been so long, here is a quick recap of the story so far. If you remember it, feel free to jump ahead to the latest episode.

Late For Work

Episode 1: The Coffee Shop

“I don't have time for this,” you mumble to yourself as you pull into the coffee shop parking lot. You're late for work. Again. Does everyone in town really need to get their coffee right this second?

You circle the lot three times before finding a place to park. The guy in that black sports car doesn't look too happy, but you were clearly there first. You had your signal light on and everything.

Rushing into the cafe, you anxiously tap your foot at the back of the line, counting ten people in front of you. Ugh. Haven’t any of these people heard of ordering ahead? Sure, you couldn’t because your phone was dead. But what was everyone else’s excuse?

The people at the register move to the side to wait for their order and you inch forward. Nine people, now eight, stand between you and your morning caffeine. You can't see the menu, but it doesn't matter. You order the same thing so often, they should name a drink after you.

The door opens, and someone gets in line behind you. With nothing better to do, you glance over your shoulder. The guy behind you looks familiar. You try not to stare, but you turn your body. To the casual observer, you are reading the community bulletin board. But out of the corner of your eye, you are examining your line buddy.

His hair is the color of freshly brewed coffee while his eyes resemble a mocha latte. About a head taller than you, he is dressed in jeans and a polo. You definitely recognize that profile. But where could you have met him?

The line moves forward. Six more people to go. You return your gaze to the bulletin board, shifting your eyes to the guy behind you. He seems to be studying the menu, biting his upper lip as he concentrates. Could he be any sexier?

The guy leans forward slightly. He's probably trying to see the bakery case, but you can't help catching a whiff of him. Vanilla latte with a hint of musk.

A moment later, he taps your shoulder. You can feel your eyes grow wide. Does he realize you’ve been checking him out? Feeling your cheeks grow warm, you turn to face him. Before you can say anything in your defense, however, he wordlessly gestures toward the register.

You follow his gaze. While you were busy drooling over the eye candy behind you, the line has moved. There is now only one person standing between you and your morning caffeine.

Mortified, you stare at the register, willing the cashier to move faster. It must have worked, because within seconds, the woman in front of you steps aside and you place your order.

As soon as you swipe your credit card, you rush to the corner of the pickup area, squeezing between two senior citizens. There’s no way Hot Guy will think you’re trying to get close to him now.

Not that he seems to notice. After placing his order, he stands near the little table with cream and sugar, playing on his phone while he waits. Everyone is playing on their phones, as you should be doing. But you couldn’t. Because your stupid charging cable just had to die last night.

Hot Guy looks up from his phone, right in your direction. Oh no. How long were you staring? Did he notice? Meeting your eyes, he sends you a sexy smile. Was that because he saw you looking? Or because he wanted you to look?

Thankfully, your name is called. You rush to retrieve your drink, but in your haste, you accidentally knock it over. The flimsy top falls off, spilling your vanilla latte all over the pickup counter.

Everyone around you jumps back in surprise, but the barista passes you a towel with a smile. “Are you okay?”

Taking the towel, you nod. “I think so.” You glance at the damage. No one was burned, thankfully. You didn’t even ruin anyone’s shoes. The only casualty is your pride.

Another employee has already run to your side of the counter with more towels to clean the mess, so you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing with the one in your hand. You double check, but you didn’t spill any coffee on yourself.

As you return the towel to the counter, the barista behind the counter yells out. “Mike!”

Hot Guy squeezes beside you to grab his coffee. With a nod and a smile in your direction, he grabs it and heads outside. A moment later, the barista again calls your name. Taking the coffee in both hands, you make sure the lid is secure before taking a sip. After thanking the barista profusely for redoing the order, you rush to your car.

You have ten minutes to get to your office on the other side of town. Not going to happen.

As you pull out of your parking space, you hear someone blasting a horn. Slamming the breaks, you check your mirrors. You almost backed into a black sports car. Your eyes go wide as you recognize the driver.
Who is it?

Episode 2: Hot Guy Mike

It’s Hot Guy Mike!

Hurriedly, you pull forward to let the car pass. He didn’t see you, right? Or at least, if he did, he didn’t recognize you as the person who spilled coffee everywhere. You can only hope.

Sinking low in your seat, you do your best to peek in your rearview mirror, but you don’t see the black car. You check your side mirrors. Nope. No car.

Sipping your coffee, you breathe a mental sigh of relief.

Until you check the clock on the dash. It reads 8:51. You have nine minutes to get to work. You are meeting with a new client first thing and you would like an extra few minutes to prepare. The Yeager account could make or break you. If you do well with this project, you could get a promotion. If you don’t, well, you’re pretty sure you’re already on the company chopping block. Or at least in line for it.

Sitting upright, you check your mirrors again. No cars. After shifting the car into reverse, you back out of the space a little more slowly than you did before. This time, at least, you don’t come close to hitting anyone as you join the line of cars trying to leave the parking lot.

Ugh. Is that person in front seriously trying to make a left-hand turn? On this road? There’s a right-turn-only sign for a reason!

Drumming your fingers against the wheel with one hand, you sip your coffee and glance at the clock. Eight minutes.

Eventually, the moron blocking traffic makes the left and you are able to fight your way onto the main road. Only to hit every red light between here and your office. You wait the best way you know how: sipping your latte and hoping your boss is stuck in the same traffic. Or even better: the client.

When you finally reach the office, it is well past nine o’clock. Pulling into the first spot you can find, you down the rest of your coffee as you shut the door.

You wave to the receptionist as you enter the building, but you don’t have time to chat. Walking briskly, you make a beeline to the back corner of the room. You wave to your coworkers, quickly realizing you are the last one to arrive.

You turn on your computer as you sit, swiveling to search for the folder containing all your notes for this morning’s meeting. And come face to face with your boss.

How long has she been standing there?

You gulp, sending her a sheepish smile. “Oh. Morning. I didn’t see you there.”

Smiling, Karen waves a dismissive hand. “No worries. Just got in. Traffic this morning was horrendous.”

You nod. Does she know you were late? Is she mad?

She doesn’t seem to be. She gestures to the folder in your hands. “Dr. Yeager’s here. Meet us in the conference room?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

“Great. See you in there.”

As she disappears into the cubicle forest, you take a few deep breaths. You can do this. You will land this account.

Confident that you are are confident as you can get, you grab your folder and head to the conference room. On your way, you detour to the kitchen. One more cup of coffee will help calm your nerves.

As you approach the conference room, you can see Karen approaching with your new client. Two clients, you realize. Why are there two? You were only expecting to meet with one person.

While researching your new client, you visited the company’s website. The man walking beside Karen is definitely Dr. Yeager. But who is the person behind them? Dr. Yeager is so tall, he is completely obscuring your view.

Since you arrive at the conference room only moments before them, you wait for them, smiling as they approach.

Karen gestures to you, introducing you as the junior accountant who will be assisting her before turning to you. “This is Dr. Yeager, and his son, also Dr. Yeager.”

The older man thrusts out a hand. “Nice to meet you. I look forward to working with you.”

“And I, you.” Smiling, you shake his hand, surprised at his firm grip.

Karen holds open the door to the conference room. “Shall we?”

The older doctor laughs. “Of course. Ladies first.” He holds the door, ushering Karen inside.

And you get your first glimpse of the younger doctor. Except, it’s not your first glance. You’ve seen him before. In line behind you at the coffee shop this morning.

He smirks. “Well, well. Isn’t it a small world?”

What do you do?

Episode 3: Drop Your Coffee Again

Dr. Yeager, who is still holding the door, looks between you and his son. “You two know each other already?”

You shake your head, but Hot Guy Mike smiles. “We ran into each other at the coffee shop this morning.”

From inside the conference room, Karen response. “Speaking of coffee, can I get you gentlemen anything?”

That’s your cue. You turn to enter the room. At the same time as Hot Guy Mike. When the two of you collide, your coffee goes everywhere. Warm liquid soaks through your shirt, thankfully not hot enough to scald your skin. As you jump backward, you lose your grip on the mug. It crashes to the floor, coffee exploding as it shatters. The elder Dr. Yeager side-steps in time, but the same can’t be said for his son. Like you, he is covered in coffee from his shirt to his shoes.

Drowning in mortification, you quickly glance around. Dr. Yeager looks like he’s second guessing his decision to work with your company. Karen looks ready to fire you. Hot Guy Mike looks amused.

You take a step backwards. “I’ll go get something to clean this.”

Ignoring the shirt clinging to your stomach, you speed-walk to the kitchen. You’re still digging through the cabinet under the sink when you feel someone hovering above you. You recognize those coffee-soaked shoes.

Wincing, you glance up over your shoulder. “You, uh, you okay?”

Hot Guy Mike smiles. “Yeah. I was just grabbing some paper towels.” He pulls a few from the counter, dabbing his shirt as he looks down at you. “You okay? Did you get burned?”

Pulling the whisk and dustpan from the cabinet, you shake your head as you stand. “Nah. It wasn’t hot. Just made a big mess.”

Smiling, he grabs the roll of paper towels beside the sink. “I’ll help you clean up.”

“No. Really. You should go back to the meeting. I can do it.”

“I insist.” To prove his point, he holds the roll above his head, out of your reach, and leads the way back to the conference room.

You have no idea what transpired between Karen and Dr. Yeager while you were gone, but you assume the conversation ran along the lines of Let’s just pretend that didn’t happen. They completely ignore you sweeping the ceramic shards into the dustpan while Dr. Mike lays paper towels over the spill. They don’t even flinch when you walk past them to retrieve the trash can.

You and Dr. Mike work wordlessly and efficiently. By the time you finish cleaning the mug, he has mopped up all the coffee. While he returns the can to the corner, you bring the dustpan and paper towels to the kitchen.

Alone, you finally assess the damage. Your wet shirt is still plastered to your front, cold and uncomfortable. Using the sponge in the kitchen sink, you pull the shirt away from you and do your best to scrub the coffee. Except, you’re pretty sure you’re spreading the stain. And you’re definitely making your shirt more wet. With a resigned sigh, you pull several paper towels from the roll, fold them a few times, and shove them between your shirt and your skin. Marginally better.

When you return to the conference room, neither Karen nor Dr. Yeager spare you a glance. As you approach the conference table, you see your folder sitting in the seat furthest from Karen. Approaching it, you try to remember how it ended up there? Did you place it there before rushing out of the room? Or had you dropped it somewhere? Is this where Karen wants you to sit?

You are still deciding when Dr. Mike enters the room. With that ever-present smirk, he claps his father on the shoulder, sitting beside him. “Started without us?”

Dr. Yeager looks less than amused. “No one said you had to clean the mess. But since you’re here, perhaps you can help me understand this gobbledegook?”

Dr. Mike shakes his head. “Dad, it’s not that hard.” Opening a folder, he pulls out a sheet of paper, turning it to face Karen as he places it on the table between them. Hesitantly, you take the seat beside Karen so you can observe as well. Thankfully, she seems too eager to please the client than to fire you.

Over the next hour, the doctors explain their medical practice and their expectations for their accountant. Karen discusses the services the firm will provide as well as the corresponding fees. Although she never mentions you by name, she does admit that most of the work will be done by “her assistant” with her available to review the account should any problems arise.

Throughout the meeting, you try to gauge the doctors’ reactions. Dr. Mike never stops smiling and you are certain he wants to hire your company. Dr. Yeager, however, doesn’t smile once.

Finally, Karen brings out the contract and passes it to the doctors.

Will they sign it?

Episode 4: Dr. Yeager Would Like to Think About It

Dr. Yeager frowns at the paper before him. “I’m just not sure.” He glances at his son before turning to Karen. “Can I have a day to think about it? I’ll get back to you by tomorrow. End of day.”

Karen nods. “Of course. Our goal is to make you as comfortable as possible.”

“Thanks.” He stands, grabbing the folder and turning to his son. “Ready?”

Dr. Mike nods. “Sure.” Winking at you, he leans into the table, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper. “I’ll talk to him on the way into the office, but I wouldn’t worry. It’s a done deal.”

You wish you shared his confidence. His father looks anything but certain. Rising, you and Karen shake each man’s hands.

Your boss follows them to the door. “I’ll walk you out.”

As you return to your desk, you replay the meeting in your head. Sure, the beginning was a little rough, but Karen had given the same pitch you’ve heard many times before. Wracking your brain, you can’t remember a single instance when that pitch didn’t land the client. Maybe Dr. Mike was right. Maybe Dr. Yeager will sign.

Settling at your desk, you wake your computer and check your messages. The Mitchell account thinks you made a mistake. They’re confident they are earning more than they are spending. Of course, you know they’re wrong. You’re tempted to suggest they stop buying lunch for all twenty employees every day. Instead, you copy Karen on a reply that you will generate a spreadsheet for them when you double-check your calculations. You already have it, of course, but they don’t need to know that.

You read each message in your inbox, deleting them or moving them into client-specific folders. Just as you finish the last message, you hear a throat clearing at the entrance to your cubicle. You don’t need to turn around to know that cough.

Sure enough, you turn to see Karen hovering, arms folded across her chest as she leans against the wall of your cubicle. “So, how do you think that went?”

Her expression is neutral. What are you supposed to say? “Uh, I believe the younger Dr. Yeager. I think they’ll sign.”

Karen sighs. “Let’s discuss your performance a moment, shall we?”

You wince. “Look, I’m sorry—”

She waves a dismissive hand. “I’m not even going to discuss the coffee. Yes, it was unprofessional, but I would be lying if I said that was the first time that has happened. You handled it well enough. Although you should not have asked the young doctor to help you.”

You shake your head. “I didn’t. I swear. I told him I could do it, but he insisted on helping me.”

Her pursed lips suggest she may not believe you, but she lets the matter drop. “Tell me what’s going on with the Mitchell account.”

You try not to roll your eyes. “They don’t believe they’re earning less than they’re spending. I was about to send them a spreadsheet highlighting everything.”

Karen nods. She spends a few minutes reviewing the rest of your active accounts before giving you a loose warning about improving your performance and leaving. Shaking your head, you get back to work.

Maybe it was the horrible start, but your day seems to drag on forever. By the time five o’clock rolls around, you can’t wait to leave. But the Valley Veterinary account is still giving you trouble. Why won’t those numbers work?

Sitting back in your chair, you rub your eyes. You’ve been staring at it all day. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe if you just give your eyes a rest, the numbers will make sense in the morning.

Before you leave, you make a quick trip to the restroom. You don’t really have to go, but you pass Karen’s office en route. And, you quickly deduce, she's left for the day. Making a mental note to arrive extra early tomorrow, you forgo the bathroom and return to your desk. Time to go home. Maybe eat something.

Except, as you make your way to your car, you remember you have no food at home. You can go out to eat, but eating alone is, well, lonely. And costs money. You can order something and bring it home. That might be a little cheaper, but it still costs money. Or you can go to the grocery store, but that will delay eating even longer.

As you climb into your car, you make your decision.

What do you decide?

Episode 5: Order Take Out

It is definitely a takeout kind of night. Sitting in your car, you scroll through the menus of some of your favorite restaurants. But there are so many options. Your city has restaurants for every nationality. Some are represented by multiple restaurants.

You debate between trying something new or going with something you know. Everyone at work has been talking about that new Caribbean restaurant downtown. But if you’re going there, you might as well get your favorite meal from the tapas place next door.

But do you really want to go downtown? Maybe you should get something closer to your own apartment. Something like drunken noodles from that Thai restaurant.

Although you scroll a few other menus, nothing sounds better than the Thai food. As you place your order, your mouth salivates at the idea. But what should you do when you get home? Obviously, eat in front of the television. There’s no question about that. But what are you in the mood to watch? Or maybe you skip the television altogether and read that book that’s been sitting on your nightstand all week?

You’re still debating your options as you pull into the parking lot of your apartment complex. Shoot. You forgot to pick up your dinner. Frowning at the steering wheel, you decide to walk. It’s so nice outside and the restaurant isn’t that far away.

Your food is probably ready, but you are in no rush to reach the restaurant. You try to forget about your harrowing day. So many things went wrong. At least tomorrow would be better. There was no way it could get worse.

Although, there was a silver lining. Hot Guy Mike from the coffee shop. The man who might become your new client. He definitely seemed to be flirting with you.

Then again, was that a good thing? After all, if his father signed the contract, Dr. Mike would be your client. And therefore off limits.

Maybe he wouldn’t sign the contract. If he wasn’t your client, you would be free to be together. But if they don’t sign, you might be out of a job. So you definitely want them to sign.

But then Dr. Mike would be off limits.

You are so wrapped up in your own thoughts, you aren’t really paying attention when you open the door to the restaurant. And nearly bump into the man exiting.

“Oh, sorry!” You quickly step back, holding open the door to allow him to pass.

When he smiles at you, you see a moment of surprise before he smiles. “You again?”

“Dr. Mike?” You can feel your jaw drop. Had you willed him there with your thoughts? Of course, you can’t ask him that. “Are you stalking me or something?”

He raises the bag in his hand. “I was here first. I’m thinking maybe you’re stalking me.”

You cross your arms, ready for a confrontation, but he shakes his head with a light laugh. “I’m kidding, of course. But seriously. What are you doing here?”

You gesture down the street. “I live nearby. Didn’t feel like cooking tonight. You?”

He points in the opposite direction. “Ditto.”

An awkward silence grows between you. You shuffle your feet, trying to figure out what to say next. But you don’t get the chance.

“Excuse me.”

An elderly couple squeezes past Dr. Mike to exit through the door you are still holding open. Feeling like an idiot, you release it when they leave.

Dr. Mike gestures to it as it closes. “Well, I better let you get your food.”

You nod. “Yeah. Probably.”

But neither of you moves. He shifts the bag to his other hand as you stare past him. A middle-aged couple, each holding hands with the small child between them, approaches. Stepping aside, you watch the man hold the door for his family.

As the restaurant engulfs them, Dr. Mike clears his throat. “So, uh, I was thinking. If you’re not doing anything, would you like to maybe have dinner together?”

You raise your eyebrows. “You are literally holding your meal right now. I’m about to get mine.”

“Yeah.” He shrugs. “I just meant, well, I only live a block from here. Would you like to come eat at my place?”

Dinner with a guy you just met? Yeah, you could handle that. But going to his apartment on the first date?

Dr. Mike must see your hesitation. “We don’t have to go to my apartment. There’s this lounge in my building. We can eat there.”

How do you respond?

Episode 6: It's Better Than Eating Alone

You shrug, trying to look nonchalant, although you’re pretty sure you failed. “Yeah, sure. That sounds great.”

“Fantastic.” Smiling, Dr. Mike opens the door, motioning you inside.

No one is at the counter. You shift your weight from one foot to the other while you wait. Is eating with Dr. Mike such a smart idea? Shift. Maybe you should wait until he signs the contract. Shift. But he’s not your client yet. Shift. Yet being the key word.

“Table for one?”

Shaking your head, you focus on the woman behind the counter. “Uh, no. I’m picking up an order to go?” You give her your name and she disappears into the kitchen, returning a moment later with a brown paper bag stapled at the top.

After paying for your meal, you grab the bag, thanking the woman as you leave. Dr. Mike is still beside the door.

He smiles. “All set?”

You nod. “Lead the way.”

As he heads away from your apartment, you fall into step beside him. The silence between you is rapidly growing uncomfortable. You’re desperate to say something, but you don’t know what. Eventually, you settle for the question that’s been burning in your brain since bumping into him.

“So, how is it we live near each other and have never run into each other before, yet today, I’ve run into you three times?”

He smirks. “Four. I’m pretty sure you stole my parking space at the coffee shop this morning.”

Your face turns red. “I was there first. I had my signal light on.”

“I’m just kidding. And I just moved into this building last week.”

“Really? So you’re not from around here?”

Dr. Mike shrugs. “Well, I grew up here. Went to med school in Philly and stayed there for a while.”

“So, why’d you come back?”

Dr. Mike doesn’t answer. Instead, he stops at a doorway, holding it open and gesturing you inside. You enter a tastefully decorated lobby.

Now what? Dr. Mike said you could eat in a lounge, but you have no idea where that is. Does he think you do? Is he assuming you’ve been here before?

You step to the side and Dr. Mike passes you, turning into a room to the right. You follow, surprised by the decor. Silver couches are arranged in small conversational groups around matching coffee tables on a plush black carpet. Cheerful landscapes in dark frames adorn pale gray walls. The room is empty except for you and Dr. Mike.

You follow him to the back of the room, where high-top tables and bar stools sit on a black and white tiled floor. He places his bag on one and turns to you.

“I’m going to run upstairs. Grab a few drinks. I’ve got beer, wine. Maybe milk or juice. Possibly a cola.”

You cannot help but laugh. “I’m fine with water. But I won’t say no to a glass of wine.”

Dr. Mike’s smile suggests you made the right choice. While he returns to the lobby, you place your bag on the table. You know you should wait to eat, but the food smells so delicious.

You open your bag, removing the contents slowly. You were very hungry when you placed your order. In addition to your drunken noodles, you also pull out a container of vegetable tempura, a small container of dipping sauce, and a bowl of coconut soup.

While you’re unpacking the food, you figure you might as well do Dr. Mike’s as well. Opening the bag, you can’t help but laugh. He must be just as hungry as you.

You pull out three black containers, each with a clear top, just like yours. The first is obviously soup. But it looks different from yours. If you had to guess, probably the vegetable soup.

The next container is full of fried triangles you recognize as tofu. That most likely goes with the dipping sauce.

The last container is a noodle dish. Unlike your broad, flat noodles, however, Dr. Mike’s dish has thin, round noodles. You’re not sure what it is, but it smells outrageous.

The table is small, but you manage to find homes for each container. There’s even a little bit of room left for wine glasses. Placing the bags on the table behind you, you climb into your chair.

What is taking Dr. Mike so long? If he doesn’t come back soon, you’re going to start without him.

“Wow. That’s a lot of food!”

You never heard anyone enter the room. You glance up with a smile. Who do you see?

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