Sign Me Up by Dulcie Dameron
all that’s good and green in the world, please make it stop.
How many more times can I offer up this silent prayer while being held prisoner by none other than Les Jenkins, the Treemont Gazette’s very own encyclopedia of useless things?
A hundred? A million? Is there a limit?
Waiting for the copies of the press release I just completed to be printed out, I brace myself against the corner of the office copier while Les drones on and on. You’d think with a name like Les the guy would understand the concept of less being more. But nope. He doesn’t get it. Not even a little bit.
I’d like to think I’m a patient person, but this is the fourth time Les has trapped me at the copier this week. And it’s not that he’s a bad guy, but if boring was a person, it would be him. Not to mention his brown suit and pale-yellow tie combo mixed with his signature fried bacon smell remind me of the interior of a Waffle House. Ew.
Doing my best to resist taking a deep breath lest I inhale the scent of dirty diner, I bolster my mind for the rest of this titillating conversation. If this is anything like Tuesday’s copier meetup, I’d better settle in and buckle my seat belt because this guy has proved he can go on for a surprisingly long while. Last week, his riveting discussion on the mating habits of marmosets lasted so long my coffee got cold. Today, it’s bird calls—or something like that.
Finally, as if God Himself has smiled upon me, a tall, dark, familiar figure saunters up behind Les, bringing with him a whiff of expensive, delectable cologne that subtly overpowers the lingering smell of fried bacon.
Parker Kent, my work bestie and now lifeline, gives me a smirk with one eyebrow raised. His light green eyes sparkle with a hint of humor that I can’t fully appreciate while being held captive by Les.
As usual, Parker’s the perfect blend of cozy and professional, with his mussed-up hair and baby blue dress shirt that’s open a bit at the collar—so much so that I have to pump the mental breaks when my mind begins to romanticize his effortless good looks.
He’s my friend. We’re friends. It’s platonic.
Les hasn’t noticed Parker’s presence and keeps spinning some tale about a bird that lives in the northwest region of the state.
I widen my eyes and blink dramatically at Parker, telling him without words to please sacrifice himself on the copier conversation altar for the sake of my sanity.
“So, you see, Jamie,” Les says, snagging my attention as he swipes the back of his wrist across his glistening forehead, “Avian vocalizations are a grossly understudied subject in general, therefore, you can’t just assume that every two-syllable call you hear is your average warbler. It could very well be a titmouse.” He smiles as if he just imparted some earth-shattering secret.
With as wide a closed-mouth smile as I can manage, I give him one slow nod, then lift my eyes back to Parker, silently begging him to help me. He shakes his head with that boyish smile I’ve come to crave, then signs, OK, but you owe me.
I purse my lips and give him an almost imperceptible nod before he blessedly taps Les on the shoulder to get his attention.
When the compendium of worthless facts himself turns to my friend, I bolt in the opposite direction, mentally reminding myself to thank Parker later. He’s always so willing to take the figurative bullet for me in this office. I really should buy him a plant or something.
I hurry past the line of cubicles as fast as my size nine feet will take me, eager to escape any more talk of avian communications. I shake my head as I think of how my boss, Stefan Sanders, praised Les just last week for his exceptional editing skills in the obituaries. If only Les could edit his copier conversations just as efficiently, we’d all be better off. Those interactions should be strictly limited to the harmless, superficial topics of the weather and other office pleasantries. In those brief interactions, less is almost always more.
I reach the sacred blessed quiet of my cubicle just as Stefan, our editor-in-chief, strolls up. He’s impeccably dressed, as usual, in a three-piece suit. A decent looking man in his late forties with salt and pepper hair, Stefan’s presence exudes power and leadership. If only keeping up employee morale ranked as high as his personal fashion sense. In his typical way, Stefan drapes his arm over my small cubicle wall, rapping his knuckle on the top.
“Jamie, you got a minute?”
I smile, but inwardly grimace. Stefan’s “talks” seldom involve giving us praise. Usually when he wants to chat, it’s because we’ve disappointed him in some way. “Sure, boss. What’s up?”
I keep my tone as light and breezy as possible. In almost every interaction with my boss, I sense he can hear the nuances in my voice to the point where he’d give me more work if I sounded exasperated, or he’d withhold an exciting project if I seemed too eager. The man is known for putting people in their places—and keeping them there. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be in his line of sight this month, but one conversation could change that.
“I was hoping I could talk to you about your highlights on the Little League game from last Saturday,” he says, peering over his dark-framed glasses at me.
Again, I do my best not to sound too happy about the assignment, using only the smallest amount of inflection in my voice. Almost like I’m bored. Like I fulfilled my obligation with minimal enthusiasm.
“Your latest story was good, Jamie, but don’t you think you went a little overboard with this one?” Stefan pauses as if waiting for a reply, but I’m rendered momentarily speechless. What is he getting at? “I mean,” he continues, waving his coffee cup with his other hand, “you didn’t need to add that part about the tall kid. A sixth-grade Goliath? Really?”
Understanding dawns when he mentions my addition of Barrett Andrews, the six-foot-two sixth grade pitcher who played for the home team on Saturday.
“Oh, don’t worry about the nickname,” I say, ready to explain myself. “I asked the parents if that would be all right to use in my story. They loved it. Said they would get him a T-shirt made with it on the back, even.” I smile, hoping to drive home the air of nonchalance I’m going for.
Stefan frowns. “You’re not writing stories, Jamie. You’re filling up space in the sports section with statistics and facts. It’s not your job to entertain the masses with your dry sense of humor. It’s your job to report the news.”
Why, thank you for mansplaining that to me, Stefan.
“But,” I hedge. “I thought it was pertinent to the game, sir. A six-foot-two, twelve-year-old kid is kind of a big deal.” I chuckle nervously.
“The height of some middle-school pitcher isn’t pertinent information, Miss DeFreese. If you can’t recognize that, then maybe I need to put Lucas back on sports for a while.”
My spine involuntarily stiffens as Stefan eyes me with a judgy raised eyebrow like he’s assessing my worthiness as a person.
“No, sir, that be won’t necessary. From now on, I’ll focus on sticking with the statistics and facts. Message received.” I offer him a stiff smile and a completely unnecessary finger gun pointed at his chest. Of course, I pull my thumb trigger with a sly wink to add to the awkwardness of this moment. What is wrong with me?
Stefan’s lips pull into a thin line as he gives me a firm nod and steps away from my cubicle. “Good. I’m glad we understand each other.”
Without another word, he moves past me down the aisle, leaving me to retreat to my desk and bury my face in my hands. I rub the heels of my palms into my eye sockets, thankful I was running late this morning and didn’t have time to apply eyeliner and mascara. Smudged eye makeup would only add to my growing frustration.
I’m not surprised Stefan didn’t appreciate that I wrote about the tall kid pitching for the home team and the way he towered over his teammates. Stefan was right. I did add embellishing details to my article in an attempt to entertain the reader. Just because it’s a kids baseball game doesn’t mean the article should be boring, it should be full of fun additions that keep the reader engaged.
And besides, at 5’9”, I’m a tall kid myself. Growing up I frequently felt out of place being a head taller than most of the girls—and even boys—in my class. And seeing how some of the players on the away team jeered at the kid, I bet Barrett Andrews feels some of my pain. He deserves to be praised for the thing that makes him special, not put down because of it.
I raise my head and stare at the same screensaver I’ve had since my first day at the Treemont Daily Gazette. My grandma Nonie’s wrinkled face smiles back at me, as if she’d just handed me one of her signature chocolate hazelnut cookies.
It’ll be all right, James Gang. You can’t win them all.
Her familiar words of comfort echo in my mind in the low, gravelly voice she often used during our late-night kitchen conversations. She was always so careful not to wake up Grandpa after nine p.m., claiming he needed his beauty rest. A beautiful man like him with a full head of hair at age seventy needs all the sleep he can get, she’d say with a conspiratorial wink and a smile. If only she were here to wrap me up in one of her lung-crushing hugs and give me a real-life pep talk.
I sigh and lean back in my chair, knowing I need to get back to work. These sports stories—er—stats won’t write themselves. Just as I drag my computer’s mouse across the pad, a soft, flying object pelts the side of my head. I swivel around, knowing exactly who I’ll find.
Sure enough, Parker peeks his dark-haired head over the side of my cubicle wall, his vivid green eyes crinkling at the corners. I lift my hands and sign, What’s up, Superman?
Okay, so he’s not exactly Superman, but his last name is Kent and he’s tall and broad enough to be considered a more svelte version of the famous Clark Kent, minus the glasses. Parker isn’t lanky, but he’s naturally thin and can eat whatever he wants without gaining weight. The jerk. And he frequently comes to my rescue in this office like my own personal version of a superhero.
When I first laid eyes on him walking into the Gazette to replace Mr. Tinkles (yes, that is his predecessor’s real name), I legitimately thought that one of the background dancers from Shania Twain’s “Man! Ι Feel Like a Woman” music video had gotten lost and wandered into our office. He was just so tan and had the most striking eyes that stood out perfectly against his unruly dark hair.
Thankfully, when Parker started, he wasn’t wearing black eyeliner or leather pants like the models in Shania’s music video or that would have been really awkward. Probably.
His eyes lock on mine and he jerks his head in the direction Stefan went, as if to ask, What’d the boss want this time?
I sigh and roll my eyes before lifting my closed hands and dragging them outward to sign the word for nothing.
Parker cocks his head and lowers his brows. He drags his thumb under his chin while simultaneously shaking his head no. Clearly, he’s not buying my line.
“Oh, you know,” I say in a hushed voice no one else would hear while trying to sign the rest. “He just came by to commend me on writing such a moving piece on the Little League game from last Saturday. He said it was my best work.”
Parker’s mirth-filled eyes dance and his lips twitch. Though he can’t hear the sarcasm lacing my tone, he knows me well enough to detect it in my words and facial expression. I wish I knew more Sign Language to be able to convey the discussion with our boss word for word to Parker, but I am not as skilled as I want to be.
As much as I’ve learned from the ASL class our boss paid for the Gazette employees to take, plus independently studied on my own by binging YouTube videos, I still struggle sometimes. And since I’ve never personally known another deaf person before Parker, I’d never realized the importance of learning the language. For the hundredth time in the last year of knowing him, I wish I’d taken the American Sign Language elective in college.
At once, Parker’s eyes soften, almost like he can sense my thoughts. Or maybe it’s not so much my thoughts he’s reading as it is the conversation he witnessed with Stefan. Parker can read body language better than any person I’ve ever known.
He points at me, then signs the words for story was great. Next, he spears me with a look that says, go ahead and try to argue with me. You know you won’t win.
I smile and say, as well as sign, “Thank you, Parker. You’re a good friend.”
A muscle in his jaw twitches before he smiles and makes the sign for lunch, tipping his head in the direction of the employee break room.
“I thought you’d never ask,” I say, rising from my desk.
He follows me to the large break room where the drab gray countertop lining the wall topped with a mediocre toaster that burns things just as much as it under toasts them and a fire engine red microwave greet us.
After we grab our lunches from the fridge, I settle in beside Parker with my delicious fall-inspired salad topped with toasted pecans, dried cranberries, diced apple, and roasted turkey breast. I can’t wait to dig in.
Lifting my fork, I peek at my handsome friend. His eyes are closed, head bowed in prayer, and his brow is furrowed so deeply, I’m tempted to press my fingers to his forehead and smooth away the offending lines.
But that would be weird, so I won’t.
Even though Parker is more touchy-feely with people than the average guy, I’m not super big on physical affection. Plus, it kind of feels like something inside of me knows that if I were to reach out and touch him, I wouldn’t want to stop.
Attraction can be a tricky thing, especially when it’s your friend you’re attracted to. It doesn’t feel wrong, per se, but having romantic wonderings about Parker is bound to get me into trouble and I refuse to do anything that might risk our friendship or make it weird.
Been there, done that with my high school boyfriend, Tyson. We were friends all through elementary and junior high, until one day he asked me to be his girlfriend. After that, everything was great…until it wasn’t. We broke up right before our junior prom and never spoke again for the duration of high school. Every time he saw me, he’d dodge me or pretend I didn’t exist. There were no more secret inside jokes, late-night study sessions or eating off each other’s plates. And to make matters worse, our friend group chose him over me. His popularity won out in the end.
My senior year was miserable because of it.
So I can never allow Parker to be another Tyson. Not when he’s my one light in this dark office with his funny antics, superhero personality, and overindulgence in sweets.
Speaking of which, I look down at the lunch he’s packed for himself and shake my head. It’s his usual. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of classic potato chips, and an oatmeal cream pie for dessert. Oh, and last but not least, a twenty-ounce bottle of Coke and a bag of M&Ms. Because he just has to wash down a salty yet also sugar-laden lunch with a healthy dose of liquid sugar. It’s really a medical marvel that he stays as fit as he does.
Parker bites into his sandwich and narrows his eyes at me like he senses my silent judgment. I narrow my eyes right back. He knows how I feel about his less than stellar eating habits, but he doesn’t seem to care. It’s the only sore spot in our relationship.
Male laughter from the hallway gets my attention and I drop my head back in exasperation. Parker knows that sign as well as any. He nudges my shoulder and spells out L-U-C-A-S with his fingers. I nod and his lips pull into a tight line.
If Parker is my light in the office, Lucas Whitwell is the purveyor of darkness. He’s the most annoying man-child I’ve ever met. Not only has he relentlessly flirted with every female in the office, he’s also been known to make passive-aggressive comments to anyone who makes him feel inferior. Parker being one of them. And let’s not even get into how he sucks up to Stefan.
When Lucas walks into the break room and sees us, he stops midstride and raises a skeptical brow. “Well, well, well, aren’t you two a lovely couple.” He saunters over to the cabinet and pulls out a can of round spaghetti noodles in sauce. I smirk, thinking that’s the perfect lunch for this man-child. I last ate those when I was ten.
“We’re not a couple,” I mumble before stuffing another forkful of salad into my mouth. Parker watches our interaction closely and I can feel his entire body stiffen beside me.
Lucas gives me an overly bright smile as he pops the top of his can and dumps its contents into a microwave-safe bowl. “Whatever you say. Though you might be interested to know Jordy’s got quite the crush on this big guy.” He tips his head toward Parker with another sickeningly sweet smile, and I grimace.
An uneasy pit forms in my stomach, but I shrug it off and go back to my salad. “Parker and I are just friends.” But saying it doesn’t ease the uncomfortable feeling inside me.
Lucas makes a sound in his throat like he’s not sure he believes me, but thankfully he doesn’t press the issue. Instead, he leans back against the counter, facing us. “I hear the boss has some big announcement he’s going to give today.” I immediately perk up at the word announcement and glance at Parker. His gaze bounces between Lucas and me.
“What’s it about?” I ask.
“Stefan doesn’t tell me everything, Jamie.” Lucas chuckles like he made a joke, but my frown only deepens. “All I know,” he continues, “is that it’s big and it involves all of us.”
Parker taps my shoulder and frowns. An announcement? he signs. I dip my chin in a solemn nod. His brows knit together like he’s thinking over a problem.
I desperately hope Stefan isn’t going to start laying people off. I know times are getting tough, but what would that mean for those of us who rely solely on our jobs here to make a living? My mind then goes to Parker. His job is on the lowest ladder rung of all, meaning he might be one of the first ones let go.
“But I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about,” Lucas says with another fake smile. “He’s probably just switching up our assignments for the quarter or something.” Yeah, or something.
I finish eating in silence, waiting for Lucas to turn around and wash his bowl, then face Parker. I’m guessing dread is written all over my face because he lifts his “sword finger”—as he likes to refer to it—and cocks his head. My eyes widen as I shake my head, silently pleading for him not to use it. It’s the weapon he wields whenever I’m feeling down, the one sure-fire way to make me laugh.
A slow, sinister smile takes over Parker’s face as he curls his finger a few times, waving it over my body. “Don’t you dare,” I mouth, holding my hands out in a protective gesture.
He completely ignores me and tries to jab it into the ticklish spot on my side, but I twist away before he can make contact. That only spurs him on. Quicker than a blink, he brings his hand down onto my thigh and squeezes the fleshy part just above my knee. I squeal out a laugh as I grab Parker’s hand, trying and failing to get him to stop.
Lucas spins around with a scowl directed right at us. “What’s so funny?” Parker’s hand stills on my thigh, his warmth seeping through my skin. I’m thankful Lucas can’t see it from his vantage point.
“Oh, nothing,” I lie, not wanting to give him any more ammunition about Parker and me being a couple. “Just had something in my teeth and Parker was making fun of me for it.”
Lucas narrows his eyes like he doesn’t believe me for a second. He dries his bowl and sticks it back in the cupboard. “You two enjoy your long lunch. Some of us have actual work to do around here.”
When he leaves the break room, I roll my eyes dramatically and make a face at Parker. He laughs, then goes right back to tickling me. I manage to wedge my fingers in the crook of his neck where he’s most ticklish, and he eases up just enough for me to hold my hands up in surrender.
He leans back, a satisfied grin curling his lips upward. You needed to laugh, he signs.
I shake my head. “I’m just concerned, that’s all. Announcements from Stefan are seldom a good thing.”
Parker’s expression tells me he knows exactly what I’m talking about. Maybe he’s worried about layoffs too. Parker is the paper’s one-man data division. His job mainly consists of recording all the real estate transfers and property sales for our county. Where I at least sometimes get to cut out early to travel to and attend some mediocre—at best—sports events, Parker is stuck here in the office, glued to his desk all day, every day. I write about sports statistics and winning/losing teams, adding my own unique flare, much to the chagrin of my boss, while Parker is forced to write about the most mundane facts known to man, day in and day out.
My mouth turns down into a frown just thinking about it because, deep down, I know that Parker is destined for something more meaningful than a job like this. He doesn’t ever complain about his work, but I can still sense his dissatisfaction here. Whether it’s his deafness that mentally holds him back from pursuing something more or something else altogether, I don’t know, but I’m not brave enough to ask him about it.
Having a hard-of-hearing friend is still relatively new to me and I wouldn’t want to be insensitive by bringing it up. We’ve become close throughout the past year, and I figure if it’s something he wants to talk about, he’ll bring it up on his own.
As if sensing the dark turn of my thoughts, Parker pokes me in the side again, and I yelp. He waves his sword finger around in a silent threat, but before he can reach me, I stand and gather my things.
“Come on. Some of us,” I say, using air quotes, “have work to do today.”