Authors: Elle Boyd
Book One in the
by Elle Boyd
Copyright © 2015 by Elle Boyd
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Claire took a deep breath and closed her eyes tightly. "Are you ready?" His voice shook the last of her resolve, and one tear finally slid down her cheek. "I'm not sure." She really wasn't. But it was too late.
Scrambled eggs and chorizo sizzled on the stovetop and the espresso machine let out a puff of steam. Just another morning. As usual, Claire was running late...though who would be expected to be on time when they had to be at work at 5 a.m. everyday? She drizzled some of her homemade garlic-infused olive oil over the scramble. She might as well enjoy her breakfast.
When Claire had accepted her job at the airport, handing boarding passes to stressed travelers all day every day, she thought it would only be for a couple of months. After all, her culinary school debt wasn't going to pay itself off. But now it had been three years, and it was starting to feel like this was "it."
Not that she was unbearably miserable or anything, it just wasn't the life she had dreamed of... by any means. Gone were the framed Wine & Food Magazine covers—seeing them on her kitchen walls had eventually gone from being a happy dream to an unpleasant reminder of what she’d likely never have. To be fair, she had graduated with the highly unlucky class of 2008. No one she knew was doing what they thought they'd be doing, really.
Dylan was the highlight of all her days. He was the kind of boyfriend that her friends were constantly mooning over. "God, Claire, he is so nice!" they said over and over. He was actually the nicest person she had ever met, truly. He was dependable and thoughtful, without being dull. He had bright green eyes and hair fit for a Disney prince, too.
Claire spent her formative years reading feminist manifestos, so the idea of a man being the best thing about her life always struck her as a little odd and unsettling. It was out of character for her to be so content because of a human being, rather than because of her career. However, she had learned not to question the things that made her happy, because happiness was a lot harder to come by than she had been led to believe.
"Do you have everything you need?" Among many other talents, Dylan was much better at being an employee than Claire was. She had forgotten her name tag for work three times this week.
"Oh... shit. I almost did it again." She pocketed the tag, which had an embarrassingly bad photo of her on it. Her red hair had been through a good old-fashioned New York City thunderstorm that morning and had not fared well. Her mascara was running down the side of her right cheek. She’d never asked for a new photo, always trying to find another way to convince herself that the job was temporary.
She winked at Dylan as she double-checked her purse once more, lest she forget anything else. He smiled that smile that said I know you so well. She loved that smile.
"Off I go..." She smiled sadly as he gave her a quick kiss.
By 10am, Claire was sure that today was the day. She had fantasized for basically all of the last three years about this moment.
A really bad day would come along, perhaps a series of angry customers asking her questions which she couldn't possibly answer. Where was their plane, physically, at this very moment? Did the airport Starbucks have Pumpkin Spice Lattes, even though it was March? Would it be raining in their destination city in Jamaica? Someone with an intensely rude attitude would come along with a list of complaints a mile long, and Claire would finally have an excuse to quit in a truly epic manner. She had had a bunch of almost’s, but no one had quite crossed that line yet. The idea of losing her steady income always kept her from blowing up. Three years of wishing and thinking and almost-ing out the door was a very long time.
Today, there was an entire family of angry passengers. The mother, Sally, had clearly brought her family to the airport on the wrong day. They had tickets for tomorrow. They "needed" tickets for today, which the airline was, obviously, unable to offer without an enormous fare hike. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, after all. (The absolute insanity that surrounded the airport the week of Thanksgiving always made Claire feel grateful that she and Dylan were both cool with spending the holidays away from their families.)
Sally had been screaming at Claire for at least fifteen minutes. She had started out by accusing the airline of changing her flight and had moved on to accusing Claire of trying to singlehandedly prevent her children from seeing their grandmother on Thanksgiving.
At the sixteen-minute mark, Claire started zoning out on Sally. There was nothing she could do with this woman except use her as an opportunity to quit this awful job that she hated. It was the perfect moment. A moment like this might never come again. She took a moment to marinate in her excitement, and then she went for it.
"Mam. I... am very sorry. However, I no longer work here and cannot assist you with your ticketing needs." Claire smiled her biggest fake smile, the one she’d seen all the flight attendants employing for years.
Sally glared at Claire as though she was the living embodiment of Satan. Sally's husband started to glare, too.
"Excuse me?" Sally was a very strong-willed woman, and Claire could appreciate that. They might even be friends if not for the unfortunate circumstances under which they were meeting. She was still going to walk out of the airport without resolving her problem, though. Sally was going to have to be a casualty of this awful-job-quitting war.
"I am, just now at this moment, in the process of leaving my position here with Southwest. My colleague, Benjamin, at the next station will be handling your tickets moving forward." Benjamin had once told her supervisor that she was late to work. He deserved the wrath of Sally.
"You are quitting your job right now?" Sally had obviously never had a job that she truly hated.
"Yes, that is correct. Thank you for flying with Southwest, they appreciate your business." She dramatically removed her nametag and placed it on the counter before walking right out of the arrivals gate.
She was free.
"Claire, how the hell are we going to pay rent this month?" Dylan was furious with her.
"Dyl, I just couldn't do it anymore... if you had heard this woman I think you would understand. She was a monster." She honestly hadn’t expected him to be upset.
"You tell me that about someone every single day, Claire! Look, I know you hate the job but we really need the money. I just wish we could have talked about this first. You didn't even put in a notice with them... what kind of reference are they going to give someone who quit randomly by just marching out the door?”
It is funny how the things you most love about a person can also become the things you hate about them. Dylan was so practical and good with money. He was making a really good point about her burning her job reference, too, which just made Claire angrier at him. She took a deep breath.
"Dylan, this was a really difficult decision for me. You know how hard it is for me to stand up for myself... please don't make me feel even worse." Claire wasn't in the mood to acknowledge any of his good points in this argument tonight. She just wanted to pop open a bottle of champagne and celebrate, even if they couldn’t really afford it now.
Dylan, bless him, took a deep breath of his own. When he spoke again, his voice was softer. He was her guy again. "Ok. I mean I guess I will take on a few extra shifts at the bar... do you have any plans about where you will apply? Can I help you with that?”
"I honestly was thinking I would start looking at restaurants again."
His pause said it all. Dylan was too nice to remind her, out loud, of how hard she had looked for a culinary job to no avail three years ago. It had been impossible. The positions she was qualified for were filled by more experienced people, mostly older men.
"I just feel like if I don't do this now, I will be arguing with customers at Southwest for the rest of my life." As rash as her decision today had been, this was the truth. She was almost thirty, and still working in a job that she had meant to be temporary. Her career had gotten away from her without her even noticing it.
"Alright, I understand. Maybe you can look for some kind of temporary work while you look for a restaurant job. Just to make ends meet? You’re great with computers. Maybe you can do some data entry or receptionist stuff.”
"I can do that." They kissed. Things were going to work out, she had to believe that. If nothing else, she had the perfect person by her side.
Two whole weeks had gone by, and Claire had only had one interview. It was more of a pity interview than anything; one of her uncles had an “in” at Buddakan. She would have taken a job there in a heartbeat, of course, but they had made it pretty clear when she went in that they weren't actually hiring.
Being broke anywhere sucks, but being broke in New York City is soul crushing. Everywhere you look, money is being spent. Finance guys are running tabs at business lunches higher than the average person’s rent. A club girl living on daddy's bank account is dropping $800 on bottle service every night. Not having money in New York is like walking around the city in a fishbowl, unable to participate in any of the fun things that make life in such a tough city tolerable.
Dylan had already offered to go into his savings to pay rent if they couldn't make it this month, which made Claire feel terrible. None of this had been his decision, and he was being almost irritatingly nice about the whole thing. Knowing that underneath all that kindness he must be feeling resentful made Claire feel like her choice was giving their relationship a strange undercurrent of deception. His pretending that he was okay with picking up the financial slack was the first time Claire had really felt like Dylan was lying to her. He meant well, of course, but she knew the truth.
She was determined to find something—anything—that would prevent him from taking any of his savings out this month. So determined that she actually turned to the mother of all of the "desperation job" searches: Craigslist.
Craigslist was funny for things like missed connections, but was not a place Claire had ever considered a legitimate job search site. She had friends who had bought refrigerators or dressers there, most of who were left stuck with a mold-filled fridge or bed bugs. It was always hard to feel sorry for them, though... after all, using Craigslist was sort of "asking for it." Victim blaming at the lowest level, sure, but it was true.
Yet here she was, perusing through ads for the kind of jobs she would never tell her parents about:
TOPLESS MAIDS WANTED ($50/HOUR)
VILLAGE TAVERN SEEKS SHOT GIRL FOR WEEKEND SHIFTS (PAY VARIES)
GIRLS WITH BEAUTIFUL FEET APPLY TODAY!!!! ($$$$??!)
This was even more disgusting than she had imagined it could be. Claire's heart sank as she thought about begging for her Southwest job back. Maybe she could at least convince Virgin to hire her.
Her eyes scanned the pages of almost exclusively sexual Craigslist jobs, but finally landed on something that piqued Claire’s curiosity:
YOUNG ADULTS FOR COLUMBIA MEDICAL STUDY (PAID)
Not that she wanted to become a lab rat, but it was the only listing that didn't somehow imply that she would need to be sans-clothing to perform the job. Also, Columbia was an Ivy League university... their standards would have to be fairly high. Claire dialed the number on the ad and set up an appointment for the following Tuesday. She felt a little excited, actually. What would the study be about? Maybe she would learn something about her health for free, after all her health insurance with the airline would be ending any moment now. This could be killing two birds with one stone!
The look on Dylan's face as she told him about her findings was the first thing that made her question the medical study. She had spent the afternoon thinking of all the free advice she would be getting from doctors, by the time she told him about her plan she was feeling pretty great about it.
"Claire... what if they want you to take some kind of new medication that hasn't been fully tested? What if one of the students does something wrong and you get sick? This is your health we're talking about!" If there was one thing that made Dylan angry, it was the idea that Claire was (possibly putting herself) in danger.
"Honey, I obviously won't do anything I'm not comfortable with. It could be a really simple project that would be easy extra money. I will just go on Tuesday and see what the deal is and we can decide from there." It hadn't even occurred to her that she could be putting herself at risk. It probably did make sense to see what the study entailed... the school must be used to people coming in and getting the gist of things before actually signing on to a study.
"Okay. Just promise me you won't sign on for anything until you know all the facts." Sometimes Claire felt like she might not have survived this long without Dylan. He was so practical and good at covering all of his (and her) bases. She had never been good at either of those things for herself, at least not that she could remember.
On Tuesday, she wore her most expensive-looking suit with her long red hair piled into a neat bun. If she looked more upscale, maybe they would give her a more upscale study? (It had occurred to her, at this point, that anyone who would call in about a medical study they found on Craigslist was probably not all that well to do.)
She was very pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and medical vibe that the office gave off when she walked into the lobby, though. So much so that she took a photo to text to Dylan, so he could see how nice it was.
A woman in scrubs and a white jacket stood at the front desk, her hair in a bun very similar to Claire's.
"Um, yes, I think so. I found this through an ad on Craigslist," Claire whispered the word "Craigslist" lest anyone else in the office hear her. "I just wanted to check things out and see…"
"You will have an opportunity to learn about the study we place you in before you sign on."
"Oh, so there are different studies?" Claire wondered if she could throw this well-coiffed lady a couple of bucks to place her into something which did not require taking any weird medicine or having some kind of surgery.
"Yes, you will take a quick questionnaire and interview with a staff member this morning. We will call you this afternoon and tell you what you have the option of participating in, if anything."
It hadn't occurred to Claire that she might not even be eligible for a study. That would be a laugh and a half, she thought, not even being able to get a job in a random medical study. The economy really must be terrible.
After almost an hour of watching Kelly & Michael on the lobby TV, the receptionist finally led her back to a room that had been converted from an exam room to a little test-taking area. A jar of #2 pencils sat on a folding table. A multiple-choice form consisting of about 20 pages was handed to her as she sat at the table. She had a flashback to her SAT exam, junior year of high school. That fact that she had done so miserably on that test (her writing score was okay, but the math was atrocious) had been a major factor in her choosing culinary school over traditional college. She had resented tests like this ever since.
Luckily, the questions were based solely on her personality and information about her general health. Nothing fancy. She completed it in about 30 minutes, and rang the little buzzer on the door to notify the staff that she was ready for her interview. Ten minutes later, a woman in her mid-40's strutted into the room. She looked busy, like Claire and her interview were the least of her interests today. Claire thought this was great, because the interview would be short. She was right. Two or three minutes of general questions and the woman, whose name was Dr. Johns, was halfway out the door. Just before letting it close, she paused and turned to Claire.
"Ms. Lyons? How well do you sleep?”
This caught her off-guard; she had been having vivid nightmares for weeks. Ever since she'd left her job.
"Okay, I guess. I have some pretty bad dreams, though, lately.”
"Do the dreams feel real, or are you aware that you're dreaming as they happen?”
"My dreams have always felt real," Claire laughed. "Sometimes my boyfriend even has to shake me awake from a nightmare.”
Dr. Johns made a note on her clipboard as she turned and walked away.
Claire took herself out to a nice lunch as reward for the long morning. As she was swirling the Thai noodles from Spice around her chopsticks, her cell rang.
It was the university, calling to let her know she had been selected for a program studying dream cycles. She couldn't have been more thrilled... here she had been worrying all day about having to explain some weird medication study to Dylan, and all she would end up having to do was sleep in front of a few students and talk about her dreams! Plus, the study was set to last for three months, and she would be needed for three days every week. It wasn't a ton of money, but enough that she would be able to cover some of their basic expenses while still looking for a restaurant position. Craigslist was apparently not the sketch-fest she had previously believed it to be!
She called Dylan right away after hearing the news, and even he couldn't deny that it sounded like a great deal.
The study required that she journal her dreams every night, anything that she could remember. So, she headed to Duane Reade to pick up a nice journal and thought how funny it was that this item could be considered a tax write off for her new job. It was like being invited back to Kindergarten for nap time, but with a paycheck.
She even thought, just for a moment, that she wouldn't even need to look for another job right now. Why take time away from the easiest way to earn money she had ever heard of, right?
When she finally got home that night, Dylan had already poured a bottle of red wine. God, he was so nice. Even in her excitement, Claire knew this job wasn't going to take complete financial pressure off of him. Dylan knew that even this little job needed to feel like a big win, though. She had been really down in the dumps for the past week, and he sensed that she needed a cheerleader right now.
"So, what happens if you don't remember your dreams one night?"
"Well, they said that was fine... that I would just write down that I didn't remember. I usually remember my dreams, though. Almost every night.”
"No. Hardly ever, actually." He was just such an uncomplicated guy. They were really very different people, which she loved about him.
That night, after she and Dylan made love for the first time in weeks, Claire waited for sleep filled with excitement for what she might dream about. Something really juicy to spice up the journal, she hoped.
But she didn't dream about anything at all. At least not that she remembered.
Was this some kind of medical study performance anxiety? What if she never had anything to write in the journal? Would the study be ruined if she was so embarrassed about her lack of dreaming that she just started making things up? She started to panic about what she would say during the study’s session that morning. What if she got kicked out?