“HELLO?”

I don’t know why I thought speaking would be a good idea. I’m covered in sweat even though it’s only five to nine and the day hasn’t even started. I’m not late, but I’m cutting it close for a first day. The office—the studio, it’s hardly an office—seems empty. I’m pleasantly surprised. I should be able to go to the bathroom and wash my face, maybe straighten up my hair. I just wish I had product on me.

“Hello.”

I turn around to see where the baritone voice is coming from. A man stands in front of me in the hallway. I can’t seem to stop staring at him. I don’t know why—he’s not even my type. He’s thin and tall, with sculptured cheekbones and pointy ears. His eyes are green and steely, incredibly intense. His arms are crossed over his chest. He’s wearing a denim vest and jeans, but he somehow manages to pull it off. I look up at his face again and this time notice his mohawk. It’s understated, for a mohawk, so that’s not saying much.

I guess it makes sense he’s not dressed up. This is an art studio, not an office.

He lets me finish staring at him before he smirks. Then he looks down and takes a cigarette out of his jacket pocket.

No way, I tell myself. Your luck is never this good.

I need to say something. The silence is stretching out and he seems to be enjoying it. I’m not enjoying it at all. I can feel my cheeks starting to redden as I stand in front of him.

“I’m Damien,” I say.

“Nice name,” he replies. He’s holding the unlit cigarette between his fingers. He fumbles for his lighter and takes a long drag as he lights up.

I look around, wondering who he is. Is this a test? Am I supposed to be telling him he can’t smoke inside?

He turns his face so he blows the smoke away from mine. “I’m sorry,” he says, his smile widening. “It’s my last one.”

It’s probably impolite to tell him I didn’t want a cigarette in the first place. “That’s okay.”

He narrows his eyes. “You’re new here, right?”

“Yes,” I reply. “Today is my first day.”

“I’m meant to show you around,” he says. “I’m John.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Alright.” He finishes his cigarette, stubs it out with his fingers, and throws it in the bin in the hallway. “This is the hallway. That’s the main room, you’re not really allowed in there, and the bathroom is on the other end of the building.”

That was a terrible tour. And I want to ask where everyone is, but I’m not going to. John may be my boss, for all I know, and I don’t want him to think I’m incompetent. “Thanks.”

“Yeah,” he says. He hasn’t stopped looking at me, right at my face, at all, ever since he started to speak, and I feel a little uncomfortable. “People come in and out of here all the time. Get used to that.”

“Okay.” I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say.

He looks me up and down for the first time. I feel a little breathless when his gaze falls from my face, like I’ve just been released from something. “What are you wearing?”

“Um,” I say and look down at my outfit. I’m sure it’s office appropriate, but he’s making me doubt myself. I can’t place his tone either. It’s half-amused, half-baffled, all snide. “Business casual?”

“You look like an Italian prostitute,” he says.

“I—what?”

“You look like an Italian prostitute,” he repeats. He knows I’ve heard him, and he’s smirking now, though his tone has changed. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it softened, but it’s less jagged. More like the kind of ribbing I’d expect from a friend, instead of an insult from the person who could be my boss.

I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m wearing a blue button-up shirt, dark trousers, a brown belt, and boots to match. I know this outfit looks good. Well, I knew the outfit looked good until about a second ago.

I’m offended. I know that he’s enjoying that I am, so I can’t let him see it. “Like a very expensive Italian prostitute,” I correct him.

I’m trying to make sure my voice doesn’t waver, but I still sound younger than I intend. I feel very small compared to this person, even though he’s seems to be only a few years older than me.

Five, at a push.

He’s got nothing on Levi.

His smile widens. His teeth are thin and long, and his canines especially are mismatched with the rest of his mouth. They make him look feral. So fucking sexy.

I tell myself to stop being ridiculous.

He crosses his arms and leans back on the wall. I didn’t even realize that there was a wall next to him. It seems to have appeared specifically for the purpose of having him lean on it, looking all James Dean and punk, and making me feel like an idiot. “Did your girlfriend buy those clothes for you?”

“No.” I swallow. I need to get a grip on myself. This isn’t going anywhere. If it’s his idea of flirting, it’s pretty bad, and I don’t understand how or why it seems to be working on me. I’m blushing and I hate myself for it. I need to get a grip, reel the situation in. “My boyfriend helped, though.”

He knits his eyebrows, looking slightly taken aback by that. Maybe he is interested, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how good he looks, he’s too much of a dick for me to want anything to do with him. Totally. Yes, that’s it. He’s too much of a dick and I can do so much better than him. He looks so much like a character from a John Hughes production, all mismatched and hot in a weird, uncomfortable way. And of course there’s Levi.

Of course there’s Levi. Whom I seem to have forgotten about until now.

“You have a boyfriend?”

“Yes. Well, kind of. It’s complicated,” I say. I think I see a twinge of jealousy in his expression, but I can’t be sure. Mostly he just seems surprised, his mouth still half-open, his eyes shining. There’s something else there, but I can’t place it. Whatever it is, it’s making me blush. A lot. I can feel how hot my cheeks are, again, even redder that they were before.

“What about you? Anyone special in your life?”

He laughs at that. His laughter isn’t what I was expecting at all—it’s lilted and it sounds sincere. His eyes close. He throws his head back and his mohawk, his ridiculous understated mohawk, moves just a little bit. I wonder how he gets it to stay like that. I want to ask him if I can touch it. If I can touch him.

“No,” he replies, and for a second I think he can read my mind. He stops laughing then and sets his gaze on me again, on my face. “I’m not cut out for relationships.”

I can see that, I think. I almost say it, but I don’t. Instead I watch him until he speaks. “Right. Better get back to work.”

 

 

WE WALK around a little but not much. We’re still in the hallway when he points to a white door.

“He’s very busy,” John says, pointing at the Do Not Disturb sign hanging from the knob. It looks old and dirty, like someone stole it from a motel room and decided it would make perfect sense in their office. Which I guess it does, in a weird way, because this place is falling apart. The main room. I look at the door and wonder what’s going on with all the secrecy but say nothing.

John’s watching me. “You’re not really supposed to go in there unless it’s an emergency.”

I tilt my head and look at the door. I know that no one’s supposed to go into the studio when the artists are working, but he’s confusing me. The way he’s talking about the person inside, the reverence in his voice, he could only really be referring to one person. Of course that’s impossible. “Him? I thought Sam was dead.”

John laughs. The way he does is so crazy, so different from what he looks like. It’s unabashed, juvenile. The opposite of self-conscious. The way people stop laughing as soon as they get to a respectable age and start to become polite. Well, the way other people do. “If you thought he was dead, how did you think this place ran?”

I chew the inside of my mouth. “He had students, didn’t he?”

“No,” he says, laughing again. It’s a little more reserved this time. I wonder if he’s holding back for my benefit, to not make me look foolish, despite how young and foolish I already feel. “Sam doesn’t take students. He doesn’t want anyone to know how he does what he does.”

“Oh,” I reply. “Okay.”

I’ve read about Sam Riordan’s students. I’ve seen their work in museums and movies. I don’t know what John is talking about. I suppose this could be part of the whole art-studio thing, but he must think I’m stupid if he thinks I don’t know Sam Riordan died ten years ago.

“He needs a cup of tea on the hour. Two sugars, a little milk. Not too much milk, he hates milky tea, and if you do it wrong, he’ll fire you. And don’t be late at all if you want to keep your job.” John’s serious when he speaks now, as he rattles off instructions. It sounds rehearsed. He seems to have done this a lot. I wonder who I’m replacing.

“Right,” I say. I should be taking notes, but it’s too late now and I don’t want to pull out my phone and seem rude.

“Sometimes there are big bands, celebrities, people like that, that come through here. Don’t talk to them. You’re meant to take their coats and get hot drinks, but do not offer them hot drinks. If you do, you’ll get fired.”

That doesn’t seem very reasonable, but it’s not like I can protest. “Okay,” I say, nodding.

“Most of the time you’ll be cleaning, taking out the rubbish, and storing art materials. Sorting paint cans by colors and cleaning frames. Prime canvases, stretch canvases, that kind of thing. You’ll also help when setting up exhibits, and loading and unloading materials from trucks.”

That’s the first thing he’s said that I was expecting. I nod.

“You have to go through his fan mail too. But only rarely. I do that most of the time.”

“He… he still gets fan mail?”

“Yes,” John replies. “A lot. He hates most of it. It’s my job to find the interesting letters and make sure they go through to him. You’ll have to do it too, eventually. And if you throw one away that he would find interesting—”

I guess I’m playing along now. “I’ll get fired?”

He smiles. His eyes light up, though he doesn’t seem that amused. “Yes. But you’ll get a feel for it.”

“How would he know?”

John shrugs.

“Okay,” I say.

“And then, every week, you go down to the post office and you go to the shop to make a supply run too. Nothing big, I take care of the big things, but you’ll be getting things like duct tape, black paper bags, guitar strings, that kind of thing. Do not give him change. If you have any change, give it to me. He doesn’t like handling money. And don’t forget anything, otherwise—”

“Fired,” I say.

“Yes,” he replies. “One more thing—he leaves the studio last. If you’re still here and hear noises coming from behind this door, split. If he makes eye contact with you, you’re fired.”

“Alright,” I say when I’m done chewing on the inside of my mouth. “Is there anything else?”

He looks me up and down before he shakes his head, the small smile still on his face. “No. Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“No,” I say, peeling my gaze from his body and looking around. He is not what I expected. This is not it, though I’m not exactly sure what I did expect.

More people. Someone else.

Anyone else.

I’m suddenly so desperate to feel the presence of another human, anyone who isn’t John. Just him, being there, talking to me, talking at me, makes me feel so strange.

He’s dangerous.

He doesn’t just look dangerous, he is dangerous, dangerous the way boys I had crushes on when I was thirteen were, dangerous the way that gorgeous straight boys are the morning after you’ve pulled them.

I don’t know if I’m just avoiding looking at him again because I know how hard it will be to stop looking at him again.

That’s one thing I expected for sure, more people to be working here. Expectations. Office. Work. Yeah, that’s what I need to be focusing on, not whatever schoolboy-crush shit this is.

He speaks, but I don’t look at him. “How did you get hired? Do you know Sam?”

I laugh at his question. I don’t intend to—he seems sincere and I don’t want to insult him, but this entire thing is completely ridiculous. I don’t know if this is still a test, but if it is, it’s stopped being scary and now I’m just finding it amusing. “No. I don’t really know, to be honest. I applied to a bunch of places and this was the one that got back to me. They said I’d have one day at work, instead of an interview, to see how I fit in, which I thought was a little unorthodox, but it’s Crash. Everyone wants to work at Crash.”

He laughs that sweet, sincere, genuine laugh that makes my heart beat faster. I look at him this time. “You’re funny.”

I don’t think I am, I wasn’t trying to be. But “funny” is better than whatever I actually am right now and I don’t even feel like I have a name for it, so I take the compliment. So I laugh with him, even though it’s insincere, because at least it feels like we’re doing something normal.

“That sounds like a Sam thing to do,” he says after he stops laughing. “Though I didn’t understand why he chose you until you told me you had a boyfriend. Does he know you’re a homosexual?”

I laugh. This time, it’s earnest. “A homosexual?”

He narrows his eyes. He makes no conciliatory effort to laugh along with me. No breaks for Damien, I think. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes,” I say, still laughing, though not as much as before. “I’m fairly sure Sam Riordan doesn’t know I’m a homosexual, no.”

“Oh,” he says, studying me. “Okay, then. Come on.”

“Where’s, where’s everyone else?” I say as I start following him down the hallway, still trying to choke back laughter. What kind of question was that? What exactly is happening right now?

He laughs. “This is it. Sam, you, me, and Alicia. She only comes in on Wednesdays.”

“You’re joking,” I say.

“No,” he replies. His voice drops a bit before he mumbles, “I guess I could do with the help.”

 

 

I FOLLOW him to a small door at the other end of the hallway.

“Watch your step,” he says as he opens it. There’s a couple of stairs going down into the dark room. I almost lose my balance before he turns on the light. I expect to see his office, but the space couldn’t be considered one even by the most charitable of onlookers. There’s a bulky gray desk pushed up to the wall, with a folder on top of it. There’s a pile of unsorted letters. Actual physical letters.

Behind the desk there’s a cracked door to what looks like a supply closet. It isn’t that much smaller than this room, which I just now realize is windowless.

“You don’t have a computer?”

He frowns. “We’re a three-person operation. Why would we need a computer?”

I’m not really sure what to say to that. Another impossible question to answer. I wonder if this place is too hipstery, too artistic, too something, for me to understand it. I’ve run into that before at school. Maybe one of the Fine Art students would get it, but me, the Visual Media student who still has no idea what to do with his life once he graduates, I definitely don’t.

“For fan mail,” I reply, unsure of what else to say. I’m sure that my argument is weak and stupid in the face of actual art. My voice sounds really hollow and off, strange in this cloistered, crushingly small space.

He chuckles. I don’t think he hears the apprehension in my voice. “How would that help?”

Or maybe it’s both: he’s strange and I don’t get it. I look around, trying to see if there are cameras.

John is watching me. “You know,” he says, “you’re a very strange person.”

“Oh,” I reply, shifting my weight. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to say to that. Plus I’m not the one that’s strange, he is. People normally have computers. They normally have chairs. They normally don’t wear denim vests when coming to work, even in art studios.

He sits down on the floor—as if it was the most natural thing ever, like people just did that in offices and that’s how everyone went on with their day—and looks up at me. “Bring me those letters.”

I do as I’m told and set the letters in front of him, but I don’t sit down. Not yet. I feel totally lost, utterly hopeless. He takes them from me, leaves a pile of them sitting at my feet, and looks up.

He smiles at me. I don’t know how it’s possible, but his eyes seem brighter somehow, clearer. I try not to look at his canines. His lovely, crooked, ridiculous canines.

“Welcome to Crash.”