Andy was working late when he saw her. She peeked around the parking lot to make sure no one was watching then tried to shake the security door open. The Insurance Complex was part of a corporate campus that covered ten acres on the outskirts of a suburban development. There was little else around, some old acreages and horse farms. Most houses nearby were empty, framed shells with nothing inside. At ten o’clock on a Thursday night the office was quiet, only Andy was in his cubicle by the second floor window.
He watched the woman bang her palm against the keypad. She was small, with an athletic body and black hair. She wore a ratty green tee shirt and tiny yellow shorts that showed her legs. Andy swiveled his chair away from the glass. He was there late to get ahead on his quarterly project and needed to get back to it. The woman wouldn’t get past the security door, he didn’t think, and then she’d go away. Andy was secure in his cube. There were his carpeted partitions, his calendars, his wallet-sized sports schedules pinned up. His computer, his mouse, his mouse pad. There was his waste basket under the desk that was almost always empty at the end of the day. But he couldn’t concentrate on the spreadsheet open on his desktop. It was too hard to crunch numbers with that woman out there. He kept fat-fingering the ten-key, thinking of the woman’s legs, her bare skin.
By protocol, he should have called security. But Andy ran down the utility stairs instead to stop her rattling the door, her feet planted apart. A flash of white showed up her shorts, her legs spread to pull the door handle, before she straightened to wave him down.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Please,” she said. The glass door muted her voice. More than a few strands had come loose from her pinned-up hair, kinking into the space around her head. “I got to use the toilet.”
Andy’s face was close to the glass, his hands on the metal bar to open the door. It would unlock if he pushed.
“Come on, mister,” she said. “I got to go.”
He’d been wrong when he watched from the window upstairs. She wasn’t wholly a woman, but a teenager. Her yellow jogging shorts frayed at the seams, the shirt second-hand, its screen printed letters cracked and fading, a Drill Squad tee shirt from Jefferson Senior High. She had braces, there was a gap in her front teeth. She stuck her glossed lips out like she was going to cry.
She looked young up close, bent at the hips, legs pinched together, her butt too big for her body. The laces of her tennis shoes were gray and dingy, and she had a skinned knee, a bloody spot turned black. She glanced around the parking lot, holding to the door handle.
“Why don’t you go there?” Andy pointed to where some dumpsters were hidden behind a fenced-in blind. “You can pee there. No one will see.”
“Come on,” she whined. “Let me in.”
“I don’t think so. I can’t.”
Andy towered over the girl. He was a big guy, with curly copper-blond hair. He used to be thin in high school but was filling out. This explained the spare tire around his waist. He was devolving into his thirties and felt packed in meat, standing on the other side of the glass from the girl. She barely reached his chest. The girl twisted her legs and pouted, squeezed her arms over her stomach.
Once he unclasped the lock, she edged past. Her butt jolted him as he held open the door, as she rushed down the hallway without saying a thing. Andy followed at her heels.
This wasn’t a public office. There wasn’t even a lobby, really, only a couple padded chairs and a curved desk station with nothing on it. Only accountants worked here, underwriters, auditors, people like Andy who grew up in the suburbs of a nearby city and wore fleece pullovers and khaki slacks, people who were comfortable in complexes like this one. The bathroom on this floor was at the back of a maze of hallways.
The girl didn’t speak, she just hurried. Andy caught up to direct her. “Left here… Keep straight… Now right…” She became frustrated with his navigation, her arms pumping, her shoes squelching on the waxed tile floor. She mewled when they turned a corner only to pass another series of doors, one after another. Her hips careened as she hurried.
She’s thick, Andy thought, finding the precise term as he noticed her strong legs and the way she filled out a tee shirt.
His heart beat fast. The hallways seemed to shrink the further inside the building they circulated. The only light came from exit signs that never turned off. Andy wanted to walk the corridors of the Insurance Complex forever, behind the girl, staring at the small holes worn in the fabric of her shirt, at her shoulders where her bra straps made ridges.
“What are you doing out in the middle of nowhere?”
“I’m running,” she said. He hummed in response.
The girl broke into a sprint when she saw the ladies room. She rushed in. A stall door slammed, a lock rattled, the toilet seat clacked down. Light seeped from under the door. He was out of breath, his legs burning under his khakis. He bent to a water fountain and drank until his stomach ached. His gut bowed out under his pullover.
She was in there a long time. Andy wondered what she was doing, then realized what a stupid thought that was. What else would she be doing? He listened closely and heard the buzzing of wires inside the walls, the data-rich circulatory system of the Insurance Complex. He would get in trouble for this if his administrator found out. He wasn’t supposed to let anyone in the building, not even during business hours, and not without a security pass that could be requested only at a kiosk in some obscure corner of campus. There would be no way to explain his being alone with a teenage girl. He’d lose his job if they were caught.
Andy audited the expense accounts of junior executives. It was cold, predictable work. He had a thousand words for why he didn’t like his job, words he used on Mondays and Wednesdays. Nothing made the job worthwhile, except that he might get promoted. That’s why he was at the office on a Thursday night instead of his apartment nearby, where he lived alone. On weekends he flipped through magazines while he watched TV, or tried to pick up women at a sports bar called The Penalty Box if he was depressed. Andy didn’t know many people outside work. But he’d been popular in high school, he was sure. His friends had repeated stories about him: the time he used his truck to capsize Principal Wheeler’s above-ground swimming pool, or when he poked a hole in a basement wall at Amy Johanssen’s house with a billiards cue and pissed in the opening, or how he nearly lost his virginity to Jenny Charles in a canoe at church camp, in junior high, until the canoe tipped and Jenny screamed in the cold water, naked from the waist down. Andy had felt legendary by graduation day. Then he went one state over for school and people forgot his stories. If someone did remember, it was just to laugh about how stupid he’d been.
The girl was still in there. It had been ten minutes. Andy bent over the water fountain and again drank until his stomach ached. He needed to know what she was doing, but he couldn’t call security.
Andy barged into the bathroom, tripping as he burst through the door with his shoulder. He thought the door would be locked, but it couldn’t have been. It wasn’t a single room like they had on the second floor. The first thing Andy saw in the mirror was himself, stumbling, his hands borne out in front. He righted himself and backed against the sinks opposite the stalls. The two banks of fluorescents were blinding after waiting in the dark hallway.
He leaned down to look. The girl was in the first stall, on the stool. Around her ankles, her shorts and white panties still held the shape of her hips.
“Are you there, mister?”
“Yes. I want you to come out.”
Andy’s voice bent harder than he meant it to. But the paper roll spun, the toilet flushed. She bent to pull her panties and shorts back on, then unlocked the stall door and opened it. She was a cute girl, her cheeks ripe, like she was holding her breath. Her lips puffed slightly from braces, but not like she wanted to cry anymore. More like she was annoyed.
“Come here,” he said. The girl shrugged. She walked to the sinks and stood next to him.
“I let you in the building,” Andy said. “I did you a favor.”
He wanted her to speak again—to hear her scratchy voice.
Andy squared shoulders with her. Her eyes widened as he inched nearer. She sucked her lips. He wanted to bury his face in the thin fabric of her shirt—to pinch loose the pins in her hair—to move his fingers along her thighs where warm flesh was—to feel her body, to lift her to the counter. This was what he wanted when he kissed her.
She didn’t kiss back. She didn’t close her eyes. He realized this once he opened his. She stared at him, defiant, indignant. She waved her hands in the sink to start the water, then held out a palm until soap foam sprayed in. Andy stared into the stall she’d used, at the toilet where she’d sat. The room stunk. What in the world, he thought, did I expect?
He didn’t have to guide her back through the corridors. She remembered the way. The girl with pinned-up hair, her moth-eaten shirt, her yellow running shorts. He watched her feet swing, the dirty sneakers. He didn’t look at her hips, not at her ass.
Andy imagined the girl telling her high school friends about this later. His face burned at the thought. So embarrassed he didn’t even worry about her calling the police, or someone at corporate who could end his career. He worried about the girl laughing at him with her friends, and about what she might say.
“Hey,” he said. She didn’t turn. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Andy,” he said.
“Can we forget about what happened?” he asked. “Is that a favor I could ask? Let’s just forget?”
The girl stopped and turned to him, not far from the security door. A light flickered and buzzed above them. Her eyebrows bent into thin lines.
“We can forget,” Andy said. He took a step toward her and collapsed to his knees. “I helped you. Remember that.”
The girl sighed out her nose. She smiled up at the ceiling tiles. He saw the ridge of her teeth. “It would make me feel better,” he said, “if you forgot what happened in the bathroom.”
She took the hem of her tee shirt and lifted until the waist of her yellow shorts showed, where bands of lycra were loose. She showed her stomach, the gap where the waistband of her shorts bridged the curve of her navel and hips. She didn’t say anything, but just held her shirt, the tightness of her bare skin, the mounds of baby fat above her hip bones, the scar above her bellybutton, the brown moles he couldn’t see from farther away, the arcs where her bottom ribs spread above her womb. Andy smelled the soap she used, the gym bag odor of her clothes. He thought she would laugh at him but she didn’t.
He tried to press his face to her belly, but the girl took a step back. She lowered her shirt and turned, Andy still on his knees. He listened as she returned to the lobby that wasn’t a lobby, when she shoved the security door open and breached the building’s pressurized bubble. Andy felt the air rush out.
Theodore Wheeler‘s short fiction has appeared in Best New American Voices, The Kenyon Review, Boulevard,The Cincinnati Review, and Five Chapters, among others, and received special mention in a Pushcart Prize anthology. He’s won the Tarcher/Penguin Top Artist Writing Contest, the Marianne Russo Award from the Key West Literary Seminar, and was recently a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. Wheeler lives in Omaha with his wife and two daughters, where he is a legal reporter covering the civil courts of Nebraska.