My fingers still around smooth, lengthy stalk, my gaze trailing between it and the group of its kin. Slowly, almost apprehensively, I slide the lone office rose in the vacant flute.

 

A perfect fit.

 

Twenty-three roses.

 

One for every year I’ve never received one…

 

Something instantly floods my belly, my brain hissing with as many questions as there are petals in front of me. I blink against a stab of paranoia, my head orbiting itself a million miles a second. Until it feels like I can no longer physically contain myself. Contain my own body.

 

In another five minutes, I’ve abandoned my quest for coffee, exchanging my pajama set for the yoga pants and matching sports bra Peyton gifted me for my twenty-first birthday, a splash of guilt topping the stiff cocktail of emotions as I slip into them.

 

A burning need to run consumes me, as if in an effort to catch up with my racing mind. I indulge it without resistance. Not like I have much say in the matter. I can only hope working up a sweat will shed even a fraction of this fierce, incited restlessness.

 

I slide my feet into the sole pair of trainers I own, encouraged by the habitual rush the familiar sensation brings, realizing how long it’s already been since the last time I did. Not since I began this internship. Two weeks feels like an eternity when you’ve worn the same thing every other day without fail for as long as you can remember.

 

I would’ve had them on yesterday. Last weekend, too. Instead, I ended up in stilettos both times, the latter in which weren’t even mine. And the former I wish I didn’t now own.

 

I shake my head, willing it not to regress to thoughts of the auction and its resulting chain of events. I head out, opting for the central and much larger Recreational Hub, a fifteen-minute stretch from the Core complex’s residential gymnasium.

 

Artificially cold, ventilated air blasts my skin as soon as I walk through one of fourteen main entrances, checking my watch. An embedded security checkpoint extends from the large, automated door, housing a full-body scanner. The recorded male voice it broadcasts prohibits a list of certain objects, substances and other potential hazards, prompting the removal of all metal before proceeding.

 

Zanergy’s epicenter for physical avocation is already teeming with busybodies, the space still carrying an air of formality despite the casual environment, as though working out is simply another part of work, another bullet point in the job description.

 

Vast doesn’t even begin to describe it; like something out of a world-class publication. A metropolitan mall in itself, each floor of the multi-story spread as wide as the eye can see. Conspicuously too large to tour in a single visit, let alone explore, stocked with state-of-the-art tools and equipment, plenty of which I’ve never even heard of before.

 

Digital signs and monitors intersperse along the main foyer, displaying both ongoing and upcoming activities with their respective locations and times. I’m overwhelmed by the sheer number of options, every single one accessible to employees at no charge. Between hot suspension yoga, aquatic spin cycling, and virtual reality Zumba, I’m glad I opted to come here to decompress. If nothing else, to get an opportunity to exercise self-love on this day of Singles Awareness.

 

Even if I was technically on a date last night.

 

With the—alleged—single responsible for this place.

 

Rec employees, easily spotted by their uniform cobalt blue T-shirts, navy bottoms and electronic name tags, assist patrons or remain on standby, dispensing rentable towels, ergonomic yoga mats, wireless headphones, support braces, tracking bracelets, portable media players and other athletic gear. I check out some headphones, a mat and a towel, clipping the wings of my curiosity to keep my list short and in line with why I came, filling my water bottle to the brim from a snazzy, touch-screen dispenser reminiscent of a shark tank.

 

Yoga first, I decide, hoping the usually-unwinding exertion will do its job now that I need it to the most and, if for nothing else, to remind me that I still know how to breathe like a normal human being.

 

With my newly-acquired fixtures, I journey further inside at a leisurely pace, my front-running pick not scheduled for another fifteen minutes. I make use of the extra time, probing deeper into the building and scanning the vast, architecturally-splendorous space, the main entryway meandering into several passages like veins from an arte—

 

I stop dead in my tracks, a few feet short of a crossroads intersection My eyes twitch as my heart mimics the involuntary action, a harsh exhale I didn’t greenlight sputtering out of me like boiling oatmeal.

 

Richard Zane looks on from above, his gorgeous face and ferocious eyes hanging high from a banner, like an omnipresent demigod in the sky, seeing all who walk through this glorious domain of his.

 

A prodigious glass model of the Hub sits below it, quarantined by protective casing and imbued by soft, fluorescent lights that give the display an almost futuristic constitution.

 

All at once, the previous night comes back to me in choppy, battered flashes, the sight of those same eyes in dimmed candlelight. Stripping. Penetrating. Demanding.

 

Demanding my indecency

 

I scurry off to my designated destination like I have a dozen pit bulls on my tail, tearing—and keeping—my own eyes off the giant layout as my heart thumps in my ears, my teeth grinding against a bombardment of precisely what I came to escape.

 

Unwittingly, I take to memory the proceeding quote, sandwiched between his flawless image and unforgettable name.

 

Of all the wealth to be acquired in this world, health is the most valuable. And, by the same token, the only which cannot be valued.”

 

Residual—and renewed—embarrassment drives me to roll my eyes as I walk away.

 

This coming from a rich kid, I gripe, wishing I found his “motivational speech” just as inspiring last night.

 

***

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THIS CHAPTER MAKES ME FEEL...
  • Fascinated
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Bored
  • Afraid

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