“I don’t feel so good.”
Cliff didn’t look good, either. In fact, he looked awful. My boss’ round face was always ruddy, but right now he was puffy, beet red, and his ordinarily beady eyes were bulging out of his swollen eye sockets. Throughout the short drive downtown from the Austin airport, he’d only been getting puffier, itchier, redder, and grumpier. I was starting to get genuinely worried about him.
“I think you’re having an allergic reaction to that bee sting,” Annie said from the backseat. This was the third time she’d said it, and I was fairly sure she was right.
Cliff dug his thick fingers beneath his collar, scratching at the hives that were spreading over every inch of visible skin. He loosened the tie that had grown too tight around his neck and groaned.
“I wonder if I might be having an allergic reaction,” he mumbled as if he’d just had some kind of spontaneous insight. “What kind of rental car company lets their cars be infested with fucking bees?”
Infested was probably a stretch. There was a bee. One. It probably flew in the open window looking for a sugary taste of Cliff’s soda. Cliff just happened to be unlucky enough to swallow it—or attempt to swallow it—and then spit the front half of the bee out, getting stung on the inside of his mouth in the process.
Cliff wiggled in his seat uncomfortably. “Rae, do you think you could drive any slower? I swear, this is why I usually don’t let you girls drive. You drive like my grandma. And she’s been dead for just about thirty years.”
I made eye contact with Annie through the rearview mirror. Her expression was more uncertain than offended by Cliff’s blatant, casual misogyny. For once, I was willing to excuse it, too. Although the joke in the office among my female coworkers was that Cliff was so named because his mother took one look at him when he was born and wanted to jump off one, I’d never seen him like this. He was often obnoxious, sexist, and generally dismissive of women’s ideas, but not usually totally unreasonable when we were obviously right.
“I think we should get you to an emergency room just to rule out anything serious,” I said, attempting a reasonable tone.
Cliff harrumphed. “Don’t be hysterical Rae,” he snapped at me. “I’ll be fine in a second. We can’t be late to this meeting.”
Hysterical? You ate a damn bee!
“Cliff—” I tried again, but he cut me off with a rude noise.
“Hush! Now why is it so hot in here? You girls always want it to be so damn hot.”
Annie and I exchanged another glance through the mirror. Somehow everything was always our fault. Soon he’d probably be blaming us for the bee.
“I’m not hot Cliff,” Kyle volunteered from the backseat. The poor guy always tried to be decent, despite being naturally more of a quiet person. His kindness earned him a glare from Cliff.
Kyle wasn’t hot because the car wasn’t hot. If anything, it was cooler than comfortable. Cliff cranked up the air conditioner anyway. He was sweating profusely, and he’d begun wheezing a bit with every breath.
I was driving us to a preliminary meeting with a new target company. Usually I didn’t get to drive, and we were all subjected to Cliff’s hatred of safety norms, but today just kept getting weirder. We all needed to get back on track.
This was a crucial meeting, and the first of many in which we would try to convince our target that he wanted to sell his business to us after letting us investigate every square inch of it. Since I was the second most senior person here, Kyle and Annie, the technical members of our evaluation team, were looking to me to do something about Cliff. Annie was painfully shy, and Kyle had just joined our team six months ago; if something was going to get done, it was up to me to do it.
In my three years working for the Azure Group, I’d never led an onsite acquisition team before. I’d worked my way up to second in command, however, and I was well aware that my only chance of moving up further was by replacing Cliff or someone like him. As hard as Cliff was to work with, I had no desire to take his place because he’d died from a simple bee sting. Still, I sensed that a battlefield promotion might be near.
And that wasn’t the only thing near. “We’re here,” I told the group. I shifted the car to park in front of The Lone Star Lounge and turned to Cliff. “You need to go to the emergency room,” I ordered him. “You’re not well. You can’t meet with the client like this.”
Cliff, who was fighting a coughing spell, shook his head furiously. His mouth framed an obvious “no” but no sound escaped, even after his coughing sputtered to an end. When he finally did manage to make a noise, it was a small panicked wheeze. He clutched at his throat in a panic.
I’d seen My Girl. I knew how this ended. Not willing to waste another second, I threw my door open and prepared to sprint across the parking lot.
God dammit Cliff. Don’t you fucking die you pompous, chauvinistic pig. Not before you recommend me for a promotion.
“Kyle, call 911!” I shouted over my shoulder. “Annie get his jacket and tie off.”
“On it,” came the in-unison reply.
I’d run track in high school. Even in the three-inch heels and pencil skirt I was wearing, I was fast. I dashed across the asphalt, garnering stares from other patrons who were making their way to happy hour. I threw open the door to the bar and marched into the middle of the room.
“Does anyone have an EpiPen? There’s a man in the parking lot going into anaphylactic shock. He was stung by a bee. It’s an emergency.”
I wasn’t using my inside voice, and when I want to be loud, I am LOUD. It comes from being a born New Yorker, telling off catcallers in a big city, and working in a heavily male-dominated business. I was no shy, retiring flower at the best of times. When I needed to be scary and pushy, I could be terrifying. As expected, the room fell instantly silent. People stared at me like I’d just announced the rapture.
Lucas Stevenson was somewhere in this bar, but I couldn’t spare more than a passing thought about this possibly being our first interaction. The tech wunderkind had created what was probably another brilliant innovation, one that the Azure Group desperately wanted to acquire. I would focus on that later. Right now, my annoying boss was potentially going to die if I didn’t make a scene. So, I would make a scene.
“Please! Anyone! I need an EpiPen right now! Please!” I repeated. I stared around me at the faces of strangers, entreating them to listen. In New York, people are good at ignoring strangers, but when there’s a crisis, a real emergency, strangers will help. I prayed it was the same here in Austin, Texas.
“I have one.” The bartender, an extremely petite blonde, extended the slim injector to me.
My breath slid out in a relieved rush and I flew over to grasp it. “Thank you,” I managed. “Thank you so much.” I looked at the device in confusion. I’d just realized that I didn’t know how to administer it. The bartender was already rounding the bar.
“I can show you how to use it, if you need me to,” she was saying. “Did you call 911?”
I nodded. “Yes, and yes. Follow me.”
The blonde and I ran back outside to where Kyle and Annie were desperately trying to assist Cliff. My trip back to the Four Runner was a lot slower than my trip from it. My new, tiny blonde friend had very short legs by comparison.
“I’m Rae Lewis,” I told her as we ran. “Thanks for your help. Seriously.”
“Emma—” she panted, “Emma Williams.”
“Ok, so what do I do?” I asked when we got near to Cliff. He was still in the passenger seat, clutching at his throat and obviously struggling to get enough air. His reddish color had turned a deep, ugly purple. He was still making noises though; that had to be a good sign.
“Pull off the blue cap and then hold the orange end against his thigh,” Emma explained as I unwrapped the injector. She was shaking slightly, and her voice was tremulous, but I tried to ignore it. “Keep the injector there until it clicks and then count to five.”
“I’m going to inject you with this,” I told Cliff, in a loud, clear voice. I shook the EpiPen in front of his purple, swollen face. “Your airway is closing up. We have to stop your reaction from getting worse.”
He shook his head furiously as soon as I said the word ‘inject’. What a baby. Did he want to suffocate? Too bad. He wasn’t allowed to die.
“This is happening,” I told him. “Don’t test me.”
Cliff tried to bat my hand away when I did as Emma directed, but Kyle and Annie helped me hold him still. The click of the needle was tiny, but I felt it. Cliff definitely felt it. He made a noise somewhere between a whine and a moan, jerked a bit, and then glared at me like I’d just poisoned him. Then, as I removed the needle from his skin, he started to shake violently. I blanched.
“What’s he doing?”
“That’s normal,” Emma said when my gaze snapped to her delicate features. She looked nervous. “It’s good, actually. It means the medicine got in him. He’ll shake for a while, and may feel frightened, cold, or paranoid. But he won’t die, and he’ll be able to breathe better soon.” She paused. “I’ve, um, I’ve never done this before, but that’s what the instructions said.” Her expression was sheepish.
I’m glad she didn’t tell me this was her first time before I injected him.
All four of us stared at Cliff anxiously while he shook like a leaf. He shook and jerked, but just like she said, he was starting to breath more normally. He took deep, grateful gulps of air. His plum color began lightening into a healthier, but still unnatural pink. He wasn’t able to speak, but over the next ten minutes he became increasingly responsive, though he was also clearly confused and dizzy.
“I—I just don’t know how to thank you,” I stuttered at Emma, and she patted my arm comfortingly with her little hand. I’m not used to being touched by strangers, but somehow, I found myself appreciating her contact rather than resenting it. I managed a small smile and she returned it.
“You don’t need to thank me,” Emma told me. “It’s all ok.” Whether she knew it or not, she was my angel this afternoon. I could not imagine what I would have done without her help. I wasn’t sure how long Cliff would have been able to wait for help.
I relaxed a little bit at her words, and then relaxed a lot more when the high, familiar squeal of an ambulance began to grow closer. The white and red vehicle peeled into view around the corner with the squeal of brakes, bringing with it flashing lights, lots of questions, and professional help. The next hour was a bizarre, dizzy whirlwind.
“No, no. You stop that,” the paramedic—Vanessa—told Cliff when he tried to rip the IV out of his arm. Both her tone and the way she grabbed his hand and held it was just like one would do with a kid, not a fifty-something-year-old who just acted like a child. “Be still now,” she chided. He continued to mumble something, and she pushed a syringe into his tube and depressed the plunger. “There you go,” she told him. “That’ll help you relax.”
A moment later, Cliff nodded incoherently, and his eyes slipped closed.
“Is he going to be ok?” Kyle asked for all three of us.
Vanessa and her hunky partner Sam exchanged a glance at one another. Then they both shrugged.
“He needs to be seen by a doctor,” Vanessa said after a moment. She’d clearly been trained to dispense the minimum amount of information necessary. I knew she couldn’t make us any promises. “He’s stable now and that’s what’s most important. We do need to take him to a hospital though. I know they will want to run some tests on him.”
The two of them had instantly taken over when they arrived. I’d never been so glad to suddenly not to be in charge. The truth is, I had no idea how to treat Cliff. Other than the EpiPen, I knew next to nothing about allergies, especially the dangerous, life-threatening kind. Vanessa and Sam clearly saw it every day. They knew exactly what to do, and even more impressively, they knew how to comfort and contain us at the same time.
“One of you is welcome to ride with us,” Sam offered as they finished getting Cliff ready to transport. “But only one. For insurance reasons.”
“I’ll do it!” Annie volunteered instantly. She was looking at his impressive biceps and big green eyes longingly. There was no denying that the paramedic was easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, for Annie, I was pretty sure that Vanessa and Sam were partners in more ways than one. I usually have pretty good instincts for knowing when a man was taken. The way Vanessa eyed buxom Annie with thinly veiled suspicion told me it was true.
“Kyle, you follow the ambulance. I’ll go meet with Stevenson and explain things,” I told him. “I’ll meet up with you later.”
I expected Kyle to argue, but he didn’t. “Ok.” He seemed really shaken by the entire experience and kept looking around at everything with worried eyes. He usually spent his time pouring over financial records, so this was way out of his wheelhouse. I patted his arm comfortingly. Vanessa and Sam loaded Cliff’s gurney into the back of the ambulance, and Kyle slid into the driver’s seat of the rental SUV to follow.
“See you soon,” he said. “I’ll call you if anything important happens.”
“Thank you so much!” I cried to the ambulance, waving goodbye to the paramedics and letting them take my entire team away. Vanessa gave me a thumbs up through the open driver’s side window. She had confirmed that we’d done the right thing injecting Cliff with the EpiPen, possibly even saving his life. Getting an airway open during an allergic reaction apparently became exponentially harder the longer you waited. Even Cliff, although he was in and out of consciousness and who’s tongue was several times larger than normal, admitted that he appreciated what I’d done. Annie and Kyle called me a hero.
I didn’t feel like much of a hero. I felt utterly exhausted and drained. More than anything, I felt like I’d just been in a fistfight. I slumped down on the curb and put my head against my knees, thoroughly depleted of energy. Now I had to meet with our client alone, and there was nothing that I wanted to do less. Meeting with Lucas Stevenson in my current rumpled state was not ideal, and I was already horribly late. I figured taking a moment to collect myself while sitting on the curb was allowable. I wondered if I could slip inside and make it into the bathroom to touch up my makeup first. It had been hours since I looked in a mirror, but I had a feeling my hair was doing bad things atop my head. It had been in a sleek bun, but that was hours ago.
My phone beeped in my purse, and I checked it wearily. There were a number of things waiting on my attention. Fourteen new emails, dozens of texts, and interestingly, the app belonging to our client. The app that we were here to acquire. It chirped that it had a notification for me.
Curious, I pressed a button and the minimalistic interface of Notable Match popped up. I’d installed it on my phone during the flight from New York, but hadn’t had a chance to really mess around with it yet. The new notification had come in about the time we arrived at the bar, but I was just now seeing it.
You have a new match, the app informed me in cartoonish text. Lucas Stevenson is within two hundred feet of you. A man’s face, square jawed, hazel-eyed and devastatingly handsome, blinked on my screen. The man in the photo looked a lot more like a model than a tech guru. That’s Lucas Stevenson? I doubted it. He probably used a fake photo. A small heart icon spun, grew and exploded into dozens of smaller hearts.
His app had matched us as a couple? I was still staring at my phone while sitting on a curb, dumbfounded, when someone cleared their throat behind me. I twisted around, looking up and into the face of Lucas Stevenson. He looked just like his picture. I closed the app as quickly as I could, but I could tell he’d already seen it.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked with a smile.