Under My Skin, page 1
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A FINAL THANKS
Copyright © A. E. Dooland 2014
First published as a weekly web series on aedooland.com
Available from Amazon.com and other online stores
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under the copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission of the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events in this story, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover design and art by Yue Li
Edited by Nancy Phoebe Youssef
First and foremost to Anne Farmer, who not only encouraged me to go ahead and write this book in the first place, but also for her tireless support, critical analysis and opinions on each chapter and how it would land for the audience. This book would not only not be the same without her, but it wouldn’t be without her!
Secondly to my poor partner Martina Vesela for her opinions, support and understanding.
Thirdly, thanks to Jieun, Seoyoon, Jude and Haley for their assistance, to Ken Dibbins for all his enthusiasm and help, and to the entire S.S. Endurance fandom.
This web series was crowd-funded, and the following fabulously generous people were major financial backers:
Sten Sondre Johnson
When I was choosing a career, I wish I had understood the difference between marketing and sales. If I had, I would probably be ‘networking’ right now—and by that I mean drunk under a table with prospective clients—and not sitting at a table on the 36th floor of an office building at 10pm on a Monday. I refreshed my email again, and surprise, surprise, nothing had come through. God, all those idiots needed to do was stagger over to a computer and type the letters ‘O’ and ‘K’ so I could finally go home. Apparently, that’s too much to ask of our sales team, though. But, hey, would you like a Frost International-branded mouse pad?
The rest of my so-called marketing team had trickled out already—“You don’t mind staying, do you, Min?”—and somehow I’d been conned into waiting for the final word from Sales on tomorrow’s presentation. It was a stupid formality; we’d been working on the pitch for three weeks now, and it was solid. I learnt pretty quickly, though, that it was just easier to stroke the bulging egos of the sales team rather than piss them off.
“It’s just you and me, Mike,” I said, leaning back into my office chair and staring at the ceiling.
Mike didn’t reply because Mike was a tacky souvenir turtle. One of my old friends from Melbourne had bought him for me when she went to Bali, as a joke. I’d never seen a worse paint-job on anything in my life—and that included my own paintings that I’d done when I was young and terrible. Mike was only barely recognisable as an actual turtle. I’d called him Michelangelo, but given the splotches of colour all over him perhaps Picasso would have been a more appropriate name. I reached out with a finger and wobbled Mike’s head, and he spent a few seconds nodding at me.
If I was going to be stuck here all night I needed to start mainlining the caffeine before I passed out. I stood up stiffly from my desk. Over all of the partitions, I couldn’t see a single head; I was the only sucker who was still at work at this hour. Well, aside from our co-CEO Diane Frost, of course. The light was still on in her office on the far side of the floor and I could see the top of a very tight bun behind the screen of her computer. I didn’t think I’d seen her leave for dinner, either, but I had seen her saunter into the kitchen and make what looked like the world’s strongest instant coffee a couple of hours ago. She hadn’t said hello to a single person. ‘Frost’ was definitely the right surname.
There was practically no chance of her leaving her office again, so I figured I’d risk ducking over to the vending machine without my shoes on.
I grabbed my purse and walked over, the expensive new carpet soft under my stockings. Every second I could get away with not having those god-awful heels on was a relief, and there was something satisfying about giving a private ‘fuck you’ to the corporate dress code while I was chained to my desk subsisting on Red Bulls.
In case new employees had any sort of misconceptions about how much sleep they’d exchanged for their ridiculous salaries, on every single floor of the office was an energy drink vending machine. It was facing the lifts, too, just to remind you what you should be doing in case you even thought of leaving on time. Unfortunately, it only took coins and I was so deliriously bored that I’d forgotten that I only had a fifty. I sighed at it and then looked back towards the partitions. Well, I wasn’t going to ask Diane for change, that was for sure.
While I was trying to decide if I was desperate enough to resort to instant coffee, the lifts dinged. I remembered that I had no shoes on at the exact moment that the doors slid open.
Fortunately, I recognised the black hair, brown eyes and ugly necktie on the man that walked out. I groaned. “Fuck, Henry! What are you doing up here?” I couldn’t help quickly looking around to make sure no one had heard me swear. I wouldn’t want them to think I actually had a personality.
“Being a good boyfriend and visiting you?” he said pleasantly, walking up to me with his hands full of his suit jacket and briefcase. He gave me a quick kiss. He was over six feet and one of those guys that actually needed to have their suits tailor-made because of it. Without my heels on, we were the same height. “By the way, you do know you’re supposed to wear shoes in the office, right?” he used his I’m-an-important-manager voice for added drama as he looked critically down at my stockings.
“I’m probably not supposed to swear, either. Someone should tell HR,” I said neutrally.
He didn’t even flinch. “I can email you a link to the complaint forms, if you like.”
“Great. Will they get processed faster because I’m dating the HR manager?”
He glanced up towards Diane’s office and finally cracked a smile. “You,” he said with his eyes twinkling, “are going to get me fired. I hope you make it worth my while.”
I laughed because it seemed like an appropriate reaction, and then changed the subject. “Since you’re here, do you have any coins?” I gestured at the vending machine.
“Probably,” he replied, as he held up his full arms and looked down at his pockets.
Of course he wanted me to dig around in them. Of course. I was actually that desperate for a Red Bull that I did, but I made sure he knew exactly what I thought of his methods when I looked at him.
He was grinning broadly at me. “Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said as I found a handful of coins and straightened, looking down at them in my palm. There was plenty, and I was going to take all of it. He noticed. “I’m not sure I should leave that much change with you, though. Not until you admit you have a problem.”
I rolled my eyes. “This is only my third,” I told him, turning to the machine and feeding coins into it. “Did you decide if you’re going back to Seoul at Easter?”
“Just booked my flights, actually. Are you coming this year?” I glanced over my shoulder at him and my expression very effectively delivered my answer. He laughed. “I’ll drop past your mother’s and say hello for you, then.”
Fabulous, I thought. In addition to nagging me to marry him, every time Henry visited South Korea, Mum called me and subjected me to a long lecture about what a bad child I was for never coming ‘home’. This was ignoring the fact I’d been ‘back’ to South Korea three times in my life, and one of them I was too young to remember. It was her own damn fault I couldn’t visit, because she was the one who’d convinced me to have a career in marketing in the first place. Not only that, but the last thing she’d done before she went back there five years ago was pressure me to apply for a top internship at international mining conglomerate Frost International. She was already gone by the time I’d landed it, so she never saw the ridiculous hours I had to work. Even though I explained over and over that Henry was a manager and I was just a marketing slave, she didn’t seem to understand that I couldn’t just take time off whenever I felt like it.
Secretly, though, I was pretty happy to have an excuse not to visit. She was my mother, but I’d rather jam a fork into my eyes than spend any time with her.
I opened the can and drank deeply from it. I swear that stuff was the elixir of life. “Okay, that’s all I need from you,” I said, in a deliberately flat voice. “You can go home now.”
He chuckled, not fazed at all by me. “I did actually just come up to say goodbye to you,” he said, but there was something about his smile which suggested that wasn’t the only reason. “And also to let you know I told Omar to stop hitting on the sales interns and sign off on that diamond pitch you’re working on.”
Now that was something he was getting a hug for. He didn’t abuse his position to help me very often. “Are you serious?” I asked him, and when it was clear he was serious I threw my arms around him and nearly spilt fluorescent yellow energy drink all over his white shirt. “Thank you, I might actually see my bed tonight!”
“Whoa!” he said, patting my back instead of whatever he’d rather have done to me. “If that’s your third I’m pretty sure you won’t be sleeping in it when you do get home.”
I looked at the can as I pulled away from him, very skilfully ignoring another thinly veiled reference to what I knew he hoped we’d be doing tonight. “Nah, I’ll be fine in a couple of hours,” I said, and offered some to him.
He shook his head. “’Night, Min,” he said. “Don’t stay up too late.”
I saluted him as he stepped into the lift, and then ran back to my desk. As if on cue, my inbox had an unread email waiting for me. A light practically shone down from the skies as I opened it and read the words, “…looks fine, see you tomorrow.” It didn’t even have any typos. I was impressed.
“Yes!” I aggressively shouted, pumping the air with my fists.
My shout echoed around the empty office and I winced, slowly lowering my arms. That had been much louder than I’d been intending it to be; normally there were enough people around that I remembered to keep my mouth firmly shut.
In the office in the corner of the floor, Diane looked up from her computer screen towards me. It was yet another one of those horrifying moments I wished I was tiny and short and didn’t tower over the partitions like some sort of female giant.
She looked straight at me and for a second I wondered if I should just start packing up my desk now. Then, she glanced up at the clock. When she made eye contact with me again her face relaxed into a smile. She nodded to acknowledge me, and then went back to her screen.
I just stared at her. My mouth was wide open.
Diane fucking Frost just smiled at me. International mega billionaire co-CEO Diane Frost just noticed and approved of the fact I was in the office at fucking 3am or whatever the fuck time it was now. 22:41, my computer read as I shut it down.
“Sorry, Mike,” I said to my ugly turtle as I reluctantly stepped back into my heels and collected my handbag from the bottom drawer, “you’ll have to man the fort by yourself from here.” I flicked his head so he nodded. Diane Frost had nodded, too. Jesus.
I was grinning like an idiot all the way over to the lift, but as the lift returned from ground I remembered I still had to survive the journey back down to street level. My smile faded.
The lift wasn’t dangerous or anything. In fact, it was probably the most expensive lift in the southern hemisphere and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had dual crash systems and airbags. The problem was that I worked on the 36th floor, and it took a full minute to get down. That minute was excruciatingly long: the lift was wall-to-wall mirrors and I was forced to stare at a thousand repeated reflections of myself for the whole trip. There wasn’t anywhere else I could look.
My hair looked fucking terrible; no surprise, really, since it had been at least sixteen hours since I’d touched it with a curling iron. At least my makeup was still intact and I hadn’t inadvertently smeared it across my face when I’d had my head in my hands earlier in the evening. The rest of me, though. I sighed at my reflection. I thought I’d chosen a dress that made my shoulders look narrower and gave me some semblance of cleavage, but from this angle I just looked as square as I usually did. I didn’t really want to show cleavage at all, anyway—it just looked out of place to me and made me feel really weird—but at least if I had any I wouldn’t look so angular. ‘Swimmer’s shoulders’, Mum used to call them. How the hell did Henry get off on this, seriously? I looked down at the floor. I really didn’t want to wreck my good mood by thinking about any of that right now.
Not even facing my reflection was enough to put a dampener on how great I felt to have had the co-CEO of Frost International acknowledge me, though. On top of that, it was a really pleasant temperature outside and it made my short walk down George Street feel shorter than usual, even in my stupid heels.
The bars opposite Circular Quay were already filling with the usual crowd of stoned backpackers and drunken tourists. The beautiful weather had made them spill out onto the footpaths and people were laughing and joking as I quickly walked past, hoping no one would give me any trouble.
On the way up the very steep road that led to my apartment, the clear evening gave me a great view of both the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. They were bathed in multi-coloured lights, and I stopped for a moment to try and capture that image in my head before I went inside. I liked the mix of colours, and it was about time I painted something to do with Sydney. Leaving Melbourne had made me nostalgic for all the places I used to hate while I was actually living there, and it was those cityscapes I tended to paint when I felt like going suburban
Frost International owned several floors of one of the hotels bordering and overlooking The Rocks, and everyone who had been imported from other cities or countries usually ended up on one of them. Once people arrived, one of two things usually happened: they realised what an awful mistake they’d made and quickly broke their contracts and fled back home, or they cashed in their souls for enormous pay packets, signed permanent contracts and bought embarrassingly extravagant homes actually in The Rocks.
I hadn’t done either. Well, apart from cash in my soul. Nearly four years later, I was still in number 2607 with uninterrupted views of the harbour. It was cleaned, and my laundry was done once a week; I could even order room service! It was just like living with Mum but without the constant nagging, and if I leant out the side of my balcony, I could actually see my office. So, why would I ever move?
The apartment was still pretty generic. I’d replaced all the linen with patterns and colours I liked, and I’d hung some of my own stuff on the wall, but it was still quite impersonal. In attempt to combat that, I’d put photos everywhere and proudly created a shrine for my extensive video game collection, but it hadn’t worked. No matter what I did, the main room still looked like a display suite from Better Homes & Gardens. Eventually, I’d given up. What a first-world problem: ‘Hi, I’m Min Lee and my free luxury apartment full of designer furniture feels barren and soulless.’ Maybe I should start a support group.
As soon as I shut my door, I headed straight to the bathroom, leaving a trail of uncomfortable work clothes between the hallway and the ensuite. I didn’t know how the hell women didn’t go on homicidal rampages from wearing their stockings too much, and I thought indulgently about that as I wrenched them off my ankles and tossed them in the laundry basket. I looked fucking terrible; I was 25, and if I was expected to retire at 60, that was another 35 years of this crap. Still, maybe if I worked for Frost for a decade or two longer, I’d have enough money to retire early and go live in a cave somewhere where I didn’t ever have to make myself look presentable to anyone.