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Never You Mind the Exit Signs

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Flo keeps an apartment just outside the city, a nice one bedroom with enough natural light in the living room that she doesn’t have to turn on a lamp until well past dusk. She’s got a collection of antique fountain pens she keeps on a shelf above her nightstand and all the dishes in her dining room match. She’s got different headbands for each day of the week (all the same color, of course, a uniform’s a uniform and she doesn’t break the rules) and she checks the batteries in her smoke detector every month like clockwork.

She’s up every day at 6:30 and into the office by 8. (Her smile, God gave her. Her hairstyle, that takes effort.) The showroom’s her playground and she loves her job—correction: she really loves her job, especially on days like today when the rates are low and the customers plentiful. She organizes her pens (Roy G. Biv, black Sharpies on each end) one last time as Jerry sweeps the aisle between Auto and Pet and Janice turns off the overhead lights. Flo smiles. It’s a good day.

--

The asshole who lives below her rear-ends her in the parking lot of their building. Flo’s great day—not so great now, actually.

--

This guy moved in a few months ago, took the apartment right below Flo’s place, and he’s been driving her nuts ever since. He plays loud music in the middle of the night and when she complains (to him, to the super, to the random people in the produce section at the grocery store) nothing ever changes and she’s left with rattling dishes at four in the morning. On a Tuesday.

Her mother taught her to kill them with kindness, so she does. At first she brings him plates of fresh-baked cookies and tries to strike up conversation with him at the mailboxes. “I figure if he knows me, he won’t be so rude.” That’s what she tells Janice, at least, while they help the new guy recalculate a deductible.

Here’s the truth, though: guy downstairs? He’s kind of attractive. Not, like, Dick Van Dyke attractive, but—dangerous attractive. Six feet of pure trouble, her mother would probably say, and Flo would probably agree. Especially right now, when the trouble’s overshadowing the attractive by miles and Flo feels her blood start to boil.

It’s not that it’s her first accident. As much as she promotes the company’s good driver discount, she doesn’t ever qualify for it herself, but in three of the last four accidents she’s been in, she’s left the scene with new Progressive policy holders. She really is that good.

This is different. This is something else entirely, and she knows before she even unbuckles her seatbelt that everything’s going to go wrong.

When she gets out of the car, the guy’s sitting behind the driver’s seat of his truck, a lazy smile on his face. She clenches her jaw and turns to survey the damage. Busted tail-light, dented fender. The latch on her trunk looks bent out of shape. His grill’s scratched up, but she’s seen his truck parked down here and it’s hard to tell fresh damage from what was there before. She’s doing math in her head—she memorizes auto part supply lists at her desk sometimes, when things are slow—when she hears the door of the truck open and then slam shut.

When she was little, her father used to sit her down on his knee when he saw her getting all worked up. He made her take three deep breaths before she said anything. “Let the steam disperse, baby girl,” he’d say, bouncing her up and down in his lap.

“Well, shit.” Flo straightens at the voice, but doesn’t say anything as she fills her lungs. “You came out of nowhere.” And exhale.

“This is an awful lot of damage.” Breathe in. “Hope it doesn’t cost too much.” And out. “Because I don’t have insurance.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Flo wheels around on her heel. It’s not often that she swears—not publicly, at least. Her cat, Mr. Sniffleton (may he rest), used to bear the brunt of her profane streak. She tones it down usually but sometimes, a well placed four-letter word is more than warranted.

The guy’s got a cocky grin on his face, his arms crossed in front of his chest. “Ooo, check the mouth on Ms. Manners.” Mentally, Flo takes it back, all of it, anything she’s ever thought about this guy being attractive. He’s not attractive. He’s skeezy and gross. He walks around all the time with messy hair and wrinkled suits and now here he is, standing on the broken shards of his headlight, looking like the cat that ate the canary.

Flo takes a second to compose herself enough to say, “What do you mean you don’t have insurance? It’s against the law not to have insurance. It’s against all forms of common sense not to have insurance.”

The guy scratches his chin and shrugs his shoulders. “I almost got one of those ‘name your own price’ policies, but they seemed worthless anyway.”

“Worthless? I don’t—Is that a potshot at me?”

“Yes.”

Flo clenches her jaw. She shoves her hand into her purse, fumbling around for her cell phone. “What’s your name?”

“Mayhem.”

Flo narrows her eyes and pauses with her finger just over the 9 button. “Mayhem?”

Mayhem smiles, cocky and infuriating. “That’s right, sweetheart.”

By the time the cops show up, Mayhem’s sitting on his tailgate whistling cheerfully to himself as Flo leans against her passenger door and fumes.

--

She gets the accident all settled, thanks in no small part to her considerable prowess when it comes to dealing with insurance agents and memorizing the ins and outs of her policy. When she passes Mayhem in the stairwell or at the mailboxes now, she doesn’t smile and make nice anymore, just averts her eyes and walks on. She can feel him watching her now though, his eyes on her across the parking lot or the courtyard of their building.

It brings a blush to her cheeks, no matter how hard she tries to fight it.

--

Flo’s mother says she has horrible taste in men. Flo says it’s none of her mother’s business, thank you very much, and that guy in college set her car on fire by accident. Brian being kind of a nutjob was kismet, actually, since she fell in love with the Progressive agent that came to the scene. Their eyes met over the smoking remains of her ’96 Camry and though that agent might be long gone (having stolen her microwave, coffee table, and Pez dispenser collection), her love for Progressive is still going strong.

But really, who steals Pez dispensers?

--

It’s two in the morning on a Friday night when she hears someone banging on her front door. She’s got her sleep mask on and the covers tucked up under her chin and whoever’s trying to get her attention has been there for a pretty long time by the time she finally throws on a robe and opens the door.

It’s Mayhem. Of course it is. “I need to wait in your apartment.”

“No.” She goes to shut the door but he holds out his hand, pushing it open.

“I lost my keys and the super will be here in half an hour to let me in.” He smiles, an infuriatingly charming grin that makes Flo want to slam the door on his fingers.

“You called in the middle of the night? He’s got kids.”

“Yeah,” Mayhem shrugs. “So? Listen, let me in, it’s freezing out here.”

Flo shakes her head. “I don’t care.”

“Yes, you do.” Mayhem points at her. He’s got broken glass in the folds of his shirtsleeves and scratches on the side of his face. “I see you, always checking on that old lady who lives in 2B, helping Mr. Denture Cream from the first floor carry his groceries inside. You care about people.”

Flo crosses her arms over her chest. “So? And why are you watching me? Don’t do that.”

“Your hair’s like an eye-magnet, can’t help it.” He smiles then, this little lift of his lips that almost looks genuine. Flo doesn’t say anything, just pushes the door open and stands aside so he can come in. She points at the couch and waits, for an insult or a thank you, either one. Neither comes.

Before Mayhem can say anything, Flo flips on the TV. They sit in silence for five minutes, watching reruns of CSI on Spike. Mayhem fidgets and picks at the scratches on his neck. Finally, Flo pushes herself off the chair and heads for the bathroom, comes back with the first aid kit her niece got her. She sits down on the couch next to Mayhem and sets the kit on the coffee table, gets out the Neosporin and band-aids.

“Here,” she says, handing him an alcohol pad. Mayhem just grunts and keeps his eyes on the TV. “You’re going to get infected.”

“I thought you didn’t care,” he says.

Flo extends the alcohol pad again. “Apparently I can’t help it.”

He winces when he wipes the cuts down (“Wuss,” she mutters) and flinches even harder when she hands him the neon pink band-aid (“It’s all I’ve got,” she says with a smile). When he’s bandaged and cleaned up, she puts the kit away and sits back against the cushions, watches Catherine and Gil argue over a fresh dead body.

“I’m not one of those women,” she tells him.

He turns to her, surprised. “One of what women?”

She picks at the throw pillow next to her. “One of those women who fall for assholes and men who are mean to them. I’m not like that, and I don’t find your bullshit endearing, or charming, or adorable.” She pulls her arms in, crossing them over her chest. What she’s saying isn’t exactly true: she does fall for those men, those broken, needy men, she can’t help it. It’s the same reason she helps couples get their premiums down, the same reason she does her best to help every customer save as much as they can. She wants to help people, it’s true, but there’s something about Mayhem that feels harder, more dangerous, and her voice is oddly sad when she whispers, “I’m not going to fix you.”

It’s the first time she’s seen him lose the smile and the insufferable cockiness in his shoulders. He clenches his jaw and then turns back to the TV and waits silently for the super to show up.

--

Things Flo needs more of in her life:
- Sleep. She’s gotten really into the late-night CSI marathons on Spike now, and when she does finally go to bed, she has dreams about magotty bodies and severed hands.
- Thai food. The place down the road closed and chicken panang doesn’t grow on trees.
- Sunlight. It’s been icy and cold for a week now. Summer’s always been her favorite season (the accident rate goes way up in the wintertime) and this weather is unacceptable.
- Glee. Don’t judge.

Things Flo definitely does not need more of in her life:
- Mayhem, physically or metaphorically.

So that’s that then.

--

She sees less of Mayhem around the building now. She doesn’t meet him in the stairwells or at the mailboxes. She finally runs into him in the parking lot one day, sees him walking in behind Mrs. Nelson and her son. They’re heading right for an ice patch and Flo’s about to say something considerate, like “Watch your step” or “Mind the ice,” but she sees Mayhem reach his hand out. He looks like he’s going to push Tim onto the ice but then he stops, hand out-stretched. He sort of jerks his fingers back, closes his hand into a fist, and just keeps walking. He doesn’t look at her when they pass.

--

The next time she sees Mayhem it’s from the courtyard and she watches him trying to open his front door. He’s carrying a sack of groceries awkwardly, one arm in a sling and the other fumbling with his keys. She debates for a second going straight to the fourth floor, leaving him to his own devices, but in the end she takes a deep breath and heads for his apartment.

“Do you need help?” When Mayhem sees that it’s her, he jerks up and drops his keys.

“Son of a bitch,” he mutters. He stares straight ahead at his door and doesn’t say anything when she walks over. She picks up his keys and he moves aside just a little and lets her unlock the door. Flo’s hands shake for no reason.

“What happened?” she asks. There’s a bruise on his temple and when he shifts the grocery bag off his bandaged arm, he winces.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says, pushing the door open. “Thanks.” It’s curt and biting, the way he says it, and if Flo were any less resilient she’d probably pull the door closed and let him be.

“What happened?” she asks again instead. She doesn’t come into his apartment but she doesn’t leave either. She stands in the doorway, turning his keychain in her hands. His apartment is sparsely furnished but tidier than she thought it would be. There’s a stack of old pizza boxes on the kitchen counter and a potted cactus on a shelf over the TV.

Mayhem sets the bag on the counter with a thud. “I got into a car accident,” he says.

She stops herself from asking if he’s finally gotten insurance, just like she’s stopped herself from sliding a Progressive pamphlet under his door every day since that night in her apartment. It would give him ideas, probably, or send the wrong message about how she feels about him, which is totally indifferent and uninterested. Or something. “Are you okay?”

He doesn’t really look at her while he unpacks the grocery bag. “Got t-boned by some guy on his cell phone and while usually that would delight me, I didn’t see it coming and I don’t like accidents I don’t have time to prepare for.”

“Are you—”

“I’m not the only cause of mayhem out there.” He says it brashly, boldly, like it’s been something he’s wanted to say for a long time, and it’s only slightly undercut by the box of Cookie Crisp in his hand. “Plenty of people get in plenty of accidents without my help. Where’s your accident forgiveness for me, huh?”

Flo doesn’t know what to say. Mayhem keeps looking at her with these wide eyes and she feels her chest get all tight. “It takes three years, actually.”

Mayhem cocks his head. “What?”

“Progressive’s accident forgiveness. It takes three years.” Flo takes a few steps into the apartment, letting the door swing shut behind her.

Mayhem goes back to his groceries, pulls out frozen dinners and canned soup. She wonders, not for the first time, how he got the way he is, how his insides got so twisted up and why it makes her feel the way it does. “I don’t have three years,” he says quietly, almost to himself.

Flo walks into his kitchen, leans up against the counter and taps her nails against the granite. “You really didn’t mean to get in that accident?” she asks.

Mayhem pushes his hand flat against the counter. “No,” he says. “Some chick I know told me I needed fixing and would have to see to it myself, so I’ve been trying to behave.”

“Don’t call me a chick.”

“Okay.”

She feels the corners of her mouth turn up against her will. Maybe it doesn’t make her weak, wanting to fix him, wanting to help him fix himself. Maybe it makes her strong. Maybe it doesn’t matter. When she meets his eyes, he’s got that stupid charming grin on his face. She doesn’t hate it quite so much now.

--

Mayhem shows up at the Progressive showroom one day. Janice gives her this knowing look but Flo chooses to ignore it and goes out to meet him in the Auto aisle instead. “Time to get some insurance, I guess,” he says. “I was thinking Allstate, but you seem far too convincing to pass up.”

“You seem like a liability only kind of guy,” she says.

Mayhem smiles. The bruise along his temple is almost faded. Her hand itches to reach up and fit just so against his cheek, but she knows from workplace PDAs and keeps her hands in the pockets of her apron instead.

Mayhem rocks back on his heels and winks.“Liability? Me?” His eyes go soft at the corners and he steps into her just slightly. “Never. I’m a full coverage kind of guy.”

Flo smiles. “Is that right?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good to know,” she says. She slides a hand into Mayhem’s and leads him across the floor. They ride the carousel all afternoon.