With a great deal of rustling and an acceptable amount of irritated mutters, Todd manages to squeeze through the front door of the detective agency without spilling any of Dirk and Farah’s coffee. It’s a win – it really is – and he steps over the faded stain of past attempts dried on the floorboards with smug self-congratulation.
‘Guys?’ he calls out and frowns at the lack of speedy footsteps and coffees being snatched out of his grip. ‘I’m back from the grocery run.’
Todd drops off his various shopping bags on the small kitchenette in the corner and begins to ‘investigate’, as Dirk would call it, still bearing his two coffee cups. With some trepidation, he wanders through their roomy work area. He wasn’t gone for that long, was he? And there hadn’t been any meetings scheduled today – they couldn’t have gotten a new case that fast, right? Even if there was, Dirk would’ve at least left a sticky note on the fridge – it was a habit he’d picked up from a Home-living Magazine and it made Todd feel like an old married couple. Which wasn’t the worst feeling but still. They were running out of available space on the fridge and Todd had just found a cool magnet.
For a terrifying second, Todd thinks of Blackwing. Maybe the peace they’d been living in had been unfounded. Maybe they’d just been waiting for the right second to pounce and drag Dirk away to a far away cell where Todd won’t ever see him again and –
Hey. Is that…music?
Todd tentatively pushes open the door to one of their storage closets to find Dirk and Farah in a strange, V-shape bend, each standing on their own colourful mat. The music – a soft, flutey sort of tune – seems to be originating from Farah’s phone which has been placed next to a pot of burning incense sticks. Dirk turns to look at Todd as he opens the door and beams.
‘Hi, Todd!’ he says cheerily and wow, why is it just now that Todd is realizing that both Dirk’s and Farah’s butts are very much pointed up at him? ‘Look what we’re doing!’
‘Hey Todd,’ Farah seconds, more quietly. ‘Close the door, would you?’
‘Yeah,’ he says, kind of lost. ‘You’re really, uh, doing something. Is this yoga?’
‘Yep!’ Dirk replies and gestures at himself. ‘This here is called…um. Farah?’
‘It’s the dog pose,’ she fills in. ‘It’s really very basic but I thought that if I’m going to start this yoga thing, I should do it well, you know? Also, please close the door.’
Farah begins to slide back so she’s resting on her heels and Dirk hurriedly follows to do the same. The flutes are still going on in the background and Todd wonders if its on a loop.
‘Okay well, I can kind of understand Farah doing yoga,’ he says. Yoga must be more intensive than he thought it was because Dirk’s shoulders gleam with sweat. ‘But why you? And…how you? Did you plan for this?’
‘Well, Todd,’ Dirk begins in that annoying, endearing way of his. ‘I do get stressed out as well. And since Farah brought along extra mats and work-out gear as a very necessary precaution, she said I could join in!’
‘Is-is Mona participating? I can’t really tell.’ Todd looks around the small room for extra measure.
‘Oh no, I think she’s a lamp right now.’
‘For Pete’s sake,’ Farah springs up, muttering, and strides over to slam the door, narrowly clipping Todd’s shoulder in the process. ‘You’re letting the zen leave the room!’
For the first time, Farah sees the coffee cups in his hands.
‘Oh. Okay. Zen time is over. The coffee’s here,’ she states firmly and takes her drink from his grasp. Dirk gets to his feet as she moves to extinguish the incense sticks and takes his own cup with a grin.
Todd rolls his eyes and nods.
‘With extra cream. For some reason.’
Dirk hums happily as he sips from his cup and strolls into the small kitchenette of their office. Farah follows and Todd, bringing up the rear, notices how she makes a beeline to the grocery bags.
‘There aren’t any frozen groceries, Farah,’ he calls over. ‘No need to worry.’
She shoots him a stern look.
‘Maybe not frozen, but many of them are chilled,’ Farah emphasizes the last word with a pointed eyebrow raise. ‘We have a mini-fridge for a reason.’
‘Speaking of the mini-fridge,’ Todd turns to speak to Dirk. ‘You’ve got to chill out with the post-it notes.’
Dirk blinks at him incredulously. There’s a bit of cream on his nose.
‘You love my notes!’
‘Yeah, but we need space for other things! Like, look! I found this the other day!’ Todd proudly shows off his magnet. It’s a starfish wearing sunglasses.
‘That’s kind of lame, Todd,’ Dirk says flatly and laughs goodnaturedly at how he splutters.
‘You’re both right,’ Farah says and points to their mini-fridge. ‘Dirk, we need space up on there for a timetable. And a shopping list. Also, a thermometer. Like one of those stick-on thermometers.’
As Dirk grudgingly stares warily at the fridge, Todd joins Farah in unloading their goods.
‘So how are we organising this?’ he asks her because he knows she’s already marked out a system. Farah gestures towards their overhead cabinets.
‘That one is for cereals, that’s for coffees and teas and that’s for cutlery and cups. The cutlery’s got to have their own subsections though. I’m pretty sure that Kmart still sells those little compartment things – can you go check next time you’re there?’
‘Am I the designated shopper then?’
‘Well, obviously we value you for more than that but-’ she glances at him sidelong and smiles. ‘-yes, you’re absolutely the designated shopper.’
Todd smirks back at her as he returns back to his job of putting away various cereal boxes but not before he catches Dirk’s content grin. Somehow, Dirk’s already back at the kitchenette island, on one of his favourite spinny-stools and he’s propped up his head with his hands with a big, fat smile on his face.
‘What?’ Todd asks and Dirk snickers. ‘Seriously, what is it?’
‘This is really good, Todd,’ Dirk whispers, wistfully, and then clears his throat and repeats himself, stronger, brightly. ‘This is really really good.’
‘What is?’ Farah asks. Dirk flings his hands out wide at his sides and gestures to their surroundings.
‘This! All of this! Isn’t it amazing?’ Dirk says joyfully. ‘I have you two bickering over who shops for us. I have a detective agency! I have a sign! A real, detective agency sign! And look, now I have a caramel frappe with extra cream!’
Dirk sighs contentedly.
‘This is good.’
‘Wow. That’s a revelation for a Tuesday morning, huh,’ Todd says and Farah elbows him in the ribs.
‘Thanks for ruining the moment, Todd.’
‘What? I was just trying to even out the cheese.’
‘Cheese can be good, Todd.’
Dirk sips at his caramel frappe and makes an approving sound. Todd levels a look at him and moves to playfully push him off his stool but a loud ringtone from his left startles him. Farah’s eyes snap to her perfectly-tuned watch and she strides to the door, grabbing her jacket off the back of a chair on the way.
‘Where are you going?’ Todd asks and she holds up her phone that has a new alert opened on the dashboard.
‘Picking up the new car. It should be all ready by now.’
Dirk gasps. ‘We have a company car! I forgot about that!’ he says excitedly, tugging at Todd’s sleeve who rolls his eyes. ‘This is amazing!’
‘It’s literally just my old car spruced up a bit,’ Todd says flatly but his grin shows his true excitement.
‘Yes!’ Dirk continues. ‘Your car but better. A better car. We have an above average car for our company car! We have a company car!’ he pauses and swivels round in his stool to call after Farah. ‘Treat her gently!’
She waves to them nonchalantly (Todd’s pretty sure she didn’t hear – thank god) and he returns the gesture as he eyes Dirk over the counter.
‘Really?’ he says.
‘‘Treat her gently’?’
‘Well, that’s what people say about cars, Todd.’
‘I was talking about the pun, Dirk.’
‘The pun? Oh, gosh, the pun!’ Dirk stares at him in dumbfounded awe. ‘Todd, this is a great day.’
Todd can’t help but snort and Dirk laughs a bubbly laugh.
‘Oh shut up,’ Todd says and points to the minifridge that is still covered in sticky notes. ‘Go and unstick-ify our fridge, Dirk.’
At that, Dirk’s smile falters and Todd catches it but he doesn’t stop him when the other man slips off his stool and makes his way to the fridge. He’s attributing the weird look, the slight stiffness of his shoulders to his Dirk-ness; only he would make a big deal over sticky notes. But there’s a change in atmosphere that Todd’s unhappy about, a certain dim tension that’s painfully obvious now. If Todd was the poetic kind, he’d compare it to washing dishes in the winter – somehow the cold becomes tangibly damp, a feeling that’s only exacerbated by the fact that you have to interact with remnant food slime. Okay, that’s a tangent. Back on track. Todd rips his attention away from Dirk and looks at the box of cereal he’s been holding in front of him for five minutes. Now where did the cereal go again?
Ten minutes later, Todd is almost done with putting away and organizing their stuff when he looks up and catches sight of Dirk in front of the fridge. Sitting down. Right where he had been for the past fifteen minutes now. Literally unmoving. Two pathetic sticky notes lie on the ground next to him. It’s barely a dent in the dense overgrowth of paper covering the fridge and Dirk glances at them intermittently, as if he’s considering putting them back. It’s kind of a weird situation.
For a second, Todd wonders whether or not he can get away with not helping Dirk out with what is an obvious struggle.
It’s a bad second.
Right now, he’s trying his best to be New Todd, a Better Todd, an Above Average Todd. Above Average Todd does not leave his friends stranded in sticky-note hell. Todd sighs.
It’s not that big of a deal, dude, he tells himself and he turns to address Dirk.
‘Dirk?’ he calls out and the man seems to jolt awake. ‘Dirk, what’s wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong!’ Dirk says, falsely cheery, and Todd’s puzzlement transforms into worry at the barely-restrained panic strangling his voice. Okay. Weird situation is now all the way into potentially-emotionally-disastrous situation.
‘You’ve been sitting in front of a fridge and staring at it for fifteen minutes. I think I’d be more worried if something wasn’t wrong,’ Todd tries to play it cool, make light of things and he takes a seat on the floor next to Dirk, who seems to be staring with an unnerving concentration at the fridge. ‘But something is,’ Todd continues. ‘C’mon, Dirk. Talk to me.’
Dirk’s eyes flick to his and Todd holds his gaze for a second. There’s a lot of anxiety in there and his mouth is pursed into a thin, contemplative line. Todd is now attempting to think of all the emotionally-compromising properties sticky notes could potentially have because this feels like a much bigger deal than he thought it would be. Which is fine. God knows he’s the expert on seemingly unfounded anxiety. He’s worse at fixing the unfounded anxiety, though, which is the main issue here. The taller man bites his lip then clears his throat, turns back to the fridge with a faked air of brisk efficiency. It’s something.
‘Okay. Well,’ Dirk begins. ‘Todd, have you ever experienced lucid dreaming?’
Huh. Odd note to start on but alright.
‘Yeah, I did it a bunch when I was a kid. I don’t really remember much of it, though.’ Todd thinks back to blurred memories of warped worlds and watery voices. He should…probably analyse those at some point. Meanwhile, Dirk nods distractedly.
‘Yes, well, I don’t dream that often, Todd,’ he says, words tumbling out of his mouth. ’But in Blackwing, I dreamed a lot. And I would dream of you and Farah, bursting in through the door, clad in dark leather and sunglasses and crossbows-‘
‘Crossbows?’ Todd whispers to himself in half-incredulity.
‘-and I would be so happy,’ Dirk swallows. ‘And then I’d wake up. And you would be gone. And I-I would be all alone all over again.’
As understanding begins to dawn on him, Todd moves closer to Dirk and he takes the other man’s hand in his. It startles Dirk, makes him blink in surprise, but he smiles in this uncertain way that tells him Dirk’s coming back to him.
‘Todd,’ he continues. ‘This may come as a surprise to you but I am not a generally well-put-together person. In reality, I am more similar to a scrapbook that was begun in the midst of a newly-found creativity but was then abandoned after a few days and never touched again. This analogy is getting away from me but you can understand what I’m talking about, right?’
‘Yeah. I do, actually. Somehow,’ Todd looks up at the fridge where brightly-coloured sticky notes stare back at him. One of them reads ‘To Todd and Farah: where did my yellow jacket go? Do you know? TELL ME ASAP’. Another reminds ‘Self note: find out if butterhead lettuces are real’. Things are kind of coming together in his head.
‘Dreams are…‘ Dirk sighs and rubs his eyes idly. ‘Dreams are odd in that your brain, which is conjuring it, can sometimes eliminate details that unimportant. Lucid dreaming is even more odd in that you can recognise when things go missing. You can control your situation to be as realistic or-or as close to paradise as you want but you’ve got to make space for the good so things can leave or go wrong and once you pursue that - I don't know - most of the time you realise that something is off and once you do that-‘
He trails off and absently gestures to the note-covered fridge.
‘So I write reminders to myself. I tell myself to verify things that I think don’t actually exist. I tell myself to talk to you and Farah so that I know you’re here and you’re real,’ Dirk starts tracing the grooves in the floorboards. ‘It’s very convenient. With the post-it notes. It makes me feel better.’
Dirk looks up at the fridge and cocks his head to the side. ‘I know it’s a bit silly,’ he adds and Todd scoffs.
‘Honestly,’ Todd says. ‘This is the most normal thing you’ve done, Dirk. It’s not silly,’ he adds at Dirk’s perturbed expression. ‘I get it.’
Dirk looks away, disappointed, and Todd drags him back by his hand, makes him look back at him.
‘Okay, c’mon, don’t do that. I do get it,’ he persists. ‘ I kinda – I mean, my pararibulitis, it kinda warps how I see things and feel things and you know all about it so I don’t really know why I’m explaining it like I am.’ This is literally the worst and he’s gotta get to the point soon, stop babbling. ‘But the point is, I know how helpful it is to have these little things that make you feel safe. It makes a big difference. It’s like…uh…extra security. Something to fall back on, yeah?’ Todd gives him a reassuring smile. ‘Well, it’s fine to want that and it’s great to have that. And I understand. But you’ve gotta realise that this is real. Me and Farah and Mona – wherever she is’, he pauses to gesture aimlessly around the room. ‘We’re real. If we aren’t real then you’re just as not-real as the rest of us.’
Whoops. Nope. That’s into existential crisis territory.
‘What I’m trying to say-’ he says. ‘- is that you’re with us. Not at Blackwing. See, I’ll prove it.’
Todd pinches Dirk on his shoulder and he yelps, slapping his hand away.
‘If this was a dream, I’d probably be nicer,’ Todd suggest and Dirk bats at his shoulder in retaliation. Now, Dirk’s lost that aimless, frantic look in his eyes (he’s smiling, really smiling) and he eventually sighs and nods in agreement. Todd releases a breath he didn’t even know he was holding.
‘That was a really bad explanation,’ he mutters.
‘It really was,’ Dirk says. ‘You are terrible at comforting people, Todd,’ he adds but he seems better now and he squeezes Todd’s hand in thanks. ‘And I do appreciate the talk but Farah does want the fridge cleared,’ he comments.
Todd glances up at the kitchen island, an idea sparking in his head. He unlaces his fingers from Dirk’s and stands up, shuffling the shopping bags around in his search. After a few minutes he exclaims ‘Aha!’ like he’s uncovered a lost treasure and turns around, holding it out triumphantly. Dirk raises an unimpressed eyebrow.
‘Todd, I appreciate the effort but how is your weird UV-conscious starfish going to help this?’
Todd can’t help but roll his eyes again and he sits himself down, holding the magnet up for Dirk to see.
‘When you lucid dreamed, things would always be the way you wanted it to be, right?’ he says.
‘Yes, I suppose.’
‘Well, you really hate this starfish,’ Todd waggles it for good measure. ‘And yet, it’s still here.’
Dirk’s eyes widen in realization. ‘Oh! I see!’ he says then immediately furrows his brow. ‘Wait. Really?’
‘If you were dreaming, you’d be able to make this disappear,’ Todd hands the magnet to Dirk. ‘Go on and try.’
‘Believe me, I am,’ Dirk responds but he’s grinning and he idly turns the magnet over in his hand. ‘This will be an odd co-existence,’ he finally says.
‘Everything about you is odd. What’s another oddity going to change?’
When Farah returns to the Agency, the fridge is completely cleared of colourful sticky notes and in their place is one, solitary, sunglasses-wearing, starfish.
She tells them with a note of exasperation that it’s really not much of an improvement.