My Pen Is Huge – Excerpt

EXCERPT

CHAPTER ONE

Gisselle

“You are confident. You are strong. You are intelligent.” Deep inhale. “You are confident. You are strong. You are…sonofabitch! Seriously?” I look at the chunk of red lipstick now sitting on my lap. Unfuckingfortunately, I’ve got on a white skirt and I’m supposed to start work in three minutes. My first day.

“Jesus. Just great.” I reach over to the passenger seat for my purse—really, a leather satchel my roommate, Camila, gave me for good luck because she thought it made me look “all reporter-like,” and today is a big day for me. A milestone in my journalistic career.

I dig out a tissue and pluck the broken lipstick from my lap, careful not to add to the red skid mark.

Fail.

“Oh, come on!” My attempt to blot away a leftover clump results in more smears. Wonderful! Now it looks like a period accident. The only thing going for me is that the stain is on the front. But is that really better? Is it?

I can’t believe this. I have to meet my new boss, Leland Merrick, this morning, and he’s a legend in the freelance journalistic world, best known for four things: One, he doesn’t like sloppy dressers. It’s rumored he once told a female reporter she needed to work on her appearance. Apparently, he didn’t feel her jeans, T-shirt, and lack of makeup were a winning combo or professional.

Two, he has no fear. He’ll go anywhere, do anything for a sensational story and for the perfect photograph, like that time he literally jumped down a flooded mineshaft in Ecuador with nothing but a flashlight, a small tank of oxygen, and his waterproof camera. Two hours later, he emerged with interviews and photos of the sixteen stranded miners, which saved their lives, because everyone thought they were dead, and rescue crews weren’t allowed to go in until the rain subsided. It was the wet season. Rain every day for months. Not good. But Merrick was able to assure everyone that a rescue wasn’t impossible, and those men were brought to safety. He was deemed a hero and reportedly sold the story for a nice fifty grand.

Three, Leland Merrick is known for his lone-wolf ways. He doesn’t use guides, no matter how harsh or unfamiliar the terrain; he doesn’t bring translators; and he always travels alone. That’s why I nearly wet myself when I was offered this position as his assistant.

I mean, me, Gisselle Walters. His assistant? Pinch me! The thing is, I only just graduated last semester with a degree in journalism from Texas U, so this is a huge opportunity. “It’s a career maker,” as my professor Augusto Kemmler told me. Turns out, Professor Augusto (he prefers to be called by his first name) and Merrick are old friends, so when Merrick decided to hire someone, he went to Augusto. Merrick didn’t even bother with an interview. He trusts Augusto that much. Lucky me, because Professor Augusto said I was the best choice.

I wonder why, though. I won a few awards, and I’m one of his best students, but I wasn’t his only straight-A performer. Can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

The fourth and final thing Leland Merrick is known for, and this is something that makes me incredibly nervous, is that he’s supposedly old school when it comes to women and gender roles. Some say “ladies’ man.” Some say “traditional.” I just say “sexist.” Professor Augusto assured me that Merrick is professional, though he did admit that Merrick has strong views about a woman’s place—something having to do with growing up in a small third-world village, despite being British. His parents were both aid workers and doctors, but that experience somehow cemented some pretty archaic ideas into Leland Merrick’s head.

How do I know all this? Well, aside from what Augusto said, I also read an interview Merrick gave in 2011. It was the only one he’s ever done, which sadly did not include a bio pic—a pet peeve of his is being photographed.

So there you have it. I’m shoving aside judgment, pride, and everything my staunch egalitarian parents taught me, all for the opportunity to work with a living legend. And a societal dinosaur. Sure, chronologically, he’s only thirty-one—versus my twenty-two—but we all know his type. Probably hates women because he’s so grotesquely pompous and heinous looking that no one will date him.

Still, I know myself. I am confident and strong, and he can be as offensive as he likes. It won’t put a dent in my self-esteem. I’d have to care what he thinks to allow that to happen, and I don’t. I’m here to learn: How does he get people like the chief of the Amazonian Munduruku tribe to invite him to live with them? Why is it rumored that MI6 spies feed him classified information? The answer is, he gets people to trust him with their lives, and I want to know how.

I slide on my black-framed glasses and flip up the vanity mirror of my beat-up red pickup truck. I can’t be late, so I’ll just have to hope that Merrick doesn’t toss me out for showing up like this.

I grab my satchel, exit my truck, and pop some money in the meter. I need to find out where employee parking is. Hopefully not too far away. Merrick’s office is in a semi-sketchy—or as I like to call it, eclectic—neighborhood near downtown Austin where the bars, hipster boutiques, and old houses all blend together. On weekends, the entire place turns into a farmers market and the place to buy weed. Leland Merrick’s office is smack in the middle of it all, in an older two-story house that’s been converted into commercial space—two shops on the first floor and what looks like office space upstairs. With the purple siding, white trim, and hand-painted shop signs, it has a bohemian, laid-back feel. Not at all what I imagined for a famed adventurer and journalist like Merrick.

Nervous as hell, I stop at the front of the house and gaze up at the second story. It’s a cool fall day, the holidays right around the corner, and it’s a little chilly out, but the window is wide open. I can hear two men arguing. About what, I couldn’t say.

I glance at my phone displaying the address. This is the place.

Okay. I am confident, strong, intelligent. Inhale. Confident, strong, intelligent. I go to the front door, wedged between two large bay windows, and jiggle the handle. It’s locked, which is weird because there’s a candle shop on one side of it and a tattoo parlor on the other. I see people inside both establishments through the windows.

I notice a small sign below the doorbell that says the shop entrances are around back and, in very tiny letters, Ring for Merrick Publications. No soliciting. No interviews. No wankers. No exceptions.

With a shaking hand, I push the buzzer, and a few seconds later a staticky deep voice pipes through the speaker. “Yeah?”

“Mr. Merrick? I’m Gisselle? Your—”

“Did you read the sign, love?” he grumbles with an accent. British, with a hint of something else? Hard to tell with all the crackling. The funny part is that I know he’s not from here, but hearing his voice still catches me off guard. With all the Wild West–type stories about him, I half expected a Texas twang.

“Yes, sir. I read the sign,” I say.

“So why are you here, then?”

“I promise I’m not selling, interviewing, or,” I glance at the sign, “wanking. I’m Gisselle Walters, your new assistant.”

“Assistant…” A deep chuckle pours through the speaker. “Nice try, love. Go back to your rag.”

Rag? I know he means “tabloid magazine,” but I still glance down at the bright red smudge strategically positioned over my lady hump. Thanks for the reminder.

“Hello?” I hit the buzzer again, but no one responds this time. “Sonofa…” I step off the porch and back onto the sidewalk so I can see the open window. “Mr. Merrick!” But neither he nor his voice blesses me with its presence.

“I seriously can’t believe this,” I mutter and dig out my phone to see if I have Professor Augusto’s number. I do, but it’s for his office. He doesn’t come in this early.

Just then, a brunette in her early thirties passes by, goes to the door, and unlocks it with a key. She’s wearing bright red lipstick, clear-rimmed glasses, and a blue blouse. The paper bag in her hand leaves a trail of coffee and maple wafting in the air. She doesn’t even notice me standing there when she enters, which is great.

Not like I’m breaking in. I work here. I catch the door before it shuts and slip inside, careful not to follow too close or make noise going up the wooden staircase. Once at the top, I hear two men still bickering. Both sound British, though one has a much deeper voice. Apparently, Mr. Deep Voice lost some sort of bet and doesn’t want to pay.

“You’re daft if you think you won. Just look at it,” says Deep Voice.

“Compare it to mine—longer and heavier,” says the second man with a gravellier pitch.

What the hell are they talking about? Because it can’t be what it sounds like.

“Well, if you let me hold it, I could put them side by side, now couldn’t I?” Deep Voice replies.

“I’m not letting you put your sticky hands all over it, so you’ll just have to look from there,” Gravelly Man throws back.

“Then you lose. I win. Pay up,” Deep Voice demands.

Ohmygod. They can’t be doing what I think. I peek around the corner, but their backs are to me.

Wow. Look at all those awards. The entire wall is covered with shiny plaques and framed certificates. As for the men, one is stout and wearing a gray checkered shirt. The other man is tall, looks well-built, and has on a dark suit. The woman in blue, who entered before me, is putting out pastries and coffee on the desk in front of them, paying zero attention. They don’t seem to notice her either because they’re too busy with their pissing match…or whatever they’re fighting over. It can’t be that.

“Listen up, you git! You owe me fifty. A bet is a bet,” says the stocky man. He’s the one with the gravelly voice.

Okay. Gravelly-Stocky Man must be Merrick. He sounds bossy and rough around the edges, just like I imagined for a famed journalist who hitchhikes on camels through the Sahara.

He adds, “Just take a gander at my hole. It’s tight. Perfectly formed.”

“Yes, but mine has more weight and girth and sits perfectly in my hand, like it belongs there.”

Ew. They are talking about their penises. I don’t know how that woman can stand there listening to this conversation.

I step out of hiding and clear my throat. “Hello?”

Both men turn their heads, and that’s when I see his face, the deep-voiced, well-built, tall man in the suit. Wow.

Of course, I quickly realize that he’s too good looking. Probably popped out of the womb as a perfect little Gerber baby and bypassed any adolescent awkward stages to sail right on through to beautiful adult male. I hate those kinds of guys—immaculately groomed stubble, perfectly coiffed hair, and perma-dimples. Men like that are full of themselves and get credited for being better or more deserving than the rest, simply because they’re handsome.

I like a man who takes care of himself because he respects his body and wants to be healthy. His looks and physique are an outcome of his lifestyle not vanity. But this man? He’s the definition of persnickety, right down to his pressed pink shirt, tailored suit, and polished black shoes with matching belt. Ick.

I suddenly think of Ryan, my boyfriend. He’s a cashier at Oh-Ganic! Foods. Now there’s a man I can appreciate—sexy, unkempt blond hair, a manly full-length beard, and hemp clothing. Everything about him says effortless male who cares about the environment. The only problem is, he and I decided to take “a break” because he decided to take a month off and go on tour in Eastern Europe with his guitar and a few friends who call themselves a band. Really, they’re just a bunch of man-children who wanted an excuse to take selfies in cool places for their band page on the Gram. I swear, Ryan’s friends are the worst influence, always pumping his head full of childish fantasies. If it weren’t for their slacker ways, he’d be manager of Oh-Ganic! by now.

Still, I love him. He knows how important it is to live a life of integrity and meaning—working to leave this planet a better place than we found it, which is why I’m here. I want to use journalism to shine a light on injustice, but more importantly, I want to honor our modern-day heroes.

My belief is that good people, the ones who give a crap about this world, shy away from the spotlight and public office because they either lack the narcissistic gene or have too much intelligence to want to face the mass of putrid evil trolls on social media. I mean, really. What kind of sane, truly giving, intelligent person would sign up for having their family doxed or their teenage-stupidity years dredged up and thrown in their faces? We say stupid shit when we’re young. I know I do. Then there are those who experiment with drugs or get in with the wrong crowd. No one is perfect. But to be picked apart by angry, rancid haters for every little thing—your clothes and hair or just using one wrong word? Hellno-tothethankyou.

Point is, if I could build support for these everyday heroes, then maybe more would step up to public office to change things. I would call that a life worth living. And Ryan will be by my side…

“Who the bloody hell are you?” says the stocky man.

I shove my falling glasses up my nose. “I’m your new assistant. And I’d appreciate it if you used work-appropriate language in my presence. Not that I’m against swearing, but words matter. Professional language means a professional workplace.”

Both men stare for a long moment and then… Bwahahahaha! The explosion of laughter is simultaneous.

I cross my arms over my chest. The hot guy in the suit is almost pissing himself.

Nice. “Am I in the right place? This is Leland Merrick’s office, right?” Maybe I got it all wrong. I swivel on my heel to check out the room. That’s definitely Leland Merrick’s name on those plaques. Maybe he left town and rented out his office to a pair of morons.

“That depends, love. Are you here to give us a good spanking?” says the tall, annoyingly handsome guy. “We’ve got a lovely closet right there. Nice and private.”

“I think she has that sour spinster look, like she owns way too many cats,” says the stocky man.

“Seriously? How old are you two?” I spout off, but they’re too occupied with their digs and spanking jokes to hear.

Suddenly, my phone rings. I grab it from my bag and answer. It’s Professor Augusto. “Hello?”

“Gisselle! How is your first day going? I hope Merrick is behaving.”

I frown. “Hi, Augusto. It’s not going well.”

“What did that SOB do?” His voice instantly shifts to a displeased-father tone. I know because I have a father and that’s exactly how he sounds when he’s miffed.

“Besides not allowing me into the building and laughing in my face when I said I was here to work?” I stare directly at Merrick—the stocky guy—who’s no longer smiling. “Umm…he and his friend have been discussing the ‘girth’ of their manhoods, so that’s been extra-special.” I am so, sooo disappointed that the legend Leland Merrick has turned out to be nothing more than a clown.

“Motherfu… I’m so sorry, Gisselle,” says Augusto. “I promise I would never, not in a million years, subject one of my students to inappropriate behavior. Put Merrick on the phone,” he growls.

Ha. You’re in trouble now, Mr. My Penis is Bigger Than Yours!

“Here. He wants to talk to you.” I shove the phone at the stocky man with the gravelly voice.

“Me?” he says.

“Yeah.” I wiggle the device in front of his face. “Chop-chop. I don’t have all day.” World to save and all.

He hesitantly takes my phone. “Hello?” He listens for a moment. “Oh, you want to talk to Leland. One sec, mate.” The stocky man passes the phone to Mr. Annoyingly Handsome Deep Voice.

Wait. That’s Merrick? Seriously? He doesn’t look like he could survive an hour at a petting zoo, let alone a week in the world’s most hostile places. He’s way too clean-cut and pretty. I cannot believe I ever held this man up so high on his pedestal that it came with a set of flashing red airplane safety lights.

“Yeah?” He listens while I try to mask my shock. “Aug, mate, what’s this all about?” He pauses. “Yeah.” He shakes his head. “Oh…but, mate, you know that anything said on scotch night doesn’t count.” He listens some more, parking a hand—a large manly hand with manicured fingernails—on his waist. “That’s beside the point. I was snockered.”

Just when you think a penis-size competition is the most offensive thing you could hear coming from your new boss—a man whose career you’ve followed for years as your own personal inspiration—you discover that your employment is the result of a night of too much alcohol?

I’m about to read Merrick the official feminist riot act of Gisselle Walters, but then he says, “You’re right, Aug. Apologies. I’ll take it from here.”

Hmmm… Now I’m intrigued. Why does Merrick seem so accommodating and mature suddenly?

Merrick hands the phone back, and I place it to my ear. “Hello?”

“Gisselle,” Augusto says, “you have every right to change your mind about this job, but if you decide to stick it out and forgive Leland’s less than gentlemanly behavior, I think you’ll learn a lot. Either way, don’t feel pressured. Because I’ve warned you what he’s like, so it won’t be a picnic even if he’s on his best behavior.”

Darnit. I am not one to shy away from a challenge, and it’s not as though I feel threatened in any way. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. It’s more about the fact that I’m so disappointed. Merrick is not what I expected. Then again, I’m already here. Maybe I can stick it out for a few hours and go from there. “We’ll see, Professor Augusto. Thank you for calling.”

I shove my phone into my satchel. Merrick is already saying goodbye to his partner-in-crime, who quickly scurries out. The woman in blue disappears into the other room, leaving me alone with the famous journalist, who has in my book just quickly lost his shiny hero crown.

“So?” I stare.

“My apologies, love.” His chocolate brown eyes twinkle with mischief. “Just a bit of a misunderstanding. I honestly thought you were a prank—my friends are cheeky buggers.”

He thought I was a joke? “What kind of friend sends an assistant to your office as a joke?”

“Did I say friends? I meant competitors. You’d be surprised what they’ll do to find out what story I’m working on. Last week, a rival journalist showed up pretending to fix my cable TV. I don’t have cable TV, but it was bloody hilarious watching him try to escape the supply closet.”

“You locked him in the closet?”

“Just for a few hours until he wet his trousers.” Merrick sounds pleased with himself.

“That’s awful.”

He shrugs those broad shoulders. “This is a tough game, love. Hope you brought a change of knickers.”

All right. My new boss just asked if I brought clean underwear to work. What’s the matter with him? “So does this mean I get to work here? Because if not—”

He holds up his palm. “I need an intern. Augusto hired you. Nothing to question.”

Intern? “I thought I was going to be your assistant.”

He lifts his dimpled chin and looks down at me. He’s about six one or two, and I’m about five seven, which I’m betting pleases him in some deranged caveman way because he can still loom over me despite me being on the tall side.

“In case you haven’t noticed, love, I’m Leland Merrick. I don’t need an assistant because I do not require assistance.” He points to his broad chest covered in fine soft-pink fabric that he’s probably wearing to tone down his toxic masculinity. He thinks a little camouflage will fool anyone?

“Then who was that woman in blue just now? She looked like an assistant.” Though the administrative kind, perhaps?

“Stephanie is more of a work wife. She takes care of logistics, handles office finances, and ensures I eat a green occasionally. We keep it strictly professional though.”

I frown. “So she’s your assistant.”

His eyes flicker with irritation, but he decides not to answer. “An intern is what I’ve agreed to take on. An educational arrangement to start. I teach. You observe. Quietly. Like you’re not even here.”

“Fine. You can call the role anything you like, because I am here to learn.” At least we’re in agreement over that. “But I’m not the quiet type, and I will ask questions. Also, I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t call me love or cookie or sweetie pie or whatever you British men like to call women, and please refrain from inappropriate office topics.” My eyes flash to his groin, which I notice is… Eh-hem, wow. Plentiful in the bulge department. Not that I care. I bet he’s all neat and trimmed down there, too. Probably has a Hitler mustache, right over his big—

“I’ll call you whatever you like, love, but if you want to keep the conversation tame, I suggest not staring at my cock.” He flashes a devilish grin.

Shit. My gaze whips up to meet his eyes, which are brimming with amusement.

“I-I, well,” I stammer. “I honestly didn’t mean to. It was a natural reaction after hearing your very inappropriate,” I lean in to whisper, “penis comparison with your friend. Who does that? And in front of a woman, too?” I straighten my back.

He lifts those perfect dark eyebrows at me. “Penis comparison? Love, I am many things, but insecure about my manhood isn’t one of them.”

“Stop calling me love. My name is Gisselle or Ms. Walters. And what was all that talk about right before I came in, then?”

He takes a moment. “Oh. Right.” He reaches behind him and snatches something from his desk. “My mate and I collect these.” Merrick holds up a large gold and silver pen. “This is the very first version of the Montblanc Meisterstück 149, made in 1924. I paid four thousand dollars for it, and my friend thinks it’s a fake because he claims he owns the first version, yet his has an engraved nib and is smaller.” He winks. “But everyone knows the bigger pen was the first. The smaller version came out in 1929 after customers complained about handling.” Merrick proudly places the pen back on his desk. “Mine is a real man’s pen, made for big hands.”

Merrick is definitely not what I expected. In fact, it’s downright geeky that he collects pens. I’m pretty geeky myself—I collect old photographs—so I appreciate that. I started the hobby with my dad when I was twelve. He’s a big history buff, into old books, and one day I started looking through his collection. It wasn’t the historical facts that caught my attention, though; it was the people in the old black-and-white photographs. Who were they? What happened to them?

I think that’s why I chose to get into journalism. I saw those pictures of men sitting in the backs of army trucks, rifles slung over their backs and mud on their faces, and felt like something was missing, a story that needed to be told. Or at the very least, one I wanted to hear. Did they have sweethearts back home whom they carried pictures of in their pockets? Did they die in battle? Did they return home and open a hardware store and have six kids and fifteen grandkids? To me, looking at those photographs felt like half a story. Anyway, that’s what got me interested in telling the tales behind the photos, and the rest grew from there.

“Well, love, I’m afraid fun-time is over. Ready to get to work?” Merrick asks. “Because I have one hell of a busy schedule. No downtime. No days off.”

I roll my eyes. I guess I’m not going to win the battle of the names. Maybe I’ll just have to play along. “Sure thing. Where would you like to start, pumpkin?”

“I’m a squash. How charming.” He gives me a look, as if I’m the crazy one. “Well, I hope I’m not provoking your prickly female senses yet again, but,” he leans in, flashing glances at my groin, “you’ve got a little mess on the front of your skirt.”

I feel my face flush. “It’s lipstick, okay? It happened just before I got here, and I didn’t want to run home to change. Figured it wouldn’t make a good impression to be late.”

“There is no such thing as late. Or early. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.”

How cryptic.

He adds, “It also helps if you look presentable, which you do not. Where’s your flat, love?”

“Gisselle,” I correct again.

“Gisselle, love, where’s your flat?”

I give up. “It’s about thirty minutes from here, toward the airport.”

“Brilliant. We can swing by on the way to the Crown Regency Hotel. I’ve got a meetup with a contact. Part of a story I’ve been keeping an eye on.” His eyes shimmer with excitement.

I’m not going to lie, despite this bumpy start, I’m excited. I’ve been here less than ten minutes, and I’m already going to work on a story with him.

“Who is it?” I ask. “A prime minister? A famous football team owner? A rock star—”

“The janitor, Carl.”

Carl the janitor? “Why?”

Merrick gives me a look with those twinkling, seductive bedroom eyes framed with thick black lashes. “As I told you, Gisselle, love, if you want to learn, observe quietly.”

What in the world gives this man the impression that I’m going to be quiet? I can tell this is going to be a lot harder than I thought. He seems determined to do things his way.

Well, too bad for him, because I’m equally determined. That’s what I tell myself, but deep down, I’m already having doubts. I’ve been in his presence for a handful of minutes, and I’m feeling like it’s hard to breathe around him—because he sucks up all the clean air in the room. Maybe I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this smooth-talking, handsome Brit with an attitude. The weird part is, though, I’m starting to feel even more intrigued. From what I can tell, you kinda get what you see with Leland Merrick.

Yeah. I’m not going to last a day. Sadly, I need this job. Rent is due, and soon, my student loan payments will be too. The only way I’m going to avoid going bankrupt is to get a good-paying job. And for that, I need a reference and my name on a big story.