Chapter One: 26 Steps to the Boss's Office
There were 26 steps from Nicole’s cube to Cassandra Ender’s office.
This was a general estimate. The final number didn’t include long strides, short steps, or the times that Nicole took a tentative step back, thinking that it would be easier to retreat back to her cube and make up some type of excuse to her family.
Yup, just couldn’t get the time off. I tried, but it looks like I’m stuck up here instead. Enjoy the wedding without me and send my regards.
Nicole focused solely on moving each foot forward. She had no clue what she’d say to Cassandra – which, to be honest, was probably for the best. Having a plan meant she could back out of the plan. Instead, she was freefalling, and there’s no real way to stop a freefall, save for reaching the point of impact.
After those 26 steps, Nicole found herself at the front of Cassandra’s door. Before Nicole could knock on the frame, Cassandra looked up and gave a polite smile.
“How can I help you, Nicole?”
The printer is jammed. The toner is out on ink. The kitchen faucet is leaky. The office is on fire. Oh God, please let the office catch on fire.
“Um, I – uh.” Nicole swallowed and pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth. “I was hoping to get some time off.”
“That can be arranged,” Cassandra replied. “What day would you need off?”
Nicole bit the inside of her cheeks. “I, um, actually need more than a day.”
“More than a day?” Cassandra repeated. “How many days are we talking about, then?”
Nicole cleared her throat. “Like, three?”
“Three.” Cassandra folded her arms. “Is there a medical emergency?”
“No,” said Nicole, her eyes back at her feet. “I’m actually going to Florida.”
Cassandra leaned forward and placed both hands on her desk.
“You do understand that we typically don’t give vacation days to temp employees, right?” Cassandra said slowly.
“Yes, yes, I completely understand,” Nicole faltered. “It’s not a vacation so much as…a wedding?”
“A wedding,” Cassandra repeated flatly. “Well, congratulations to them. Who’s the happy couple?”
“My brother, actually,” Nicole replied, gritting her teeth.
A small smile broke across Cassandra’s face.
“Well, why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?” said Cassandra in a considerably more jovial tone. “I’m sure we can arrange something. You do understand that this will be unpaid though, correct?”
“Of course,” Nicole answered.
“I wouldn’t dream of having you miss your brother’s wedding. You’re the sister of the groom.” Cassandra sat back in her seat. “I remember when my brother got married. Those last few days were chaos. And then we found out my bridesmaid’s dress had come in in the wrong color. I think I was more worked up about that than the bride herself. It was hectic, but what a memorable time. I can imagine it will be the same for you.”
The corner of Nicole’s mouth twitched.
“So what dates are we looking at?” Cassandra pushed her chair closer to the desk.
Nicole sighed and licked her lips. “The fourteenth through the sixteenth.”
Cassandra’s brow furrowed.
“Of August.” Nicole gave a tight smile.
“So, this month,” Cassandra stated slowly. “Next Wednesday, to be precise.” Cassandra paused and sighed. “Couldn’t you have told me this earlier?”
“I’m sorry about that, I…” Nicole trailed off and swallowed. “I guess I’ve had a lot on my mind.”
Cassandra sighed again, this time more audibly.
“It’s not favorable, but I guess it can still be done.”
Nicole dragged her fingers through her hair.
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“No worries. Have fun next week.”
Nicole nodded absently, started to turn toward the door, and immediately turned back to Cassandra.
“I can work while I’m there,” Nicole offered. “I can even put more hours in today and next week, so I don’t fall behind in anything.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Cassandra smiled. “Your tasks are easily transferable. We’ll be just fine while you’re gone.”
“Great,” Nicole stated with a blank expression on her face. “Good to hear.”
“Is there anything else you need from me?” Cassandra asked.
“No, no, that’s it.” Nicole gave a wavering grin. “Thank you again. I know this was short notice…”
Cassandra waved away Nicole’s words.
“Not worth groveling over,” Cassandra said offhandedly. “Besides, if I were in your shoes, I’d choose gaining a sister over some temp gig anyway.”
Nicole’s mouth went dry as she tripped over the words in her mind.
“And, if I don’t see you beforehand, I hope you have a nice weekend,” Cassandra continued.
“Yeah, you too,” Nicole managed to give out. Cassandra turned back to her computer and resumed typing at a rhythm that gave no hint that she had ever stopped typing in the first place. Nicole pressed her lips together and exited Cassandra’s office, taking the longer route back to her cube.
Nicole stared at her desk, desperately trying to continue what she was working on. She sorted a few papers around, shifting them from one pile to another. She opened an email and looked at the words without actually reading them. Within minutes, Nicole gently placed her head in her hands. She pressed her fingers into her brows as she closed her eyes and sighed. She moved only when her elbows started slipping out from under her.
Laura was the first person Nicole called when she stepped out of the office building that evening.
“I think I lost my job,” Nicole stated flatly.
“Wait, really?” Laura replied. “Are they firing you?”
“No, no, nothing like that…” Nicole paused long enough to check for traffic before crossing the street. “I just think I shot myself in the foot. They’ll never hire me as a full-time employee now.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Laura offered. “Employees make mistakes all the time.”
“But the problem is that my mistake wasn’t even work-related,” Nicole added. “I was basically told that I’m expendable and that’s why I can leave for Andrew’s wedding.”
“That’s a bit cruel,” said Laura. “Why would they ever tell you that? Was it your boss who told you this? I wouldn’t trust it coming from another employee. People are catty like that.”
“No, no, it was my boss…” Nicole trailed off.
“Oh, hun, I’m so sorry,” Laura cooed. “If that’s how your boss is, saying stuff like that after the fact, maybe it’s for the best that you aren’t there permanently.”
“No, no, no. You don’t get it,” Nicole cut in. “She told me this as I was asking for time off.”
“I’m confused,” said Laura. “When did this happen?”
“Today. This afternoon.”
“Wait, you asked for it today?” said Laura. “You have to be kidding me. I mean, I had asked for the time off the second you asked me to come.”
“I know, I know, I just…” Nicole sighed. “I kept putting it off. I was scared that my boss would be pissed. And I got…kind of the opposite.”
Laura paused before sighing into the phone.
“Did she really tell you that you were expendable?”
“Not in so many words. But she made it pretty clear that I wasn’t an asset.”
“If she gave you that much time off on such short notice, I would just be thankful she didn’t yell at you, or fire you on the spot,” Laura advised. “Better to have a happy former boss who will gladly give you a recommendation than a boss who is mad at you and probably wasn’t planning on hiring you permanently in the first place.”
An anger surged through Nicole, making her jaw clench.
“Do you have to be so mean?”
“How am I being mean?” Laura countered. “Temp jobs are temp jobs. Sometimes people get hired from them. Sometimes people don’t. Given the circumstances, the only thing we can do is be thankful it went as well as it did.”
Nicole kept silent, her teeth locked until her temper subsided.
“I’m just…” Nicole huffed away from the phone, her face hot. “I’m frustrated and mad and…”
“You resent the fact that you had to take time off for a wedding you don’t want to have happen in the first place,” Laura finished.
“I hate that you know me so well,” Nicole murmured, her shoulders drooping with a sudden fatigue.
“And, in a way, you blame your brother for potentially jeopardizing your job prospects,” Laura continued.
“I don’t blame my brother…” Nicole started.
“You blame his fiancée, then.”
“That sounds more like it.”
Nicole rounded the corner and made her way up the steps to the L platform.
“And, in a way, you blame your brother for that, for making her his fiancée in the first place,” Laura added.
Nicole simply made a small grunt in the affirmative. She pressed her toes into her shoes, tensing up her legs in the process. She waited for Laura to say something else. When she didn’t, Nicole cleared her throat into the phone.
“Am I coming over tonight?” Nicole asked.
“Of course,” Laura answered. “I figured you would.”
“I’m getting on the train now,” said Nicole. “I’ll probably get there in like half hour or so.”
“You’re coming over straight from work?” Laura asked.
“Figured as much,” Nicole answered. “Don’t really feel like going to my apartment anyway.”
“Works for me,” said Laura. “I’m at the grocery store now. I’ll just make sure to be back before you get there.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Nicole.
“I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“You know I love you.”
Nicole smiled faintly.
“And I love you too.”
“See you soon, hun.”
“I’ll see you soon,” Nicole repeated. She pressed her head back against the wall, deliberately & forcefully breathing, her phone tucked against her palm, until her train pulled up to the platform. She boarded the last train car, found a seat in the back corner, and call her mom. The phone rang two or three times before someone picked up.
“Hi, Mom,” Nicole breathed out.
“Hey there, kiddo,” her mother’s voice effortlessly sung out. “How are you doing?”
“Fine, fine,” Nicole countered with a half-hearted singsong. “I just wanted to let you know that I was able to get the time off.”
“Wow, they took this long to get back to you?” she responded.
Nicole pressed her lips together and stared at the train car’s floor.
“Something like that.”
“Still though, so good to hear,” her mother went on. “I was worried, you know…”
“Mom…” Nicole began.
“I know you wouldn’t abandon your brother or anything,” she continued. “But this is important to him. He’s still your brother. He still needs you there.”
“I really don’t want to get into this now.” Nicole turned in her seat and faced the wall. “I had a long day.”
“Okay, okay.” There was a pause. In the silence, the train came to a stop, opened its doors, let its passengers on or off, and closed its doors again. “Have you talked to Andrew recently?”
“No, Mom,” Nicole answered an octave lower than her usual speaking voice. “No I haven’t.”
“I’m sure he misses talking to you,” her mother continued. “You two were so close.”
“Mom.” Nicole attempted to have her response come off as a terse warning, but came out more like a young child’s pleading.
Nicole could hear her mom sigh on the other end of the line.
“The flight is at 7:30,” said her mother. “Do you think you guys will get here in time?”
“Yes, Mom, we will,” Nicole answered with a weary smile to no one.
“And Laura was able to get the time off too, right?”
“Of course, Mom,” said Nicole.
“A mother always worries,” she said. “And that worry extends to significant others. You’ll learn someday, if you ever have kids.”
“I bet, Mom,” Nicole replied. “I appreciate the concern, either way.”
“Well, if I don’t hear from you beforehand, I’ll see you on Tuesday.”
“As long as I don’t see you next Tuesday,” Nicole said with a small chuckle.
“Nothing, nothing,” Nicole responded. “Just a bad joke.”
“Well, all right then,” her mother replied, her voice saturated with concern. “You take care, okay?”
“I will, Mom,” Nicole replied. “And I’ll see you at O’Hare. I’ll call if we get held up.”
Nicole ended her conversation, placed her phone in her purse, and stared out the window. Her eyes darted from the ground, to the buildings, to the sky. The train slowed to a stop and the doors opened again. She let the train rock her as she closed her eyes, the train door dings ringing in her ears. She hugged her purse closer to her stomach, leaned her head back, and started counting down the stops until she would be in Laura’s neighborhood.