It took me a hundred metres and couple of odd looks from strangers to forge through my self-pity and come to a decision: I shouldn’t have left her alone there.
I stopped on the other side of the footbridge, made a face and then spun and went to walk back to the restaurant. She’s just a schoolkid and it was, what, nine at night? I should at least wait for the taxi with her. Then, again, if her birthday was in two weeks and she was about to turn eighteen, was it really such a big deal?
I stopped in my tracks.
Okay, Min, think this through: going back in there with her means walking straight back into the situation you bailed out of, and you walked out for a reason. I scrunched up my face. Did I really have the energy to listen to more about Courtney, or Bree’s pregnant cousin, or about that one time Bree found a huge chunk of frozen broccoli in her pasta? God, she was nice but just so damn full on. I winced as I remembered that photo she’d taken of me. No, I couldn’t face any of that. Not right now, not with how crap I was feeling.
She’d be fine, I’d given her plenty of money for a taxi. If she could stalk me to my house before seven am she could probably manage a taxi by herself.
I took a deep breath, turned, and went to continue walking back home.
I only made it two paces when I remembered how tiny she was. It wouldn’t take a strong breeze to drag that girl into a car and drive off with her. Did I want to be responsible for something like that happening? Did I really?
I made a frustrated noise and then stopped again, turning sharply back towards the harbour and walking over to the railing so I could see across the water. Bree wasn’t outside the restaurant anymore. Maybe I was worrying for nothing, maybe she was safely inside. Maybe I should call the restaurant and ask them to make sure she got into a taxi and maybe I should get a goddamn grip, Min, she’s nearly eighteen, not five.
While I was standing in place and trying to figure out what it actually was that I wanted to do, an old couple who had been walking leisurely along the bridge made eye-contact with me. The woman had a pretty strange expression, and I realised how everything I’d just done had probably looked.
Great, now perfect strangers probably thought I was a crazy as the girl I was worrying about.
After they were gone, I looked down at my blouse and skirt, and beyond them, my heels. ‘It totally doesn’t suit you’; I could still hear how easily Bree had said it, as if it was no big deal to say that to someone. I would have been angry with her, but she clearly hadn’t meant to hurt me. In fact, she’d looked mortified when she realised that she had. But just because she hadn’t meant to be cruel didn’t mean what she’d said wasn’t true. Or… maybe I was being hypersensitive and she had meant it in an abstract sense?
That girl, I thought. Even just thinking about her was exhausting.
I pushed off the railing. I couldn’t stand here all night feeling bad about myself and wondering whether or not Bree was safe. She was, everything was going to be fine, and I needed to just go home and avoid getting robbed or murdered myself.
By the time I got back to my apartment, my feet were aching so much I was just about ready to chop them off at the ankles. I decided a bath was the best remedy, but I was so distracted when I ran myself one that I forgot about it and very nearly ended up with a bathroom-sized swimming pool.
It was actually embarrassing what I had been doing, and that was sitting at my laptop and checking my messages. She hadn’t sent me one – and that didn’t necessarily mean she’d been kidnapped, I reminded myself – but in the process of ‘just checking’ I accidentally got stuck reading some of the old ones. I was lucky I remembered the bath when I did.
Leaving my mobile in the living room so I couldn’t keep looking at it and stressing, I shed my clothes and climbed in to the water.
Since it was lovely and warm and I was exhausted in every way possible, I rested my head on the lip of the bathtub. With my chin on my collarbones, I stared down the tub at my body. I had a weird, philosophical moment where I reflected on how strange it was that people looked at that and thought it was me. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, I supposed. If I saw it on someone else I wouldn’t think bad things about them. It was just weird that it was me.
My body issues… They were exhausting, too, and apparently now I was also taking them out on other people. Was ‘that totally doesn’t suit you’ really hurtful enough to be worth walking out of dinner over? Would Bree have walked out if I’d told her that her uniform didn’t suit her? What about Sarah, would she have left dinner over it?
Regardless, I shouldn’t have left. What I should have done – and what Henry would have said I should have done – was just say something like, ‘I’m sorry you think that’, or, ‘Hah, I don’t really like dressing up either’, and just got on with dinner instead of storming out like I was the teenager. Bree hadn’t been telling me I looked terrible in general, in fact she’d said the opposite a number of times. So then why did I take it that way?
It was just all so depressing. I was trying. I’d been trying really fucking hard with all this stuff since high school and I still hated it and it still gave me a massive headache. Winter couldn’t come fast enough; I could just pile on all the layers and ignore my brain.
On that note, it was on the chilly side tonight so in the grand theme of hating my body and everything, after I’d got out and dried myself off I put on a big men’s hoodie. Like all the comfortable clothes I owned, it used to be Henry’s. He’d made the big mistake of leaving it at my house and the consequence was that it now worked for me.
I checked my phone on the way out to the balcony. I didn’t have any messages, which, again, wasn’t necessarily evidence Bree had been murdered in a laneway, but rather than put my mobile where I could see it and worry about it all night, I left it inside. Then, I set up my laptop on the balcony table and sat down to watch a few episodes of cartoons so I could just switch off.
After another couple of wines, I ended up watching the last episode on my side in bed and was finally relaxed enough to be peacefully dozing off when my phone buzzed under my hand. I didn’t even remember collecting it.
I opened my eyes and stared along the mattress at it. It was a Deviant Art note; that meant that Bree was okay. I exhaled and unlocked it. I could just get the reassurance everything was fine and then go to sleep.
“i hate myself so much right now 😦 😦 im so sorry min. i cant sleep. im really sorryyyy. i cant stop crying 😦 😦 “
I sat up a little, read it again, and then groaned and flopped back heavily on the mattress. I’d been so worried about being an irresponsible adult and leaving a minor in a potentially dangerous situation that I’d forgotten how the dinner had ended, and that was very badly.
And now she couldn’t stop crying? Did she mean that literally, or was she just trying to say how sorry she was?
I held the phone in front of my face and squinted at the bright screen. I couldn’t just leave this message for a day or two like I usually did, just in case she was actually upset. Even if I was probably a little too tipsy to be trusted with a phone right now.
“It’s okay,” I typed. “I’m glad you got home safely. Sleep well.” I read that a couple of times, and then sent it.
I had been debating whether or not I wanted to get out of the hoodie and into my pyjamas when the handset vibrated again. I checked it.
“pls dont be like this 😦 😦 ur really awesome. like really. i mean that its just sometiems when i say things they dont come out right…..it was just weird seeing ur this serious businesswoman cos online ur really funny and kind of smooth so i thought for like a year that u were a really cool guy with maybe some really cool job liek a real artist or something. i had this idea of how u looked from the messages and then u posted that painting and it was like exactly what i thought…”
My stomach knotted. That fucking painting. “I’m sorry I disappointed you, then,” I typed, and immediately regretted it even as I was clicking ‘send’.
I didn’t have long to wait for a reply. “are u kidding me im the disappointment. i wanted to meet u for ages and then i screwed everything up 😦 😦 u really are awesome though. And ur still pretty funny irl. im sorry 😦 😦 “
I stared at those frowny faces for a good five minutes. If I hadn’t been over the blood alcohol limit, I probably would have just said something nice and put my mobile on the bedside table and passed out. Unfortunately, I was over it, and all I could focus on was asking myself whether or not she’d been serious earlier. “Bree, are you actually crying?”
It felt like eternity before she replied, and it was only one word.
“yes 😦 “
I closed my eyes for a moment.
Fuck. Could I really not have swallowed all my personal dramas for another thirty minutes and ended that whole dinner amicably? Okay, so she was seriously intense, and showing up at my home and my work and then forcing me to pay for that extortionately expensive dinner was really fucking not okay… but, come on, she was seventeen. Did she actually deserve to be crying at midnight on someone’s spare bed?
I didn’t know what to reply to that. On one hand I wanted to apologise to her for leaving, on the other, she shouldn’t have dragged me there in the first place, so I didn’t know. I was sorry she was crying and I did feel responsible for it, despite the fact just about everything was her own damn fault.
Before I managed to figure out what I wanted to say, she sent me another note. “btw im not trying to guilt trip u or anything. im just really sorry 😦 😦 will u forgive me??“
I exhaled. She’d done so many crazy things that I didn’t actually know what she was asking me to forgive her for, but I suspected it was only for what happened at the very end of the dinner. Did it matter, though? Was I actually going to tell a seventeen year old who really admired me that I didn’t forgive her and wanted her to cry herself to sleep? I could probably double as Oscar the Grouch at times, but I was pretty sure there was actually a heart in here somewhere.
“Of course I forgive you” I typed, hoping I wouldn’t regret it. “Sleep well. I hope you feel better tomorrow.”
“thanks min goodnight and im sorry again xxxx”
I put my mobile on my bedside table and put a hand over my face. What a day, seriously. I couldn’t even really think properly about it because my brain was just so tired. There was no way I was getting out of bed to put my pyjamas on, so I just turned over and went to sleep in Henry’s big hoodie and my trackies. I didn’t even bother to take my hair-tie out.
I wasn’t exactly hungover the next day, but I still felt a bit off and the blisters on my feet were aching as I swung them out of bed. I stretched, watching myself in the big sliding mirrors of my wardrobe which were facing my bed.
With my hair back and this huge hoodie on I looked really boyish, especially with the sleeves pushed up so the fabric bunched up around my shoulders. Because of the shoulders, the rest of me looked really narrow when I stood up, too, and I couldn’t see my breasts. I was really glad Henry wasn’t here to see me like this.
Just the thought of work; I groaned. I so didn’t feel like getting into my work clothes – especially putting my blistered feet into those heels again – and I briefly fantasised about just showing up at work dressed like this. I didn’t even think people would recognise me if I did; they probably wouldn’t let me in the building. Maybe then I could just quit Frost and get a ‘really cool job’ or whatever Bree had said she’d pictured me with. Wow, when I imagined Mum’s reaction to me quitting my job, though… Yeah, not an option.
I had been looking forward to getting to work and sitting down at my desk all day, but unfortunately I got called into a team meeting for the Canada project and there weren’t any seats left in the tiny little meeting room. It wasn’t even my team, and I ended up being stuck standing up and hating the world while I listened to someone drone on about distribution contracts forever.
Not that I’ve ever made a particularly good damsel in distress, but when Henry stuck his head into the meeting and called me out I was pretty happy to be rescued.
I edged behind all the extra chairs and out of the room, shutting the door gently behind me. “Don’t tell me,” I said neutrally, “you were just so desperate to see my beautiful face you couldn’t wait another second.”
He smirked and motioned for me to follow him, looking excited. “Come with me.”
Henry didn’t do ‘cryptic’ very often, so he didn’t need to steal my handbag to get me to follow him.
When he opened the door to the stairwell, he still didn’t explain where we were going, he just grinned broadly as he made a ‘ladies first’ gesture and stood aside so I could walk past. He only ushered me down one flight, though, and that was to the level that HR was on.
I followed him all the way to the offices – a little stiffly because of my blisters – wondering what on earth he was doing.
He stopped short of his own office, and I couldn’t figure out what the point of that particular place was at first. Then I followed where he was looking: it was at his assistant manager’s out-tray. There was an A4-sized internal envelope marked L36 MARKETING: LEE, MIN’.
I picked it up and turned it over; there must have been a good fifteen or twenty pages in there. The envelope was closed and across the seal was stamped the words, ‘STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL’. I didn’t understand what the fuss was.
Henry was practically bursting, though. “I’m not supposed to have anything to do with this, so I didn’t lead you here,” he told me. “Because of our relationship I’m not allowed to sign off on anything for you. But hardcopy, sealed envelopes stamped ‘confidential’ in HR’s out tray only mean one thing,” he said, smiling from ear to ear as he put his hands on my shoulders, “Min, that’s an employment contract.”
I just stared at him. It took a few seconds to sink in.
Remembering my conversation with Diane last week, I looked from the envelope to Henry. “Are you serious?” I said, my voice shooting off into the stratosphere, and then began to tear into it on the spot.
He put a hand over mine to stop me, glancing around us to see if anyone was watching. “It’s marked ‘confidential’ for a reason,” he said, and then kissed my forehead. “I understand why you can’t talk about this stuff with me so I know why you didn’t tell me. But I want to let you know that I’m really, really happy for you,” he said and cupped my cheek with his hand for a moment. “Fuck, Min, this is great. Congratulations!”
I was at this terrible crossroads, because I didn’t want to dismiss him when he was so excited for me, but at the same time I really wanted to know what was in the envelope. My dilemma must have been evident because he just laughed. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he said, and then kissed my forehead again. “I’ll let you go. You go open that, sign it, and then we’ll celebrate over lunch, okay?”
“Thanks, Henry,” I said, giving him a quick hug when I was certain no one was watching.
He showed me out so I could rush upstairs back to my workstation and get stuck into that envelope. While I was checking around me to make sure no one was looking as I tore it open, it occurred to me that Henry had acted like I should already know what was inside. I didn’t, really. Other than my brief chat with Diane last week about advancement opportunities, I didn’t really know why I’d be getting a contract without someone explaining to me what was in it.
He still ended up being right, though, it was an employment contract. I couldn’t scan it fast enough to figure out what was going on, and my eyes zeroed-in right on the words, ‘Project Manager’. I think my heart stopped.
I checked my name again. Yes, this was for me. Oh, my god. I read it further; it was actually only a four-week position, but it was substantially higher pay and, fuck, I’d get to call myself a Project Manager at Frost International! That would look fantastic on my resume, and I knew the experience would go towards a permanent management position.
I stopped reading and looked up, because I actually couldn’t believe it. Things like this just didn’t happen to me. I had one of those moments where I wondered if I was still asleep.
I sat back, taking a slow breath.
Wow, this was – I looked down and beamed at it – this was fantastic. Unexpected and fantastic. This was worth every goddamn second of overtime that I’d done in the last five years. Oh my god! This was why I wasn’t assigned to any teams. I was going to be running one of them!
There wasn’t much more information about the secret project Diane had mentioned to me in it, though, except the number of staff I’d have underneath me – only four, but it was a start, right? – and the name of the project which was ‘Pink’.
Wait a second, wasn’t that the project Sarah had said she was listed for? I nearly cheered. Fucking yes, I was working with her again? Yes! I couldn’t sign on that dotted line fast enough.
There was a hand-scribbled note down the bottom of the last page that said, “Please submit to Diane only in person asap”.
You bet, I thought, and basically flew across the floor all the way to her office. She was on the phone, but she apologised to whoever she was talking to and hung up. Just that little detail made me feel so important. It quickly faded, though, because this was Diane I was handing these contracts to. I was suddenly unsure of whether or not I’d completed it correct, and whether or not I would look incapable of managing a team if I hadn’t.
“Close the door and take a seat,” she instructed me, and I did what I was told, handing the contracts to her before I sat down. She flipped through them. “This all looks in order,” she said, and then put them aside and looked back at me.
Even though I was really excited, I began to sweat as soon as she looked directly at me. It was stupid, I obviously wasn’t in trouble. I also really, really wanted to thank her, but I didn’t feel like I could say anything at that moment.
She didn’t speak straight away, either. She considered me for a little while before finally breaking the silence. “Did you tell anyone?” I shook my head. “Not even your boyfriend? How close are you to him, anyway? You don’t live together, do you?”
I smothered my surprise. That was a strange question, but I suppose since we were dating under the auspice of Frost overlooking their policy for us, it wasn’t exactly inappropriate. It was still strange, though. “Henry guessed something was up because he saw the envelope in HR. But I didn’t say anything. I am close to him, but we don’t discuss everything. And no, we don’t live together.”
She nodded. “Good. Don’t tell him anything about this. That’s very important. He works for my brother.”
I didn’t contradict her because it was true, but it wasn’t like Henry was Sean Frost’s agent or anything. I didn’t think they had that much to do with each other, and Henry was capable of keeping his mouth shut if he needed to. He was HR Manager for chrissake. He would know extremely confidential and interesting stuff about everyone and he’d never breathed a word of it to me. Anyway, if she was so worried I’d tell Henry, why had she picked me in the first place?
In response to her instructions, though, I just said, “I understand.”
She nodded, opening her top drawer and taking out a USB that was wrapped in a curled post-it. She held it up. “The brief is on here, and the password is on this,” she indicated the post-it, “change it immediately. First thing you do. There’s only four weeks, so you’ll need to get started on the Marketing Requirements Document right now. All your team members are on here, too, and I’ve freed up ‘Oslo’ for your office.” She held it out to me, but before she put it in my palm, she added, “I’m taking a lot of extra security measures for this project.” I didn’t miss the gravity in her voice. “A lot. The computers in ‘Oslo’ aren’t even hooked up to the main network. Don’t save anything to anywhere that isn’t password protected and don’t leave your laptops here overnight or anywhere your boyfriend can get at them if you’re saving project files to them.”
I accepted the USB. This all seemed completely over the top, but that observation wasn’t exactly something I could say out loud to the co-CEO. My silence must have spoken volumes, though, because Diane was watching me. “My brother manages our IT,” she said. “If it’s on the network, he has access to it. I do not want him finding out details about the project. He thinks I’ve abandoned it and I want it to stay that way for at least four weeks. I had someone mention to him that all this extra security is because you’re on a politically sensitive pitch, he believes it, and that’s the way I want it to stay.”
The more pressing question was why Diane was so desperate to make sure her brother, the co-CEO of their billion dollar corporation, didn’t find out about one tiny little project. What could he really do if he did find out, anyway? Marketing was Diane’s department.
It was all very weird, but I obviously couldn’t say that. “I’ll make sure everyone understands your instructions,” was what I told her.
She smiled slightly. “Now that sounds like a manager talking,” she said. “Jason chose you a compliant team. You shouldn’t have any trouble telling any of them just once. If you have any questions, just Jason or myself, please, and for God’s sake throw people off the scent if they start asking questions. I’m sure you’re seeing a pattern here.”
I nodded, thanked her, and let myself be ushered out of the office. It was actually really strange standing next to her because, like most women, I dwarfed her. Weird feeling, towering over Diane Frost of Frost International.
The office that Diane mentioned she’d had put together for us, ‘Oslo’, was one of the smaller offices on the corner of the building and close to hers. It faced out towards the Western Suburbs so it wasn’t one of Sydney’s best views, but it was still better than a felt-covered partition with postcards of places I wanted to go one day pinned on it. There were five workstations in there, four in the centre and one against the wall. I supposed that one was mine. I sat down at it and spun my chair sideways to face the huge windows.
All of Sydney looked like it was down there. I could see all the way to the horizon, and I was smiling again.
Looking out over it all with that USB clutched in my hand, I felt amazing. I felt like I was a king surveying my kingdom. Just, wow. Five years and finally my career was going somewhere. Maybe I wasn’t the ‘really cool guy’ Bree had thought I was for a year, but at least now I was working on having a really cool job.
A voice interrupted me. “Here you are!”
I swivelled my chair around as Sarah stepped inside the office and came rushing over to me. “Jason told me you’d be in here – what’s this about you being Lead but it’s all hush-hush? Is it true or was he just messing with me again?” She only had to take one look at my expression to know the answer. “Oh my god?” she said as a question. “Min, are you serious?” She looked ecstatically happy for me. “Wow, I suddenly have faith in humanity again – you’ve been working like a slave for years! So, what, you’re my boss now?”
“Only for four weeks, and I only have four employees.”
She laughed, grabbing an office chair from one of the work stations and pulling it over to where my empty desk was. “Best boss ever,” she said. “They always start people off in small teams, though. Did you know the Head of Operations Australia used to be a marketing rep?”
I made a face. “Don’t say that and get my hopes up,” I told her. “I might screw the whole thing up and end up in admin.”
Sarah gracefully crossed her legs, leaning back in the chair. “Are you kidding me?” she asked. “When was the last time you screwed something up? Year seven?”
Last night, I thought.
“So what are we doing, anyway? Did Jason tell you?”
I put last night out of my head, and held up the USB. “Diane said it’s all on here.”
She sat upright in her chair and slapped her thighs. “Get out,” she said. “Diane told you? To your face?” She leant back in the chair again. “Min, if you’re not running the department in a year, something is seriously wrong.”
“Stop it,” I said, but I was smiling. I still couldn’t get over it. “You want a see what’s on this? I haven’t looked yet.”
We sat down, turned on one of the computers and went through the brief together; it was pretty straightforward. Frost was going to mine a pipe in the Kimberley, but in order to get finance for the project we needed to have already signed exclusive distribution contracts with strong projected end-consumer sales. Our job was to identify a good market to pitch this to, then to design the pitch and to provide a framework for Sales to deliver it. I sat back in my chair, exhaling at length. Diane wasn’t kidding when she said there was a lot of work in this: this was a huge project for five people in four weeks.
“Shit,” Sarah said as we both processed it. “I guess I won’t be seeing too much of my boyfriend, then. When’s the deadline?”
I checked. “April 29,” I said, and then thought for a second. “Isn’t that right after Easter?” Yet another fantastic reason I hadn’t gone to Seoul with Henry. “That’s more than four weeks, though. Do you think we’d be able to finish it before that long weekend?”
Sarah shrugged, and she was grinning. “Why are you asking me?” she said. “You’re the boss! You tell us when it will be done by.”
I mirrored her by leaning back in my chair and placed my fingers behind my head. “Wow, you’re right.” I laughed shortly. “This is just so awesome.”
“So, how are you planning to celebrate?”
Hah. How did I usually celebrate? Red wine and a selection of semi-automatic rifles. “You don’t want to know.”
She laughed. It was a pleasant sound. “You are such an enigma,” she said, and then stood up. “Come on, let’s go tell the tools we work with that they’re all serfs and you’re important now.”
I made a face, and that stopped her. “Didn’t Jason tell you? It’s confidential,” I said. “Diane was pretty specific about not saying anything to anybody about what we’re doing. We’re not even allowed to save to the network drives.”
Sarah gave me the strangest look. “Why?”
I shrugged. “Something to do with Sean Frost.”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course it is,” she said. “So you can’t even tell anyone that you’re a project lead?” At my head-shake she groaned. “Those two are going to end up killing each other,” she said. “We’ll have to celebrate quietly together then. Who are the other members…?” She leaned across me to laptop; her loose hair fell all over one of my shoulders. Scrolling and reading out the other team member’s names, she made a face. “I don’t really know those guys.”
I didn’t, either. “Guess we’ll know them pretty well in four weeks,” I said. “I’d better send them out an invite.”
“And I’d better leave you to it,” she said, “and move my twenty kilos of junk in here.”
“Make me a coffee while you’re at it,” I said with a half-grin as she opened the door. “Lots of milk and sugar. Oh, and if you could pick up my dry-cleaning…”
At first she thought I was serious, and she might actually have made me that coffee until I said the word, ‘dry-cleaning’ and then she burst out laughing. “You are hilarious,” she told me before she closed the door. “I swear to god I’m going to get you out of the office one of these days. My friends will love you.”
Somehow I sincerely doubted that, but I was glad she found me funny.
I did finally meet my employees, and aside from Sarah they were a quiet bunch who didn’t seem to have any particular problems with the fact I was their manager. One of them was fresh out of an internship and blushed fiercely whenever I spoke to him. Apparently he was one hell of an analyst, though, so I forgave him for how uncomfortable I felt speaking to him and watching his face slowly turn purple. The other two were just your garden variety marketing reps, and one of them had been working for Frost for fifteen years.
I ended up needing to cancel lunch with Henry so the five of us could figure out what on earth we were going to do with the brief. Eventually we’d all put our heads together and given each other tasks, and I drew up a project timeline, photocopied it and gave it to them. By the end of the day I felt productive, like I actually might not screw everything up, and that, actually, despite my personal issues, life was pretty fucking great.
Jason even said goodbye to me as I was leaving – he’d hardly acknowledged I existed before. God, could today get any better?
As it turned out it could, because EB Games was having a stocktake sale and was open later than usual. Not only did I get the two titles I wanted, but I got them for half-price and grabbed a third for free. The third one had co-op, too, so I figured maybe when Henry got off work he could swing past and play a few rounds with me in celebration before he went home.
On my way up to my apartment in the lift I was so busy reading the jackets and wondering which one of them I should play first that I didn’t notice what was outside the door of my apartment. In fact I’d almost made it there and was feeling around in my handbag for my keycard when movement on the floor caught my eye.
There was a person sitting cross-legged against my door, and the shock of that nearly gave me a heart attack. I took a step back and gasped embarrassingly loudly, putting a hand over my chest where I could feel my heart pounding.
No one would have given me prize for knowing immediately who it was going to be.
It was Bree, and she had a huge smile and an even bigger bouquet of flowers.