The dreary lighting of the cubicle quad made Jessica feel withered and forgotten. Concrete toned walls, desktop, and cabinets did nothing to liven the atmosphere, either. She could feel her freshly scrubbed, pink complexion, quickly blending into her grey confinement.

    Her cube-mates, however, seemed unaffected. They were fresh, quick-thinkers with the vibrant energy levels of twenty-somethings – because they were twenty-something. At forty-two, Jessica, just wanted to perform her duties effectively and professionally. Scheming for gold star work and strategizing career moves all day was not her thing, now. If it ever had been.

     “Whoo hoo!” Kennedy cried, jumping into the cubicle. “Power me up, Jessie!” He held his hand in front of her face.

     From the amount of caffeine he drank each day, Jessica doubted he needed additional charging up. She gave his hand a team player tap, just the same.

     “Ooooh, a little weak, Jess. You’re losing your muscle. Lifting some three pounders before the morning Ovaltine might help.”

Kennedy never missed an opportunity to take some kind of jab at her, or other coworkers for that matter. Age, weight, education. Nothing was off limits. It seemed to Jessica that she was the only one who thought his comments were inappropriate. This was a time when sarcasm was valued as humor. The younger generation appreciated the skill of dishing out quippy insults, that may or may not have meaning. Jessica usually ignored it, chalking the behavior up to youth and the excitement of a new career. Life had not yet begun to kick his ass.

Today, she’d had enough of Kennedy. Words flew out of her mouth before she knew what they were or could stop them.

    “Your little hand couldn’t handle my power, Kennedy.”

    Kennedy had already bounced away to slam high-fives with Lyndsay and Tyler, but he had heard her. Jessica could feel three sets of eyes boring holes through the back of her head. When Kennedy’s snide voice sliced through the silence, she could almost feel her hair move.

    “Really. Well, I don’t arm wrestle with my elders.”

    “How about kickboxing? Do you do that?” Jessica shot back without turning around, pretending to be engrossed in twirling spaghetti noodles onto her fork. “I’ll meet you at the gym, anytime. If you’re up for a little sparring.”

    “Uh!  I thought I smelled something.” Kennedy made a sniffing nose behind her. “Aren’t you supposed to shower after the gym, Jess?”

    “I think you shit yourself, with all that jumping around,” Jessica said, shocked at her own impudence today. She heard Lindsay’s muffled giggle and Jessica imaged Kennedy had pulled a face at her, or given her the finger. Then he went for the throat with a dirty knife..

    “Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m outta here guys. Moving to the Ridger Building!”

    “Corporate! It’s a promotion?” Lyndsay asked. “Oh, I’m jealous!”

    “Yep, the Peterson project sealed the deal for me.” Kennedy told them. “They’ve created a new department for a major IT project. It’s huge.”

    “I didn’t know it went so well for you,” Tyler interjected. “Wow, that’s awesome, dude.”

    Jessica did not turn around. She would not give that jerk the satisfaction of gloating in her face. Kennedy’s incompetence had nearly fucked up the project before it had even begun. Despite his well educated background, the guy had been clueless. After a few disastrous meetings, Jessica had ended up taking over before the team completely lost confidence.

So, this was her fault. Jessica had ultimately made him shine in the eyes of the company. She had organized, calculated, analyzed, and ran reports for everything. Kennedy had selectively learned enough to polish the data for presentations and preen before management.

    Her eyes burned with anger. She denied them the ability to produce tears. This was a fortunate ability when her supervisor, Mr. Frank, poked his head into the cubicle.

    “Jessica, could I have a word with you?”

    Mr. Frank was a kind man who possessed an easy smile. Today his face was as blank and pale as parchment. Somber, looking at her over the rim of his blue framed readers.

    “Certainly.” Jessica said, dropping her fork into the microwaveable food tray.

    Jessica followed Mr. Frank across the hall to his office. He closed the door behind her and waved his hand toward one of the brightly colored, overstuffed chairs. Instead of going to his desk, he walked restlessly about the room. Jessica sat down. Something didn’t feel right. Mr. Frank stopped his pacing in front of the large window that overlooked the parking lot.

    “I’ve received a lot of feedback on the Peterson project.” Mr. Frank’s tone was unreadable, but Jessica sensed his displeasure.

    “Yes, sir?” Her nerves formed her words into a question. A hammer was about to fall, she knew it, but from which direction?

    “The Corporate Office had it on their radar as a high priority.” Mr. Frank slowly turned to face her. Jessica’s fingers dug into the arm of the chair. “As did I.”

    Jessica found herself unable to speak. Mr. Frank shook his head and stuffed his hands into his pant pockets.

    “I have never, in all my years, seen a project managed the way Peterson was,” he said, his eyes drifting from the floor to her face. “Jessica, I wish I could keep you here. You have been a real asset to this office. But Corporate has other ideas.”

    The hammer released and Jessica took the blow full-force. She released her breath in a gush. There it was. The firing. That didn’t hurt so bad. She was still sitting upright in the chair. On instinct, her mind began to race, formulating a new plan for her career. For her life. Survival.

    Mr. Frank crossed the room and squatted down in front of her, grasping her hands.

    “I hope you know that I’m sincere when I say ‘thank you’. Thank you for all your hard work. It’s really tough to see you go. You’ve been an amazing employee. A friend even.”

    He reached into his jacket pocket and handed Jessica a piece of paper. “You are to report to the Ridger building tomorrow for processing. You can gather your things afterward. Please, let me know if you need any help.”

    “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

    Jessica left Mr. Frank’s office numb and dazed. Ten years of dedicated service wiped out because she had made someone else look better than her. A rude and incompetent nitwit was being promoted because of her actions, while she would be standing in the unemployment line by tomorrow afternoon. Thank you?

She grabbed her purse from the desk and walked out. Raucous laughter buzzed in her ears until the glass doors of Building C sealed shut behind her.

The next day came to soon after a night of wine and crying. Jessica climbed the once innumerable steps to the Ridger Building. She now knew there were thirty-three. She pulled the slip of paper Mr. Frank had given her out of her purse. It simply said “9th Floor – Room 12A”. Jessica took the stairs, perhaps, as self-punishment for demolishing her career at Ridger and Hook Enterprises so completely. She exited the stairwell after counting one-hundred and sixty steps and forming a renewed appreciation for elevators.

    Jessica stuck her head through the partially opened door of Room 12A. No one was in the office. Unsure of what to do, she entered the room and glanced around. The large office was sparsely furnished with a couple of modern looking chairs, a functional desk with a computer and a long conference table. A window ran the entire length of the office.

“I suppose it will do in a pinch,” a voice said. She turned to see the familiar face of Mr. P.F. Ridger. He was an extremely tall, sturdy looking man, with salt and pepper hair. He shrugged and offered her his hand. “It’s just temporary.”

    Jessica clasped his hand firmly, feeling horrified that he had caught her looking around his office, temporary or not.. “I’m sorry, I was just…”

    “You’re not sorry, or just anything,” Mr. Ridger growled. “You are Jessica, frackin’, Beaumont!”

    Jessica thought her legs were going to collapse beneath her.

    “Your work on the Peterson project landed you in this office,” his voice boomed. “And you frackin’ deserve it!”

    “Yes, sir,” Jessica muttered, looking down at the carpet with burning cheeks..

“Head up, girl. My new Program Manager is a lioness!” Mr. Ridger pulled out the book he had tucked under his arm and handed it to her. Jessica blinked. It was a furniture catalog. She stared at it dumbly.

“You can work on ordering furniture later. First order of business is to get you acquainted with your team.”

    He opened a door to the adjoining room and gestured for someone to enter.

    “Your Admin Assistant has been here a couple of hours and can take you around.”

    Kennedy stepped through the doorway with a wide smile, which was quickly replaced by a look of shock. They gaped at each other.

    “Anyone rubs you wrong, young lady, they’re out of here. Got that?” Mr. Ridger jabbed his thumb toward the door. “You’re the boss, Ms. Beaumont. What you say goes around here!”

    Jessica’s surprise transformed into understanding. Her lips pulled up slowly. It was the smile of a lioness.

    “Thank you, sir.”

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