Let her choke on a crouton. I put it out there to the Universe, but the Universe was otherwise occupied.
"Emi Watson? Emi with an 'I'? Seriously?" Nancy Joy Nielson eyed me with a raised brow. She turned her unwanted attention to my fellow intern and brushed a stray strand of hair from her eyes. "And Pak Za…Zak…Zakary?"
He smiled and helped her out. "Zacharia, Pak Zacharia."
"Like a pack of cards?" She wrinkled her upturned nose. I wanted to flatten it for her.
"Yes, ma'am. It's short for Kalpak."
"Whatever," she said. "You guys just graduated, so I don't expect much, but I do expect you to be here, follow directions, and not waste time."
From that point, the welcome went downhill while Nancy Neilson addressed such issues as our inexperience, cluelessness, and general uselessness. Disappointing. The day had begun so well.
I’d gone all-out for my first day of summer internship at Knox Engineering. The new suit fit snug in the hips, but the green complemented the cinnamon flecks in my otherwise blah-brown hair. The gold horseshoe earrings my dad gave me for high school graduation were a must, even though I figured they’d worked.
The job itself was nothing special, just a clerk in the accounting department. But in a college town like Tallahassee, many new grads spend summers waiting tables, stocking shelves, or handing bags out of drive-through windows. This job was a real Monday-through-Friday position at a prestigious company. The paycheck would be welcome in a single-parent household, but it was the experience and the entry on my résumé that got me to fork out money I hadn’t earned yet for a sharp suit and a manicure.
My first day at Knox began with Brandi and the human resources team welcoming the interns with an orientation breakfast. After the breakfast, Brandi droned on about company policies for an hour. Relieved to get that out of the way, she led the little band of interns on a tour of the building. As we strolled around, Brandi explained what departments were where and stopped to introduce us to any executives who happened to be available. Once inside an office, we crowded around while the exec gave us a brief welcome. The faces and names blurred after a while, but two were unforgettable.
The first was the CEO, Maggie Jacobs. Maggie was a tall, slender woman in her sixties with sharply-styled white hair and intelligent, questioning eyes. A woman leading a company the size of Knox made her memorable right away. Also memorable was the jigsaw puzzle on a table beneath her window. She told us that she worked on it when she got stuck on a problem. One of the braver interns quipped that she must get stuck a lot; the puzzle was nearly complete. She pushed a few pieces around, noting that running a corporation was much like putting a puzzle together. “When you slide a piece into place, and it fits just so, you have magic.”
The last exec we visited had a memorable face and everything else to match. Tony Guiden, the assistant controller, was the best thing I’d seen all day, even though he must have been at least forty. As he talked about his job and the company, I kept catching myself checking him out. Not soft like older guys, he had a sly smile and dark, silky hair that fringed a smooth forehead. I kept forcing my gaze away, trying not to stare, but his eyes sought mine out like they were trying to invite me in for a conversation.
I was lost in his eyes when the gutsy guy, the marketing intern, asked about the dolls in the trophy case resting on his bookshelf. During our tour, we’d gotten used to seeing toys and games in the executive offices. “They aren’t dolls,” the assistant controller said, “they’re action figures.”
“Do you collect them?” another intern asked.
“Some are gifts. Some, like this one, I buy for myself.” He held up a small Wonder Woman. A red satin ribbon was tied around the tiny waist. It was nothing special, but he seemed super pleased with it. Maybe it was a limited edition.
Brandi thanked Tony for his time and explained to the group that lunch with our mentors was next on the agenda. While Brandi talked, I peeked into the trophy case. A few of the action figures were displayed simply on circles of colorful fabric. Others were presented more whimsically. A crouching Catwoman rose from a cloud of what looked like silky, brownish fluff. A toothpick rested in the outstretched arms of a miniature mummy.
As we filed out, I turned for one last look. Tony caught me looking, smiled, and returned to reading emails. I blushed all the way down to my toenails and giggled like a six-year-old.
After the tour, the memorable morning turned into an afternoon I’d prefer to forget. Brandi led me and the tall, dark-haired intern with the unusual name to the lunch room. She introduced us to the accounting supervisor, Nancy Joy Nielson, a skinny, fiftyish woman with brilliant, sun-streaked red hair.
Ms. Nielson glared at us as if Brandi had left two fat roaches on her plate.
“N. Joy, everyone calls me N. Joy,” she said like we should have known that. N. Joy went on to mangle Pak’s name and fill us in on how worthless we were to her.
“I can’t believe Guiden saddled me with two interns when the department’s already behind,” she said. “I need an experienced accountant, not two kids.”
Pak and I held our smiles and kept our mouths shut.
“Do either of you have any real-world experience?” She didn’t look hopeful.
Flashing a smile that lit up his eyes, Pak said, “My mom owns a pool business. I help her out with the bookkeeping.”
N. Joy snorted. “Bookkeeping? Seriously?”
I sprang to Pak’s defense. “My dad says running a family business is even harder than being CEO of a big corporation. You have to wear all the hats.”
Both N. Joy and Pak gaped at me with wide eyes.
Pak’s gaze said, “You’re so sweet.”
N. Joy’s gaze said, “You’re an idiot.”
I’d started off on the wrong foot.
Work began for real the following day. Pak and I looked forward to learning more about the job and the company, but N. Joy dumped assignments on us with little or no instruction. Her neglect forced us to work closely and help one another. Despite the feeling that we were groping in the dark, we preferred it when N. Joy left us alone with a task. The woman could bring us down with a glance.
It was the Monday of our second week that N. Joy rolled her eyes when I asked if I should copy the chief financial officer, Frank Windsor, on a report of the completed account reconciliations. She followed up the eye roll with a “duh” and wandered off. I still wasn’t sure if I should copy Frank or not, so I asked another manager in the department. She said that I should and offered me popcorn. That made her my go-to person for those kinds of questions and a mid-afternoon snack.
That same week, Pak got all excited because he’d found a better way to proof the list of outstanding accounts. He was adorable, all giddy and proud of himself. N. Joy loomed over our desks with her arms folded. She listened, snorted, and told Pak to quit wasting time. His sweet face fell as she ambled away. It took all my strength not to plant my foot up her skinny butt.
Still, I looked forward to coming to work each day, proud of having landed a job at Knox. Begun by a couple of Florida State University engineering students, Knox developed and produced tools and equipment used in mining and construction. The company operated a half-dozen manufacturing facilities throughout the Southeast. I marveled that I’d been selected, one of a thousand business majors, for one of ten intern slots. Unbelievable.
I was proud to be there, but things could have been so much better if N. Joy tried even a little bit. The other interns were invited to participate in company events. Pak and I were voluntold to serve coffee at the Friday TGIF breakfast in the lunchroom.
It wasn’t bad when N. Joy wasn’t breathing down our necks. For the corner of my eye, I could see her seething while Pak and I had a conversation with the finance manager who’d help me out. N. Joy swooped in as the manager left for her desk after wishing us a nice day.
“You’re not here to socialize,” N. Joy said.
“I thought that’s exactly why we’re here,” I said. “This is supposed to help us meet other people in the company, right?”
Realizing N. Joy was already pissed, Pak jumped right in and piled on. “That’s right. The two interns who did this last Friday said they met people from every department.”
The color in N. Joy’s cheeks rose to match the red streaks in her hair. “You’re supposed to be serving coffee, not socializing.”
“Oh, we have been,” Pak assured her. “We’ve gone through a half a dozen pots, wouldn’t you say, Emi?”
“At least; you won’t hear any complaints about the coffee,” I said.
Pak and I held our frozen smiles until the bitch walked away.
As the breakfast wound down, I spotted Tony Guiden talking with Frank Windsor. A big, outgoing guy, Frank wore the same blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt on Fridays and had an indoor putting green in his office. Frank had one of those booming voices that carried. He and Tony laughed and chatted like old buddies. I noticed I was staring at Tony about the same time Tony noticed me looking at him. He smiled, winked, and returned to his conversation with Frank. I cut my eyes away and turned back to Pak.
Tony was eye candy for sure, but my fellow intern was more than just good looking. Between N. Joy visitations, we laughed and joked at our desks and collaborated to get our work done. We started calling N. Joy, Nasty Nancy, behind her back and quickly learned we didn’t coin the phrase. Nearly everyone in accounting called her that, and there was a rumor that she wouldn’t be around much longer. That couldn’t happen fast enough for me.
The first three weeks of internship wound down. Pak and I weren’t so much invited as instructed to attend the annual Memorial Day weekend kickoff barbecue held on the Friday afternoon before the holiday. That worked for us because it would be at a local park and N. Joy couldn’t herd us back to our desks.
We escaped the office early and got to the park together. We participated in games, met new people, and avoided N. Joy. On the way back from the restroom, I caught sight of Tony Guiden whispering into the ear of a petite woman with long chestnut hair. I was startled and embarrassed by an unexpected wave of jealousy rolling through me. Idiot, I told myself, of course he has a wife or girlfriend, probably a couple of kids too. Find Pak. Have fun.
I found Pak with Kyle, the mouthy intern. Kyle talked me into a game of horseshoes while Pak went to shoot baskets. Our opponents were Frank Windsor and Anderson, the head of IT. Still unused to a company where the brass mixed with the worker bees, I felt awkward. Kyle wasn’t the least bit daunted and started right in on the trash talk.
“Hey Frank,” Kyle said, “Why aren’t you wearing your lucky shirt?”
“Couldn’t find it this morning,” Frank pitched his horseshoe and yelled over his shoulder. “Hey hon, do you know where my Hawaiian shirt got to?”
I blinked twice when Tony’s beautiful companion appeared at Frank’s side. “I don’t know, babe. I washed all the stuff in the hamper. It wasn’t there.” She handed Frank a bottle of Bud Light and drifted off. The next time I caught sight of her, she was sunk into a quiet corner with Tony. Tony stroked her hair with the back of his hand.
“Oh. My. God,” I said to myself, inside my head. I dashed off to tell Pak that Tony was moving in on his boss’s wife.
“What a dog!” Pak grinned. “That takes some cajones.”
I wasn’t sure if I appreciated his enthusiasm. “You seem impressed.”
“I am impressed. I wish I were more like him.”
“You mean stupid and reckless?” I teased.
“I mean exciting and romantic,” he said.
“Oh, you like drama. You’ll love my sister; she’s big into drama. My mom is too. She reads a romance novel a week.”
He looked at me with one eye shut. “Are you saying you’re not the romantic type?”
“I’m saying I’m not the dramatic type. I like to keep things simple.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.
Startled, I watched him wander off to shoot more baskets and forgot about Tony Guiden and pretty much everything else.
The calendar turned to June, and the company events continued to give us a respite from N. Joy’s little put-downs and sneers. It helped that my fellow intern was funny in a goofy, Muppet-kind of way. And everything about him was so warm. From his dark eyes to his tanned skin to his smile and his laughter that made me wish the day didn’t have to end—unless N. Joy was around.
In mid-June, N. Joy volunteered us to hand out the swag bags at the start of the annual golf tournament. During the tournament, we stationed ourselves at a table outside the clubhouse doors to hand out water and snacks. I mean we were happy to do it, but N. Joy made a big point of telling us to be there early and not to goof off and blah, blah, blah.
The morning was hot, humid, and overcast. Pak and I filled the quiet time talking about his family in Jacksonville, where he’d attended the University of North Florida. I filled him in on my time at Florida State, my mom and sister, and promised he’d get to meet them before the end of the summer. Thunder interrupted our conversation.
We studied the towering clouds.
“They’re going to blow the horn soon,” Pak warned.
“Blow what horn?” I asked.
“The alarm telling the golfers to come in because there’s lightning around.”
“I didn’t know they did that,” I said. I was blissfully unaware of all things golf. “It looks like some of them are coming in early anyway.” Four carts paraded by us.
“I don’t blame them,” Pak said. “It’s hot as hell out here. They’re probably ready for lunch and air conditioning.”
Frank and Tony were in the next group of four carts. The pair waved to us as they zipped by. After parking, they strode toward the clubhouse, Frank swinging a golf club at his side.
A light rain damped us, and I heard thunder, but it was far off. I was checking out how good the company polo shirt looked stretched across Tony’s chest when the world exploded with a bang and a crash and a flash of light. I buried my face in Pak’s shoulder, squeezing his slender arm. When I dared look, a man lay crumpled on the ground not ten feet from me.
A few seconds of silence were followed by shouts of “Frank!” from every direction. Tony knelt by his friend while Maggie punched nine-one-one into her cell. Pak and I grasped each other in the rain, watching a club employee work to resuscitate Frank.
The crowd backed off when paramedics arrived. Tony was the last to step away. His dark eyes caught mine, and he smiled, perhaps to let me know that Frank was okay. I choked on a giggle. Hysterical, I guess.
Frank wasn’t okay. Frank was DOA. The entire staff, almost two hundred of us, gathered in the lunchroom for a moment of silence the following Monday. Even N. Joy toned down the snarky-bitch act and said, “Please” when she asked me to take a memo to Tony. Startled by the unexpected burst of civility, it took me a moment to realize I’d get to visit the guy I considered my summer crush.
I tapped on the frame of Tony’s open door before stepping in.
“Come on in. What have you got for me?”
“Memo,” I mumbled.
He accepted the memo with a smirk. “What has Ms. Nielson got on her mind today that couldn’t go in an email?”
I kept my gaze fixed on Tony’s desk while he read. A Thor action figure rested atop a scrap of bright fabric. I studied the circle of cloth, puzzled. Where had I seen that pattern before?
Tony huffed. “Please let Ms. Nielson know that I’ll get right on this.” He tossed the memo into the recycling bin under his desk then turned to me as I scrutinized his new toy.
“Do you like Thor?” he asked, standing the plastic figurine upright.
“Sure, everybody likes Thor, because he’s strong, and he’s funny too. He’s not my favorite, though.” I considered for a moment. “Loki’s my favorite.”
Tony leaned toward me and whispered like he was sharing a big secret. “Mine too.”
I managed to suppress the giggle until I got out of his office.
After a couple of weeks, the somber mood in the office let up, and N. Joy returned to her waspish self. As June wore on, I found myself eager for the conclusion of the internship that I’d been so proud to land. Once the period of mourning was over, N. Joy doubled up on the nasty. She gave us no counseling, no mentoring, no insight into the company, or the profession. I felt cheated and actually got up the nerve to say so one day.
In an email, N. Joy returned a report summarizing outstanding accounts payable that I’d prepared. The body of the email said, “This is all wrong.” That’s it.
Saliva filled my mouth like I was about to throw up. As usual, there had been no instructions, just a vague demand for a summary of “what’s still out there.”
I began a long, half-apologetic, half-angry email explaining that I’d done the best I could with the information provided, and could she please tell me what the hell she wanted. The longer I typed, the angrier I got. There was no way I could say what I wanted to say in an email that would live forever on the company server.
Assuming I was about to get fired, I shoved my chair back and marched to N. Joy’s office.
I didn’t knock, just started right in. “Hi, Nancy. I got your email about the outstanding accounts receivable summary. Could you be more specific about what you’re looking for, please?”
My voice trembled, and my cheeks were warm. I couldn’t hide my frustration with the woman’s lack of support and hateful attitude. Not that day.
N. Joy returned my anger in kind. With a haughty sneer, she said, “What I’m looking for is a professionally prepared report, not a spreadsheet thrown together in an hour by a kid.”
I geared myself up to end my career at Knox Engineering by telling N. Joy where to stuff her report when a familiar voice said, “Then perhaps you should prepare the report yourself.”
Nancy’s eyes shot past me to her office door. I didn’t turn to look at Tony. I didn’t want him to see how much I’d lost control.
“I wasn’t talking to you, Tony. But, you know what, this is your fault. It was your idea to dump two interns on me.”
“It was,” he said with amused sincerity. “Your team is perpetually behind. I figured you could use the help.”
“Help? You call what those two are doing help? I have to babysit them. I have to review everything they do.”
“What an incredible opportunity for you to custom-build your staff to your exact requirements,” Tony said with enthusiasm.
N. Joy heaved an exhausted sigh. “How does it help me if I have to do their work for them?”
“Emi and Pak ranked very high among the applicants,” Tony said. “I’m sure if you provide adequate instructions, there’s nothing they can’t do without too much hand-holding. Emi, what were your instructions on his project?”
The angry flush had left my cheeks, and the murderous glint in my eyes had faded. I felt it safe to turn and face the acting controller. “Ah, to, ah prepare a report on the outstanding accounts receivable.”
“An aging report?”
“I, ah, wasn’t sure. That’s all she asked for.”
“I see the problem, Nancy. You want a mind-reader in addition to an accounting student. I’ll remember that for next year. Come along, Emi. Though I don’t read minds myself, I think I know what Ms. Nielson needs. I’ll show you what to do.”
Not daring to look back, I followed Tony to my workstation. He insisted on including Pak in the lesson. Twenty minutes later, I emailed the new report to N. Joy without comment.
Pak and I enjoyed that brief session with Tony. There were other good days and lots of events to engage and entertain the interns. The big party, the one the interns looked forward to the most, was the interns-only happy hour set for the last Friday in June. Held poolside at one of the big downtown hotels, there would be a band, contests, and door prizes. Pak offered to drive so I could party.
It was a work thing, but I caught myself thinking of it as a first date. That morning, I packed my off-the-shoulder dress my mom called flirty. The sapphire blue brought life to my fair, freckled complexion. The skirt was fitted at the waist then skimmed over my curves hiding the lumpy bits.
As five o’clock approached, I dashed to the ladies’ room to change vibrating with impatient anticipation I couldn’t explain. It’s not like I’d never been out with a guy before. There’d been better-looking guys, smarter guys, but not funnier guys. Not guys with warm dark eyes that laughed when he laughed.
I took a few extra minutes with my hair and added lip gloss to brighten my face. When I returned to my workstation, my excitement skidded to a gut-wrenching halt.
N. Joy loomed over Pak shaking a fistful of spreadsheets at him. “There are mistakes in two formulas. Two! You’ve still got six weeks left. I can fire you, you know.” She tossed the crumpled sheets at Pak. “How’s that going to look on your résumé?”
She turned and caught me in her glare. I thought she was going to start in on me, but she stomped back to her office.
Pak never raised his stare from the pile of wrinkled paper on his desk. A damp sheen coated his dusky complexion, and his fists sat balled in his lap.
Rage and a sad feeling like pity built in me. “Look, I’ll do this,” I said. You go on to the happy hour.”
Pak’s jaw quivered. “Are you sure, Emi? That would be great. I swear, if I don’t get out of here right now, I’ll strangle that bitch.”
“That’s all the more reason to let me do this. You’re upset; you’ll screw it up again. Go, get out there. Have one for me.”
“Thanks. I owe you big.” He snatched his backpack from under his desk, started to leave but stopped. He placed a damp hand on my arm. The tension left his jaw, and he kissed me on the cheek. Our eyes met, and something passed between us; something intimate and peaceful.
Pak must have felt it too because he struggled to speak, but I held up a hand. “Go on, shoo. I’ve got this.”
The office cleared during the three hours I worked on Pak’s reports. Chants of “have a good weekend” reminded me of the party I was missing. I seethed at N. Joy. She was ruining everything. I loved the company, loved that people were on a first-name basis, played games at lunch, and had toys on their desks. I wanted to fit in, be part of it. I didn’t want all this anger and anxiety eating my insides.
By the time I finished Pak’s work, it was me and maybe a half dozen others left on the third floor. The office dimmed as lights shut off, and the long summer twilight faded into night. Soon I was alone. The unaccustomed silence unnerved me, but I refused to rush the job. Pak really had messed up his assignment. There were errors everywhere. He wasn’t stupid. His mind, I decided, must have been on something, or someone, else.
I finished the reports, checked them twice and a third time. Tired and tense, I walked the stack of spreadsheets to N. Joy’s office, wondering if I might catch the end of the party. When I reached the darkened office, I paused. By the light filtering in from the hallway, I made out a red handbag on the chair, a brush and lipstick on the desk. Shit, the bitch was still around. She’d be pissed if she knew I did Pak’s work. My pulse quickened. With a flick of my wrist, I tossed the reports on the corner of her desk and then turned to get out—fast.
My feet stopped at the door so abruptly I thought I’d tripped. I looked left and right, up and down the empty corridor. Deafened by the blood pounding in my ears, I stepped back into the office, grabbed the brush from N. Joy’s desk, and shot down the hall.
My thoughts bobbed in a fuzzy soup of fear, frustration, fatigue, and the lingering giddy anticipation of the intern party I’d missed. Not remembering how I got there, I tapped on Tony’s door frame. He raised his head, and I caught those incredible, fathomless eyes. The pressure in my head eased, and my breathing returned to normal. I extended the brush and suggested, “I’m thinking Poison Ivy, the one from the Batman movie.”
I expected laughter or puzzlement but got neither. Tony took the brush from me and plucked at the red-gold strands caught in its bristles. Exhausted, I left him to it and went home.
Pak spent the first hour on Monday morning filling me in on the party, keeping me laughing at his stories. I didn’t notice how much time had passed until Shellie from the mailroom stopped by my desk.
“I’ve got a pile of stuff for N. Joy, but her door’s been closed all morning. Could one of you make sure she gets it?”
“Sure, I’ll take it to her myself,” I said. I reached for the thick stack of envelopes.
Pak slid his eyes sideways to me and said, “Are you sure you want to do that?”
I strode off, spine erect with a confidence I didn’t feel. I was curious about what N. Joy was doing behind closed doors. I suspected she was dozing off a hangover and would be incensed at the interruption. As a matter of fact, I looked forward to pissing her off. Seeing Pak cheerful and relaxed lifted my mood beyond N. Joy’s petty nastiness.
I tapped on the door.
That’s my girl.
I opened the door, took one long step inside, lay the mail on the edge of her desk, and backed out.
Focused on frowning into a mirror and scratching at an angry purple blotch on her cheek, she didn’t look at me when she said, “Close the door on your way out.”