The elevator doors opened. Maya Morano stepped out, nearly overwhelmed by a single thought: The world is mine.
"Morning, Ms. Morano," the receptionist said. "Congratulations on your award Friday night."
Triumph sang an aria in her soul. She wanted to pump her arm and shout, "Yes!" like an NBA player after a perfect three-pointer, but she knew better than to let loose. Reining herself in to a proper corporate humility, she gave a slight nod and said, "Thanks." There was a time and a place....
She spotted her boss chatting with another employee outside an office nearby. She paused in the reception area, pretending to need something from her briefcase. But as she opened it, she mishandled the case.
It fell with a thud. Files scattered everywhere. Her ploy to get attention had succeeded-far beyond her wildest dreams.
"Why am I such a klutz?" she said, a little louder than necessary. She didn't have to fake her reaction. The embarrassment that turned her cheeks pink was all too real.
"Let me help," the receptionist said.
"Thanks," she said out loud, but inside she was thinking, No! Not you ...
Maya sensed her boss approaching. She looked up, offering him the smile that had been so instrumental in earning Friday's award. "Good morning, sir. If you don't mind, I thought I'd work from here this morning." She waved her arms above the mess on the floor. "I do like to spread out."
"I've heard of employees wanting a bigger office, but this-" he knelt beside her to help-"is taking that urge to new heights." He winked. "I think we can do better than this."
Game. Set. Match.
She gathered her things with the help of her boss and the receptionist, then saw they had an audience. Other workers had noticed. She could see what they were thinking by the looks in their eyes.
Being on the receiving end of envy was very satisfying.
* * *
Maya leaned the Top Seller award plaque against the wall of her cubicle. She hoped it was a temporary measure. An award like this should be hung on the wall of a proper office, not tucked away in an anonymous, gray-paneled cubicle, leaning.
Soon. The boss indicated you deserved a real office. Be patient.
She set her briefcase under the desk and shoved it out of the way with a kick of her foot, nearly toppling the trash can. She sighed. She really was a klutz. But she was working on it, getting better. Every day she got closer to being the person she wanted to be. With a quarter turn of her chair, she focused her attention on her computer screen. With a touch of her cursor, it came to life. Today's schedule glowed multicolored: green tabs for interoffice meetings, orange tabs for prospective client meetings, blue tabs for personal appointments, and red tabs for any HTDs-her personal shorthand for Hate To Dos.
She needed that code, her own warning system, stern orders to herself that on this day, at this particular time, she had to do something she disliked. The content of HTDs varied but usually involved babying some existing clients who needed reassurance that the office equipment they'd ordered from her was right for them and that Maya had given them the best price. She hated this part of her job. She was lousy at pasting on a smile, pretending to care. "Service after the sale" may have made a grand motto for the company, but in reality it was tedious work that Maya believed took time and energy away from getting that next big sale.
A coworker peered over the cubicle. "Hey, Maya. I would say congrats on the award, but both you and I know ..."
"Leave me alone, Brian."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Another coworker approached. "Congratulations, Maya. Way to go on the award."
Brian shook his head and walked away.
"What's with him?" Susan asked.
Maya shrugged. "I don't know. Sour grapes, maybe?" Then she put a hand on the award, hoping Susan would bite.
She did. "Is that it? Let me see."
Maya held it close to her face like a game show cutie showing off a prize. She did not let Susan touch it. "Work hard, and you too can get one of these someday," she teased.
"Fat chance," Susan said. "I turned forty today. You youngsters have too much spring in your step for me to catch up."
Young? Hardly. At thirty-three, Maya felt the years rushing by.
A delivery person appeared, carrying a bunch of balloons. "I'm looking for Susan Bates?"
At the sound of her name, Susan looked up. "Hey, that's me." She took the balloons. "Thanks."
Maya examined the silvery globes bobbing above Susan's head. They were kind of hokey, but nice, in a weird sort of way. "Who're they from? Look at the card," Maya said.
"Doesn't seem to be one," Susan replied.
"Well, enjoy the gift from your secret admirer. Meanwhile, we'd better get back to work."
"Work. On my birthday." Susan looked at the balloons wistfully, then sighed. "I don't know where you come up with your clients, Maya, but if you have any extra, send a few my way, all right?"
Not in this lifetime.
Susan headed back to her work space. A few seconds later Maya overheard their boss say, "Happy birthday, Susan."
"Thank you, sir. People are being so nice. Joyce brought a cake. It's in the break room. Make sure you get a piece."
"I'll do that."
During the exchange, Maya set the award aside, flipped open a file, fanned a few papers out on the work surface, and picked up a pen. She leaned forward over the work, jotted some random numbers on the margins of a page, then moved her calculator close, adding something to anything as she waited.
"Busy at work, I see," her boss said, on cue.
She pushed her chair back and tossed the pen on the desk. "Always." She pointed at her daily schedule glowing on the monitor. "I'm clearing up the backlog so that I can visit a client who has some issues about some damage on his last order. I know he should just call claims to handle it, but-"
"But you want to give him personal service."
Not really. If he hadn't insisted on the meeting I wouldn't be going. But since I'm going, he's going to be eating out of my hand before I'm through with him.
"That's commendable, Maya. That's the way we do things here at Efficient."
"I aim to please." You. I aim to please you.
"It's not just about sales. I wish more salespeople realized that."
"Carry on." He walked away.
Maya looked at her award. Her boss was wrong. It was all about sales.
Her future depended on sales.
* * *
If I never have to hire another teenager ...
Velvet Cotton leaned back in her chair, rubbed her eyes, then stretched until her spine popped. She'd already interviewed five students, and none of them were qualified. Considering the positions she was trying to fill were concessions workers, it was a pitiful situation. Although she hadn't given the five contenders math tests, she doubted any of them could count out change without having an idiot machine tell them how much to give back. And even then she wouldn't bet on them managing it well.
No. That was mean. There were plenty of good kids out there. Maybe if she was a better boss, a more patient person, she might be able to get more out of them. After all, any college kid who could program a computer, work a cell phone, or record a TV show had more talent than she did. Teaching them how to say, "May I help you?" with a smile and inspiring them to show up for work in the first place were doable goals-if she kept her attitude in check.
Velvet needed three more workers for Saturday's football game. But so far ...
The task threatened to overwhelm her. She barely had the energy to get up to fetch the next applicant, so she broke her own internal code for professional courtesy and yelled, "Next!"
An employer's worst nightmare appeared in the opened door, a twentysomething with a hoop piercing in her nose, a tattoo of a rose on her forearm, and a swath of gray hair sweeping around her face.
"Hey," the applicant said from the doorway.
Brilliant. "Have a seat."
To her credit the girl was dressed in something besides jeans. She wore a long gathered skirt with contrasting bands of patterned fabric, Birkenstocks, and a voile peasant blouse. Not that far from Velvet's style of choice: anything vintage, anything that screamed "bohemian."
The girl handed over her application, and Velvet took a quick look to see if there were any obvious red flags beyond the body piercing with-she glanced at the first name-Lianne. Before she could examine the résumé in detail, the girl spoke up.
"I don't know why I'm applying for this job. I hate football. In fact, I hate all sports. Why waste all that energy chasing a ball around a field when you could be doing something productive?"
It was an odd way to start an interview, and a bizarre way to get a job-although Velvet shared the girl's views, to a degree. But it certainly got her attention. "If that's your attitude, then why are you here?"
Lianne crossed her legs. "Karma, I guess. I was looking through the Daily Nebraskan and saw an ad for the job."
That didn't explain-
"At first I read it wrong. It said 'concessions worker' and I thought it had something to do with the law-you know, maybe arbitration or mediation. Something interesting."
Velvet laughed. "Trust me, this job can be interesting. Dealing with hungry customers often utilizes mediation of the most serious sort. But I'm still not sure why you're here."
"I didn't realize I'd read it wrong until I saw that this office was attached to the stadium. And then I figured a job's a job, and I need the money, so ..." She shrugged. "Here I am."
Teaching this one to smile while helping a customer might stretch even Velvet's capabilities, but she was desperate. She looked again at the girl's application. Lianne ... Lianne Skala.
"It's Czech. Means 'strong as a rock.'" She shrugged again. "Whatever."
It may have been Czech, but Velvet was more interested in the fact that it was unusual. A rare name. One Velvet hadn't heard in over twenty years.
She checked Lianne's address. It was an apartment a few miles south of campus. But where was she from? In a college town most of the kids were from somewhere else. "Are you a student?"
"Sociology. Sophomore, though I'm old enough to be graduated."
"You're from ...?"
"Here. Born here. Live here. Hopefully won't die here."
Velvet's heart skipped as an assortment of details converged. No, it couldn't be.
The girl spoke. "You're shaking your head. So does that mean I crashed and burned? Or do I get the job? Whatever."
The job was the furthest thing from Velvet's mind.
Lianne leaned forward, resting her hands on the edge of Velvet's desk. "I know I've probably blown it, saying all the wrong things. I always do. But you need to know I am a hard worker. I show up and I do what needs to be done, which is more than most morons I've worked with can say." She pushed away from the desk. "No offense, but selling junk food is a no-brainer. I can handle the job. I promise."
Velvet's mind swam. She had one more fact to check. She needed to find out Lianne's birthday, yet age was not something she could ask about; that whole antidiscrimination thing regarding race, age, creed, etc.
She had an idea. "May I have your driver's license, please?"
"It's procedure. We make a copy when people apply."
Lianne looked skeptical but dug a license from her floppy crocheted bag.
Velvet restrained herself from looking at it. She would wait until the girl was gone. She made a copy and returned it. "Well, then. I'll get back to you about the position."
Lianne rose. "But you need someone for Saturday, right? That's what your ad said. Saturday is just five days away."
Velvet got her point. "I'll call by tomorrow."
As soon as Lianne left, Velvet drew the copy of the license front and center. She braced herself, not sure whether she wanted the date to match or not. Her uncertainty was surprising. It had been twenty-three years.
She looked down. Twenty-three years, two months, and twelve days.
Her hands covered her mouth. "No."
* * *
Lianne had been the last applicant. Objectively, the girl had as little or as much going for her as the other applicants. As the girl had said, selling junk food wasn't brain surgery. It wasn't a question of capability. Velvet could choose the three she needed from the applicants and get by.
The question was, should she choose this particular girl?
A hometown girl.
A girl with a unique streak of gray hair framing her face.
Not so unique.
Velvet crossed her office to a grouping of photos on the wall. Faces looked back at her: football players from her past, coaches, administrators. There, in a photo on the right-hand edge, was the one she was looking for. She removed it from its nail and stared.
At herself. Twenty years younger, smiling at the camera, a sweep of gray hair framing her face.
She pulled the photo to her chest and endured a wave of panic rushing up her spine. To have seen that same streak of hair in this girl-proof that, in spite of decisions made back then and the circumstances created since, they were cut from the same cloth.
Lianne had mentioned karma had brought her here. Today. To apply for the job. Velvet didn't believe in karma any more than she believed in divine intervention, or signs, or predestination, or fate, or ... or much of anything. Life just was. Things just happened.
Yet the fact remained: Lianne had walked into Velvet's office. No one else's office. Velvet's office.
It hardly seemed a coincidence.
Lianne, born on the same day as the child Velvet had given up for adoption, as the daughter she'd not seen since the day they'd both left the hospital. Lianne, looking enough like her younger self to be her double. No, that wasn't coincidence.
Punishment. That's what it was. Further punishment for her own ignorant, rash stupidity.
More than twenty years ago, Velvet had messed up her life. And because of that, she knew she deserved every trial, every slice of suffering, every price-no matter how steep and unpayable-that she'd endured ever since.
Yet rather than run from it, Velvet did what she always did. She embraced it.
She returned to her desk, found Lianne's application, and dialed the phone.
"You got the job," she told the girl and ended the call with the details of where and when to show up for the first day of work.
Now she just had to figure out what came next in this dance of ... what had Lianne called it? ... karma.
She put her head in her hands and cried.
* * *
Peter McLean sat on the plaid couch in his apartment, his feet on the coffee table, a copy of Cross-cultural Sociology in Today's World open on his lap. Chapters one and two were assigned for Wednesday's class. He just couldn't wrap his head around them. Turning on the TV sounded much more appealing. Maybe changing his major wasn't such a good idea. Not that the textbooks for his old agribusiness major would have been any more riveting.
He felt stupid for not being able to get into any textbook that came his way. Peter wasn't a kid anymore-and this wasn't his freshman year. Shouldn't he be able to grasp big ideas, big concepts, and even big words by now? Shouldn't he find his classes interesting and inspiring? This was real life he was working toward. Shouldn't he feel more grown-up about it?
Peter looked up when he heard whistling in the exterior hall. His roommate, William, never whistled. It had to be Lianne.
Lianne never bored him like his textbooks did. Excited him, challenged him, and even scared him more than he would ever admit. But bored him? Never.
Making her usual grand entrance, she burst through the front door without knocking.
She didn't say anything, just plopped onto the couch beside him, slammed his book shut, swung her legs over his, and lay down, taking possession of the couch. And him.
"So?" Peter asked. "Did you get the negotiations job?"
She wiggled her feet, a sign she wanted him to remove her sandals. Which he did. "Actually, it wasn't that kind of concessions work. It's food concessions. For football games."
Excerpted from JOHN 3:16 by NANCY MOSER Copyright © 2008 by Tekno Books. Excerpted by permission.
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