Jenna first noticed something was off on Thursday. The IT department had shot out an E-mail overnight informing everybody on level two that there was some kind of big system update being rolled out and it would disrupt the network, yadda yadda. She thought it was a little unusual to do something like that right in the middle of the work week, rather than after hours or on the weekend.
Shortly after lunch, one of the boys from IT kicked her off her machine as part of the updates, so she took the opportunity to grab some water from the break room. As she walked past Mister Grey’s office she heard agitated voices coming from inside. Curiosity got the best of her and she leaned closer to try and make out what they were saying. It wasn’t hard – they weren’t doing a very good job of keeping quiet.
“Mister Brown is coming?”one of the voices said. Jenna recognised that as Nathan, one of the younger staffers. He’d been hired in the most recent staff intake and was already making a name for himself.
“Yes,” Mister Grey replied. His tone indicated that he wasn’t pleased about the situation either. “Got word last night. He’ll be here late next week, possibly Thursday. Friday at the latest. He’s flying in to ‘check on our progress’. The fucking balls on this guy!”
“Our progress? The delays came from their end,” Nathan replied. He paused to let out a long sigh. “Can we actually get it done?”
“Maybe. Josh came in early this morning to deliver the package. He seems to think it’s possible. But fuck me, Nathan this is gonna to be tight.”
Mister Grey was not one of Jenna’s favourite people in the company. He reminded her of her ex-boyfriend’s father, both in his appearance and extremely short temper. On her first day here, she’d been on the receiving end of one of his famous tirades when she accidentally knocked his coffee out of his hands. He was right about one thing, she thought. I am pretty useless.
Jenna heard footsteps coming from around the corner and decided to move on before somebody caught her eavesdropping. She was sure she’d get an earful about all this from one of the gossips later anyway.
She was let back onto her computer shortly after. When asked what had changed, the computer guy had muttered something about “enhanced system stability”. Regrettably this hadn’t extend to her chair, which still wobbled slightly as she sat down. She had trouble focusing that afternoon, and she was pretty sure she dozed off briefly, but she settled back into her routine and the day was soon over.
On Friday, the office was a hive of activity. The senior staff members were running around like headless chickens, with the communal space connecting IT, R&D and the Admin sector she worked in transformed into a freeway. Jenna hadn’t seen so many people looking so stressed since her final University exam. It was absolute chaos. Jenna tried to avoid the crowds wherever possible.
She found herself resting her head throughout the day, zoning out at her desk and taking long breaks to the bathroom, even though she didn’t really need to. Mainly, she just wanted some quiet.
She stared into the mirror and looked at herself. She was now officially well past her mid-20s and she didn’t have to look very hard to see that in her face. After years of trying every colour under the sun, from blue to pink to jet black, she’d settled on a natural brunette shade for her hair. It wasn’t a colour she was completely happy with, but it was more professional this way. That was true for a lot of things these days – if she angled her head just right you could still see a tiny glimmer of light through her nose where the piercing used to be.
Sarah walked into the bathroom suddenly, interrupting her meditations. She quickly turned on the sink and pretended like she was there for a reason. Sarah was one of Jenna’s coworkers. One of her much better looking coworkers. Actually, she reflected, all of my coworkers are my better looking coworkers. Sarah scanned the bathroom for other people and made sure the door was shut firmly behind her before turning to Jenna.
“Hey, I heard there’s some serious shit going down soon,” Sarah opened. She looked slightly concerned, but primarily just excited to have something juicy to talk about. “Maybe even redundancies.”
Sarah was everything Jenna wasn’t. Outgoing, attractive, blonde, busty, positive, and even had wealthy parents. She couldn’t even be mad at her because she was also somehow really nice and supportive, too. What a bitch. She was a lot more dressed up than normal for work, Jenna couldn’t help but notice. There’s no way that skirt is regulation length, she thought. She was also wearing a particularly bright shade of red on her lips and high heels – the painful kind. She tried to disregard all this and focus on the topic at hand.
“I don’t think it’s that,” Jenna said. “Or at least that’s not all there is to it. There’s some bigwig from central coming down to check on some of the projects I think. I overheard Mr Grey talking about it yesterday.” Sarah pulled in closer when she said that.
“Did you hear who it was?”
“Kind of,” she said. She furrowed her brow in thought. “I’m pretty sure they said it was Mister Brown.” Jenna felt a little jolt go through her as she said that name. “Mister Brown is very important,” she continued. Sarah nodded, knowingly.
“Mister Brown deserves our respect,” Sarah added. They both sat there in silent agreement for a few moments. She’d never met the man, but that much was true. He was important and she respected him.
Sarah broke the silence.
“Oh hey, I was meant to ask you as well, were you coming out on the town tonight? I know some guys who’d love to meet you,” she said, grinning widely. It was a kind offer theoretically, but absolutely not Jenna’s scene.
“Sorry,” she answered. “You know it’s not really my kind of a thing… You remember what happened last time don’t you?”
“Oh come on, Jen, it’ll be great fun! I won’t even try to stop you leaving before midnight this time, scout’s honour,” she said, raising one hand to the side.
“I’ll come out next time,” she said, “I just really need a quiet weekend,” she deflected.
On Saturday, Jenna had decided to finish off all of her housework in a single herculean effort in the morning. She went out in the early afternoon to cross off the groceries and, ideally, she could then lock the front door and spend the rest of the weekend in a semi-vegetative state. En route to the store, she noticed Cathy, another coworker, chatting to a few people outside a boutique store. As she got closer, she realised that she actually knew all of the people there. Cathy was in an animated discussion with Sarah and Rachel, one of the new interns.
“Jenna!” Rachel shrieked. The others turned and beckoned her over. Rachel and Sarah both had substantial bags with the store logo in their hands. “Sarah was just helping me shop for some new work outfits.”
Based on the two weeks that she’d known her, Rachel was, if anything, more conservative in her dress sense than Jenna. The contents of the bag that Jenna was at that moment being shown told a different story, however. She was particularly unclear on how the garter and fishnets were going to fit into the picture. Jenna thought back to what Sarah had been wearing on Friday and frowned.
“Oh don’t be like that,” Sarah said, laughing. She didn’t seem fazed by whatever had happened last night. Perhaps she hadn’t stayed out too late? “I could help you out too. Showing a bit more skin couldn’t hurt, you know.” She raised her eyebrow seductively. “I’m sure Mister Grey wouldn’t mind. Maybe you’ll catch his eye.” She sounded deadly serious.
“Sarah, I...” she wasn’t sure what to say. That was way over the line, even for Sarah. And Mister Grey? Having tripped over her words, she showed no signs of immediate recovery.
“Oh come on Jenna,” Cathy piped up. “Pretty girls should always try to look their best.”
“Pretty girls should always try to look their best,” Jenna repeated instantly. She felt the same jolt from Friday run across her whole body. It felt right. It was completely, indisputably correct. Even so… there was something slightly odd about the whole situation.
“Look, I um, I have to go,” Jenna said all of a sudden. She was short on breath all of a sudden. She darted out of their sight and into the supermarket as quickly as she could, and hoped that nobody would follow her. To her relief, the day passed without incident.
On Sunday, Jenna kept finding herself thinking back to her coworkers. There was something strange about the way her coworkers were behaving, but what was it? Shopping for clothes wasn’t a crime. What Cathy said was just so profound – they were pretty girls, so they obviously wanted to look their best. It was a change, but that part at least made sense. Maybe it was Sarah’s comment about Mister Grey. She knew Sarah pretty well, and she hadn’t seemed like she was joking about catching his eye. The thought was repulsive. Sarah had dated older guys but not that much older. He could be her father.
So she’s into the old sleazebag, so what? She sighed to herself. She could already tell this would gnaw at the back of her mind.