Libby blames her failure to be a “collaborative team player” on the torture of group work in elementary school. In fourth grade, when they were studying democracy, each six-person group had to elect a president of their table. A jar of colored pencils sat in the center of each table. If you wanted to declare candidacy, you took a blue pencil and held it in your left hand.
“You’re too bossy,” said Abigail Jensen. “Besides, that pencil is teal.”
Libby thinks of this incident often, when people talk about election fraud and obstructive polling practices. What bullshit! But no one defended her. Clancy got elected table leader because he was a boy, though Delilah Lattimer could have been—everyone loved her, with her pale, frosty eyelashes. But Delilah lowered her eyes, smiled demurely, and refused to take a pencil. Really, that was why everyone loved Delilah, because she wanted nothing. The ballots cast five votes for Clancy, one for Abigail, who clearly voted for herself. Appointed table secretary, Libby took all the notes, setting the precedent that would make her resent group work forevermore—the endless labor, the elusive reward.
Abigail Jensens mutate into co-workers, just as focused on derailing Libby. In the conference room, Sara Goldman presents “their” findings to the CFO, using first-person plural: “We discovered this.” When Ted Kapronsky compliments her, Sara blushes and demurely drops her gaze, just like Delilah used to. (Really, Sara is an amalgamation of Abigail Jensen and Delilah Lattimer, the return of the repressed. Sara has the cunning of Abigail, but the white-blond prettiness of Delilah, as if someone rolled Sara in powdery snow).
“Actually, I was the one who figured that out,” says Libby, goaded by Sara’s downcast eyes. They activate all her elementary school memories of being wronged.
In the conference room, Sara glares at her, but later, when Libby is making tea, when there are no witnesses, Sara actually grabs her elbow. There are feverish spots in her snow-queen face. “You always want the credit!” she hisses.
“Why shouldn’t I?” Libby asks, baffled. “I tracked down those unclaimed deposits. I deserve credit. I’m not some Communist screenwriter who’s been blacklisted and is forced to take my name off every script I write and use some weird pseudonym.”
“What are you talking about?” says Sara, as if Libby is the idiot here.
“You need to work on being more collaborative,” says Ted, during Libby’s performance review. “You’re competent as hell, everyone knows that, but you could be more diplomatic. You have a habit of raising feathers.”
“‘Raising feathers’? Is that really an expression?” Libby says.
Ted says, “Isn’t it?”
“I think what you mean is either ‘ruffling feathers’ or ‘raising hackles.’ Like on a cat.”
“What part of a cat is hackles?” Ted asks, bewildered, and Libby laughs.
It’s as if the temperature suddenly changes in the room, as if a thermostat begins to roar.
“Any other advice?” Libby says.
Ted says, “Yeah: lose that smile, it’s distracting.”
Before she leaves the office, Libby leaves on Ted’s desk a drawing she’s done on the back of a take-out menu: a cat, three whiskers extending from each side of its triangular nose. A big arrow points to hairs on its back that stand up like grass blades. Above the arrow, Libby has written, “hackles.”
In the morning, she finds the menu on her computer keypad. Ted has drawn tiny petals at the top of each hackle. The cat is sprouting a bed of miniature daisies.
Libby’s sister Tish is selling her car on Craigslist, and can’t understand the advice Libby gives her, to ask for $1000 more than she wants. Patiently, Libby explains. “People are more satisfied with business deals when they feel like the other side is compromising. If you come down to $6,000 instead of demanding it upfront, they feel like they’re getting a better bargain.”
“But that’s stupid,” says Tish, and Libby has to concede: yes. But people are stupid, and one plans accordingly.
“What are we talking about again? I can’t follow this conversation,” says Ted. They’re in the conference room, conferencing.
“We are trying to come up with a compromise. You want to tell HR we started dating. However, I think that would make everyone look askance at me and believe I’m only getting the McMurray account because I’m sleeping with the CFO. Therefore, I propose instead of telling HR, we tell this ficus plant, and leave it at that.”
Ted shakes his head. “There is nothing in the company handbook that prohibits fraternizing, so long as you self-disclose. But if you don’t, it can lead to trouble.”
“You think we should self-disclose that we are seeing each other. I think we should self-disclose that you don’t know how to coordinate patterns or that I can’t abide tomatoes. I even hate the vine-ripened ones that people love, unless everyone is lying.”
“You’re a pain in the ass,” says Ted, but the critique is softened, if not wholly blunted, by the admiring look he then gives her ass.
“So,” says Sara Goldman, looking smug, looking so cat-like that Libby wants to take out a ballpoint pen and draw a triangle nose on Sara’s freckled snub one.
“So, a needle pulling thread?”
“So, are you and Ted Kapronsky seeing each other?”
Libby stares at Sara. She tries to will her face into a frozen mask.
“I saw you guys together in the conference room,” Sara says. Her hyper-thyroidal eyes gleam.
“I’ll be the table secretary,” Libby said, all those years ago. She finally volunteered to take this role not after Abigail Jensen pointed out her pencil was teal, but once Abigail passed her a note saying, “If you get to be president, I’ll tell Clancy you have a crush on him and that your hands smell like lamb chops.” All afternoon, Libby had taken minutes with that teal pencil, quivering jaw clenched. Not even Abigail’s failed candidacy satisfied her.
© Kim Magowan
[This piece was a runner-up for the 2018 Forge Flash Fiction Competition]