Servant Leaders

Upcoming in these chapters:

Comedy… drama… satire… compost! Melanie and Allison are navigating a new company, interpersonal relationships, and what it means to be a Servant Leader. One woman falls in love with Procyon Lotor, another falls out.

Meanwhile Lev is still at her leadership conference, where she is learning that communication > competency. However, trouble is brewing over coffee… WILL SHE HANDLE THE HEAT???

Chapters are organized by perspective below:

9. Allison: Servant Leaders, Part 1

10. Lev: Servant Leaders, Part 2

11. Melanie: Servant Leaders, Part 3

12. Allison: Servant Leaders, Part 4


12. Servant Leaders, Part 4 (Allison)

            Shaking, Allison set the banana peel down on her desk. She racked her memory as to what could be the cause of her trembling: The new job? The banana she just ate? Not having her political beliefs pandered to for the first time in her life?

            Mackenzie, her new boss, sat down at the neighboring desk. Allison turned away, not wanting to talk about the tiff she and one of her new coworkers just shared over the office’s lack of compost bins. Mackenzie ignored her mental pleas. “I saw you and Raj had a disagreement. Is everything okay?”

            “Everything is not okay!” Allison snapped, a bit more sharply than she intended. “He wanted me to throw my banana peel in… the trash.” She whispered the last word before lecturing on methane production (a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide!) and how waste diversion mitigates its release into the atmosphere. “Did you know about this?” she asked her new boss.

            “Of course,” Mackenzie said, far less guiltily than Allison expected. “We tried composting a few months ago. A bunch of us thought it was gross, and it just didn’t take off from there.”

            Her casual attitude shocked the former sorority sister. “We don’t have a Planet B!” Allison said, heat rising to ears so enflamed they could lift her up to the ceiling fan, where she would pop like a bubble and scatter in a million billion pieces across the room.

            “The company is committed to minimizing its ecological impact-“

            “So why don’t you compost?” Allison demanded. “Because it’s a tiny bit uncomfortable to see the garbage that you yourself produce?” When Mackenzie didn’t respond, Allison launched into her tirade. She briefly touched upon the California mega-drought to general political disillusionment to her sorority’s slogan: It’s not the thing, but the symbolism behind the thing. Mackenzie’s eyes, while at first glittering with compassion, dulled as her patience drained. When Allison’s turned to her senior thesis concerning the intersectionality of contraception access and waste diversion, Mackenzie interrupted her: “Isn’t it time for your sorority brunch?”

            This caught Allison by surprise. “Not for another half hour,” she said.

            “You better head out then,” she said drily. “Ignominy won’t hold back greatness on my watch!” And with a flick of hair, Mackenzie turned back to her computer and down the pedestal that Allison had raised for her just an hour before.

            Allison made sure to grab the banana peel as she stepped out. Its sticky juicy warmed in her hands as she navigated around espresso machines, houseplants, and the conflict between sorority values and material realities. It’s not the thing, but the symbolism behind the thing. With that in mind, did she really want to make waves where she was a nobody, especially over a compost bin? She was exposed and vulnerable in the office’s open plan where the eyes and masks of her future coworkers, copy and paste, lined her path to the elevator. They were the last thing she saw before the elevator’s doors sliced away her line of vision.

            The doors opened again, not to the exit, but to an empty cafeteria. She decided to step off there to clear her mind.

            Just an hour ago, she had thought that the difference between her old company and this one was as stark as the walk from the parking lot to the zoo. While the parent company was bright and alive, the old wing where she interned at was stark, concrete, and dead.

            She sat down at the table and listened to the kitchen workers prepare what was sure to be a delicious lunch. Before, the difference put this company in a positive light, but now she was not so sure: The parking lot was bleak, but it was that way because you were there to leave. The zoo, on the other hand… well, sometimes you might find yourself there for the rest of your furry life, and if that happened, the powers would entertain and feed you somehow. Was that adulthood, to accept when it was your time to be one of the exhibits? Did she really want to go back to the proverbial parking lot, into her hypothetical car and go… go where?

            If she was meant to grow up in Procyon Lotor’s lap, forgetting about the compost bin would be the first step in that process. She gagged at the thought of degrading herself for the sake of a company named after a raccoon–a self-absorbed creature, one that didn’t care about the damage it inflicted on others as it rummaged through garbage. It struck her then that she had not seen Melanie since the snack room. Though Allison had no idea where she was, she  dismissed her from her mind: that woman was always slinking off somewhere, and Allison had more important things to think about right now, like the office’s waste diversion.

            Allison’s eyes followed a cleaner around the cafeteria as she thought of her past volunteer work with her sisters. She had come full circle, from compost bins to have-beens: her life had morphed into a landscape of empty chairs and empty tables with none of her friends seated behind them. In between home-cooked manicures, their soft hands had once unclogged and decluttered what felt like the entire West Coast, but eventually, the beaches and parks they so fastidiously cleaned got covered again in needles and fast-food wrappings. Wouldn’t her compost efforts here meet the same fate? Surely a few pounds of garbage weren’t worth the sacrifice of a job opportunity.

            Allison thought of where she had come from and what she could return to if she pushed too hard with Mackenzie: a year of abuse under another boss like Lev. Their only happy moment together was when Allison had tried to murder her under the influence of a gas leak. The simple truth was that she no longer wanted to be at anyone’s mercy. She had been an intern for over a year, and she was sick of begging for benefits and basic dignity. For that reason, she needed to be completely autonomous, financially and emotionally, and she could have that—already had that, if she just kept her nose down and minded her own business.

            But, on the other hand, could she really say she was autonomous if her independence came from someone else’s checkbook? It didn’t matter, she realized, watching the cleaner come back from around the hall—she and her future coworkers and sisters were all interconnected: someone had to make the money to give the money. It was all one ecosystem: Even if she quit her job to pick trash alone on the beach until the sun set behind the waves, her donors would be financiers and politicians, and their income would be her income, their sins hers by extension. Since she couldn’t be truly autonomous, she had to let some things slide. She had to fit in–today, it would start with the compost.

            All the sorority’s past activism had proved to be as ephemeral as the California poppies in the cafeteria’s windowsill. She got up to feel their stalks and petals, a perfect dialectic of sturdiness and fragility. They were so beautiful now, but come winter, they would curl up, dry and tangled like the legs of a spider dead in the windowsill.

            Allison’s phone alarm went off, and with a jolt, she realized she needed to leave. She tossed her banana peel on the way out.


April previews

Upcoming in this chapter:

Comedy… drama… satire… compost! In these upcoming chapters, our three main characters will navigate the new company, interpersonal relationships, and what it means to be a Servant Leader. One woman falls in love with the new parent company, Procyon Lotor. Another falls out of love! Who will it be?

Meanwhile Lev is still at her leadership conference, where she is learning that communication > competency. However, trouble is brewing over coffee… WILL SHE HANDLE THE HEAT???

To be published soon! Hopefully this or next week (sorry, I suck).


Due to a totally unforeseen and unpreventable gas leak at the old wing (one that had absolutely nothing to do with negligence on the part of the parent company) our three boss babes have been promoted to join the customer service team at Procyon Lotor, a company that seeks to guide remote workers into representing their company ideals from their living rooms. Lev has been sent to a conference to learn servant leadership, leaving Allison, former intern, and Melanie, former office manager, to represent their team. Who will emerge as the ultimate servant leader? Will it be you???

TitleLinkLong link
1. The Reckoningbit.ly/2YqYM96Do you know any #bridezilla? In this chapter, our favorite #girlboss goes head-to-head with one in her office! bit.ly/3sIFZ68
2. Bridezillabit.ly/3sIFZ68Have a #petty boss who takes offense to everything? In this chapter, we enter the mind of a brilliant #girlboss as she navigates employee interactions… with grace of course! bit.ly/2YqYM96
3. Master Sun, part 1bit.ly/3FKowh9Have you ever experienced a ridiculous job #interview? Do you ever wonder what goes beyond the scenes with companies that are out of touch? Enter the mind of a #girlboss as she tests candidates for a part-time position with no benefits! #corporatecringe bit.ly/2WLleJx
4. Master Sun, part 2bit.ly/2WLleJx 
Job posting When was the last time you had a #psychedelic experience? When was the last time you experienced that… with your boss? bit.ly/3muW6zh
5. Monday, part 1bit.ly/3muW6zh 
6. Monday, part 2bit.ly/3zbecfU#bosses of the world! #girlboss.. #bossbabe… how far would you go to save your team? bit.ly/3DOrtfI
7. Bloated, part 1 | Princess Mushroombit.ly/3DOrtfI 
8. Bloated, part 2 | Princess Mushroombit.ly/31zoudtHow does our #girlboss #bossbabe embrace the lessons of #suntzu…. Because of COURSE #theartofwar was written for modern-day, corporate executives! bit.ly/3FKowh9 #satire
9. Servant Leaders, part 1bit.ly/3eG5OeK 
10. Servant Leaders, Part 2 (Lev) | Princess Mushroombit.ly/3rQBRyP 
11. Servant Leaders, Part 3 (Melanie)bit.ly/3JHKHq7https://atomic-temporary-195167881.wpcomstaging.com/2022/02/18/11-servant-leaders-part-3-melanie/

11. Servant Leaders, Part 3 (Melanie)

           Melanie waddled between Allison and Mackenzie as they chatted in that dignified tone that she could never muster. The conversation flew above her like tennis balls exchanged from one woman to another. She could try to join by bouncing up and down and further humiliating herself, but what was the point? This was just another episode in the Tyranny of Beautiful People, where Melanie wasn’t ever the main character.

           “Oh, this amazing office!” Allison sang. “Oh, my amazing sorority, and the scrumptious meal we shall partake in shortly!” Melanie winced at every detail the young woman provided: Allison was excited now, but wisdom would catch up with age. The former intern admired loudly the atmosphere, open layout, and even the plants that lined the halls they walked down. Melanie too was once young; yesterday’s jungles were today’s pots to water, precursors to the twigs that gasped their final breaths in her palms no matter what remedies she tried.

           The tech room they entered didn’t delight her either, even when it drew a gasp from her younger compatriot. Mackenzie stacked laptops and devices in their arms as if they were being done a favor. Melanie was no idiot: bedazzled chains still tied you to the wall. She drummed up the same expression she used previously when the ex-admin had rolled her r’s about her upcoming party and reception dinner. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I could not be more pleased, pleased, pleased.

           Allison chattered about their previous boss as they were introduced to Raj, another coworker. Allison introduced herself to the humble cowboy, bouncing about like the Energizer Bunny. Melanie shook his cool hand.

           “I’ll grab our health consultant,” Mackenzie said. “Raj can show you around the kitchenette.”

           Melanie refused to enjoy the snack room, even if it was her favorite place so far. Rows of snacks glistened at her in wrappers that promised relief in varied flavors: Pocky, Cheeto, Ho-ho. When Raj opened the refrigerator, a sparkle ran down the steel door like a droplet of rain. Inside, cheeses and sandwiches beamed at them along with fruit and boiled eggs.

           “How much do snacks cost?” Melanie asked.

           Raj said, “The company pays. Help yourself.”

           “Amazing!” Allison said and reached for a banana.

           A debate raged within Melanie: to eat a Ho-ho or no? Its basket was full compared to the Cliff bars. This told her all that she needed to know about this crowd’s opinion on all things Hostess and of those who partook. Raj himself opened a small Turkey Jerky and asked Allison about her aspirations.

           “I’d love to tell you!” Allison began, hiding her banana cud with the slim fingers she held in front of her mouth. The ex-sorority sister took in a deep breath before launching into her favorite topic—herself.

           Melanie noticed how Raj didn’t ask her about her dreams, despite not having a full mouth. That’s okay–no one believes that I feel as hard as they do. If only her power of invisibility bled into other parts of her life. People always managed to find her when something went wrong, which was often. This was why her mother brought her into the world—to be the bulletin board for everyone’s pins and needles.

           Allison paused to breathe. “Where is the compost bin?” she asked.

           “What compost?” Raj asked.

           Allison flung the shelves open in search of a proper burial plot for her peel. “Oh–that. Enough people complained about the smell that we gave up.”

           “Gave up?” Allison snarled, nostrils flaring. “On the planet?”

           “Well, I was squicked out myself-”

           “Squicked out? By a natural process?” Allison said. And just like that, the company loyalty drained from her eyes. Oh, how the mighty crumble. Melanie smiled. Sweet child of mine!

           “And what about the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance?’” Allison demanded, her voice rising. “It’s San Francisco law. I can pull it up, right now, on my phone.”

           “I don’t know about any law,” Raj said. “But I do know that compost stinks-“

           “Not with proper ventilation!” Allison shot back.

           At least, this time, the cast of the show took out their frustrations on each other. Unfortunately, Mackenzie returned before Melanie could get popcorn for this episode’s viewing.

           Next to her stood a ginger woman. “This is Nurse Jackie,” she said. “She’s our health coordinator. She’ll be checking your vaccine records.” Melanie rubbed her unpricked shoulders, feeling their virginal softness perhaps for the last time.

           This was not going to end well. She would pay dearly for one moment of smug.

Next chapter… we revisit Allison, who is shaking from the experience of not having her political beliefs pandered to for the first time in her life. Remember those sorority sisters she keeps talking about? We join them on their scrumptious brunch to see what THEY have to say about Procyon Lotor not adhering to San Francisco’s composting ordinance!


10. Servant Leaders, Part 2 (Lev)

            Motivational banners hang from the walls of the 2022 Servant Leaders Conference for Mid-Level Executives like laminated tapestries. Enthusiasm wraps us in an embrace as taut as a trampoline. We well-dressed attendees could bounce off of its surface to ascend through the ceiling into the wisdom of the skies above. Teamwork makes the Dreamwork, one of the posters says, but what if the dream is already here? What if this is it?

            My neighbor, a blonde with the constitution of a dandelion, giggles from excitement. “If only this took place on the weekend!” he says. His hair’s tendrils float about despite the lack of breeze. I scoot away, lest one of them stroke the side of my neck.

            “Yes,” I agree and stare into his eyes: deep pools of eagerness. “If only we had a week of work to look forward to after this.”

            The speaker steps onto the stage and the audience erupts in applause. His matching pin-stripe suit vibrates with the noise. His grin, never twitching, illuminates his golden hair and golden disposition. I stand up to give him a proper ovation.

            “Welcome,” he starts, “to the 2021 Servant Leaders Conference for Mid-Level Executives, where we grow our lion’s mane.” The room boils over in applause before he continues. “I am Benjamin German Koleman from The Man Group, where I create incentives to mobilize workflows directly to clients in our agile market. Even when I was fresh out of my undergrad degree, I knew my insights were simultaneously too global and unique to be exhausted in the fields of on-the-ground jobs. I joined what was once my father’s company to transform strategy into implementation, where I advise companies cross-industrially. Though the knowledge streams can be overwhelming at times, I thank my degree in business for giving me the confidence to bounce from firm to firm and pigeonhole them into the same funnels: inputs and outputs.”

            “A modern Theseus!” someone exclaims from the crowd.

            Phrases descend upon us like the petals of a cherry blossom drifting down the river. “This an intensive executive training program which combines proven-in-action techniques with peer interaction and insights from the labor research to help attendees to master the competencies of effective leadership—”

            “You know I emptied my savings to pay for this?” my neighbor says over the applause. His spark of dedication dulls mine in contrast—am I so undevoted to my work so as to stick my company with the $2000 bill? I glance to my right to see a blonde woman taking notes. She sticks a pink tongue past her pink lips as she scribbles intensely. Inputs and outputs, she writes. Maybe I should pull out a notebook, too?

            “There is always a need for leaders,” The host continues. My eyes fog up: condensate, don’t condescend I remind myself. “Push yourself past what you thought was possible… a living lab…communication matters more than competency, and through good communication, you can lubricate the functioning of any organization using just your mouth.”

            “And fingers!” someone calls out, imitating typing a keyboard with his hands.

            “And fingers,” Benjamin agrees. “Let’s start with our first exercise: greetings. What is a greeting? How we say hello. Write that down!” He pauses long enough for us to pull out our notebooks. “Now erase it! Wisdom dictates that a greeting is more than just saying hello; it is underlining who is the authority figure and who is not. Servant leadership doesn’t require quantitative responsibilities such as developing a product or conducting market research. That is the easy part! For those, you only need to go to four years of undergrad and specialize and then study however many years of grad school you need. You further specialize, potentially write a thesis, then gain years of experience on the ground to refine what you have learned—BAH.” The crowd laughs. “What I will teach you will take a few minutes—or a lifetime. We will be learning the difficult intangibles such as smiling to your clients and asking your coworkers how their day is going. You—come on stage.” The man points to my neighbor.

            “Me?” He asks the leader, pointing to himself. The entire crowd breaks into applause, including me. “Go! Go!” I urge him up and down the aisle.

            The host beams. “What’s your name, sir?” the host asks and points his mic at him. My neighbor mumbles and blushes furiously. “Into the mic please,” our hosts says before my neighbor squeaks out, “Jeremy.”

            “Jeremy, I would like for you to greet the audience!” Our host commands and Jeremy ekes out a hello, straining like a bottle giving up its last drops of ketchup. The woman next to me writes Man collapses in fear.

            Jeremy turns and gives a fragile little wave.

            “Jeremy, what are the characteristics of a good greeting?”

            “A good greeting,” he says, “is welcoming, warm…” The crowd cheers at Jeremy.

            “NO, NO, NO,” the host says. The crowd boos at Jeremy.

            “This is from the brochure!” Jeremy says.

            “Yes, but appreciate the difference between knowing and understanding,” The host says. The ground shakes with this revelation. “You need context—comparison! Allow me to demonstrate. May I borrow your phone?”

            Jeremy hands it over with an “of course!”

            “Greet me, Jeremy,” he says. Jeremy reaches his hand out, and the host slams the phone screen down on the stage, shattering its screen.

            The whole room falls silent. Jeremy’s face whitens.

            “Why did you… how could you…”

            “Jeremy, I need you to focus!” the host snaps. “Did I make your life better?”

            “Well no—uh…”

            “Did I communicate my authority to you in a servant manner?”

            “Not at all.”

            “Was this a good greeting?”


            “Do you understand now what a bad greeting is?”

            Jeremy smiles with the revelation. A single tear rolls down his face. “I… do. I do!”

            “Then you know now what it means to be a servant leader. You may return to your seat…to lead. But first, sweep up this glass.” An assistant runs up with a broom.

            I clap with abandon as my neighbor returns to his seat, cradling his broken phone to his breast, feeling the beating heart of its memory vibrate into his.

            “How was it?” I ask him when he sits down, a star.

            “Amazing,” he says. “Absolutely unbelievable. I can’t believe I am so privileged to spend my own money to attend this groundbreaking event!”

            “You are so lucky,” the woman next to him says. He blushes and transforms from white to pink.My thoughts turn to Melanie and Allison. How I look forward to seeing them next and sharing what I have learned!


9. Servant Leaders, part 1 (Allison)

            Allison could describe Lev, her boss, as the type of woman who could give her cat an eating disorder. Perfect makeup, work performance, credit score… but her nails were bitten to the bone. For her, enough was NEVER enough. Late at night, she screamed into her pillow for being so shackled to her standards, but if she didn’t hang so high, who would protect her from the wind and fury below?

            Allison lifted her coffee to lips as Melanie frittered on about her Nervousy of the Day. She wasn’t sure what made her want to blow her brains out more: the office manager’s anxiety or the ex-admin’s endless gloating about the wedding. But that could have been a migraine. She seemed to have one constantly since graduating from college two years ago.

            “I actually miss Lev,” Allison said, interrupting Melanie mid-tremor. Lev was at a conference for mid-level managers, learning how to become more insufferable with her kind.

            Her coworker’s mouth dropped. “Are you serious?”

            “You have to admit, she’s kind of fun to have around. Like a dog that barks at the mailman.” Allison took another sip of coffee.

            “You tried to murder her,” Melanie said after some time.

            “You’re missing the point.” Allison rolled her eyes. In the end, it’s on me. Melanie didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. You didn’t have to like someone to appreciate them, and sometimes, Lev’s brashness made her all the more appreciable. It worked Allison up, and at least the fight gave her something to do.  

            “Shall we go?” Allison said. Melanie nodded, putting on her mask as they left the café. Today was their first day at Procyon Lotor, a startup that specialized in increasing the misery of workers’ lives. The pandemic had ripped apart society at its seams, and thanks to remote working, the Levs of the world desperately searched for some way to prove they were still useful to their companies. Procyon answered that call by taking bringing the mid-level managers to the employees’ living rooms using video surveillance, keystroke recording, and screenshotting.

            But that wasn’t important now. What mattered was that she had received her first promotion and that her sorority sisters would take her out for a celebratory brunch later today. The woman of Pi Pi Iota Nu were her rock in this foggy wasteland, and Allison’s eyes brimmed with hot tears at her love for them.

            Another woman passed in front of her and Melanie. A crisp trench coat warmed her and her serious phone call, confirming Allison’s worst insecurities with the words “book deal” and “royalty negotiations.” The woman passed them by, and the recent graduate gripped her coffee cup so as to not empty its contents all over that prim outfit.

            Really, Allison wanted to empty the cup on herself and forget who she had once been in some frothy baptism. Once, she would have died for activism and infamy. Now, a job sufficed. To dream is to hurt; to give up is to not feel at all. It’s relaxation, in other words—gratitude.

            That stranger reminded her how she used to believe she was special. Now, those who succeeded in their dreams did so by accident: I am way more talented than that idiot! And if that was not the case, their success could be explained away by other intangibles: rich parents, sex appeal, an arbitrary God.

            Dreams were burdens; she thought as she stepped through the front garden of Procyon’s gated campus. They hung around your neck to remind you who you could have been, and she wished she could shake hers off into the rain-drenched succulents before she was dragged into the mud with them.

            “This campus is so nice!” Melanie said from under her umbrella. Allison grunted in response as they stepped through the corridor. The elevator door sliced into their line of sight, and Allison saw a janitor mop up the dirt their shoes had tracked in before they were carried up.

            The elevator dinged again, and the doors slid open.

            Sounds and light washed away the rain and decay from outside. Like platters at a buffet, laptops and notebooks colored the rows of desks that extended down the open plan. Plants, not suffering under Melanie’s excuses, refreshed Allison’s eyes before they rested on the couches dispersed throughout the room. The masked employees stood out the most: they grouped to chat, folded their shoulders in front of laptops; leaned on the walls by their espresso machines. The difference of here to her old job was stark as the walk from the parking lot to the zoo, and all it took was an innocent little gas leak to get here.

            An elfin woman floated to them. “Hi there,” she said and extended her hand. “Mackenzie.”

            Allison reached for it before Melanie’s pudgy hand snatched it from her and pushed Allison aside. Every muscle in Allison’s face worked in unison to prevent her from rolling her eyes in this new woman’s face. Eventually, Melanie’s eagerness subsided, and Allison was able to shake hands with a woman who she presumed to be her future boss.

            “Welcome to Procyon Lotor,” Mackenzie said. “This is your first time here, right?” When they both nodded, she said, “I’ll show you around.”

            This office was unlike any space that Allison had worked in, which made sense, as this was her first job after a prolonged internship. Meeting rooms lined the walls and surrounded rows of desks bathed in natural light. Framed photos of the raccoon logo brought color into the space that smelled of Getting Things Done.

            “These are your desks,” Mackenzie said. Sitting on each of them was a card with a star on it. Wishing you a bright, Procyon day…

            “I thought the mascot was a raccoon?” Melanie said.

            “Right,” said Mackenzie. “But the Procyon is also one of the brightest stars in the night sky, and we wanted to play on our mission of guiding employees, as you will be one of our own. Welcome, by the way, to the family.”

            She smiled at them, and Allison smiled back. When Lev used to say they were a family, Allison imagined it to be the type to beat you, but with this woman in this energetic office, she felt hope stir inside of her. Maybe life could not blow, and she could have a career here.

            Allison then wondered how Lev was doing at her leadership conference, and, for the first time, wished her well.


8. Bloated, part 2

Featured: The Art of the Deal!

           “Woah,” he says, setting down a flask on the nurse’s stand (“Seriously?” Melanie says when he takes a sip from it). “Why did they put you out here?”

           “The hospital’s punishing me for not taking the jab,” Melanie says.

           “Punishing us,” Allison says. “Are you going out?”

           “Nah, coming back in.”

           “It’s seven in the morning,” she says. “On a Tuesday.”

           Alfie straightens out his shirt and ignores her. “Team, I hate to be so forward now, but we have to go over an important issue-“

           “How Melanie needs to get vaccinated?” Allison says.

           “Our medical right to bodily autonomy?” Melanie jumps in.

           “No,” I say. “The new hire.”

           Alfie does a double-take. “The gas leak and your wing’s future.”

           “So, the new hires,” I say. I try to pull the plastic can off my head. “Any help here?” I ask the nurse. She puts down a tray of pizza before assisting me.

           “Finally, some food,” Melanie says eagerly.

           “Are you sure you want to talk about hiring now?” Alfie says. “You barely survived gas poisoning. You are all lucky a candidate for the admin position happened to be returning for an interview. Otherwise, who knows when you would have all been found.”

           “Which one?” I ask, my heart racing. “The handsome one?” Alfie replies that he is not sure whether he is the best judge of that. Everything falls into place! “All the more reason to prioritize hiring him,” I say, taking a bite of pizza. “Bleh! This is cold.”

           Alfie looks away and sighs. “What do you do at our company?” he asks Allison.

           “I’m the intern,” she says.

           “What drew you to us?”

           “I majored in Environmental Sciences and wrote my senior thesis on the intersectionality of contraception access and waste composting.”

           He cackles. “When did you plan on applying that?”

           “Melanie, for today’s sake, this tent is our office,” I say to my office manager. “See what you can do about getting this pizza reheated.”

           “I can’t go in, remember?” Melanie says. “I’m not vaccinated.”

           “But of course. Allison!” I order. “Go follow the nurse and see if you can get our food warmed.”

           “But I don’t know where anything is!” she whines.

           “When in Rome, roam,” I respond.

           “Thanks again, Melanie!” Allison snaps, throwing her blankets off and rolling out of bed.

“Your oxygen tank!” I call after her as she leaves. She returns for it before stomping off again.

           “Where were we?” I say to Alfie. “The candidate. He is the perfect growth-minded individual for the office—”

            “I don’t think I am making myself clear,” Alfie says. “There’s not going to be an office.”

           There is silence in the tent. Only the wind and the rustling of the canopy can be heard. I realize that my mouth is open.

           “No office!” I whisper. “Melanie, did you hear that?”

           “Mhm,” Melanie says. She tries to lick her finger to turn the page. The plastic funnel blocks her.

           “What do you mean by this?” I continue. “We ended remote working ahead of schedule, and productivity is through the roof (despite some acknowledged restructuring). Our team has never been stronger, and I see it strengthening still-”

           “You don’t understand,” Alfie says. “This is a good thing. This is good news. You can take a nice vacation—paid for of course.”

           “What about my employees?” I say. “They need something to do. Alison is in a sorority—do you think she knows how to fill her time productively? And Melanie, she would drown emotionally without my support!” Melanie grunts.

           “I don’t know what they should do,” Alfie says after some trepidation. “They can always apply for unemployment, I guess.”

           “Would I qualify?” Melanie asks.

           “Oh yes,” says Alfie. “We’d give you a hefty severance as well.”

           “Wouldn’t that hurt my insurance amount?”

           “Oh no, not at all, that’s a common misconception. Your severance pay is separate from unemployment,” he says. Melanie looks up from her book.

           “Though the company will be sad to let you go, this is an auspicious time to not have a job. To make up for a gas leak (which was completely not our fault) you’d also get free health insurance for the rest of the year and next, as well as rental assistance and a food allowance.” Alfie continues, “Think of this time as a vacation before your next role. A vacation from bills, work, worry…”

           “No way!” Melanie smiles for the first time that day.

           “No way,” I agree. “I can’t let the company just do that to you and Allison.” Melanie harumphs and returns to her book.

           “Pardon?” Alfie says. “This arguing is very… uncharacteristic of you.”

           “I haven’t been feeling myself as of late,” I say.

           A break appears in the tent’s wall again. A woman peeks in, attractive despite her mask. “Hello?” she says.

           “Hello,” Alfie says, grinning and straightening out his shirtsleeves. “How can we help?”

           “Is Allison here?” another woman says. Two more of them peek in behind them: the first one Asian, the second, African American. “She texted us that she was sick. We’re her sisters.” All of them are attractive, young, and slim.

          “What a diverse family!” Alfie says.

          I sigh. “Let’s return to the matter at hand-“

          “There is nothing to return to,” he says and watches them set up balloons and cards on Allison’s empty bed stand. “The office is closed until the leak is cleared. Your position is on hiatus-“

          “But what about my employees?” I say. My voice, sharp enough to slice a piece of silk drifting through the air, draws Alfie’s attention from the Asian sister’s behind back to me. This was my moment to stand up for what I believe. “I promised the ice I would protect them!”

          “Good luck,” says Melanie from her book.

          Alfie ignores her. “We’re doing what we can,” he says. “But the monoxide poisoning only sped along changes that have been long in the works. See, HR went through the numbers, and we don’t need a separate branch with bloated admin.”

          “Bloated?” I ask, “Did you just say bloated?” The sisters turn from their little arrangement to see what hell has caused our tent to freeze over. A meeker me would butter this speech in Slack emojis, but the wind is blowing in my hair and a purpose is flowing in my veins from toes to fingertip, pumping my heart and motivating me to save our team.

          “Underwater and full of gluten, bodies and bellies bloat. Our team is more essential to the company’s survival than either of those things are to our own. I know that Allison could have a quicker response time, but she has become quite the formatter. And Melanie is helping me create a tome that we will consult to determine exactly how this gas leak came to be—”

          “Tome?” He asks.

          “Yes! Like a book, especially a large one. Do you want to know how this relates to our company?”

          “I do,” he says and sits down, accidentally landing on a squealing Melanie.

          “Melanie!” I say. “What are our Pacifica contracts and main complaints, beginning with the letter M?”

          Melanie says, “McAllister, long wait times. Mulligan, sales team was inaccurate…” She doesn’t even glance up from her reading as she recites all through P.

          Alfie cuts her off. “But…but why?” he asks. “Why expend all that time and effort?”

          “You don’t need a database when we are the database!” I beam. “We wanted to calculate efficiency of the entire organization from the parameters of our KPIs.”

          He folds his head in his hands.

          “Soon, we will be able to tell you everything that should be there and shouldn’t be, from the micro-level with respect to macros.”

          “How do you have this information?”

          “Internally, but I can’t tell you everything right now. It would take weeks, no—months, to recant my sources. With everyone off, we will have all the time in the world to reconcile our notes. My personal project would be to compare what we promise investors to what we actually deliver.”

          “Is that a threat?”

          “Why on earth would that be a threat? This company prioritizes integrity among our core values. I’ll even pay for Allison and Mel’s time from my own pocket just to prove this about us. So much for bloated admin!” I can’t help but add.

          He studies my face, not believing how much I care. Little does he know!

          “That’s it!” He says and leaps to his feet. “You’ve convinced me!”

          “Of what?” I say.

          “We have greatly underutilized the talent in your wing. Only a fool could leave you to your own devices, and I would love to pick that brain of yours to see just where we can improve. Promotions for everyone!”

           At that moment, Alison steps into the tent, pizza box in one hand, oxygen tank in the other. “They had no fresh food, so I just Doorda—what are you guys doing here?” she squeals.

           “Surprising you, silly!” one of her sisters says.

           “Congrats on your promotion!” another says, popping open a bottle of champagne.

           “Promotion?” Alison squeals. Soon, there is enough cheering and giggling in the tent to lift the structure by its ankles. Even Alfie joins the sisters in their merriment.

           “See, Melanie?” I say to my colleague. “That’s what I call the art of the deal!”


7. Bloated, part 1

Bloated, but not demoted!

Complacency be damned! Just a few hours ago, everything that mattered dissolved like lotion on skin: Melanie and I rolled about in the closet; Allison almost stabbed me; and then… Oh, my God.

           “My appointment!” I exclaim and bonk my head against something round, smooth, and plastic. What is this? Am I a pickle now with my head in a jar?

            A masked woman rushes over. “What’s wrong?”

            I grab her by the shirt and gesture to the thing around my head. “I need to be somewhere by 3. Where are we?”

            The woman pulls away and straightens out her garments—scrubs! “This is the hyperbaric oxygen therapy center.”

           Allison and Melanie, also wearing plastic things on their heads, awaken to the scuffle. “If this is a hospital, why are we camping?” Melanie asks. All three of us are sitting in beds planted on asphalt. Light ekes through a fabric canopy that is rustled by the wind and sounds from the street.

           “This is the outdoor hyperbaric oxygen therapy center,” the nurse says. “One of you isn’t vaccinated.”

            “Who?” Allison and I ask. Melanie blushes and looks away.

            “Thanks, Melanie,” Allison says with a tone that suggests she is not thankful at all.

            “The vaccine was rushed,” she says. “We’re supposed to get our immunity from breast milk, not needles.”

           I again attempt to unscrew the lid from my face. “I need to get to the office!”

           “I highly doubt your appointment still stands,” the nurse says, a lot less friendly. “You three are being treated for carbon monoxide poisoning.”

           “Carbon monoxide?” I ask. “As in a gas leak?”

           “No way,” Allison says.

           “You almost died,” the nurse says.

          “I wondered why I was so happy,” Melanie says and pulls a copy of The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe from nowhere.

          “Ask your boss,” the nurse shrugs. “He called and said he’ll come soon.”

           This cheers me. Alfie is a house with decorations on Halloween: approachable. With him by my side for the past few years, the team flourished despite catastrophes such as the Great Printer Blowout of 2008. I impress upon my underlings the importance of his arrival.

           “Allison, straighten out your oxygen tank,” I bark, perhaps a bit too sharply. “Melanie–try not to cough so much. I know it’s hard since you’re not vaccinated.”

           “The two have nothing to do with each other!”

           “If you are such an expert in biology,” I say. “Why are the plants in our office always dying?”

           “I don’t want the shot messing with my fertility,” she responds.

           “Fertility?” Allison says. “When were you planning on using that?”

           Melanie responds to Allison with a pillow to her face. There is a thud as her book slides to the ground as Allison responds in kind.

           The nurse ignores my scuffling coworkers as she places cups of water next to our nightstands. Maybe I could somehow still make my appointment, but I realize I have no idea how much time has passed since our last day in the office. The minutes pass. I wish I could find sitting around and doing nothing as entertaining as my fighting counterparts do. My gaze follows the water droplets on the side of my cup as they race one another to the bottom. I was really looking forward to seeing that candidate.

           My underlings do not slow their snap fest, and Allison sits up to fling her blanket at Melanie and knocks down my cup on the way. Melanie gasps as it hits the asphalt with a clang. Allison holds her breath, staring at me with fear in her eyes, but she need not be so apprehensive. The ice is speaking to me again: condensate, don’t condescend.

Condensate… don’t condescend

           “Allison,” I say after some time. “We need to work on your grip. It is weak. Not just when you are assaulting Melanie with your bed things, but in general in life. Quite frankly, I need to be a better guide than I have been because I recognize your many positive qualities.”

           “You do?” Allison and Melanie both ask.

           “…not 100% of the time, but sometimes!”

           “She tried to kill you,” Melanie says.

           “Completely by accident,” I reply.

           Allison looks away. “…Yeah,” she says.

            I continue, “I have not been involved enough in both of your work.” Allison and Melanie side-eye each other.

          The plastic curtains of our tent part, and our boss, Alfie, split the morning sun as he steps in. His silhouette, clothed in a half-buttoned white shirt and stonewashed jeans, is neither short nor tall, and as he comes up, I could make out the half-grown beard hair. The smell of Calvin Klein Obsession calms me: there is nothing to worry about. It will all be okay. 

Toxic workplace

6. Monday, part 2

A frothy conclusion to your typical, uneventful Monday!

            When did we replace the pew with the standing desk? Before it, we sit, stand, and kneel, not knowing to whom we pray. Once, it was the sun, then it was God. Now, all that is left are our jobs. It’s only work from here on out, folks! You do that until you’re too slow, and I guess you log out then.   

            Today is a nice break from all that. In the supply closet, colors float and expand like jellyfish around my coworker and me. Previous concerns swell and croak like bullfrogs that leap from my insides. Melanie and Allison’s rebellion and today’s very important appointment had been weighing on me, and it is nice to let them go and watch them hop about freely.

            “I can’t tell if we’re experiencing something beautiful or frightening,” I say.

            “Maybe it’s both,” Melanie says. She stops rocking herself and looks up. Her glasses slide down to hit the floor with a clang.

            “What do you mean?” I say and lean against the La Croix packages stacked behind us. The cans press into my back, but the sensation that pokes through feels detached, as if coming from miles away. My palms are cold; I rub them on my breasts. Now, they are warm but dry.

            Melanie says, “A year ago, I found a wart on my ass. Remember how I used that donut pillow? I modified a regular one that didn’t fit after my doctor removed the mass. When I returned for my check-up, he warned me to watch out for another one.

            He prescribed mindfulness classes when I told him I couldn’t sleep. There, a nice, blonde lady told me to find fulfillment in presence: HAH. I told her that I am the most present of them all. Fulfillment is for women with BMIs under 30, and in a few years, I could be confined by tubes to a hospital bed while my own behind consumes me from the inside out. In the time that I have left, I will accomplish nothing and come home to nothing, except to wonder if it is better to die or live painfully. And then, I meet the answer in its eyes.”

            I feel the answer staring at me then as well. I think about the appointment I am going to miss, the one that I had been fantasizing about all weekend. I leapfrog from commitment to commitment, control c and control v, until we hit that final appointment that really, really cannot be missed. “I need a coffee,” I say. I need a coffee I need a hug I need a Xanax. 

            Melanie continues, “This morning, I was so stressed about All-Hands, and you were a bi-… a boss, and now instead I’m here, finally happy.” She leans on my shoulder. Her head weighs as much as my cat.

            “What happened to us?” I say. In the gap between the storage closet and the outside office, rays of light descend like beads on a string.

            “I don’t know, but I am getting sleepy,” she says. “And thirsty.” She picks at the plastic on the packages behind us before pulling out two cans of La Croix. Lime. Lime. Li-muh.

            She presses her thumb in the pop tab to make the tsk noise, and I laugh when a small spritz of bubble water hits me on my face. Seeing me struggle to breathe, she too chuckles before handing me a can.  

            “There are ants on my tongue!” I say after sipping, and she slurps and giggles.

            “It’s so lemony,” she says. “Like the drinks at the engagement party.”

            “I wouldn’t know,” I say and turn away.

            She grips my knee. “I get why she did it, but I’m sorry she didn’t invite you.”

            The sincerity of our connection mists up my eyes. “This means a lot, coming from someone like you.” Tears rise and spill over like the sea on the sands.

            She sniffles as well. “I thought you were a power-hungry witch, but now I see you’re only an insecure and lonely witch.”

            “That is just so kind!” I lean back again and almost blackout. Purpose shakes me from my sleepiness. “Melanie, just know that I was born to protect you. And I mean that. I take my role as a manager very seriously.”

            “We know,” she says and tries to nap again. I put my head down too, listening to the chiming of my mental triangle. And then, a howl.

            “What was that?” I awaken.  

            “Probably the bum from outside,” Melanie says. I stand up. “Where are you going?”

            “I have to protect Allison,” I say. “There is evil afoot.”

            “Can you grab me a latte?” Melanie calls before dozing off again. I shake my head no. She has had enough lattes in her lifetime.

            Christmas ornaments hang from the ceiling and replace the fear I held previously for the outside world. I try to pluck the hanging fruit, but as I approach, they disappear into the sparkling cotton candy that has somehow worked its way through the office.

            Another howl reminds me that Allison could be in mortal danger, but first, I need a La Croix. The refrigerator groans when I search its bowels for that crowd-pleasing Pamplemousse. And then, I hit a bag of ice.

            I tug at the plastic until it rips and releases its contents over the floor. What falls out is beautiful and cold and shatters my world. A ray like a candle’s flame beams through a cube, revealing a kaleidoscope, and within that kaleidoscope is a bridge that grows as I clear a way to it with my finger. My eyes walk me down the bridge’s path: to my left is a flowering wall; to my right is a river that gurgles. I am at home; I am in my place. Froth collects at the banks in red and blue and green, and the birds bob up and down around.

            I clear more ice around the floor, and the reflections reveal a desk—my desk! I sit down at it and open my email. What can I say? Crack a smile; smell the roses; break a limb.

            Ah, Outlook, how the hours slog along with thee. Each year, Silicon Valley announces its new communication platform with fireworks, catered lunches, and erotic dancers, but we always slide downhill into that pile of mulch. One day, I will die and dissolve like Emergen-C in water. Melanie will take over my emails, and I will float on to What Comes Next. The email chimes, my heart squiggles. The company releases me, and I melt.

Released at last!

            But Allison and Melanie could take over more than my emails… what about my legacy? Tears escape me—I don’t want to leave my girls! I want to see them thrive! It’s a scary world out there, filled with lattes, howls, and insurrections, and someone needs to protect Allison and Melanie, and I doubt Melanie can help either of them. It has to be me. 

            I twist around to a seething Allison. She must not know what I have discovered. “I found the answer.” I say and show the puddle of water. “The answer is ice.”

            “It was you,” she says. “You poisoned us!”

“I never poison, only protect!” It is not enough, and she leaps on me. I shake her off.

            “I am your boss, Allison. Remember me? We care for each other!” This only makes her roar and launch herself at me again. I throw some ice in her face and she slinks off.

            I relax for a second but leap to my feet again when she returns with a knife. A scream erupts from my mouth as I slide from the kitchenette to the conference room and try to lock the door I slam behind myself. This doe of a woman must be tearing meat off carcasses in her free time because she manages to knock me off in one push.

            She takes the cup of coffee from my desk as she steps in. “Have some of this!” She pours it on me: soy milk, espresso, everything. The contents are warm like tears. She then resumes with slashing her knife and trying to murder me.

            “I’m sorry!” I wail and jump on a desk. “I’m sorry for embarrassing you with my all-hands presentation! For nitpicking you all the time! Please don’t murder me. You’ll have your benefits: 401k, PTO, you name it! I’ll even throw in dental. Please–mercy.”

            She pauses. “Mercy? For you?!” 

            “Yes!” I say.

            She laughs. I join in: HA HA HA. Please don’t kill me. And as she convulses, a curious thing happens: her growl droops, her knife falls, and she lays down. As I marvel over the most auspicious nap of my life, darkness webs over my eyes, and I too sit down and rest.  

            Somewhere, my alarm goes off.

Toxic workplace

5. Monday, part 1

An uneventful Monday: all-hands, employee reviews, second-round interviews… what could possibly go wrong?

            I like my lessons and coffee the same way: full-bodied. Toasty but not scalding. Once again, I let my easy-going nature get the best of me when Allison and Melanie asked to leave on time on a Friday. A wiser boss would have declined their request, and that’s the froth of the situation.

          This weekend, I slurped deeply from a steaming cup of professional growth. Instead of sending them to the ex-admin’s engagement party, I should have kept them to review applicants with me. We would conclude together that the handsome man is the best fit for the ex-admin’s position before his return today. My underlings would own our company’s culture, praise my intuition, and have much more fun than at some party I wasn’t even invited to.

          Of course, I don’t care that I wasn’t invited—I’m a no-frills kind of gal with a lot of busy plans. In fact, that Friday, I returned to the office within an hour of coming home to make the all-hands presentation of our times. This presentation would chastise sweetly like Halloween candy on an orphan’s tongue. It would electrify more than a fork in an outlet. Today, icon oclastic as Buddha meditating under the sacred fig, I am cutting through the malarkey to explain to Allison and Melanie what is at stake if they don’t take their careers seriously.

          But first, let there be music.

          “Who is excited for an in-person all-hands?” I say from the front of the conference room. Party lights bathe us in blue and red and green. Melanie and Allison dole out a fragile little shake, and I turn the music up for them. “Come on, stand up and dance!” I shake to my 2000’s playlist as my underlings bounce twice. Finally, I sigh and turn on the slides.

            The first screen lights up: NO PRESSURE, NO DIAMONDS. “Where should we begin? Our successful return to the office? Our hiring processes, and how I am tackling gaps head-on?” I flick to a picture of the ex-admin. “Let’s pick the employee of the month by process of elimination, starting with Allison.” I go to her picture and make eye contact before continuing.

            “Allison, your time management leaves a lot to be desired.” I skip to a pie graph that I worked on this weekend as I fantasized about today’s very important appointment: the second final round of interviews. I set three alarms and reminders for today; the excitement of it all makes me lightheaded.

            “Unbeknownst to you, I moved the office camera to monitor your desktop behavior. 15% of the time, you are in the bathroom or on Facebook. Or getting coffee. And what is this?” I move to a blurry image of a white and green screen. “A job board? Are you not telling us something?” I pause to stare her down. “Let’s first review Melanie before taking your crown.”

            I change to pictures of the fiddle-leaf figs behind us. “These plants are on death’s door. What is going on?”

            “We haven’t been in the office much,” Melanie says breathlessly. “It’s dark. And they’ve had very little carbon dioxide to eat-“

            “Carbon Dioxide? Seriously?” I say. “You’re an intelligent person, Melanie. I’m sure you remember what Benjamin Franklin said about people with excuses.”

            “No,” she says. “I don’t know what he said.”

            “He said… he said…” Words skip over me; froth fills my brain. What did he say?

            I continue flicking through the slides, wondering where I left off. “Can we end this early? I feel light-headed,” Melanie says.

            “Melanie, there is no reason why you should not be watered,” I say.

            “Huh?” Allison asks. I close my laptop, not interested in two insurrections in as many weeks. I try my breathing exercise, but the girls get up and leave before I can return to myself. Where was I, and what was I doing? I follow Allison to her desk. “I think we need to have a conversation.”

            “I think so, too,” she says. “I’ve been interning at this company for over a year. No benefits, no PTO—which I’m not complaining about,” she adds. “I am beginning to wonder… at what point will I be, you know, hired?”

            “How cute, Allison, especially after today’s all-hands,” I say, pulling out a chair. “I have a feeling we need a better grasp on your limeline, I mean, timeline.”

            Behind us, Melanie pushes a giant potted plant. It scrapes against the floor. The noise is loud enough to awaken a Kraken, who may as well be hiding in the walls right now for how much my head is pounding.

            Allison moves her mouth to speak, and I interrupt her. “I’m here to support you, so let’s go through my points one by one. I know—this will be just as painful for me as it is for you.”

            We talk about coffee breaks, her thinking at the computer, how she loads up the refrigerator. Twice, Allison leans down, as if to fall asleep, but I wake her. From outside the office, the homeless man howls.

            “Melanie,” I call out. “Why does the office smell? Allison should take your role, and she’s the type of girl to join a sorority if you catch my drift. Hee hee hee.” I try to laugh off an evil feeling, but my paranoia grows. The feeling reflects in my underlings’ faces—there is darkness afoot. “She doesn’t execute many office functions!”

            The world darkens. I slow my breathing—what if I am heard? Allison doodles, Melanie pushes a pot to the floor. “I’m sorry!” she squeals as she knocks over another. She laughs, and I want to shake the woman. Does she not know what is at stake?

            On her notepad, Allison scribbles: To execute…OR EXECUTE. She sketches a grim reaper with harsh, deep strokes. Time to go!

            Darkness crawls over us like the fog on the Marin headlands. Melanie knocks another plant down. The soil scatters, and I jump on a chair so that the stuff doesn’t crawl up my ankles like a thousand caterpillars.

            Lights call me to the center of the hallway. What was once a smoke detector floats down, blinks, and swells. I descend from my chair to meet it.

            When faced with the unknown, the true unknown, our minds shields us from insanity with the armor of things that we know. The shape before me morphs into forms I understand a chariot, UFO, tornado, and octopus. And on the very edges of these shapes glisten eyes like raindrops on a spiderweb. Each is filled with memories of gardens I have never stepped through and arms I have never been held by. As I met these eyes, they sent a silent message that cuts through the whirling of wheels and wings: Be not afraid. And just like that, I am not.

            Next to her, Melanie empties out the watering can on the soil before watering herself.

            “I think we are dry,” she drips and pouts.

            “No,” I tell her and walk up to grab her by the hand. “We’re never out. There’s an infinite amount in the kitchen.”

            “You’re telling me we have a supply of this stuff?” she says and gestures to the can in her hand.

            “I’m saying it is… on tap.”

            She beams and bounces away. I turn back to the lights.

            “Sh!” I hiss to Allison, who rips pages from her scribbled notebook. I turn back to the lights. “What do you want?” I whisper. Red, red, red, BLUE. Evil, evil, evil, GOOD.

            After some time, I realize that I should check on Melanie, who has probably lost herself.

            “I will return,” I tell my glowing friends and make my way down the hallway. I hop over the dirt and porcelain smashed all over the floor. Someone slashed through the whiteboard with a Dry Erase. Was that me? I can’t tell anymore.

            I find her shaking in the storage closet. She laughs, cries, and whispers to herself. When she sees me, she reaches out. I take her hand.

            Tears swim in her eyes. “This is getting really weird,” she says.