A Deeply Planted Seed: Chapter 9 – Equilibrium

Melissa walked into the unguarded conference room without knocking as her assignment instructions dictated. Gladys had handed her the assignment packet as Melissa came through her door and never gave the younger woman a chance to sit down or to review it.

“Orders from Bob. Leifert, that is, in case you’ve met any of the other Bobs in this building. He’s asking you to report to a meeting in progress as soon as you get in. I’ll pester you for details later, but you’ve been taken off rotation until he releases you, so I suggest you get going. And Melissa, mind yourself. Bob sees a possible future for you, but everyone else is going to see your past.”

Melissa quietly closed the door behind her and turned to face down a long conference table. The sight of the twenty or so faces turning to inspect hers was uncomfortable.

“Ah! Melissa! Glad you could make it. Please, sit in any chair you put your hands on. You’ve only missed the introductions and so didn’t miss much.” Bob’s face wore a discomforting gesture of comforting welcome that was believable until you saw the barely veiled worry in his eyes.

There were only three chairs available for her to take. They were all at the end of the table closest to the door she entered through. She sat in one of the chairs off to one side and turned to better face everyone else along the table. A small noise behind her gently startled her. An attendant quietly apologized for the intrusion and placed a coaster on the table and a glass of water with ice on top of that, then a notepad and a Leifert Enterprises branded ballpoint pen next to her hand with submissive precision.

As the attendant backed away, Melissa noted that he wasn’t a young intern like her but a very mature adult and also a full-time employee of the corporation. For some reason, this gave Melissa a sense of unease. This would be the first meeting she was present for without being expected to serve everyone else.

A middle-aged man with hair perfectly dyed to be gray enough to demand respect but still brown enough to hint at physical vigor threw his voice into the awkward void on the table. “To start my point over again, Bob, this isn’t some over-hyped flu that will give everyone an excuse to take a medicinal vacation in warm tropical climates for two weeks. This thing coming out of China is brutal, lethal, and vigorous. From what my contacts in Asia saw…”

“Which contacts? Which countries?” An apparently older man with an accent which at first sounded to Melissa like something Bostonian but quickly accelerated into something British interjected with a dismissive gesture. “Asia is a bit of a big place, you know, and things take time to travel from one side to the other! How much do your contacts have to gain if we slow down, or God forbid, put our projects on pause because the last granny with an ancient Chinese secret got the sniffles and felt inauspicious?”

Mr. Dye-Job kept his face turned towards Bob at the head of the table but threw his voice across to answer the complaint. “That’s rude, sir. And I’m going to point out that my contacts only get paid if I get paid, and they like getting the pay I give them. If they are of the opinion that this illness is going to interrupt that flow of money, then that opinion has merit to me.”

The Duke of Boston tried to interject again, but a different person at the table bellowed his way to everyone’s attention. He was seated on the same side of the table as Melissa and so obscured by all the other managers seated between them, but she recognized his voice.

“You wanted opinions, Bob, and I got a few.” Director Brandon, head of the Accounting Department and the person who consistently rejected Melissa’s internship assignments despite being recommended by Gladys herself, now held the table’s attention. “Almost every supplier I have shipping from East Asia has changed their terms from Net 30 to Pay First. I’m getting notices that shipping deadlines might not be met, and a few has exercised their option to not honor shipping deadlines at all! The flow of goods is being squeezed and even my regulars have become all but mercenary. They have no faith that I will pay them in the upcoming months. They have no faith that I will be able to.”

“I see.” Bob’s calm response closed the table to any further outbursts. “Jack, are your regulars faulting the virus itself or that other people are panicking because of the threat of the virus?”

“Right now, Bob, they’re pointing at the panic that’s starting to set in. Some cities have already isolated themselves. Some countries are looking at shutting down seaports and airports.” Jack Brandon paused but Melissa could not see the expression he wore as he did. “This is a high-level discussion we’re having Bob, I thought interns weren’t supposed to be even on the floor at times like this.”

Melissa had leaned forward to see Bob’s face and now she was trying her best to lean back and merge with the leather of the back of the chair. Other faces turned towards her. Some with amusement, some with accusation.

“Ah, yes. Team, may I introduce Ms. Melissa Arroyo. She is on the public-facing rolls as an intern but is present by special assignment to me. As such, she has no job title to introduce herself with. Normally, I would be asking Nate the questions that I will pose to her, but as you know, Nate went to visit his wife’s family in Hong Kong in early December and we have not heard from him since.”

Melissa tried to summon a memory of the organizational chart for the company to guess what position Nate held that Bob felt she could now step in for. Fortunately, Bob did not leave her in bewilderment for long.

“So what Melissa is here for today, is to give a neutral opinion on certain technologies. So, allow me to cut several hours of arguing and posturing from the meeting. This novel coronavirus is a threat to both commerce and health. I will leave it to the experts to determine what kind of threat, but it is coming, and we are looking at some sort of forced isolation to be imposed in the country within the next three months.”

“Bob,” interjected Jack who suddenly sounded as tired as Bob appeared, “you’re my friend and you sign my paychecks, so that gives me two reasons why I have the right to speak up. What the hell could a Winston girl know about any technology, much less something that is going to help us stave off a god damn pandemic?”

Melissa ignored the subtle and unsubtle glances and inspections thrown her way by the other managers. Jack spoke what was on Melissa’s mind in both tone and concern and reminded herself what Gladys said about perceptions. She wasn’t qualified to empty the trash can in this room, after all. Perhaps Bob was using her presence to put the managers on notice?

“Finally, you ask the right question. I’m going to answer with a story.” Bob paused to allow any further interjections to be revealed. Hearing none, he continued. “I have my grandfather’s diary. He began writing it in 1918. It didn’t start out as a diary then. It was a list of instructions for his sons. A disease then called the Spanish Influenza had become a pandemic and being too poor to have a private estate to flee to, heh, he was concerned that he would fall to the disease before he could properly raise them.”

“After he exhausted all the instructions he could think of, he began recording everyday life from his perspective. The statements of scientists and doctors raising an alarm and calling for strict isolation policies. The advertisements of those claiming to be doctors offering various cures and preventatives. How immigrants and foreigners were accused of intentionally infecting the country, no matter how long they had been living here before the disease arrived. The cessation of religious services. The donning of masks.”

“Everything that is in the news right now, is recorded in my grandfather’s diary. All that differs is the name and the date.”

“One thing I have learned from reviewing his writings, is that nearly everyone assumed that nothing would change. That there would be an uncomfortable season and then life would return to what it was before. When it became clear that the Spanish Influenza was not going to tire itself out within a few months, that the death rate would not slow down, that the very fabric of society that kept a smooth veneer of respectability among the social strata was the very means by which the disease was spread, that’s when the panic set in and the social contracts fell apart.”

“My grandfather was not formally educated. He only learned how to read and write because the shop foreman taught him. But he had a pair of eyes and he saw how relying on the sure things of the day was a sure way to be measured for burial the day after. He knew enough about how the shop functioned to know that if as few as three people fell ill, the shop was as good as shuttered. He knew that the best way to help himself, his wife, and his children was to find a new way to do things. A way that limited their exposure to other people but still allowed him to earn a wage so they wouldn’t starve.”

“You already know what he did and how, and how his efforts became what is today, Leifert Enterprises. So, I won’t bore you with that. What you don’t know is that I have begun writing a diary. It contains instructions for my heirs and private instructions for the people seated at this table, Melissa included.”

Bob paused to drink from his glass. When he sat the glass down on the table, he also dropped the optimistic mask Melissa always saw him wearing. He looked weary and deeply troubled as if he were contemplating the end of the world.

“There are other things in his diary that I am watching come to pass in other countries already. America is not prepared for this. She has forgotten the lessons of history. But I did not gather you all here to listen to an old man mourn the folly of his peers. Jack, you asked why was Melissa sitting here in Nate’s place and described her with an epithet that I will assume implies that she has no knowledge or understanding of modern technology. I do believe that is the Facebook consensus of her? You will find Melissa to be more capable of solutions than you assume.

“Speaking of, Melissa!” He slapped the table and restored his brilliant and optimistic expression that she was used to seeing. “Here is the information you need to know so that you may answer the question that follows. Ports and borders are going to be closed soon. I would expect that to happen within a month. Depending on how bad the pandemic strikes the country, that may include state and county borders as well. The movement of people is going to come to a stop, but the Internet never sleeps. The question is plain: What tools do we need to pick up now so that when that closure comes, we are able to continue?”

Two columns of heads turned to face hers with a wide range of expressions for her to observe. Melissa kept her gaze straight at Bob and ignored her nervousness and others inquisitiveness. “The first that comes to mind, Bob, is a teleconference service.” She took a breath to explain and in that pause words were thrown on the table to challenge her.

“WE ALREADY HAVE THAT! Bob, this is–”

“No.” Bob’s refusal to hear others out was absolute and deafening. “Melissa, continue.”

Melissa nodded and planted her feet firmly on the floor under the table to press her fear into submission. “Well. I’m quite sure that there is already a teleconference service that you managers prefer. But, in light of Bob’s concern, is that service good enough? It’s not like you’re going to be able to hang up in frustration and come down the hall to yell at each other in person when suddenly there’s something like static on the line.”

“Take this meeting right here. There’s… twenty-one managers present. So that’s a conference call with twenty-one callers. How long do meetings like this last? Somehow, I don’t think it would be less than forty-five minutes which is the limit for most free teleconference services. So, this is the time to look into a service with more capacity, because what if you have to have a manager meeting with the subsidiaries? With the international contacts? Are you really going to do this over phone lines that’s already half broken to begin with?”

“And to carry with that, the first thing I would look at right now, is an internet-based teleconference service. The bonus is you can use video, which for some contacts would be vital. Those partners that demanded an in-person meeting are going to want to see your face, pandemic be damned, if I may. And you’re going to be tempted to cut corners and use your phone’s onboard video service, or worse, Facebook because everyone uses it, right? No. Bad. Very bad. While I know very little of your responsibilities…”

An unmuffled snort from the middle of the seats gave Melissa the excuse she needed to drink from her glass. She looked up just in time to see Bob resume his cheery expression and almost felt sorry for whomever had just been chastised.

“Okay, I know nothing of your responsibilities, but I do know that there are business documentation requirements that services like that do not conform with. With some of you here using the word ‘mercenary’ to describe some of your partners, how certain would it be that the flaws in those services would be used against you? If something were to come up in court and it was revealed that you discussed a multimillion-dollar deal with a dancing money-sign crown filtered on your face would that help your claim that the deal was made according to professional standards and that you had no intention of undermining your business partner?”

One of the managers turned to Bob and waved her arm to catch his attention. “Bob, are we really going to listen to this? We already know this.”

“Yes, because I’m waiting for her to say what we don’t already know. Melissa, continue.”

Melissa’s glass was now half empty, but her mouth continued to feel as dry as the mood in the room. “Yes, you all know this. But have you all done this at the same time? Have you tried? The only thing thinner than corporate spending is corporate… grace. The service you have may be good now, but when you and all your competitors are using the same service at the same time, are you prepared to accept a lower quality of service because they secured higher priority in advance?”

“And that makes me think of something else, Bob. You said that your grandfather wrote that if three people fell ill, then the shop was as good as shuttered.” Melissa raised her gaze and looked directly at Bob Leifert. “How many department heads in this room have to fall ill for Leifert Enterprises to stop doing business? Why is an intern taking the place of the head of IT? Surely there must have been someone underneath Nate, someone who knows what services you already have and what services can be subscribed to immediately. Someone who can give better answers than I’m pretending to understand.”

Melissa suddenly realized where Bob’s story was leading her, and the flow of her fancy wording came to an immediate halt. Her face blanched as she looked away to watch the quiet assistant refilling her glass. Even though he had added more ice cubes, it was clear to Melissa which cubes had been in the glass longest by their waning shapes. The visual felt like a confirmation of her horrifying assumption.

When she did speak, it was almost a whisper. If Bob had not already called for those present to pay attention to her, her words would have been lost. “It’s already here. Nate wasn’t the only one who went overseas. Just the only one caught in the quarantine when the borders were locked.”

As the weight of Melissa’s guess settled into the unsettled audience, Bob held his glass up and the assistant quickly and softly moved to his side to refill it. The action drew everyone’s attention to Bob who had allowed the mask to slip again. Bob took over the monologue with a voice as grave as Melissa’s was quiet.

“What doesn’t leave this room, is that the entire IT department downstairs is being sanitized as we sit here and argue about the merits of paper accomplishments. Nate’s location is unknown at this time. Jerry and Sam, who had accompanied him to Hong Kong, came back via a flight that was not tracked because their flight leg to the United States was through Singapore and I don’t think they declared their trip to Hong Kong in the first place.”

“They arrived home last week. Jerry passed last night. Sam is on life support. Of the nineteen members of their department, the two who have not shown symptoms have been out of the country on vacation and caught in lockdown elsewhere.”

Bob held his glass to his lips but did not drink. “The only thing that has spared the twenty-three people in this room, is that the very same department access procedures that most of you have viciously bitched about and denounced as completely unnecessary and hostile has kept a literal airlock between the contaminated IT department area and literally everyone else that works or visits this building.”

He wet his lips and took a breath. “A few of you already knew this. Some of you knew some of it. Most of you are in shock. Melissa, does this information change your answer?”

Melissa was quietly pleading that Astra not show herself at this moment. Bob’s question reached through her quiet panic and pulled her attention back to the table.

“Yes, Bob, it does.”

Melissa watched Bob attempt and fail to don an optimistic expression. She nodded in acceptance that this isn’t the time to comfort others, this was the same to save as many as possible.

“You brought me in here for an outsider’s opinion. Okay. First off, the same isolation procedures that kept the IT department from infecting everyone else needs to be followed by all departments. Everyone stays in their assigned area. Shared kitchens should be sanitized and then shut down. I’m going to assume that the company has standardized on a certain office program suite? It has messaging built-in. Everyone gets a crash course in how to use it. Now. There’s tutorials online for free from the software publisher. If anyone needs a camera or webcam, they need to buy it now before the rest of the country realizes we’re in deep shit. Stock up now on what you can.”

“Everyone that can work from home, be prepared to do so starting today if you can get away with it. Is there any work that physically requires people to be in the building? That’s going to get cut back assuming it’s not also locked down entirely. I hope you have some sort of cash cushion because it’s going to be needed.”

She looked back at her glass to give herself something other than a person’s face to stare at. “You’re going to need multiple ways of contacting people and having group meetings. If one provider goes down because of traffic, you need an immediate fallback. Text messaging needs to be limited because of business oversight, but every manager should be available by at least two private channel apps that your lawyers can get access to.”

“And for fuck’s sake, stay the fuck off of social media! Use it like a bulletin board. Good for posting what you want the world to see. Bad for taking public input. Easily set on fire by anyone with a match.”

Another realization forced her to look back at Bob. “No more roving interns. And that includes me. Jesus, I can’t think of a better way to deliver the virus throughout the entire building in a day. If it wasn’t for IT refusing to even consider interns, we all would be…”

For the first time, panic attempted to creep around her bones, but she refused to acknowledge the emotion, decided instead to take a deep breath, and continued speaking whatever came to mind.

“If any manager here has a favorite intern, they need to speak with Gladys immediately about getting that person locked to them. Otherwise, Bob, it’s time to tell Gladys to let all unnecessary interns go and all staff not vital to core operations to take a staycation. No one is going to be moving around for a while, career or otherwise.”

Melissa announced the end of her speech with a falling tone in her voice. No one rushed to fill the silence that followed. After finishing writing his notes, Bob spoke without raising his head.

“Gladys, did you get all that?”

“I did, Bob, and I agree with Melissa about reducing staff presence and suspending the internship program.”

Melissa turned to her right and saw that Gladys had recently entered the conference room and had quietly sat down at the end of the table. The Human Resources Director was seated far enough away that Melissa did not notice her presence.

Gladys smiled sadly but encouragingly at Melissa before speaking. “I caught enough of Melissa’s words to understand what she’s advocating. I have a short list of teleconference services that will provide us the coverage we need, though we’ll need to create at least two hosting accounts per department to have the flexibility she’s recommending. There’s going to be a huge charge up front for it no matter who we turn to.

Bob struck one of the items off his list. “Do it. You have carte blanche from me. Just keep receipts as you always do. Were you able to pull in that favor?”

Gladys smiled with saddened pride. “Of course! The good news is that he’ll be able to step in as temporary IT Director starting this afternoon. The bad news is he’s asking for proper consultant fees as just stepping in will burn the favor. The worse news is he’s refusing to set foot in the building and will be fulfilling his duties remotely. He knows about Jerry and Sam.

Bob circled an item in his notes. “Fellow Directors, I want each of you to review your staff, permanent hire and favored interns. By the end of the day, I want each of you to give Gladys the name of a tech-savvy person in your department that will be able to assist their peers with the basics in teleconferencing and messaging using authorized channels. We’re going to have to network ourselves while we can do so easily and we’re going to start company-wide tomorrow.”

He looked up and moved his head a little to the side to see Melissa before he addressed her. “Melissa, go home. No, wait, are you able to access your corporate email? Never mind, that’s a stupid question. Of course, you can’t, you’re on the rolls as an intern. Gladys, I want Melissa converted to full-time and assigned as assistant to me effective eight o’clock this morning. Melissa, you’ll receive an email to the address you gave Gladys with what steps, hardware, software, and home internet speed will be required to fulfill your new function. If you need to sign up for services, she will help you with that. But for today, go home.”

Melissa stood and picked up the unused notebook and pen as mementos. “Very well, I’m headed home. But if I may, Bob, what is my new function?”

“Social Media and Virtual Conferencing Assistant, of course.”

Gladys paused Melissa’s exit just enough for her to write down her preferred email address. Gladys also asked for a social media handle, but Melissa tightly replied that she had none worth giving. Gladys quietly accepted the declaration, patted her hand, and told her to drive home carefully.

Melissa kept her composure as she traveled through the building to the main lobby. There, as she opened a ride-share app to hail a ride home, did the weight of the meeting’s revelations start to settle on her shoulders.

The app gave her an estimated wait of twenty-three minutes for her ride to show up at the turnabout. She used that time to text Jean about helping her get a car as soon as possible, or at least no later than the end of the week.

Melissa immediately regretted sending the text and before she could brace for Jean’s expected call, her phone began to shimmy in her hands as Jean’s name and private number flashed on the screen.

“Hi, Jeannie.” Melissa answered quietly.

“WHY AND WHY NOW?” Jean’s almost panicked and certainly angry words were loud enough for the both of them. The lobby attendant glanced at Melissa in response to the loud noise but quickly resumed their indifference.

Melissa thought about the directors’ meeting that she had just left. She thought about the neatly laminated sign taped to the elevator that apologized that the second floor was not accessible today and that the elevator would ignore any button press for that floor. She thought about how to rearrange the living room in order to teleconference from home without embarrassment and how her internet bill was about to triple in cost.

She thought about how she used to drape herself over other partiers at the bar and drink from their beer glasses trying to get a free buzz. She thought about restaurant patrons spitting on nearby chairs so she would have to lean over to wipe the cushions. She thought about how close Rebecca’s clients would sit to her to limit how much was overheard in the coffee shop. She thought about how delicate Deborah’s health still is even after all this time back home and the soft wheezing that always accompanies her.

She thought about how her goal of seeking an understanding of the Six of Coins and Six of Spheres had disappeared from her mind because very real life and death matters were now fully in front of her. She thought about the implications of interacting with a personification of the Death tarot card. She thought of the many fears that were screaming for attention in her bones. She thought of the steps she needed to take immediately if she was going to stay ahead of them.

Melissa kept her voice low and even. “It’s time I accepted that I’m an adult and act like one, don’t you think? I know how to drive, after all. I just avoided doing so because I was afraid it would be one more thing for Aunt Helen to control or take. Could you imagine the car she would have picked out for me?” Melissa laughed and hoped her tone was believable.

She realized that her face had betrayed her when she heard a soft tap beside her. The attendant had quietly placed a fresh box of tissues on the table. She muttered her gratitude towards the attendant and checked when the ride-share was supposed to arrive. Nineteen minutes remaining.

“The only reason I’m letting you change the subject is because we’re both working. You are still working at Leifert Enterprises, right? Because I’m not going to help you get a car if you’re going to be driving other people around!”

Melissa laughed, snorted, and subsequently sneezed into the already gathered tissues. “No, I’m not going to give rides! And yes, I’m still working at L. E. It’s just, I need a car and I need one soon. I have an early quit for the day and I’m waiting on what I hope is my last ride-share to show up. We’ll talk later? Right now, I have a lot to think on and you’re at work, so we’ll yell at each other later, okay?”

Jean did not answer. Through the lobby windows, Melissa saw a vehicle slowly drive through the passenger pickup lane and come to a stop at the very last marked pickup spot. As Melissa compared the license plate with the app’s notification, Jean finally spoke.

“Okay. We’ll talk later. This better not be any more of those cards’ business!” Jean ended the call before Melissa could begin to think of a proper retort.

Which suited Melissa as the app’s notification stated there was still an estimated fourteen-minute wait for the ride-share to arrive, yet here it was in front of her. As she exited the lobby, she called out to the driver who was now standing next to the car.

“Hey, I know I’m early!” The driver, a middle-aged woman, answered pleadingly at Melissa. “Don’t check in yet. If I arrive too early, I’ll get dinged for it. Would you mind if we wait five minutes?”

The app made a sound on Melissa’s phone and asked if she still wanted to wait as her assigned ride-share’s location could not be found.

“Sure, but I want to at least verify you’re my ride.”

The driver nodded. “Yea, I’m Hannah, driver number 994110, and you’re Melissa and your passenger number for this ride is 44912. I’m supposed to take you across town, which should be a very fast ride! There’s no traffic today. That’s why I’m so early! Odd.”

Melissa looked down the empty street to the empty traffic intersection. “No traffic? This is the business district so…”

Hannah coughed a bit to clear her throat and missed Melissa suddenly holding very still and watching her. “Oh this area is always empty unless it’s business day start or business day end. But I had dropped off a fare at the hospital and while it was busy as usual right there, the traffic around it was just… empty! Oh, that reminds me!”

Hannah opened the driver’s door and lowered all the windows. “Need to air the car out for a bit.” She coughed again before turning her head to sneeze away from a more than slightly concerned Melissa. “The last fare had flowers and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m allergic to the chrysanthemums in the arrangement!” She waved at the air in front of her in a vain attempt to clear herself. “It’s nothing deadly, just makes me look like I have the walking plague for a few hours. Cough, sneezing, and snorting like a drunk pig!”

Hannah sneezed disturbingly a few times in succession. Melissa kept her composure but spent the time texting Jean that she needed a car much sooner than expected and she trusted Jean’s decision for whatever model was purchased and delivered, new or otherwise, as long as she could get it by the end of tomorrow.

“First we talk. Then you get the car. You’re an adult and I can’t say no, but like hell am I letting you go in blind.” Jean’s response distracted Melissa from her concern that Hannah might be a carrier of the virus long enough to silently smirk.

“Okay! It’s time! I’m going to mark that I’m here and you mark that you see me!” Hannah tapped on her phone and Melissa’s phone app was now asking if her ride-share driver had arrived.

Melissa confirmed the driver was now present and that she was accepting the ride. After she entered the car, she noted part of the rear seat was covered with a dense yellow powder. She waited until Hannah entered the car and was closing the windows to ask about it.

“Aw, he did drop the flowers! And after I asked him not to! I’m going to have to get the car detailed to get all the pollen out! Achoo! Let’s get you to your destination before my eyes get puffy!”

Melissa couldn’t maintain her composure any further. “Couldn’t you tell he did! I mean, the scent alone is overwhelming!”

“It is?” Hannah put the car in drive without checking if Melissa was ready to go or even buckled up herself. “Nah, the slightest whiff and my sinuses clog up and my nose shuts down. I won’t be able to smell anything for the next couple of days. If it’s really bad, can’t taste anything either. Good time to go nuts on the ghost pepper sauce, though! That’ll clear me out!”

The short drive was remarkable by how many technically red signal lights Hannah had blown through without getting a ticket or getting hit. After Hannah drifted the turn against the fifth red light, Melissa closed her eyes and held her purse tightly. Signal lights were round, after all, and she remembered enough of her tarot exploration to not want the sixth red light to be the cause of a lesson, tarot or not.

“Okay, we’re here. Lemme drop you off at the entrance to the parking garage here or the timer will hold me hostage.”

Melissa opened her eyes and relaxed her grip just enough to regain feeling in her fingers. “Oh? Yea. Cool. Okay, mark off the drive in the app and I’ll pay.”

Hannah opened the rear passenger door for Melissa as she paid for the fare without adding a tip to the payment. Once out of the car, she blocked the door, preventing Hannah from closing it and forcing the driver to give her attention.

“Oh, hang on, is that a scratch on the side?” Melissa pointed at the rear tire and revealed a folded bill in her hand. “See if that’s just a paint mark!” Melissa’s body position meant that any interior car camera would not see what she was offering.

Hannah immediately recognized what Melissa was doing and reached down to pick the cash tip from her hand. She pocketed the bill before standing. “Just a paint mark. Thanks for pointing it out, though. I’ll get it taken care of.”

The two of them rated each other with high marks and wished each other well just as Hannah’s ride-share app notified her of another pickup close to them and Melissa’s phone notifying her of another text message.

Melissa’s panic had been slowly building from the first time Hannah had sneezed in front of her. She kept her focus long enough to lock the front door behind her, then succumbed to her fear and stripped as she raced to the shower to scrub herself of all impurities, real and imagined.

It was only after she had changed into clean clothes and had collected her worn clothes into the hamper that she remembered that she was waiting for Jean to call her back. The act of looking around the living room for her purse reminded her of her new job’s title and responsibilities. She found the purse on the other side of the coffee table where it had slid to and retrieved her phone.

To her surprise, she did not have any missed messages or calls from Jean. Instead, she had a private message from TheBrandNameBrandon waiting for her. She was about to open it with a deep sense of nostalgia when thoughts about the morning’s meeting intruded into her comfort.

“Brandon… The director of accounting’s last name is Brandon. What was his first name? Oh, yeah, Jack! But this guy’s first name is Brandon, so… can’t be related. Probably just coincidence.”

She opened the message. “Hey, Lisa! Heard you got some funds, so how about some fun! Let’s meet up later at you remember where!”

Melissa winced at the sight of her old nickname but became concerned at the wording of the rest of the message. Brandon always had money and would never be hitting her up for extra cash. And there were many public places where she would meet Brandon because he was never comfortable meeting her in any private spaces, so any offer always included a location. And because they met in public places, there was always a set time to rendezvous with each other.

Since nothing about this message read like anything Brandon would have sent, Melissa guessed that the sender wasn’t Brandon at all. The account’s message history still had the last message sent from Brandon’s account which reminded her that Brandon’s family had taken over the account months ago. Melissa glanced at his sister’s still recorded threats before tapping a reply.

“Just to let you know, I don’t go by Lisa anymore. And my life has changed so I’m not available like I used to be.” Melissa grimaced at the unintentional yet pointedly accurate pun on the screen. “You go on the nostalgia trip without me. Take care.”

She meant to close the app and send a new text to Jean when the reply arrived immediately. “Grandpa said you’re not at work so you’re available now. Come on out and play! I miss you!”

Melissa stared at the screen. Grandpa? The only ones who would know with surety that she wasn’t at work right now would be the twenty-three directors in the meeting this morning. Could it be that Director Brandon was related to TheBrandNameBrandon after all?

Melissa thought about stringing whoever was using Brandon’s account along to sort out who was trying to lay a trap for her. She thought about Director Brandon’s obvious distaste of her and Glady’s warning about people only seeing the past and not her potential. No, she reasoned, if Brandon’s family were connected to Director Brandon, or any of the other directors in that meeting, giving them a message to take out of context would be the worst thing she could do to herself right now.

“Your Grandpa needs to mind his own business. I am not available. Take care.”

Melissa looked at her closing words and noted how politely short they were. She thought about using “Good day to you” and snorted in laughter. The delay was long enough for another reply to come through.

“Grandpa isn’t here but I am, and I’m alone. If you won’t come over to me, tell me where you are and I’ll come over!”

Melissa held the phone at arm’s length as if to hold the account away just the same. This was not the wording style of the Brandon she knew and besides, he would never ask to come to her apartment. She was uncomfortable playing this game any further. She signed out of the app and let her offline status be her final reply.

Impatient and wary of further surprises, Melissa sat at the table and reached for her copy of the Sweeney Tarot. She took the cards into her hands and started shuffling them with the riffling style that Rebecca had taught her. She had no intent of laying out cards for a reading, however. Instead, Melissa was shuffling the cards as a meditative action even though she did not recognize it as such.

Just as the cards warmed in her hands, her phone rang. Jeannie’s nickname and personal phone number held court on the display. Relieved, Melissa held the cards with one hand and answered the phone in speaker mode with the other. “Hey! I take it you’re home for the day?”

“Before I answer that, tell me if this matter of you wanting to get a car is the result of a tarot reading. Or if it’s for a tarot business! You’re not going to start offering readings are you!” Melissa noted that Jean’s voice was unusually tight and panicky and wondered if whoever was behind the strange messages from TheBrandNameBrandon had tried to get to Jean as well.

“No, I haven’t even thrown cards lately, and after what happened this morning, starting a tarot business would be career suicide if it got out! The only people that know I even have tarot cards are you, Rebecca, and Mom. Look, I know I only recently pulled my head out of my ass and I still have shit to clean up, but after this morning, no more bullshit, please.”

The resulting silence hurt Melissa more than Jean’s usual screaming would have. When Jean did speak, it felt more like tending to a still open wound than an explanation. “Okay. I’m sorry for snapping at you like that. I received a call today and I’m still not sure how much of it to believe.”

Melissa needed Jean to be settled so she could act as Melissa’s voice of reason. “Then let’s start with your call because I’ll bet they’re related to the weird messages I got over Discord not too long ago.”

“What messages?” Jean’s now interrogational voice made Melissa smile as she repeated the messages and explained why they were suspect.

“Hmm. Okay. Tell me with complete honesty, did you have hook ups with Brandon?” Jean spoke with the sharp flatness that comes with being a precise and effective paralegal.

Melissa coughed and reddened from embarrassment even though her encounters with Brandon were nothing compared with her affair with Ricardo. “Define hook ups? Did we have sex? No. Did we take our clothes off? No. Did we play handsies under the table… well… sometimes. To be honest, Jeannie, Brandon just liked sitting with a woman in public and got a kick out of that. In return he’d buy me lunch or dinner or sometimes we’d go shopping and…”

Jean cut her off quickly. “So, you were his beard!”

“His… uh… beard? What the hell do you mean? Like a costume?”

Now it was Jean laughing with sincere mirth. “You’ve never heard about that! Melissa, Brandon is happily gay but his family is dourly conservative, and being seen with you was how he covered for it! When a woman plays a public role to give a man the appearance of heterosexuality, that’s her being his beard. But to be clear, no sex and no demands for money, right? Everything he bought or gave you was because he wanted do and not because you twisted him around into giving it to you, right?”

Melissa thought of how awkward Brandon was around her initially but once it was clear that she did not want sex, he was often calling her to meet him for public outings. She never asked about his private life and never trusted anything said in the gossip blogs anyway, so she never gave a single thought to what he did apart from her.

Jean, however, continued to laugh at Melissa’s role in the matter until she asked her older sister to stop being mean.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Melissa, I’m really not mocking you. It’s just, for all that’s happened lately, this is nothing to even remember an hour from now but apparently somebody is ready to set themselves on fire about it. So you received messages from Brandon asking to meet up in public again and soon, except they didn’t sound anything like him and implied a hook up, right?”

“That’s it.”

“And I receive two anonymous calls that you’re going to meet with a john at the bar in less than thirty minutes but it’s a prostitution sting and if you’re going to keep your job, that I better get there first to drag you out!”

Jean started laughing again while Melissa brooded in silence for a moment. “Jeannie, I don’t know who is related to what. Do you know if Brandon’s grandfather’s name is Jack Brandon?”

“Yea! Brandon’s mother is Jack Brandon’s daughter, so you have it precisely right. But Old Man Brandon is caught up with the same naming fever that Aunt Helen has, so he insisted that his first grandson be named Brandon after him.”

Jean finally realized that Melissa was not joining in her joy. “… Oh, that’s right. Old Man Brandon is a director at Leifert Enterprises. … Melissa, what happened?”

Melissa’s fingers started to ache, and it was only at this point that she realized she had been gripping the tarot deck so tightly that the edges of the cards were digging into her flesh. “Um. Some I can’t say. But I can say I’ve been promoted! I’m not an intern anymore, I’m a full-time employee. And… um… I’m going to need better internet, and a web cam… and I might need a whole new computer while I’m thinking about it. I know I can afford it but why does the thought of spending money still hurt?”

Jean did not race to fill the begging silence that followed Melissa’s question, so Melissa continued to keep her fears from answering for her.

“So we, I mean L. E., we’re going to be doing some work from home starting this week. Some sort of cost-savings initiative or whatever the big phrase of the month is. And I’m one of the first banished from the corporate office. But I didn’t get in trouble! Honest! It’s just… some things have changed and I have more responsibilities now. Which reminds me, about the car…”

Jean, stern and authoritative, ended Melissa’s rambling before she could begin. “No. The car is already settled and that will be the last thing we talk about. What happened at work today that prompted you to even call me about getting a car? Did Jack Brandon say anything to you?”

Melissa waited until she heard Jean start to take a breath to speak and squeaked out a soft “No?” When Jean harrumphed in response, Melissa explained herself. “Well… Not about Brandon, anyway. But now that I know they’re related, his absolute refusal to allow me to work in his department now makes sense. Especially when the last time I messaged Brandon, his sister replied and threatened to beat my ass!”

Melissa could hear Jean struggle not to laugh again before speaking. “Okay! Okay. That explains everything and I wish you had said that his family had taken over his account up front. So, neither Brandon is involved with your request for a car. Okay. Then, what else happened? I mean, your status being changed to full time is a surprise, as is the sudden need for teleconferencing gear. A promotion means you most likely didn’t get in trouble, so, tell me as much as you can while you’re no longer embarrassed to speak about it.”

Melissa took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “I can’t tell you. But I can’t lie to you either. So, I’ll tell you a story instead. You know those inspirational quotes that everyone reposts because they look cool even if they mean jack shit? I got one for you: History is cyclical. But don’t ask me to explain it. Instead, help me get a car. I need to be able to come and go on my timing.”

“Okay.” Jean’s solid response barely hid how suddenly Jean had switched from being full of mirth to being full of concern, but it was solid enough for Melissa to take comfort in. However, Melissa had forgotten how quickly Jean could solve puzzles at a glance and in complete silence. “History is cyclical, and Bob Leifert is not an idiot. If he’s concerned enough to convert your status to full-time and pivot you and likely everyone else of personal importance to working from home now, then the coronavirus is a bigger threat than we’re being told about. And now I understand why you are suddenly in a hurry to get a car of your own. Ride-shares are going to be carrying more germs than people. Okay.”

Jean ended her monologue neatly, leaving both women on the line with nothing to say. Melissa was softly riffling the tarot deck in her hands to keep herself occupied as her worry chewed through her resolve. The sound was too gentle to drown out Jean’s fast and accurate sounding typing in the background. The keyboard sounds suddenly stopped as Jean’s voice suddenly began.

“So, what color car do you want? And any particular model you would like to have or to avoid?”

Melissa placed the deck on the table face down and resisted the urge to uncover the top card. “Um… A color that will keep my insurance rates down, please! I can’t drive a manual, so it has to be automatic. And I would like to avoid any model that Aunt Helen would have picked or that would otherwise announce that I have money or goods to steal.”

“Okay. So, one piece of shit car, coming up!”

“Hey! Not too shabby! It needs to be reliable for at least a while!”

“It will be, Melissa. It won’t fit who you were, but it will fit who I think you’re turning out to be. Well, then. The part of the conversation I was worried about the most wound up being the easiest to settle!”

Melissa’s hands continued to play with the tarot deck under them. She did not feel settled at all and was bothered even more by Brandon, his grandfather, and the baiting messages.

“I’ll let you know when the car will be available for pickup. Will likely be tomorrow, and I’ll take you to the dealership for it. Better get used to it quick because this weekend you’re driving us to Mom’s apartment for the day! I reserve the right to critique your driving skills after all this time! Drive safe!”

Melissa did not understand how Jean could be so cheery after everything they had talked about today. “Yea. Revenge and all. Listen, I just got the email from Gladys with what services I need to order so I need to jump on that. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Okay. Hey. Melissa. One more thing.” Melissa pulled her hand from the phone but said nothing. Jean spoke into the gap of silence. “If Bob is right, and this thing is going to be a repeat of the Spanish Influenza, a lot of things are going to be fucked for a while. Think about what we’ve made it through already, Melissa, and that was as kids beholden to Aunt Helen. We’re not kids anymore. We’re not beholden to Aunt Helen anymore. We’ll make it through this, too. Now, go be an adult and take care of adult business. We’ll talk later.”

Jean ended the call before Melissa could find the will to move her hand. When she did, she had forgotten the tarot deck was still in her grip and the cards spilled over the table and onto the floor. Melissa gathered them together and stacked them on the table face up.

She looked at the revealed card with curiosity. The Knight of Coins from the Sweeney Tarot was facing her and had captured her attention. The figure in the card was portrayed with their face down as they carried a tray with a tea kettle and cup. The image reminded Melissa that she had not eaten anything since breakfast, and that was before she reported for work this morning.

She started up her computer and went to the kitchen to make a quick sandwich while the system worked its way into functionality. She reflected on the need to replace her computer if she was going to meet Glady’s requirements and the fact that even without her job, she now had enough money to replace the computer six times over without thinking about how it might affect her budget.

So, when an icon started flashing for attention, she didn’t recognize it as the Discord program which had automatically launched as her system started. Absentmindedly, she clicked on the icon as she continued to think about how best to spend her money.

“There you are! I missed you! You didn’t show up for our appointment!” TheBrandNameBrandon’s message had been sent less than a minute before Melissa’s viewing of it.

She thought about logging out of Discord again, but that felt like running away again to her. Now that Jean had helped her understand that part of the past, Melissa didn’t feel like running from the present anymore.

“You can drop the act now. You’re not doing a good job of impersonating him.” Melissa replied without adding any emojis or symbols. When the imposter did not reply right away, she added one more line of text. “Is he okay?”

“What does it matter to you? Need some cash?” The imposter’s response was immediate.

“If you’re really Brandon’s sister, or at least a family member, I can guess why you’re upset at me. But if you’ve been in his message history, you’ll see that there’s no relationship between us and that we’ve always met in public places. I have stolen nothing from him and I don’t require anything from him. Brandon is nice to sit with and I want to know if he’s okay. What happened that you would take over his account?”

“You’re a whore and a liar and a disgrace to your mother’s family. If you pay back what you stole, you might stay out of prison. Otherwise, we have enough evidence on you to lock you up for life and make sure you never take advantage of anyone else again!” The imposter followed the diatribe with an avalanche of knife and siren emojis.

Melissa watched the screen fill with the icons and came to a different conclusion than what she had begun the conversation with. “You’re not his family. You’re not related to him at all. You’re going off of what his sister last posted in this private message months ago. She must have been sloppy with the credentials. I’ll let his grandfather know to close this account.”

Melissa muted TheBrandNameBrandon’s account even as the imposter added on to their threats. She thought about blocking it entirely, but held on to hope that Brandon would recover the account and contact her. She was not dishonest about their encounters. Hanging out with Brandon sometimes netted her some money or some weed, but there was never the topic of sex between them and she did not recognize the absence as a safe haven until now.

Now that she was starting the browser, the program was attempting to load all of her previously loaded tabs at the same time. The sound of the cooling fan barely preventing the system from literally melting itself into slag pulled Melissa out of her reverie and back into the present as she was suddenly facing the need to replace her computer regardless of what she was using it for.

The combination of never having shopped for a computer before and never having shopped for anything in this price range before was giving Melissa a deep sense of unease and anxiety. She had watched many of her peers and family members betrayed by their ignorance of how much something is worth compared to the price tag and she was afraid of being the next Winston to fall prey to the ocean of so-called advisors pandering to the family’s collective ego.

She was reminded of leeches and wondered if that was how Brandon’s family thought of her. Did they see her as a parasite taking advantage of Brandon’s desire for peace and quiet? If what Jean said was true about Brandon using her as a cover, then would that make him the bad guy for misleading her?

And did he mislead her in the first place? Did she mislead him by accepting his money and gifts? Were either of them wrong for how each treated the other? She stared at the browser still struggling to load a dozen gossip blogs at the same time. Videos stuttered in the background as ads fought for the viewer’s attention. They reminded her of how her cousins fought for Aunt Helen’s attention to be the first to tell the matriarch how Melissa had allegedly tarnished the family name again regardless if the tale was true or not.

Melissa closed the browser and clicked through the acknowledgement that this would close the browser’s twenty-three open tabs as well. Once the cooling fans spun down, she opened her email and looked through the list of links that Gladys had sent her. Not only did she send a list of requirements, but also sent a link to a business portal that Melissa could order her new system through.

Turned out that being promoted gave her access to more than just a dedicated parking spot. She could now get computers and gear with the specifications required for her new position delivered overnight as long as she was willing to pay the full cost upfront.

The cost of the systems made her forget about Brandon until she realized that the least of the computers now available to her cost more than her reckoning of how much Brandon had spent on her in all of their meetings combined. Was it a hacker that was on his account today? Or was it another family member trying to extort what his sister couldn’t threaten out of her before?

Now that Melissa realized how little had actually been spent on her and what role she played to hide his homosexuality from his family, she wondered what kind of restitution did his sister really want. Money, which wasn’t even enough to count as a rounding error in the family’s balance sheet, or reputation, which in Aunt Helen’s eyes was much more valuable as a weapon than any financial receipt.

But with Melissa’s reputation, earned or not, there would be no saving grace for Brandon. For Director Jack Brandon, either his favored grandson was not manly enough to justify bearing his name, or not proper enough of a man to make manly decisions. Either way, there was no way to make amends and probably no means to make a departure as well.

Melissa accepted there was nothing she could do for Brandon and that the best thing she could do right now for both of them was to go on with the business of improving herself and leaving the matter behind her. And that meant accepting how her life had changed and that regardless of her deepening personal discomfort, she had money in her own name that she could spend on her own desires according to her own whims.

And spend she did. She trusted Gladys’s choice in vendors and bought a complete desktop system for home, and a sleek little ultrabook for when she was on the go. As she confirmed the purchase, she understood that she wasn’t likely to be on the go for much longer and might not be on the go at all if the country locked down. But this was the time to prepare for any future work.

Slightly ashamed but very satisfied at her adult actions, Melissa stood and picked up her plate with intent to go to the kitchen. She nudged her forgotten deck of cards again and knocked some cards to the floor. Returning from the kitchen, she stopped to pick them up and saw that not only were there six cards lying face down on the floor, but that those cards were spaced out in a rough hexagon pattern that reminded her of her dreams.

Melissa picked up the cards, keeping them face down, and laid them on the desk as if points on a hexagon. She reflected on the topics that accompanied the day’s drift from afternoon into evening and looked again at the pattern.

“Oh yea, the sixes. Six of Coins and Six of Spheres. After everything that’s happened today, are we really going to do this?” After staring at the cards for a while, she sighed as she opened a browser tab to the tarot website that Rebecca had riffed from for the Major Arcana meanings. “Yea, we’re doing this.”

“Gaining by giving. But I haven’t given anything. I bought the computer gear, but it was needed for my job, so that balances out. Whoever it was on Brandon’s account wanted me to pay whatever they think I’ve stolen from him, but I haven’t stolen anything and I owe him nothing, so that was balanced from the beginning. Even the ride-share was paid for and the car Jeannie is getting for me is being paid for with my funds, so I have gained nothing wrongfully today and I have given nothing wrongfully today. And no amount of going over my debts, real or imagined, is going to change that.”

Melissa looked at the pattern of cards again as understanding wiped the worry from her face. “Wait. I’ve been going through both the Six of Coins and the Six of Spheres all this time. The tarot website talks about bringing things into balance by using resources to secure happiness. But everything resource related I’ve looked at today has been about making sure that nothing is taken or given without cause, but still making a proper response when a response is needed. There’s a word for that, but I can’t think of it.”

She reached to get her notebook from under her other tarot decks. “Well, if Six of Coins is the result, what is the Six of Spheres pushing that made me focus on this? What kind of…”

She opened her notebook and titled the first empty page as “Six of Spheres: Reckoning”. She wrote some notes about emotional examination and how easy it would be to try to buy her way out of dealing with the difficult emotions raised by that examination.

She drew a line to divide the page and titled the new section as “Six of Coins: Restitution”. Notes were then left about how guilt is a type of debt and how sometimes the best way to balance one’s books is to do nothing but accept that the way things were cannot be changed and that it’s not possible to spend the present in a futile attempt to absolve the past.

Melissa looked over her written words and laughed at how knowledgeable and wise they appeared to her. She didn’t think it was possible to squeeze the emotions of the entire day into such a succinct and pointed entry, but there it was.

Tomorrow, Jeannie will have a car ready for her and Gladys will inform her how to fulfill her new work duties from home. Tomorrow, Melissa will order an upgrade to her internet service and order more staples to stock her larder in preparation for a long wait. But tonight, there’s Netflix and homemade ramen bowls and Melissa felt that she had done more than enough adulting for the day and it was time to do nothing productive at all.


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