Brenda sat at her desk reviewing her agenda. She calculated the time to complete each task, added in time to get from place to place, and had the files she needed for the day in a neat stack on the corner of her desk. When she was satisfied she had everything in order, she took a shallow, but slow breath.
It was Wednesday. There was a meeting to give reports on their work progress on Friday. This list of agenda items would give her breathing room tomorrow in case something came up. Brenda looked at the digital clock in the corner of her computer screen: 8:15. Her planning time was over. She picked up the top file folder, a sharpened pencil in the round pencil cup, and her agenda and headed to the elevator to go to the 4th floor.
She unconsciously pursed her lips and tilted her head back. She looked forward in half closed eyes as she had to look down to see where she was going. Her tailored cream wool skirt barely moved as she walked. It’s pencil style left no extra fabric to ruffle in the wind. Her size B, budget pantyhose gave her legs a matte finish that made them blend in with the textured wallpaper in the hallway. She was trim, if slightly muscular. She liked to exercise. She ran long distances several times a week.
Right now she could feel the power in her legs as she pulled herself in purposeful glides. She stared straight ahead, but took note in her peripheral vision that Candy Johnson passed her on the left. She refused to look Candy’s way to acknowledge her. Her attention was a commodity she didn’t give freely. She certainly wasn’t going to give it to Candy, who, like her name, was the epitome of indulgence. Candy was terribly overweight. Brenda figured she had to be at least 30 lbs too heavy. Someone with the lack of willpower was a time waster at best, dangerous to be around at worst. They could pull you into their world of disarray and impulsiveness.
Brenda smirked ever so slightly, pleased with her own ability to stay focused and not give away any of her focus, even for a side glance. It had taken five years at Department of Human Services to order her worklife in such a way that she rarely made a mistake. She got things done when she said she would. She knew what was expected of her as an employee and crossed every “t” and dotted every “i”.
She also knew where you could let something go because it was never checked. If they don’t check it, it means it doesn’t matter. Why should I care? Her job was to review medicaid claim files created by case workers for accuracy. She checked for accuracy, audited evidence, and interviewed the case worker for clarification. She never gave any thought to the case or its content with regard to “human services.” She was performing a vital role. A stop-gap for errors that would cost funding.
She was not evaluated on her participation in office potlucks or for coming to work 20 minutes early. She would not simply give away her time and attention. In the scheme of things, what really mattered was getting her agenda accomplished so she could present a flawless report Friday.
Jessica followed beside Brenda unseen. Jessica had been with Brenda since Brenda was born, but Brenda had no idea. Jessica was her Protector and actually, she was Brenda’s great, great aunt.In life, Jessica had been a great deal like Brenda. She was a no non-sense woman born just before 1900 and passing just before Brenda was born. Brenda was her first assignment.
Jessica made lady’s dresses for a mercantile in Boston. She was very good at sewing and her dresses were perfect. The stitching was straight. The fabric was cut with the pattern. The lining was good enough to wear as a dress on its own. Other women raved over her dresses and paid dearly to own one. Jessica knew she was good. She didn’t need to bother with networking or building relationships. Either people paid to have one of her dresses or they didn’t own one.
Jessica was a hard women to love in life. She had married and been widowed at a young age. She never saw a reason to marry again. She didn’t need a man to take care of her. Her dresses provided for her. A man would just want attention. Worse, he would want to touch her and she didn’t like anyone or any thing touching her. Any kind of touching made her jump. She often wore gloves so she never had to feel another’s skin.
Now she followed Brenda and understood her all too well. Now, though, in the world between time, where there are no deadlines, no reports, no clocks, what had her coping skills in life taught her? She had been very successful in life by her own standards. No one told her what to do. She only took jobs that she wanted to. She frequently turned away customers who would make her dresses look bad. They had to hang just a certain way. Too much weight or an unshapely figure would ruin the style.Even so, she had plenty of business. She lived in a grand house with servants to help her. Her life was ordered and predictable.
Now, her life after her life was completely different. She gladly accepted the job as Protector. She wanted to continue to be productive. She could have gone on the heaven, but why? She envisioned eternity lounging around paradise as a waste of time. As she followed Brenda around as a child, there were plenty of opportunities to keep her from falling or getting lost. As Brenda got older, Jessica saw that the dangers were more inward. She would get frustrated with her. Brenda would not set her alarm to wake up on time. She would fuss at Brenda and whisper to her that she wasn’t going to be successful by being late. But, then Shadows would come behind her and tell Brenda she was worthless and lazy. Brenda would cry in the bathroom with the door closed. She would pinch herself in anger. As time went on, Jessica could see Brenda had a self-loathing that ran very deep. Nothing she could say seemed to get through to her.
Jessica was knocked out of her reverie in the hallway when Brad, a branch manager came wheeling around a corner holding a cup of coffee and slammed into Brenda with such force it caused her to fall backward. Her agenda hit the ground and the rings of the binder popped open. Coffee was all across the front of her blouse and skirt. The file folder contents lay in a disorganized heap. Brenda, stunned, looked around and took in the damage.
Brad was already trying to gather up the file folder and its contents and began stuffing it together. He had coffee on his hands and it was getting on the papers. That was it. Brenda bounced up off the ground and snatched the papers away from him.
“Brad! What on earth are you doing? Why don’t you drink your coffee at home? These audit forms are ruined! It’s our job to have everything in order!”
“I- Uh-,” Brad stammered, “I’m sorry. I was late and I didn’t see you,” he weakly offered as he took a step back from the laser-like gaze of her eyes.
“Late?” She drilled her gaze at him. “If you did your job on time, maybe I could get mine done!” She piled the file and still-popped-open binder in her arms, stuck the pencil behind her right ear, and stormed back to her desk.
Brad was aptly dressed down and stood there embarrassed with nothing to say. He took a deep breath, picked up the crumpled styrofoam cup from the floor, and shuffled on to the meeting hoping no one was looking at him.
At her desk, Brenda tried to hold back the tears. Her clothes had to be changed, she was now going to be at least a half hour behind schedule, and she needed to redo the audit sheets.She took a few huffed deep breaths, smoothed her hair back into place and opened the longer coat cabinet door on the side of her cubicle. She reached down and pulled out her black duffle bag for the gym. She had planned to go workout at lunch.
She headed for the ladies room to change. “Workout clothes,” she whispered to herself. She rolled her eyes and made a scowl that was sure to let it be known that no one is to say a word to her today. Locked in her mind, she cringed. No, no, no! My plan is all ruined! How will I get it all done? No one will take me seriously in spandex!
Jessica couldn’t read her mind, but she knew what she must be thinking. She had also cringed slightly when Brenda was berating Brad. She’d heard Brad talk about how much he admired Brenda, so she knew that Brenda’s words must have cut deep. She wondered if she had found a man who admired her, maybe there would have been more comfort in her heart. Brenda was going to miss a chance for that if she kept her driven attitude. But, at what cost is that worth? Life’s all give and take. Jessica wondered now, after life was done, if she let it go too easily. What had her driven ambition gotten her besides nice furniture and servants. Where were they now?
Against her first impulse to tell Brenda to buck up and keep to the schedule, Jessica said what she never thought she would, “Brenda, look at yourself in the mirror.” Brenda did and started to tear up. She looked nothing like the professional auditor she worked so hard to be. “Now look at that girl in the mirror who is strong and can laugh at herself. Look! You can smile and go tell Brad its okay. You have the power to change the outcome of this.”
Brenda stood fixed, confused. On the one hand she liked having power, but on the other hand she had always used that power to be better than others. She had never thought about being powerful to make a difference to others. She gazed into her own eyes and saw the coldness. It was the same coldness of her mother’s eyes when she had made a mistake. She had always wished her mother would have used her strength to lift her up when she fell. With timid resolve inside, she set her mind to it. Her mind was like a cyborg with orders. No matter the timidity of the order, it followed. She tried to smile. A smug look came naturally. She smiled a little more. She could see her perfect teeth peeking through. Satisfied, she picked up her bag with her creamer-smelling clothes inside and turned to the door.
She hunted down hallways until she found Brad’s meeting and waved at hm through the glass window in the door. His first expression was slight panic, until he saw her smile. She was trying very hard to look natural as the conflicting feelings fought inside her. He got up and excused himself and went out into the hallway.
“Brenda?” he asked as though ready to bolt.
“Brad, I just wanted to say I’m sorry. Its no big deal. I had extra clothes, and, well maybe I’ll be able to run faster in my running shoes to catch back up?” she laughed a tiny forced laugh, but it was enough.
“Brenda, I’m super sorry. This meeting is done in a half hour and I will do anything you need to help you get your workload done. Then, well, can I get you lunch? Do you like Subway?”
“Yeah,” she was in new territory and feeling a little dizzy. “Yeah, I like Subway. Let’s do that.”
“Great! I’ll see you in a few and we’ll knock out your list.” He smiled and looked in her brown eyes. Pausing in the awkward moment, “You know I have always admired how hard you work.”
She blushed, “Thanks.” She smiled again as she turned to go. Her heart was racing.
Jessica was pleased. She was completely at a loss for how to proceed, but she felt a new emotion. She realized she loved Brenda. Brenda was the same as the little girl inside herself that had always wanted friends but had been locked away while Strong-Jessica got things done. She knew how life turned out with Strong-Jessica. It was fine as a life goes, but it was hollow. She wanted more for Brenda and she would get a front row seat as her Protector.