HTG: Quarterly Gains & Losses
By Delilah Winston
Pacing back and forth by the door, Donna wrung her hands anxiously. Her feet were getting sore from the continued motion, despite her sneakers and the gel insoles. She'd been at it long enough that no amount of cushioning was going to help for long. Donna was a wreck of emotion and nerves. She hadn't slept well for the past several days. Christina had probed her about this, because it showed in Donna's work. It was the last thing the blonde felt she could talk about with anyone. Christina, or Karen, and especially...
“I can't,” Donna finally said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Forgive me, I can't do it, I can't--”
Donna turned and took four steps away from the door, and nearly walked smack into the very person she was in such shambles over.
“Donna? You can't what?”
Her head snapped up in shock, caught wholly on her blind side and unprepared. She stumbled back, the narrow walls of the hallway the only thing stopping her from losing her balance.
“What are you doing here, Donna? Are you all right?”
The voice of a small child broke in. “Mommy? Who's that?”
The boy was about 4'4”, slim, with a deep suntan and dark curly hair. His bright eyes looked up at Donna inquisitively. A near-spitting image of a second boy coming around from behind his mother; the primary thing telling them apart being their differently-colored jackets.
Carla turned and rang the adjacent doorbell. The sound of a peephole opening preceded the door opening. A short black woman, looking to be in her late 40's, with her hair up in a bun, smiled at Carla.
“Carla, how was the trip? Hi there, Pablo! And hi, Ernesto! Did you have a good time?”
The two children nodded. “Yes, Auntie Carol!” They both piped up excitedly.
Carol turned her head, noticing Donna. “Oh, hello. I'm Carol, Carla's neighbor. I'm not really related to her or the boys. They just all treat me like I am.” She smiled.
Donna managed to smile back. “Everyone should be so fortunate, to have neighbors like that.”
Carol nodded agreement and turned to Carla. “So Carla, what can I do for you?”
“Donna works with me at my job, I need to speak with her alone,” Carla said, smiling.
“Oh, of course. Pablo, Ernesto, come on in, and we'll have some apple juice and watch a couple of cartoons, all right?”
The two boys looked at Carla quizzically, and she smiled again, waving them toward Carol's door. They hustled inside, and Carol smiled at Carla, closing the door behind her.
“So-- oh, no you don't, Donna. You're coming inside with me.”
Carla had turned just in time to spot Donna trying to walk away without being noticed. She took Donna by the arm and held it lightly while she rummaged in her purse for her keys. Opening the door to her apartment, Carla released Donna, but waved her inside. Defeated, the blonde complied.
Carla led Donna to the living room where Donna sat on the sofa, and Carla in the adjacent loveseat.
“You know I've been meaning to sit you down like this, Donna; I just wasn't expecting it to be here.”
Everything broke loose. All Donna could feel was a sense of relief that she'd finally been cornered and put on the spot to confess everything. The blonde's head dropped down to her hands and she wept inconsolably.
She felt Carla's weight settle on the sofa seat beside her, and Carla's hand resting on her shoulder, rubbing it. How on Earth this woman could sit like that, being strong for HER, at a time like this??
Donna's words were barely coherent. “Carla forgive me I swear I didn't look at it, it was an accident I swear!”
Donna's hands finally lowered from her eyes, and she saw Carla looking at her with a curious expression.
“Didn't look at what, Donna? What are you talking about?”
Donna's lip quivered uncontrollably. “You left it open on your desk, I only noticed a couple of words and I SWEAR I looked away...!”
It finally happened. Carla's face fell; the human resources counselor's chest puffing out in a sudden heaving breath, her composure more shaken than Donna had ever seen it.
“My journal. Oh my God. I fucked up again... again...”
“I saw the monogram, I thought it was your initial.”
“But now you know it's not.” Carla's eyes were glistening; Donna could see the bitter fight the older woman waged to stop the tears from spilling out. She held out for a few moments. No more.
“The squiggle symbol near the monogram,” Donna said. “It's a caduceus. The medical symbol. It's a medical journal. The C isn't your initial. It's 'The Big C.'”
Carla's face dropped to her left hand. Her shoulders began heaving up and down as her voice broke.
“Donna, it's all my fault. When you drove me to my doctor that day. Mr. Halwell asked you to bring me to my doctor, and I was putting papers in my purse when I came out.”
Donna's brows met above the bridge of her nose. “Hospital admission forms?”
“Not hospital, but to see a gastro-enterologist. My doctor was suspicious that it was more than just reflux. He sent me to have a colon exam. I put it off... and I put it off again. And I put it off AGAIN! Finally I couldn't lay on my stomach anymore, and my doctor told me GO. And I went...”
Donna's hands covered her mouth. She wasn't hearing what she was hearing. She pinched herself as hard as she could; this wasn't real, this wasn't happening, this wasn't--
“If I'd gone right away, they said I might have been out of work for four to six months, but I'd have recovered. I'd have been able to come back, even at a lower position, less responsib...”
They sobbed openly on each others' shoulders. Donna held her advisor and confidante tightly, not wanting to let her go. She couldn't lose her. Not like this. Not so soon.
“Can't they do anything?” It wasn't too late. It COULDN'T be.
“It's all my FAULT, Donna,” Carla cried in misery. “I don't have any time left. How do I tell anyone? I've been in auto-pilot, like if I just carried on like this never happened, it would just go away, it would… just go away...”
Donna squashed Carla against her again, like holding her this tight would keep her from going anywhere.
Mr. Halwell was the only one besides Donna who knew the truth over the next two weeks. Although Donna suspected that one or two of the other managers in New Bonds knew; at least Mr. Stone as well. Karen and Christina hadn't been coming to see Donna about her continued sleeplessness, and her loss of appetite. Nobody said anything, but Donna had her hunch as to why. Work continued on.
At the end of the second week, Mr. Halwell buzzed Donna on her speakerphone and asked her to come into his office.
The door to Mr. Halwell's office was ajar, showing that Donna didn't need to knock. Or, at least, wait for Mr. Halwell to tell her to come in. She closed the door behind her and approached the desk.
Mr. Halwell shook hands with Donna and motioned for her to be seated. Mr. Halwell looked just about fifty years old; his blond hair starting to pale out into a silvery hue. He was clean shaven, with an angular jaw and small mouth. His eyes were green like Donna's, perhaps a shade lighter. His skin was light tan, starting to look weathered; Donna had heard he was into offshore fishing and owned a small motorboat. He was tall and lean, and always wore a dark navy suit with a white shirt. Today he wore a mid-blue paisley tie and brown shoes with his usual shirt, pants, and jacket.
Mr. Halwell cut right to the chase. “We can sit on this another week. Ten days at most. That's all. I can't begin to express how grateful I am that you've held up like this under such pressure.”
Donna nodded, although her face was starting to look sunken; enough to show how the pressure ground her into the floor with a slow, patient gnawing that would break her before much longer.
“I've cleared this with Frank already. I can't, and won't make you do it. But if I never again need to plead with a subordinate like this, I'm pleading to you now. Claim some sick leave, and get as much rest as you can. Do whatever you can, and need to do, to de-stress yourself. Please, please, <i>trust</i> me; you're going to need it.”
Donna didn't need any proof that he was right. “How much time?”
“Starting this Wednesday, for ten calendar days. That will be eight work days. This will be a paid leave period, since you like to save some extra time for an emergency. Well, this is an emergency, like none we've ever had before.”
Donna couldn't help but grin. Again, she didn't need any proof that he was right. “I trust you have the papers I need to sign for this?”
Mr. Halwell grinned back, sliding the papers across the desk. Donna looked them over, and signed them.
“Frank will add his signature and you'll be all set. Thank you, Donna. Words can't convey my gratitude for this.”
Donna wiped a few tears away. “Thank you too, Mr. Halwell.”
He looked wistfully at the name plate on his desk. “If there was ever a time I wished I could go against policy and tell you to just call me Dan.”
Donna had to smile again through her sniffles. “Well, who knows. Maybe not today...”
Mr. Halwell smiled back again; his face lighting up with approval. “Mark my words, Donna, even if two or three other women get there first, you'll be close behind. We keep an eye on our ladies and how dedicated they are to their work. If any woman has proven that it's just a matter of putting in the necessary time. It'll take a few more years. Six, seven, maybe eight; everyone's different. But you're going to be Ms. Richmond to a lot of people here one day.”
Donna wiped her eyes again, and reached for the hand sanitizer on Mr. Halwell's desk, wiping her hands clean before she stood. They shook hands once more, and Donna returned to her office.
* * * *
The lead aide didn't cover Donna's mouth as the other three went to work; two putting her hands and wrists behind her as the last aide began tying her up. They all handled Donna even more gently than was their usual norm; enough that she'd easily have been able to wriggle loose and escape from them if this had been a real street confrontation. Donna offered no resistance as she was tied. The loops around her wrists conformed to their contours, and the cinches drew the coils as tightly together, as always. The only difference is that Donna remained still and slack. The aides all knew, or they must have, by Donna's reasoning, that it was her norm to squirm around in their grasp; an ongoing cat-and-mouse game all the women played with the aides simply because they could. Donna didn't play that game today, and the aides responded with their standard non-response. The extra-gentle treatment, Donna knew, wasn't because she stood still for them, but rather at Mr. Stone's orders. Today of all days, she appreciated that greatly.
The knot was tied methodically and drawn tight. They allowed Donna to tug lightly at the ropes a couple of times before they began drawing the first loops of rope around her chest, above her bust line. Each loop was carefully made, keeping her clothes from rumpling underneath or in between the coils, before each coil was drawn tighter. After the fourth loop, the ends were twisted and wrapped around each other several times, resting along her spine. The remaining lengths were then looped around her body again, this time underneath her breasts; once again looped carefully to keep her clothes straight and unruffled before each loop was then drawn tight. After the fourth loop the ends of the rope were pulled back around behind Donna and knotted tightly near the midpoint of her spine.
Donna blinked involuntarily at the flash of white before her eyes. As she felt the length of linen cloth press against her lips, she noted that the aides were being allowed to bend 'protocol' slightly; they'd tied the ropes around her chest before they gagged her. But, she knew, Mr. Stone, and therefore the aides, must have been aware that Donna wasn't going to ask any questions about it. Again she offered no resistance to the fold of cloth pushing its way through her lips, into her mouth, and then pushing her teeth slightly apart to settle over her tongue. She felt the ends of the strip pulled back along her cheeks, pulling her lips tautly together, and then knotted tightly; one aide pinching the bottom half of the knot to keep it from slackening even by the slightest measure as a second aide tied the top half and pulled it tight.
The four of them gently lifted Donna up and settled her on the stool. The lead aide held her steady from behind as two aides tied her ankles, and the fourth tied her knees. As always, each loop wrapped carefully before it was tightened, never snagging Donna's stockings. As always, the aide that tied her knees, made the cinches very carefully, but also quickly enough that his fingers never gave the impression of touching Donna inappropriately. After the knots were all tight, the aides gently picked Donna up by her elbows, waist, and ankles, and laid her on the floor, on her side, before carefully rolling her onto her stomach. Her feet were lifted perpendicular to the floor by the heels of her shoes; one end of the short rope was affixed to her ankle bondage, before the rope was used to gently draw her feet up and along her spine until the other end of the short rope could reach her wrist bondage, where the end was tied off to complete the hogtie.
One aide knelt down beside Donna and showed her an index card with some images carefully scrawled on it. A horizontally drawn stick figure that Donna knew, represented herself, was near the bottom center of the card. Closer to the right end was a slightly ajar door with another stick figure on the other side; a line of short dashes connecting the head of this stick figure, to the one representing Donna. At the top of the card were two clock figures showing a time difference of fifteen minutes. Donna understood that this meant the aides would peek in on her every fifteen minutes to make sure she was all right.
Donna would have smiled if her gag let her lips stretch enough for it. Again, Mr. Stone was one step ahead of her. She nodded quickly to the aide, who nodded back and slid the cushion under her chin, before he rose to his feet again. The aides unplugged her phone cord, stored it in the usual desk drawer, and picked up the stool, taking it with them as they left the office and closed the door.
Donna gave a soft sigh and stretched slightly, rolling her shoulders so her body could manage what comfort was possible in her restrictive position and bondage. She shook her head only a little, this time, amused at how Mr. Stone had correctly anticipated her demeanor throughout this last 'Down Time' period before her sick leave began. Much like Bea's little sister, Suzanne, Donna remained still and didn't struggle. She wore her gag without any complaint or attempt to cry out through it. She stretched, shifted a bit, and rolled her shoulders every so often; no more. When an aide peeked in, she glanced up at her door and gave him a small nod. Donna's field of vision, from her vantage point, was just high enough to note the aide returning her nod before he closed the door again.
The forty-five minutes seemed to take a fair bit longer this time. It gave Donna an increased sense of respect and admiration for Suzanne, who never struggled to get free while she was tied up, nor did she ever make a sound into her gag. It must have been that very inaction that made the time seem to pass more slowly. When the door next opened and all four aides were there, Donna felt a sense of relief.
Again, the aides were being allowed to suspend protocol for this occasion. They used the scissors to cut Donna loose, being just methodical enough to maintain their trademark precision. Not a nick in any of Donna's clothing, nor a pull in one strand in her stockings. They helped her to her feet, and one of them drew out her chair as she sat. Donna gave them a grateful thanks, which they acknowledged with a nod before leaving again.
Donna set around to finishing up her work for the day. After a few moments, she heard the murmuring of Christina's voice outside her office. This was followed by more murmuring, this time, Mr. Stone's voice.
Christina came in to give Donna the standard lotion bottles and packets of Epsom salt; part of the usual routine where Donna brought one of each to Cassie. Once this was done, Donna returned to her office to log out of her workstation.
Donna's door opened again, and Mr. Stone came in. He smiled as he handed Donna an envelope.
“Here's your copy of the paperwork for your sick leave,” he said. “And a voucher for a session with the shiatsu center over on Hastings Street, if you choose to use it. My wife undergoes shiatsu therapy sometimes, and she recommends it to everyone she knows. So if you'd like to give it a try, the company will arrange payment for an introductory session.”
Donna clasped Mr. Stone's hand for a few brief seconds to show her gratitude. “You've really gone out of your way for me since this all started,” she said. “I'm not sure what I'd have done without it.”
“You just focus on some wellness for the next ten days,” Mr. Stone said. “Once the shit really hits the fan, it'll be the difference that keeps you out of the hospital from a breakdown.”
Donna nodded. “I'm sure it will,” she admitted.
Mr. Stone nodded back. “See you on the 21st.”
Christina was exiting her office just as Donna did the same. They exchanged a pleasant 'good night,' and Donna hung back enough to stay a few paces behind the brunette as they headed to the elevator.
Donna had known that Ethan would be doing whatever he could to help her out during her sick leave. She didn't anticipate what he'd do and how far he'd go.
“Hi Donna, I'm Jean Goldman.”
Donna shook hands with the younger of Ethan's two sisters. Short in height, with medium length dark hair in a ponytail. Not muscular, but she looked strong, like steel wire. Lean but shapely and tan, and she walked and moved with sure movements. She looked around thirty; a few years older than Ethan, who was the youngest of Mr. Goldman's three kids.
“P-pleasure to meet you,” Donna responded, managing to keep her surprise under control.
“I teach yoga and meditation in Chicago. I run a studio on its Loop. Ethan said you were having problems with stress, and asked me if I could help.”
Donna gave a broken chuckle. “A coworker of mine is dying of cancer. She's a very good friend and a confidante.”
Jean turned to Ethan with a shocked look; one to which he responded with just a grave nod.
“I-I'm so sorry,” she said, blushing as she stepped forward and hugged Donna comfortingly. “I'll do whatever I can to help.”
Donna opened a small travel bag she'd brought. “Ethan gave
me a run down on some proper clothing to bring.”
Jean looked the clothes over and nodded. “Those will do fine. Let's all get changed and we'll do some basic meditation exercises.”
Ninety minutes later, a kettle was boiling water for tea. Jean had recommended some of her favorite herbals, including honey-lemon, ginger and raspberry.
“Another of my co-workers likes those flavors,” Donna smiled. “I've drank them now and then, although I've always been a coffee-drinker at heart.”
“Stop for a while,” Jean said. “Caffeine will be one of your biggest enemies during this time. You HAVE to get enough sleep for the next few months. It will make or break this recovery period. Honestly, the best thing for you to do is just keep a pitcher of cold water in your fridge.”
Donna scribbled a few notes in a small pad. The exercise they'd just completed was a big help. She felt tangibly better, which helped motivate her to follow as many of Jean's recommendations as she felt she could. “I'll unplug my percolator and put it away for now,” she promised.
“As for YOU,” Jean suddenly poked a finger at her brother's chest, “No taking her to a fast food place, a sports bar or any place that's big on serving junk food or alcohol. Find a place that home delivers and bring her right here. Remember that a salad with some chicken goes down easier than steak, and carrots are good at keeping you satisfied. Keep the TV off and the stereo on. The easiest listening that Donna likes.”
“Will do, doctor,” Ethan gave a big grin, although his voice showed he was taking it seriously and intent on doing his part.
Jean smiled and hugged Ethan before turning back to Donna. “I'll be here for five more days. What kind of work do you do, if you don't mind my asking?”
“Jean...” Ethan's tone showed he'd asked her not to get into this.
“It's okay, Ethan,” Donna assured him. “If things between us continue the way they're going, she and your other sister are gonna find out one day.”
Jean looked close into Donna's eyes, and then gave Ethan another surprised look.
Ethan just shrugged. “That story, I'll tell you later,” he said.
“Can't wait to hear it,” Jean said. “Well, that explains why Dad offered to pick up my air fare when I told him I was coming to pay you a visit. I didn't tell him what it was about. But I guess he knew?”
Donna rolled her eyes but had to laugh softly. “I wouldn't be surprised if news made it all the way up to the top of the ladder,” she admitted.
Jean stepped behind Donna and rubbed her shoulders. Her strong hands kneaded Donna's shoulders and neck like dough, forcing any lingering knots out of the muscles. “I'll be honest with you, Donna. All three of us, including Kathy, we all know what you have to do if you're working for Dad. And none of us think all too highly of it. But that company fed us, housed us, clothed us, made sure we all had the right school supplies, and it put us through college; and he and Mom were VERY careful to keep our exposure to it, as well as their own unique relationship, at a minimum. From the day Kathy was old enough to walk, all the way to this day, whenever any of us visit, we're not allowed into their basement. It's one of their strictest rules, that they enforced at all times.”
Donna couldn't help but grin wide and shake her head lightly. “They 'normalized' it as much as they could. One of the first things I was counseled on when I started working at HTG,” she said. Her voice was slightly lisped and mumbled from the shoulder rub, which had also been doing a lot to relax her.
Jean stopped and stepped back in front of Donna. “This co-worker of yours. Is that who she is?”
Donna lifted her chin, looking at Jean quizzically, but Jean just gave a small smile.
“I should have guessed,” she said, turning toward the kitchen as she heard the sound of the kettle starting to whistle; a signal that the hot water was ready. “You should have, too, Ethan.”
Ethan sighed a bit. “I should have,” he conceded, looking at Donna. “Overseer. That's what Jean and I call the position. Works in Human Resources. She'll be the one doing the most to help 'indoctrinate' new hires to the way things 'work.'”
“Indoctrinated,” Donna repeated. “That sounds like what I'd have called it in my first few days.”
“Don't get us wrong,” came Jean's voice from the kitchen. “Takes a very strong and extraordinary woman to counsel new hires like that, and give them such a sense of community. I can see why it's hitting you so hard that she's gonna be gone soon. She has my respect, if she's been keeping all the female workers together, keeping that community going so well. What's her name, if you're cool with telling?”
“Carla Velasquez,” Donna said.
Jean came out of the kitchen with three mugs on a small tray; trails of steam wafting up from each. She gave one mug to Ethan and one to Donna, before taking the last one. “Well, Donna, I'll spend the next five days helping you deal with this, as best I can. I'd stay a little longer if I could.”
Donna settled against Ethan's side. “I'm so grateful you're giving me this much,” she said. “Couldn't dream of asking for any more.”
Cancer. The word rang like a musical instrument very badly out of tune, in the ears of all the women in HTG. It clung to their tongues with a bitter aftertaste. It was as severe a blow to the sisterhood's morale, among all the female workers, as Karen and Carla had feared it would be. Even among all the male workers, whichever ones among them the corporate women had regular contact with, the ripples found their way to them, too.
A final memo from Carla begged the women not to let a second cancer ravage the bond among them all, the way her own cancer was destroying her own insides. They'd all need each other more than ever, she said. What made her saddest was that she couldn't do anything to help them. That she was so busy thinking about all of them, when she'd be entering a hospice by the end of the month, shook them all the most.
To Be Continued…
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