HTG: Quarterly Gains & Losses
By Delilah Winston
Donna flipped the channel on her TV to watch the evening news. Afterward it would be time for bed. She'd made herself a cup of hot chocolate to help herself relax.
Her phone began to ring, and her eyebrows knitted above her eyes. “Who can that be, at this hour?” she wondered.
The caller ID said it was Amanda. Donna started to fret. It was uncommon for her cousin to be up at this hour, due to her early start at her job. “Amanda, how are you?” she said as she picked up.
There was a split-second of awkward silence. “I'm okay, Donna, no bad news incoming,” Amanda said quickly.
Donna gave a soft exhalation of relief. “Okay. Well, how are you doing?”
“I'm good, thanks,” Amanda answered dutifully. “Actually, I'm calling because I'm on an Amtrak train. I'm on a business trip, and I'll be passing by your neck of the woods the day after tomorrow. My boss just told me I'll have an overnight layover there, so I was thinking we could get together for an early dinner.”
Donna swallowed. She'd had a feeling this was going to happen sooner or later. “How early?”
“Well, when does your job finish for the day?”
Donna's teeth tapped lightly together. “The usual 5:00,” she said. 'Technically,' this was true enough; the women all stayed until 5:00 pm to make sure all the last paperwork and forms for the day were finished.
“Okay, does your building lobby have a waiting space if I get there a little early?” Amanda asked.
Donna felt her forehead and scalp growing warm.
“Yes, and please make sure you use it,” she cautioned her cousin, "the company doesn't like people wandering around the building."
“Not a problem,” Amanda said. “What's the address?”
Donna gave her the address. “I'll meet you in the lobby,” she said. “You going to be able to sleep well on the train?”
Amanda gave a scoffing chuckle. “Please. If I'm tired enough, I can fall asleep on my feet. I'm one lady who really needs her beauty sleep.”
Donna gave a noiseless chuckle in return. That was her cousin, through and through. “Okay, I'll see you then. Love you, cousin.”
“Love you too,” Amanda said in a bit of a falsetto to make her voice sound a bit younger. When she and Donna were little, they often used to play 'grown-up' by trying to speak very grown-up like.
Donna made sure to check in with Officer Brown the following morning. He grinned and waited patiently for Donna to finish explaining, although his expression showed he was prepared.
“Worst comes to worst, we can fake an elevator problem lickety-split,” he said. “Better if I don't explain the details, but we can shut them down in a jiffy if she tries to go upstairs.”
Donna smiled, feeling better. “Thank you. It's funny how edgy I am about my own family when it comes to them meeting me here.”
“You think you're the only one to get a surprise visit?” Officer Brown chuckled. “You're in for a surprise, then.”
“If you knew my family, you might want to expect a surprise or two yourself,” Donna said, leaning in a little and blushing.
“You know your family better than I do, Donna, but most of the women here say the same thing,” he said.
Donna's speakerphone buzzed as her computer's clock display hit 3:31.
“We're ready for your cousin's arrival,” Mr. Stone said.
“Are you really prepared for all this, too?” Donna asked, a little warily, but also amused.
Mr. Stone chuckled briefly. “Donna, I've been here thirteen years now, worked my way up from junior marketing representative, and I'm not done learning... what's the term Mary uses? All the 'bizarre oddities' that come up here?”
Donna put her face in her hand and laughed. “How many of you guys speak our lingo?” she asked, referring to the unique idioms and expressions used by the company women to describe all of these 'oddities' in 'life at HTG.'
“We pick up some of it over time, although it's rare we use it in conversation,” Mr. Stone admitted.
Donna's smile continued as she shook her head, impressed. “Good to know,” she said.
“I'd better get off now; they're on their way,” Mr. Stone said, and Donna didn't need to be told who 'they' were. “We'll keep watch for your cousin.”
“Okay, thanks,” Donna answered, as she ended the call.
The aides walked in about half a minute later. Donna was sure they knew that Amanda was coming, but it didn't affect how they did their job. They lifted her from her seat, put her hands behind her back and tied her wrists in the same routine manner. Donna's gag was tied in place, and her upper body, knees and ankles tied with the accustomed expert teamwork. They carefully placed her on the floor and tied her ankles to her wrists, before placing the cushion under her chin. As her phone cord was unplugged and stored in a desk drawer, the lead aide gave her a final assurance with an index card on which was drawn an eye, with a line of dashes pointing toward a stick figure topped with wavy lines for long hair, standing near a rectangle that Donna figured, meant the building elevators.
Donna's lips strained against her gag pulling the corners of her mouth back, trying to smile. “Fmmmhh Ymmm,” was all she could get out, though she suspected they knew she was saying 'thank you' for their watchfulness.
The lead aide rose to his feet and the four of them left the room, closing her door behind them. Donna slowly let her breath out as she began her struggles. The irony of lucking out and getting herself free just in case Amanda got too impatient, and then also proved more clever than they all anticipated, wasn't lost on her. It definitely gave her some extra motivation, and she just had to pit it against the aides' usual masterful work at tying her up each day.
Irony didn't account for people as well-trained and practiced as the aides, however. Donna found no better luck nor success at struggling free as any other day. Once the last knot was tied, she was as helpless as she could get. Donna continued her struggles, and her muffled cries into her gag, as much to pass the time and keep her mind unoccupied, as to keep up the fighting spirit the corporate women all had in vowing to keep at it until the ongoing 'competition' finally had a winner. A secondary bet had started to get placed every two weeks, in how much longer it would take before one woman finally won for the first time. That secondary bet still had no winner, either, and every woman betting on it had always gotten back whatever she put in, just like with the primary pool.
Donna shook her head in another attempt to throw her gag off, and kicked her toes back and forth.
The sounds of her own struggle made her miss the sound of the door opening. She blinked at the site of black shoes stepping into view, and felt several strong pairs of hands gently but firmly press on her shoulders and the heels of her shoes.
'<i>That sure went quicker than usual</i>,' Donna thought to herself.
She heard the sound of a scissors snipping, and the hogtie rope went completely slack. The aides held her feet steady, and her ankle bondage was cut loose. As the aides carefully lifted Donna to her feet, she knew something was very wrong, and she didn't need any guesses as to what it was about.
The lead aide held up an index card. A stick figure crowned with a few wavy lines that represented long hair, was drawn on the middle of a stairway. A sloping arrow pointing upward was above the stick figure. An eye was drawn on one side, dashes pointing in the opposite direction, showing Amanda had gone to the stairs at just the right moment when Officer Brown and his men weren't looking.
Donna leaned forward, her eyes bugging out at the drawing.
“MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMmmmmmmm!” she cried loudly into her gag.
The aides gently pulled her shoulders back to right her posture, and finished cutting her free.
“Okay, you win, Donna,” came Mr. Stone's voice through Donna's speakerphone. “Once she was in the stairwell, for us to send security agents after her would have started trouble we need to avoid. She'd have been all the more convinced that something was suspicious.”
A snip of the scissors and Donna's mouth was free; the blonde grunting loudly as she quickly pushed her jaw once to each side. “What the hell is WRONG with her?” she fumed, more to herself.
“You still have a couple of minutes to intercept her in the atrium,” Mr. Stone pointed out. “Don't worry about your remaining forms. Russ--” that was what Mr. Stone called Mr. Steward, whose first name was Russell-- “will send Bea to pick them up. She's finished her own paperwork for the day.”
“Well, I know who I'm treating to coffee tomorrow after work,” Donna said gratefully.
Mr. Stone ended the call, and Donna turned to the lead aide as they finished cleaning up. “I'm so sorry,” she mouthed silently.
He caught her lips moving and read them adeptly. His return gesture touched Donna more than she anticipated. With his right index finger, he tapped the fourth finger on his left hand, and then put his left hand near his waist and held up three fingers. Donna couldn't help but smile in return.
The lead aide gestured to the door. Donna nodded and hurriedly logged out of her workstation, and then grabbed her purse and winter coat. “Thanks, fellas,” she said, hurrying to the door.
She passed Bea on her way out; Bea had been untied early along with Donna, and told why. Donna expressed her thanks to Bea for covering for her, and offered to take her to Jackson's for coffee the following day. Bea smiled and touched hands with Donna, accepting the offer.
Donna made it to the atrium in time to intercept Amanda as she came out of the stairway, looking quite out of breath.
“There you are, Donna,” Amanda said, looking worried.
“Here I am?” Donna made an effort at looking and sounding as cross as she felt.
Amanda looked confused. “Donna... it's 5:20 pm.” She showed Donna her mobile device display. “I asked your security people downstairs about you twice, and they just said you'd 'be down soon.' I thought something was wrong.”
Donna looked at her wristwatch, and then at the wall clock, just to be sure. Her eyebrows raised. “Amanda, didn't you remember to set that device an hour back, for when Daylight Savings Time ended?” Donna knew Amanda had gotten the device just six weeks ago, after receiving a raise; and she only relied on its navigational and time features while traveling.
Amanda followed Donna's glance to the wall clock. Her jaw dropped and she looked at her mobile device's settings. Her face started to turn red. “Auto-adjustment unchecked by default, who the hell does that...? Oh, my God. Donna, I'm sorry.” Her voice trailed off, her face looking badly embarrassed.
Moved to compassion, Donna hugged her cousin. “That's what you get for taking an overnight layover on an extended business trip,” she said, putting her coat on.
Amanda, still embarrassed by her blunder, could only nod. “I can go back downstairs until you're done for the day,” she offered, looking to make it up to her cousin.
“They let me log out early once they saw you were coming to get me,” Donna said, grinning slyly, to which Amanda had to blush again.
“Will they let me in the front door next time, if there is one?” Amanda asked, her voice sounding timid.
Donna chuckled. “You can bet they'll watch you very closely, to make sure you don't try to come upstairs again, but I think they'll let you into the lobby.”
The elevators came back online. Donna pressed the button, and one arrived quickly. They rode down together to the lobby.
“So, there's this really nice-looking diner right across the street from here--” Amanda began, but didn't finish, as Donna quickly shook her head. She knew that a new hire from Foreign Bonds-- Mrs. MacHugh's new receptionist, most likely-- would be taken to dinner, provided she accepted the offer. No way was Donna going to bring her cousin to Jackson's.
“I'm in the mood for Chinese, tonight, if you're up for it,” Donna offered. “There's an excellent full-service place about a five minute drive from my house. We'll catch the bus back to my place, I'll change clothes and we can drive over.”
Amanda smiled agreeably as the door opened on the lobby. They passed by Officer Brown's desk.
“Sorry,” Amanda said weakly to him.
Officer Brown just tipped his cap as they headed out.
“She was smart, I give her that,” Bea said the next evening, as she and Donna sipped coffee together at Jackson's.
“Except she didn't know to double-check her new mobile device,” Donna said with a wistful look. “I stopped by an all-night bodega near my house and got her a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. Amanda always was fond of Disney.” She smiled, and Bea did, too.
“My uncle Steven came into town last year, and decided to surprise me,” Bea said, getting a far-off look in her eyes as she remembered. “Thank goodness, he understood that I have all the time he wants, to talk to him once I log out and come downstairs, but until then, I'm there to work and do my job. I was still surprised to see him, but he waited for me in the lobby.”
“I'm going to make very sure my family does that in the future,” Donna said, giving a half-smile.
“So, I heard Mrs. MacHugh's new receptionist was a very tough sell at first-night dinner, but she showed up again for work today,” Bea said conversationally. “I could have heard wrong, but I think she's gonna stay on.”
Donna reminisced to her own first day on the job. “I bet I was a tough sell, too,” she said. “Chr... Um. Karen was there, she can tell you.”
Bea smiled, brushing a lock of hair back. “She did, but when we went for drinks on your last night of orientation, I was able to see for myself. You wanted to shoot us out of the sky, so badly.”
They both laughed.
“Yeah, I bet I did,” Donna said. “Probably didn't do a good job of it, did I?”
Bea shook her head. “You did an awesome job. Nancy and I talked about it with Mary a couple of days after you passed the 'loyalty test.' You really had us all on the ropes, that night at Jackson's. That's one of the main reasons we always have a couple of women stay on at New Bonds instead of moving to a different department with bigger responsibilities, once they have enough seniority and experience with the company. New hires are our lifeblood, and without proper support and big-sister TLC, they're not gonna stick around.”
Donna nodded thoughtfully. “Figuring out how the aides knew to respond so quickly, when I started feeling sick during Down Time, before you all could talk to me about it, raised some big alarm bells in my mind.”
“We were fortunate that Mary had read about the safety side, and gotten Carla to do it, as well,” Bea said. “As far as I can tell, Cassie's our first woman to come into the company with prior knowledge of rope safety. A lot of us, it never enters our mind, especially until we're well past orientation.”
Donna nodded again. “I've started reading up on it myself, only fairly recently.”
“Without more experienced women in New Bonds, like Mary and Carla, we'd have had no way to explain the importance of our being monitored during Quiet Time,” Bea said. “I still remember the look on your face. We'd have lost you for good that night, wouldn't we?”
Donna took a deep sip from her cup, finishing her coffee. She smacked her lips very slightly and put the cup in the usual spot that signaled their waitress that she was ready for a refill. She looked close into Bea's hazel eyes for a few seconds.
“Yes, you would have,” Donna finally admitted. “I'd have gotten up, walked out of here, gone straight to the supermarket, picked up some junk food and called it dinner for the night. I wouldn't have come to work on Monday, or the next day, or the day after that... or any day after that.”
Bea reached out and clasped Donna's hand. “From talking about it with Nancy, I wouldn't have been surprised if she hadn't stayed, either. She doesn't think so much about it anymore, but some of us, we never really stop disliking it a lot, even though we all understand the importance.”
The waitress came and refilled their coffee cups. Both women thanked her before resuming their conversation.
“I probably won't, either,” Donna said.
“I've been thinking recently about asking to stay in the department, myself, even after I have enough time on the job to qualify for a promotion to investment executive,” Bea said. “Pay it forward, be one of the women that new hires can count on.”
Donna smiled and nodded. “I think about it sometimes, too. But life often takes us down different paths than we anticipate. Including life at HTG.”
Bea giggled as she and Donna signaled the waitress for the check. After finishing her coffee, Donna paid the bill and tipped the waitress nicely.
“Thanks for coffee,” Bea said, hugging Donna. “See you tomorrow.”
<p align = “center”>* * * *</p>
Donna came into Cassie's office with the standard lotion bottle and packet of Epsom salt. The blonde found Cassie leaning back against her chair, hands behind her head; her mouth moving in a motion that looked like puffing on an imaginary cigar.
Donna thought quickly. “You passed?”
Cassie gave her trademark smirk as she took the offered bottle and packet. “It was a cinch,” she said. “Hey, what can I say? Math was my favorite subject. I took to it like a fish to water.”
Donna was still impressed. “W-well, congratulations,” she said, shaking Cassie's hand. “They don't have an opening in administrative assistance right now, do they?”
Cassie shrugged. “Not right now, but it's probably just a matter of time. Mr. Stone suggested my waiting a few more months, just to get some more time in the company under my belt. I asked Carla what she thought about the suggestion, and she said she thought it was a good idea. I thought it over at home, talked with my folks, and I think it's not such a bad thing. They still know I can do the numbers easy enough.”
Donna had to nod. She'd seen some of Cassie's work on bond forms, and she'd always completed any math work needed, very quickly and without any mistakes. “Any particular department you'd like to work in, once an opening develops?” Donna asked curiously.
Cassie chuckled. “Naw. They're all the same to me. Foreign Bonds wouldn't take me, anyway. My mom's folks came here from Greece a while back, but Mom was born in Atlanta. She never learned to speak the language, and neither did I. I speak common American English, that's it.” She shrugged again.
“Never had any interests in any other languages, then?” Donna asked conversationally.
“Interest, a little, but the talent? KJ was great at humanities and languages, not so great at math. I'm the opposite. If we didn't both have charming personalities, we'd hate each others' guts.”
Donna laughed at the clever poke. “I'm sure KJ appreciates that,” she said, still smiling.
Two electronic beeps sounded in a muffled tone. Donna looked around curiously at the sound, but quickly noticed Cassie waving it off with a small grin.
“That's my cell phone taking an incoming text message,” she said, tapping one of her desk drawers. “My best friend is a basketball fan like me. She probably wants to talk about last night's game.”
Donna nodded. “Well, I'll let you finish up so you can get to it,” she said. “Congratulations again.”
Donna found another email from Barbara Bailey when she got home. Her cryptic comment was given an explanation that, as Donna had learned by now, even the women she got along with most, at HTG, weren't always going to be as easy to get along with. She had to be prepared for her closest friends there to lose patience with her.
The note carried another cryptic warning: That Donna could find her relations tested soon.
Donna sat with Ethan on his couch. They'd stopped paying attention to the TV show they'd been watching, and gotten caught up in kissing and necking. Thinking about Ethan's mindfulness in making sure Donna was always comfortable with anything he hoped to do with her, always made the blonde smile. He took his time, let Donna send the signals and make the first moves to show her readiness to progress to more intimate stages of their relationship. Even though Donna knew that Ethan was holding back a little more with her than he would with most other women, his reasons for doing so showed the breadth of his consideration for her feelings. Ethan knowing that Donna worked at a job where she spent 45 minutes of each work day hogtied on the floor of her office; a company his father helped found, no less... wasn't the kind of complication you found in many long-term relationships.
They kissed again; a slow, drawn-out kiss filled with tenderness and simmering intimacy. Donna's smile stretched the breadth of her face as Ethan slowly drew back.
“We don't need the TV anymore, right?” she asked. It was Saturday night, and they weren't big fans of the regular Saturday programming, anyway.
“By all means,” he encouraged her, waving toward the remote. “This is much more interesting than the tube.”
Donna grinned and picked the remote up, turning towards the television. The program was in a commercial break; the commercial being a warning from the American Medical Association about medical risks and dangers from alcohol and drug abuse. At the end of the commercial, the standard logo for the AMA, along with its caduceus symbol, flashed across the screen.
Donna dropped the remote, a short cry of emotion passing her lips. Ethan nearly jumped from his seat, gently putting a hand along Donna's cheek to turn her face toward him.
“Donna! Are you all right? What happ--”
Donna tried to resist Ethan, but it was too late. He'd turned her face enough to get a square look at her all-revealing eyes. The eyes that foiled every attempt Donna might make at hiding anything, or at any form of dishonesty.
The blonde began to cry, her head falling onto Ethan's chest as her arms closed tightly around Ethan's middle, just at the bottom of his rib cage.
“Plea... please... just-- just hold me,” she whimpered.
Ethan held her close, stroking her hair to try and calm her. It was a solid hour before they both fell asleep on the couch.