As I glanced up the wall of the glass-front industrial building in front me, I put my hand against my forehead to shield my eyes from the sun. On the seventh floor, I had a job interview that would begin in less than twenty minutes. Breathing deeply, I sat on a low stone wall and rested my leather satchel beside my feet, loosening the collar of my stiff, white shirt. The warm spring weather and my jumbled nerves were making me feel damp and sticky beneath the clothes I'd carefully chosen to make me look professional, mature, and confident: starched button-up shirt, grey pencil skirt, and responsibly low heels. Thankfully, I'd twisted my thick brown hair into a tight, sleek knot at the nape of my neck. At least that allowed the smallest amount of a breeze to cool my skin as I pulled at my collar.
When I heard a child's voice wail out loud, I quickly turned my attention to the area before me. I would've expected the sound to come from the setting of the classroom where I'd worked for the past two years, but in this place, with impeccably dressed business types rushing back and forth across the concrete walkway, the cry was oddly out of place. I squinted my eyes and looked through the crowd, trying to determine the source of the sound. It didn't take long for me to locate the boy. No more than six or seven years old, he stood near the door of the building, holding on to a red plastic cup, with a distressed-looking frown on his face.
"Oh, no! Mary! Thirteen!" the child cried out. Just a few feet away, a young woman with bright blue streaks dyed into her dark black hair darted in and out of the busy people who walked past her, squatting down and picking up colorful, bouncing rubber balls that rolled across the area. The two stood out in this white and black world like a pair of circus performers, yet no one but me seemed to even notice them.
"I'll get 'em, Jackie!" the woman promised. "Here. Put these in your cup. There's four."
"Thirteen!" the boy moaned.
I watched the spectacle with curiosity. Obviously, the boy had been carrying rubber balls in his cup, and they'd spilled to bounce and roll across the area in front of the building. The woman was trying her best to collect each and every one of them, but when one of the small rubber missiles bounced off the toe of my shoe and rolled toward the street, I knew that unless I acted quickly, they'd never be able complete the boy's collection. The ball had rolled over the curb and disappeared beneath a shiny black Sedan that was parked there. While it was nothing more than a twenty-five-cent toy that could be purchased in any turn-knob-style machine, it was obviously important to the child. He wiped tears from his face with the back of his hand while the woman continued her search for the missing toys.
"Here's ten, eleven, twelve…" the woman counted, dropping the balls she'd collected into his cup.
"Thirteen, Mary! Thirteen!"
With a sigh, I stood and walked over to the curb. Mindful not to ruin my stockings, I carefully lowered myself to my knees and stretched my body forward like a cat, pressing my cheek to the warm concrete while I peered under the vehicle. Just as I thought, the ball had rolled to rest just behind the back tire. It wouldn't be easy to reach. I pushed my arm out as far as I could and wiggled my fingers, smiling when I finally felt the rubber ball beneath my fingertips. I froze, however, when I heard someone clear their throat above me.
"Not that I mind the view," a decidedly masculine voice spoke. "But would you mind telling me what in the hell you're doing to my car?"
I closed my eyes and groaned, realizing that my bottom was pointed straight up at the owner of the vehicle that I was practically crawling beneath. Trying to muster up whatever dignity I could, I stood and straightened my clothing before turning to face the man who towered above me.
The man looked like he was straight out of the pages of a high-end magazine: tall, broad-shouldered, and wearing a suit that had to cost at least twice what I paid a month for in rent. He folded his arms across his wide chest and cocked his head as he looked at me, waiting for my response, but at the moment, I was struck speechless. His well-defined, full lips were pulled up in an attractive way that, I hoped, meant he was more amused than irritated, but I couldn't be sure, as his eyes were covered by dark sunglasses that kept his expression a mystery to me. He had an angular jawline and wavy, cinnamon-colored hair that was pushed away from a strong forehead. His outrageously handsome appearance was both intimidating and incredibly appealing, and I realized too late that I'd had been staring at him for far too long.
At a complete loss as to how to recover from my awkward gaping, I shrugged and offered the first explanation that came to mind.
"I was looking for number thirteen?" I smiled bashfully, feeling like an idiot for how silly I must've sounded.
If I hadn't been sure of his mood before, the quick frown and furrowed brow above the line of his designer sunglasses let me know that the man was not satisfied by my simple explanation. Eager to remove myself from the uncomfortable situation as quickly as possible, I turned away from him and hurried to grab my bag. Without giving the man another glance, I walked quickly toward the front of the building. It wouldn't do for me to be late to my interview, and there was still the issue of the lost-and-found toy…
The fretful boy still stood by the door of the building, clutching his cup with both hands while the young woman knelt beside him, wiping at his wet cheeks with the hem of her faded concert t-shirt.
"Thirteen," I said, stopping in front of the boy. I held my palm toward him, showing the ball I'd retrieved. The boy didn't look at me, but the woman beside him did.
"Oh, my God! Thank you! You're a lifesaver!"
"No problem." I grinned and dropped the rubber ball into the top of the boy's cup. I didn't have another moment to spare, so I turned away from the two and walked into the cool interior of the building. I had no way of knowing how my interview would go, but at least today wouldn't be a total waste. I'd been able to help those two out. That alone felt oddly satisfying.
Once inside the large office building, I found a placard on the wall that directed me to Suite 714, the office of the temp agency where my interview would take place. Before heading for the bank of elevators, I walked into a bathroom to splash a little water on my cheeks and try to cool down before going up to the seventh floor. Straightening my hair in the mirror, I gave myself a mental pep talk. I could do this. I just needed to calm down and focus.
I'd never been through a formal interview process. Immediately after graduation, I was offered a teaching position at the school where I'd done my student teaching. For the past two years, I'd thrived in a classroom setting where I could legitimately see myself staying throughout the course of my career. It was a profession I was meant to be in; not just a job, but something I truly loved. When I received a notice just a few months ago that the Special Education Department was undergoing significant budget cuts and that I was being released, my careful plans for the future went into a tailspin.
Too late to apply to different school districts for the upcoming school year, I considered subbing, but inconsistent hours and not knowing when, or if, I'd be contacted to work on any given day didn't give me the stable income I needed. It was even worse now that I'd spent most of my savings in the last two years trying to pay back my student loan debt and was about to become homeless.
Yeah. I had a lot riding on this interview, and I wasn't particularly sure my work experience would help me.
In desperation, I had a friend help me upload my resume and credentials online to the temp agency. I'd been surprised when they contacted me weeks later about an open position. It wasn't a teaching position, though. The job was listed under the title "Household Management," and by some miracle, my resume had been flagged to sort me into the group of considered applicants.
I didn't know a thing about the job. The salary I'd been quoted was nothing to sneeze at, and it came with free room and board. It would definitely be enough to get me through the summer. I could save to get my own apartment, and if I were careful with my budgeting, it might hold my bank account above a redline balance until I could find some other work in the fall. While I wasn't sure what "Household Manager" entailed, I knew it had to be a hell of a lot better than trying to wait tables at some pizza place on the Delmar Loop. I didn't merely want this job; I needed it!
When I finally stepped into the waiting room of the temp agency, I had to force myself not to groan. There were at least twenty other people sitting around, waiting to be interviewed. I had no way of knowing how many of them were vying for the same position. Women seemed to outnumber men by at least four to one, and every single one looked to be at least fifteen to twenty years my senior; somber and severe, business types, professional. I suddenly felt like a little girl playing dress-up in her mother's heels. Many of them looked me up and down before returning to their books, magazines, or conversations as though they'd summed me up immediately and didn't considered me to be a threat.
I pulled my chin up and took one of the remaining empty seats in the corner of the room. Two women sitting directly across from me paused in their conversation just long enough to look down their noses in my direction. One rolled her eyes slightly before turning her attention back to her companion. I didn't miss the fact that she sniggered a little under her breath. Yeah. I got it. I didn't fit in. Whatever. I pulled my portfolio from my bag and focused on reading through my own resume and references to prepare myself for the interview to come, trying not to let the obvious disapproval of the couple seated across from me damper my shaky self-esteem. The temp agency must've seen something in my credentials to flag me as an appropriate candidate for the job. I just needed to present myself maturely, confidently, and professionally.
I looked up at a pair of double doors that opened in the corner of the room and watched as a tall woman with a clipboard stepped through to call the name of the next applicant. A gentleman with silver hair at his temples and wore a navy suit confidently rose from his seat and disappeared down the hallway. Shuffling the papers in my hands, I closed my eyes and tried to find some sort of inner peace. I concentrated on breathing deeply to calm my nerves. One of the most important qualities of being in any professional position is having the ability to stay calm and cool under pressure. It wouldn't do me a bit of good to step into that office looking like a frightened, nervous little Chihuahua.
For the next fifteen minutes, I played over various scenarios in my head. What possible questions would I be asked? How would I respond? How would I, in turn, ask appropriate questions about a company or an employer I knew absolutely nothing about?
"That's me." I startled a little when I finally heard my name called. I stood and tried to smooth my skirt with one hand as I walked toward the double doors. Calm. Focus. "Hello." I smiled at the woman with the clipboard.
"Thank you for being on time." The woman spoke with a practiced formality. "This portion of the interview process will be a short one. I'll direct you to one of our meeting rooms, where you will stand before a small panel. They'll have a few questions for you, to allow you to elaborate on your credentials. Just be as succinct as possible. The employer is seeking immediate hiring, so we need to get through as many of these interviews today as possible. If you're among the few chosen, you may be contacted by the agency for a second one-on-one interview. Do you understand?"
"Yes." I nodded, trying to keep up with her long stride.
"Good. Here we go." She pushed open a second set of doors and ushered me inside with her hand on my shoulder, indicating where I should stand. "Ms. Swan," she announced before turning to walk away, closing the door behind her.
A long table was set up to my right, and I slowly turned toward the panel that would interview me. Five individuals sat quietly behind the desk: two women and three men. I pulled my shoulders back and smiled. They seemed to be waiting for the man who sat in the center of the group to begin. His head was bowed slightly as he read over the papers in front of him, but when he slowly raised his head to look at me, I was instantly dismayed to realize he was the same man I'd just unfortunately met outside the building!
This time, he didn't have sunglasses on to shield his eyes from my view. His brows lowered, and his eyes, I saw for the first time, were dark-bottle green. He pinned me down with a stare, as though he could shoot lasers from those things. I licked my lips nervously and blinked, trying to come to grips with the fact I'd already made a horrible impression with one of the agency interviewers. I hoped I'd be able to recover quickly.
"Hello." I smiled, looking away from the man while making eye contact with the less ferocious-looking members of the panel. "My name is Bel— Isabella Swan. Thank you for having me here today."
"No," the man at the center of the desk said in a stern, biting voice that interrupted my introduction. Maybe I was stepping out of protocol by introducing myself. Perhaps I should've waited until I was addressed.
"I'm… sorry?" I stuttered.
"No," the man repeated, turning his face to the woman who sat beside him. "Is this some kind of joke? Get her out of here."
Upset by his instant and very rude dismissal, my mouth popped open. This interview was going to be over before it ever began. And why? Because I was younger than the other applicants? Feeling the urge to defend myself, or at least have the opportunity to present my credentials, I hurried to continue.
"As you can see by my resume and copy of my portfolio, I—"
"I said, get her out of here!" the man ordered, pulling another file of papers open in front of him.
"Ms. Swan? I'm sorry, but this interview is over." A woman cut me off, pressing a button on the desk that immediately summoned the lady who'd walked me into this bloodbath. Feeling confused and absolutely miserable, I turned on my heel and tried to exit the room without running.
Tears filled my eyes as I walked down the hallway through which I'd just arrived. It was going to be humiliating, returning to the waiting area so soon, like trash being quickly swept out the door. Unable to control myself, I sniffled a little and wiped at my eyes. The woman walking beside me noticed and took pity on me, stopping just inside the double doors to allow me a moment to compose myself.
"Rough one, huh?"
"I don't think that can even count as an interview." I sadly shook my head. "Was I even in there thirty seconds?"
"You may have broken a new record," the woman said, teasing in an attempt to lighten my spirits. "Not all of our interviews are so abrupt, but we work with a lot of high-end clients. Most of them are very specific about the things they want or don't want. I'm sorry."
"So am I," I muttered.
I wanted to stay calm as I walked back through the waiting room. I planned to keep my head held high, to summon an unaffected, confident air. For all these people knew, maybe my interview was so short because I was just that damn awesome.
What wasn't awesome was the way I couldn't quite keep my hands from shaking. When I passed the two women I'd been sitting beside just a few minutes earlier, their muffled giggles were enough to widen the crack in my defenses and make the walls start to crumble around me. My shaky grip on my portfolio loosened, and I dropped the leather book, causing papers to scatter on the floor around me.
"Shit." I cursed under my breath, not caring who might hear. I squatted down, hurriedly stuffing my wayward documents back into my folder and shoving it into my bag with frustration.
"Could've guessed how that one would go," one of the women laughed.
All I could focus on at that point was getting out of the building without making a scene, but as things often happen for me, my plan was derailed once again. As I rushed out of the waiting area to the elevators, I slammed straight into someone who was walking around the corner. Instantly, I felt an icy cold wetness against my chest and looked down with horror. The front of my white shirt was completely doused with a freezing brown liquid, and the woman in front of me bore a similar wet stain down the front of her pretty light-blue pantsuit. Two empty Starbucks cups lay on the floor between our feet.
"I'm so sorry," I choked out, tears pricking my eyes once more. I needed to escape before I cried in front of these people, before I could make even more of an ass out of myself. I pushed past the girl and, holding my bag, ran into the nearest elevator.
"Hey! You! Wait up!" I heard a voice behind me as I stomped my way across the concrete in front of the building. "You in the grey skirt! Wait up! Hey! You owe me for dry cleaning!"
I groaned and stopped in my tracks, reluctantly turning to face the woman who was chasing me down the sidewalk. She didn't look angry. In fact, she was smiling as she loped up toward me.
"I apologize. I didn't see you coming around the corner. I'll be happy to pay your cleaning bill."
"Oh, shit." The girl laughed and waved off my suggestion. "I only said that to get you to slow down. You walk fast!"
I narrowed my eyes and cocked my head as I looked at her. Something about the girl looked very familiar. When she turned her head a little, I saw a streak of bright blue in her dark black hair. It was then I realized where I'd seen her before. This was either the same girl I'd seen in front of the building earlier or she had a twin.
"Did we meet before?" I asked.
"I'm Alice." The girl smiled, putting her hand forward.
"Bella." I returned the introduction, shaking her hand politely.
"You probably didn't recognize me. I had to change my clothes before going into the office. They want me to look professional, you know?"
"Right," I nodded. I might not have felt as guilty for ruining the t-shirt and denim skirt she'd been wearing when I first saw her, but the suit she wore was obviously expensive. My new interview clothes were covered in coffee, as well. Now I'd have two cleaning bills to pay. "Anyway, I'm sorry about crashing into you like that. I can give you my address, and you can send the bill."
"I can get it from the temp agency," she shrugged. Oh. She must work there. An intern maybe? She'd been sent to fetch iced coffees.
"I hope I didn't get you in any trouble."
"Don't worry about it." She smiled. "How'd it go in there?"
"It was horrible. Maybe Select Staffing will call me if some other job comes up." I sighed with resignation.
"Well, you know I've got your back." Alice smiled. "I gotta get going, but I hope we run into each other again sometime. Well, not really run into each other, like spilling coffee and all that, but… You know what I mean!" She waved and turned away, jogging back in the direction she'd come. I was left reeling in the wake of her rapid speech and boundless energy. She was the only bright spot in my day. If I were lucky, maybe Alice had some pull or leverage in that office and I wouldn't get blacklisted from the applicants pool. I still needed to find a job, but I definitely wouldn't be adding "Household Manager" to my list of job experience anytime soon.
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