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7:46 PM, Friday, December 21st, 2012

Gabriella sighed with contented resignation as the president retook the stage at the far end of the room. Dinner had been exquisite, as usual; Phil had joked in the past that everyone attended the fiscal year meeting simply for the food, and for another year Gabriella agreed wholeheartedly. The banquet table was strewn with empty coffee cups, and few remaining plates were streaked with whatever last bits of cheesecake couldn’t be scraped off with a fork. Gabriella smirked at Sean, who was sitting to her left; he’d somehow decided that sacrificing whatever self-dignity he had left was worth licking his dessert plate clean. Gabriella had been tempted – the cheesecake was that good – but she wouldn’t be caught dead doing it in public. Derek, for one, would never let her hear the end of it.

Speaking of Derek… Gabriella turned to look at the man sitting next to her on her right. Muscular without being bulky, and charming without being insincere, Derek Snow was the exemplar of a great salesman. Gabriella studied him unobtrusively. His short black hair (impeccably coiffed, as always) poured in neat lines down both sides of his face and gathered into a well groomed beard and mustache that hugged the roguish smile that had originally hooked her heart. Lucia, the current object of his attention and Phil’s most recent wife, sat to his right.

Gabriella let her gaze shift, and carefully kept her face neutral. She’d worked with Phil long enough to know better, and so she kept her thoughts to herself as she examined the third woman that Phil had sworn, before G-- and family, to keep and cherish forever. At least this one doesn’t look like a prepackaged plastic toy, Gabriella thought to herself. Lucia’s aquiline nose served as a centerpiece of her thin face, drawing attention away from the pinched aristocratic expression of boredom that she’d obviously cultivated over all of her nineteen years of deep, meaningful existence. High cheeks were visibly daubed with red paint, and her long black lashes drooped heavy and low. The three empty cocktail glasses suggested that there was more to it than just an over-application of mascara. Gabriella idly wondered what the tattoo just above her bony ass said. She looked at Phil and considered asking him.

Ah, Phil. Phil Durosch. Gabriella tried not to smirk as she watched him revel in the role of fearless leader. Gabriella guessed that he was in his late sixties. He hadn’t said anything about retiring, but last year he’d finally stopped pretending that he could get back out and make sales. Now he just spent his time staring vacantly at his computer screen in his office, two-finger typing emails to the corporate office over the thick plastic rim of those coke-bottle glasses he wore. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was hanging around the office couch, talking at breath-taking length about his vast sales experience. Evidently, he had been quite the man back in the golden yesteryears “when selling stuff was hard” – “before everything was all twitting and twitching on cellular phones.” Gabriella couldn’t help but roll her eyes. He wasn’t a bad manager, overall; as long as you were bringing in sales he’d let you do what you needed to do. Gabriella just wished he’d cut back on the ridiculously self-indulgent stories and lectures.

Even now, the big soft fingers of his hands interlaced comfortably over his bulging belly as he patiently lectured Christopher Delaney, the newest member of their regional sales force, on the finer failures of the president’s end of the year speech compared to three decades ago. Christopher – or “the Kid”, as Derek had started calling him behind his back – was maybe seven months out of college and seven weeks into the job. Thin, clean cut and eager, his mop of barely culled sandy brown hair bobbed earnestly to Phil’s insipid reflections on whatever topic the president was explaining. Gabriella thought he had promise, if he could survive this first year. If he weren’t happily married, she might even take it upon herself to do some basic training. Most of it might even be about successful selling.

His wife Wren sat next to him, and she was the rebellious goth antimatter to Christopher’s wholesome, clean-cut matter. Her straight black hair stopped dead at an invisible line just above her eyebrows, as if it had literally been cut with a bowl. Below that her scalp had been shaved skin-clean, and some sort of tribal tattoo filled in the space with intricate but inscrutable black whorls. Her ears sprang out on either side like satellite dishes, and a thin silver chain ran from her left earring to a ring piercing her nostril. Gabriella’s nose wrinkled. What do they see in each other? she wondered, and sighed. Regardless of her own opinion, they did seem absolutely infatuated with each other. Their hands sat intertwined on the edge the table, slowly and lovingly stroking each other in that libertine way that only first-time newlyweds genuinely could. Wren was in the midst of boring the hell out of Gabriella’s friend and roommate, Stephanie Bacia.

Stephanie was Gabriella’s roommate, and, like Gabriella, a marriage escapee and divorce survivor. Her hair was an unmanageable bloom of fiery curls, and Gabriella had learned early on that the fire descended all they way down through Stephanie’s soul. The first few months living together had been quite rocky – Gabriella didn’t wonder why Stephanie was divorced in the least – but somehow they’d survived, and after a year their relationship was fast approaching friendship. Maybe that’s why Stephanie agreed to come to the banquet. Gabriella sat back, and smiled apologetically at her; in true Bacia style, Stephanie didn’t even look as she fired back a single finger salute behind the cover of Sean’s chair. Yes, Gabriella thought, and her smile turned into a wry grimace. I’ll be here alone next year.

Sean Schwarz finally put his plate down and noticed Gabriella looking his way. He gestured towards his plate, and smiled sheepishly. Gabriella was immediately and forcibly reminded of the spinach salad that had comprised the first course.

“Man, that was good,” he said, and licked his lips. Irritation flared at the intrusion, and Gabriella fought to keep her face blankly neutral.

“Yes,” she said, and looked back at Stephanie. The redhead continued ignoring her, and instead nodded blankly as Wren continued ranting about something or another.

“What did you think?” Sean’s head pressed into the corners of Gabriella’s vision, forcing her attention back onto him.

“It was good,” she said curtly, and poured complete disinterest into her eyes and face. Sometimes she wondered how he could be so oblivious and unaware – especially of how he appeared to others. He was short and slightly pudgy; and his clothing was an absolute disaster. From what Gabriella could ascertain he only owned one suit – a wrinkled khaki affair that always looked as if it had rolled out of bed with him. His sandy brown hair was combed in thin lines as it struggled valiantly to hide a growing bald spot.

“Yeah,” he agreed, and rubbed his paunch. “It was really good.” He looked at her and smiled again, and his eyes searched her face for something else to talk about. The possibility of having a conversation with Sean hung over Gabriella’s head like a cage hung by a single hair.

The soft snort of a derisive laugh floated past her ear, and Sean looked up towards the source. Gabriella jumped at the opportunity for escape. Her entire body swiveled around as she turned with relief towards Derek and Lucia’s conversation. Gabriella looked at them curiously.

“No, seriously,” he said, and his face was the essence of trustworthy concern. “It’s been scientifically studied and proven. Isn’t that right, Gabs?” He turned slightly, and a sly wink invited her in on whatever joke she’d interrupted by turning around. Lucia looked at her as well, and Gabriella could sense the undercurrent of worry hidden beneath the defensive skepticism pouring off of the gullible girl. Gabriella’s eyes slid back to Derek as she weighed the consequences of her answer. Ah, what the hell, she decided, and put on her most serious face. “Of course,” she said, and nodded emphatically. Derek spread his hands with a magician’s flourish and tried to suppress the mischievous twinkle growing in his eyes.

“There’s less than four hours left,” he said, and sighed theatrically. “Then everything ends! We should clean out the open bar while we can.”

Gabriella rolled her eyes as she realized what they’d been talking about. “That Mayan prophecy,” she said dryly. Suddenly the situation snapped into sharp focus – Derek was yanking the young girl’s chain – and it struck her as incredibly puerile. That didn’t stop it from also being somewhat funny. She coughed to cover her own laugh.

Christopher looked across the table as he found his own escape through eavesdropping. “What’s that?” he asked, and suddenly the entire table was party to the conversation.

Derek looked around at his new audience with complete aplomb. “Tonight is December 21st, 2012,” he said, and looked around with serious solemnity. “The end of the world, according to the Mayan calendar.”

There was a brief pause as each person digested this statement, then Stephanie laughed so loudly that people at nearby tables looked over with disapproval. “Everyone knows that’s a load of crap.”

The look on Lucia’s face danced between uncertainty and relief. “Really?”

Sean’s voice slipped in at a more reasonable volume. “The Maya people created a calendar that extended over incredibly long time periods, and today is the last day of one of the longest cycles. It’s the end of what the Maya called the ‘fourth world’, but that just means that tomorrow is the beginning of the ‘fifth’. Or the ‘sixth’, depending on whether you trust the Aztecs to predict the return of magic.” He smiled at the clever joke he’d made. Gabriella glanced around to confirm her suspicions. No one else had gotten it either. The table fell into uncomfortable silence.

Christopher changed the subject. “So what’s this?” he asked as he studied the printed agenda that had been handed out at the door. “Announcement of sales rankings, regional and company?” He looked at Phil. “ Why is it last?”

Gabriella glowed with pride at the mention of it, but shook her head modestly. “It’s nothing – a trick they use to get people to come back after the regional breakout sessions.”

Derek shook his head vigorously. “It’s most certainly not nothing,” he said proudly, and wrapped an arm around Gabriella. His cologne, so hauntingly familiar, teased her nose with a torrent of memories. “Gabs here has taken the top spot for the last five years.”

Christopher raised one eyebrow. “Top for our region?”

Derek and Phil shook their heads simultaneously. “Top spot for the company,” Phil said, and sighed wistfully. “You know, for thirty years I–”

“Derek’s been in the second spot for just as long,” Gabriella interrupted, and thankfully Phil nodded in agreement.

Derek smiled wolfishly at Christopher. “Gabs has a thing about being on top,” he said, and Gabriella punched him playfully in the arm.

“Be nice,” she said, and shot him a warning look; somehow, though, his arm was still wrapped casually along her shoulders, and the skin of her back tingled as it remembered his touch.

“Oh, it is nice,” Derek said, and Gabriella punched him harder before he could complete his thoughts. “Ouch,” he complained, but his eyes smoldered. Gabriella suddenly wondered if he was trying to yank her chain now.

“I wouldn’t complain about being under Gabriella,” Sean said. Gabriella felt her entire body tense as she choked back the urge to pummel Sean mercilessly. Derek’s hand moved up to massage her neck, and Gabriella’s body hung on the edge of confusion as it tried to decide whether it was safe enough to relax under familiar circumstances. Thankfully, Phil had already started lecturing Christopher, so Gabriella let her attention focus on her boss as she tried to figure out just what she wanted.

“Our region – Central North East – has dominated the company sales charts for the past decade,” he said. “And we’ve held the top spot for almost two.”

Christopher looked appropriately impressed, and he appraised Gabriella with new eyes. “Wow,” he said. “But you said Gabriella’s been in first place for only five years. Who was first before that?”

Sean’s voice cut through the silence like the knife of inevitability. “Derek,” he said. “But that was before he and Gabriella got married.”

The awkward silences were coming more quickly, and growing more intense. Gabriella’s teeth ground against each other as she stared off into empty space, and she could feel Derek shooting a dirty look over her head.

Lucia’s face curled with a sultry pout. “So you are married then?” she said, and it was only half a question. Her eyes locked themselves onto Derek’s face. He shifted uncomfortably as he withdrew his arm, and the air around Gabriella dropped several degrees.

“No,” he said stiffly, and to Gabriella it felt like fingernails scratching at scabs. “Not anymore.”

Gabriella forced out a laugh. “We’re still friends, though.” Her hand found its way to Derek’s thigh and squeezed it.

Derek’s laugh was more authentic, and Gabriella could feel the ice start to break as he smiled back at her. “That we are. Marriage may not have worked out, but friendship–”

Wren flicked her fingers as if cleaning the ash from an invisible cigarette. “You two make a cute couple,” she said, cutting Derek off. “Why’d you get divorced?” Gabriella stared at the woman in utter disbelief, and idly wondered if she’d been taking lessons in obliviousness from Sean. This time the silence refused to be displaced, and long seconds ticked off countless millennia as Wren waited for a response.

The president’s voice echoed through the banquet hall. “–overall improvement program, the CNE sales team is taking the lead with a bold new pilot initiative focused on improving the sales process. Phil Durosch, the regional manager, can tell you more. Phil?”

Gabriella blinked in surprise as Phil waddled uncomfortably to his feet. Her eyes darted sideways, and the bewildered look Derek shot back confirmed her suspicions. Phil hadn’t said anything about this at the last office meeting.

Phil cleared his throat, and looked around the room. “Our region has been blessed with an abundance of talent, as you all know, so we’re very excited to be the first to try out the sales improvement program here. By pairing a top sales person – in this case, Gabriella de la Rosa – with a new or struggling member, we hope to improve the overall quality of our sales program significantly.” Phil paused, gathering his thoughts to say more, but the president wedged himself into the gap.

“Thanks, Phil. I look forward to seeing how it all turns out.” Phil nodded, and lowered himself back into the chair with a sigh. Gabriella wanted to scream.

“What?” Her voice hissed across the table like a snake. “What did you volunteer me for?”

Phil’s eyes avoided her gaze. “I’m sorry, Gabriella. The order came down straight from the president’s office. He chose this initiative, and he chose you for it.”

Derek tried to smile. “Hey, this is your reward for doing so well,” he said, and suddenly his arm was lounging lazily across the back of her chair again. Gabriella sighed, but her irritation was already beginning to fade.

“No rest for the weary, huh?” she said, and Derek laughed. Maybe it won’t be so bad, she thought. After all, there’s worse that could happen than having a chance to spend more time with Christopher…

Wren’s fingers flexed involuntarily as her thoughts paralleled Gabriella’s. “So you’ll be working with Christopher on his… ‘sales techniques’?” she said, and her voice hung balanced between casual disinterest and the potential threat of imminent and immediate violence. “Should I be…” Gabriella’s imagination filled in the heavy pause. Seeking mental help? Re-evaluating my choices? Incarcerated? “…Worried?”

Gabriella smiled that smile she’d learned from Derek – the one of trustworthy and disarming concern – but the violent shaking of Phil’s head interrupted her from responding. “Gabriella won’t be working with Christopher,” he said. His dull blue eyes looked over his glasses at Gabriella almost apologetically. “She’ll be working with Sean.”

What?” Gabriella didn’t realize her reaction until after she’d said it. “You can’t be serious.”

Phil put up his hands like a pair of shields. “As I said, it came straight from the president himself. There’s nothing I can do.”

Derek’s arm squeezed Gabriella tight to keep her from punching him again. “Hey,” he said, smiling kindly, “now that you’ll be carrying Sean perhaps there will be more competition for that top spot.”

Sean spoke before she could respond. “As far as I’m concerned, Gabriella will always be on top.”

Gabriella didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry as yet another awkward silence settled over the table.

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