When Paula woke, she gasped at the slant of light through the blinds and darted out of bed, the autopilot of her morning routine cranked up to holy-shit-I’m-late speed. Coffee gurgling, shower spitting, clothes. Clothes. Dammit. She always, without fail, even sticky-eyed and half-asleep after a late evening, set a perfectly coordinated outfit at the front of the closet for the next day.
Rustling through the hangers, she found the suit she wanted, pushing off the questions about why it had been crushed so far back in the rotation. When Roger came home from his trip, they needed a serious talk about why he didn’t respect her things. The bullet points rumbled through her brain as she tugged up a pair of pantyhose. The nylon felt odd as she squirmed the panty part in place and nestled the waistband smooth. It left a film on her fingers, and it didn’t feel springy anymore. Cheap crap they make these days. She cursed again—damned dry cleaner shrank her skirt—and again as she fluttered through the kitchen, searching for the travel mug her spouse had no doubt hidden somewhere odd. There would be words about that, too. His was missing as well—might have taken it with him—but she found an old one, and sufficiently topped off, she strapped herself into the car for the seventeen-minute drive she could do in her sleep.
Ignoring the further insult of the Honda parked in her spot, she huffed up to her office, where Diane, her assistant, sat at Paula’s workstation, probably pulling up the notes for the morning sales meeting. Paula raised her palms in an attempt to mollify Diane’s expression of alarm. “I’m okay, just running late, did they start already?”
Diane’s mouth worked but no words came out.
“It’s that bad?” Paula’s brow furrowed as she tilted her head over one shoulder then the other. “What’s wrong? Is there something stuck to me? Dry cleaner tags? Nice suit, by the way. I don’t remember ever seeing you in a suit before.” She smirked. “You gonna ask me for a raise?”
Diane stood, and with her eyes softening, set a hand on Paula’s shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. What?” Paula flicked a finger beneath her lower eyelid, checking for smudged mascara.
“Maybe you oughta go home, get some rest.”
“Right. Forgot the blush, I probably look washed out.” She reached for the drawer where she normally kept a few emergency grooming supplies.
But Diane stopped her. “Paula. You don’t work here anymore.”
“Of course I do. And I have to get to that sales meeting…why are you looking at me like that? Right. I get it. You want my job. You’ve always wanted my job!”
“I already have your job. I’ve had your job for the last five years.”
Paula batted an arm backward, reaching for the chair. Maybe she was sick. Maybe she had some kind of fever and was hallucinating. But she didn’t…feel sick. Diane loomed over her, that pitying look never leaving her face. “Is there someone I can call?”
“He’s away on business,” Paula croaked out. Her eyes drifted to the spot next to the computer where she’d kept a photo of Roger in a frame. It wasn’t there.
“Where did you put my husband’s picture…?”
“Your husband’s...” Diane’s voice barely broke a whisper. “Oh, honey.”
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