Authors: C A Vincent
Alicia buckled her seatbelt and half-listened to the flight attendant’s speech about emergency procedures and exits. Her mind was all over the place, bits and pieces of thoughts beginning, yet never really coming to fruition. She was burnt out, she realized, turning to look out the window. The pavement rolling past as the plane taxied into position made her instantly dizzy and nauseous. She groaned.
Her seatmate, a beefy thirty-something guy who was sweating profusely and clutching the arm rests in a white-knuckled grip tried to strike up a conversation. Normally she would chat, but today she didn’t have it in her. It had been a hell of a week.
Eight days earlier…
“So because I won’t go to law school, I’m fired?” Alicia asked, incredulous. “You don’t have the right to dictate the path of my life. I’m
, Phillip. I like what I do. I enjoy my job. I also get to go on a vacation to somewhere tropical in the middle of the cold season every year without going into debt. My finances are solid, which is more than I can say for most people my age. Why would I give that all up to go do something I don’t want to do?”
“Because you’d be a great lawyer, Alicia,” Phillip responded. His earnest tone and pleading expression made her do a double-take. He noticed her staring and cleared his throat gruffly. When he tried to school his expression, he failed. Nonplussed, she waited for him to spill his guts. If she gave him the gimlet eye long enough, he would. Phillip Ostlund might be cold and cut-throat in court, but he was easy enough to handle while in the office.
He sighed. Three times. After the second one, Alicia had to suppress a smug smile of satisfaction. The third was so theatrical, she knew he was only trying to manipulate her into either saying she would consider his outrageous proposal or simply leave his office so he could put it by her again later. She arched an eyebrow at him and waited him out, knowing damn well it would piss him off.
“Damn it, Alicia,” he growled. “That’s the reason we could never become involved. You
me.” She grinned.
“There’s something to be said for being the handled, rather than the handler,” she said cheekily. Then she realized exactly what had come out of her mouth and blushed hotly.
Open mouth, insert foot,
she thought, biting down hard on her bottom lip. Phillip roared with laughter.
“All right. All right. I’ll leave it alone,” he said, wiping his eyes. “I am going to miss you, you know that, don’t you?” Alicia’s jaw dropped.
“But – You – No! You said – ” So much for dropping it. She tried to argue her case again, but her mind was a blank. Realizing her jaw was flapping in the wind like a loose sail, she snapped it shut and glowered. Her erstwhile employer, she noted, was suddenly pale and looking completely drained. She barely had time to think,
What’s up with that?
before he dropped his head to his desk and groaned loudly. She was by his side in a flash.
“I’ve seen you sicker than sick with the flu and head colds and you never drop. What’s going on, Phillip? What can I do to help?” she asked worriedly. She even went so far as to hunker down so she could peek under his arm. He turned away from her just enough so she couldn’t see his face. For a brief second, she considered the fact he might be playing her, then he whispered the words which literally knocked her on her ass.
“I’m dying, Alicia. Pancreatic cancer.”
“What? No!” she gasped, stumbling back a step. The heel of her shoe broke and she hit the floor in an undignified heap. He peeked down at her through his arms and made a purely male sound at the sight of her sitting there, her skirt hiked up to reveal a lot more skin than she was comfortable showing. Alicia felt her face burn but didn’t move to try to cover herself. Instead she kicked off her heels and tucked her legs under her. Not an easy task when wearing a form-fitting skirt.
“Doesn’t help,” he breathed. “You still look sexy.”
“Never mind my legs,” she scolded. She tried to affect an air of indignation, but his gaze was locked on her pantyhose-covered legs. She pushed her embarrassment aside and asked, “When did you finally cave and go to the doctor, stubborn man?” He huffed a weak laugh.
“It doesn’t matter. The fact is I went and I’m on meds that are kicking the crap out of me. I wouldn’t last twenty minutes in a court room right now,” Phillip admitted.
Given the fact he hated weakness of any kind, it had to gall him to say the words. They put his situation into perspective though, and killed any hope she had he would fight the hard fight. She bit her lip again, this time in an effort to keep from crying. It was no use. Silent tears rolled down her face.
“I never thought it would take me. I work out. I eat well. I only ever drink socially. But here I am, stuck with the same cancer that killed my dad. I suspect my older brother’s also got it or some other form of cancer, but he won’t admit it. It would seem our branch of the Ostlund family tree will be ending this year.”
“There’s still – ” Alicia began. Phillip cut her off.
“Joey? He’s gay,” Phillip cut in angrily. He sighed heavily and shook his head. It was no secret he loved his younger brother and was proud of his accomplishments. He was always bragging about the sculptures and paintings Joey created. It was also clear the thought this branch of the Ostlund family tree being chopped before it could blossom into future branches was too much for even his open-mindedness. It was her turn to laugh.
“I can assure you he’s not,” she said with a shake of her head. “Trust me.”
“Joey?” Phillip asked. “Super-sensitive Joe who blushes like a schoolgirl at the mention of breasts?”
“It’s all an act, Phillip. He crashed my friend Louise’s bachelorette last year and made the rounds. When one woman rejected him, he moved on to the next. If I’m not mistaken, he and Louise’s younger sister have been secretly dating ever since.”
“Oh thank God! Not that I had a problem with him being gay, but at least now we have a chance.”
Phillip slowly lifted his head and took a sip from the bottle of water on his desk. Alicia was loathe to move, but it looked like the worst of his weakness had passed. Besides, if he was feeling as pukey as he looked and the water didn’t stay down, she didn’t want to be in the line of fire. As she stood and smoothed out the wrinkles in her skirt, understanding of some of the recent goings on in the office hit her.
“The clerks are packing the library,” she blurted.
“Maybe you wouldn’t make a good lawyer after all,” Phillip answered with a chuckle. “You have a tendency to just blurt shit out. And yes, they are. Mager’s decided he’s burnt out and will be doing something else with his life. The practice of Ostlund and Mager will be no more as of the thirty-first.” Alicia felt her stomach drop.
“Are you done with the bombshells yet?” she whispered, making her way weakly back to the chair she’d vacated just minutes ago. Phillip scowled at her.
“Don’t go getting all hard-done-by. I’m telling you now, aren’t I?”
“You’ve just blindsided me twice in less than twenty minutes? Are you done?” she asked again. It was impossible to keep the anger out of her voice. She didn’t know whether to hug herself or grip the edges of the chair for support as she rocked back and forth, her gaze glued to a stain on the carpet in front of his desk. When he didn’t answer right away, she looked up into his face.
“Oh, shit,” she half-moaned, half-whispered. “What now?”
“Here,” he answered matter-of-factly as he reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Letter of reference and severance pay. For the record, don’t go waving it around. The three wannabes didn’t get what you did. And please don’t get all ‘This is too much! I can’t take it!’ either,” he finished in a bad falsetto imitation of her.
Alicia’s hand shook as she took the envelope from her soon-to-be former employer. She tried to steel herself for an over-the-top, almost poetic letter of recommendation and an equally gag-inducing severance cheque, but not even working herself up for an hour beforehand would have readied her for what was in the legal-sized envelope.
For starters, the letter was very businesslike and to-the-point. It listed her strengths and skills clearly and concisely. Even though she knew how good she was, reading them made her blush. Of course, part of her felt like she had to be all modest and say, “I’m not that good, really,” but it would be a waste of breath and energy. So instead she opted for a simple whispered “Thank you”.
Then she saw the cheque.
“Are you out of your mind?” she shrieked. Phillip, feeling very spry all of a sudden, jumped up and closed the door to his office.
“Keep it down, will you? Mager and I both agree with this amount. You were not only our top paralegal, you kept this office running smoothly since day one. From ordering supplies to keeping the clerks and other secretaries in line, you did it all. You’ve also worked for us for five years without a single damn raise. This is the least we could do.”
It was his turn to squat down beside her as she broke down and let the shock of the entire situation wash over her. She knew damn well if she didn’t deal with it now, she wouldn’t deal with it at all and her boss needed her to oversee the shutting down of the office. It usually galled her to be emotional in front of him, but she felt like she was on a roller coaster that was travelling at warp speed. Unable to take anymore, she bawled like a baby. Thankfully, he didn’t pull his usual “Suck it up” routine. He simply sat there and held her hand. Half an hour later, the rest of the office was notified of the impending closure. After an adjustment period of about ten minutes, they all got to work on tying up loose ends.
The week that followed was hectic and crazy as clients were called, meetings were arranged and held and the final financial records for Ostlund & Mager Law Offices were prepared.
Phillip and Mager managed to tie up their loose ends before the office actually shut down, leaving Alicia and the rest of the staff to oversee the packing and shipping of everything from files and law books to light fixtures. It was a mad whirlwind of activity and semi-controlled chaos as everyone pulled eighteen hour days. By the end of it all, she was more than sick of defending Phillip’s and Mager’s positions whenever someone grumbled, “They couldn’t have given us a little more notice?”
When the last box was sent on its way and the last clerk had looked wistfully around the office and said his goodbyes. Alicia closed and locked the main door and did a final, slow walk-
around to make sure nothing had been left behind. The cleaners would be in tomorrow morning and the new tenants would start moving in after lunch. Despite knowing this and seeing the empty office, she still couldn’t grasp the fact this chapter in her life was over.
Suddenly overcome, she leaned up hard against the wall to her old office space and slid down it to the floor. Memories, some of them bad, but most of them good, played through her mind as she stared off into space.
Alicia was so lost in her thoughts she didn’t hear the lock turn in the door or the footsteps as they approached. She did smell the cologne, however. It was the only thing which kept her from shrieking in terror as both Phillip and Mager came to a stop in front of her.
“I smelled you guys before I saw you,” she said with a watery chuckle. They both grinned, though the smiles didn’t quite reach their eyes. “You’re going to make me bawl like a baby now, aren’t you? Is that what you want?” They shook their heads in unison. Then Phillip held his hand out to her. Justin followed suit. Alicia sighed heavily and let them pull her to her feet.
“You can’t be sitting here when the cleaners arrive,” Phillip joked. She huffed a self-deprecating laugh.
“It may or may not be by choice. A few more minutes and I would likely have fallen asleep where I sat.”
“That’s why we decided to stop by,” Mager countered. Of the two men, Justin was the gentler soul. It didn’t surprise her he’d burned out. Especially with his wife having recently fought and won her own battle with cancer.
“It’s one of the reasons, at any rate,” Phillip said, reaching into his jacket pocket. An uneasy feeling settled in the pit of Alicia’s stomach and spread slowly outward as he pulled out an envelope. When he tried to hand it over to her, she shook her head and refused to take it.