An Odd Appointment
The butterfly was black, with tiny cream spots running along the edges of his wings and a spattering of bright blue along the bottom of each wing. He rested daintily atop a cluster of red roses outside the window, and Josey thought he was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Smiling with childish delight, she watched as he tasted each flower in turn, then flitted to the next cluster to resume his meal. “Pretty butterfly,” she whispered, wanting nothing more than to slip outside and see if she could entice him to land on her finger. Maybe if she held out some flowers he would pay her a visit.
“Are you done with the Miller account yet?”
She spun about to find Jason Myers standing directly behind her, arms crossed and looking as exasperated as ever. One eyebrow arched slightly as he stared her down, and she found herself staring at it in turn, wondering just how high it could really go.
“JOSEY!” he barked, startling her so badly she nearly jumped backwards. “I needed that account wrapped up yesterday, and you’re over here staring at flowers.”
“Butterfly,” she whispered nervously.
“Whatever,” he huffed, throwing his hands up in resignation. “McDonnell is yelling for it, and I’m not taking the heat so you can watch bugs all day.”
“I’m almost done,” she pleaded. “I’ll have it finished by five. I promise.”
His only reply was a roll of his eyes and a shake of his head before returning to his office. Josey sniffed hard, absently wiping her hand across her nose as she willed the tears to stay at bay. She had no friends at work. Her co-workers tended to look for other places to be whenever she came near, but for the most part they were at least polite to her. Jason Myers was just mean.
“Or maybe I’ll have it finished by next week,” she whimpered sulkily to the space he’d vacated. “Then maybe Mr. McDonnell will make YOU cry!” That would be nice—to see him cry for a change. Except… then he’d take it out on her, and she’d been in enough trouble that month already. She’d already overheard him telling someone in the break room that he wanted her gone, and this was her third job in six months. If she botched the Miller account, she might not last long enough to see him cry.
When she looked back to the window, the butterfly was gone.
* * *
The company’s break room had three snack machines, one with assorted chips, the second for sweets, and the third had healthier alternatives, such as prepackaged salads and sandwiches. Josey rarely paid attention to the third. At the moment it was number two that held her attention, more specifically the Butterfinger at B3, the Almond Joy at C5, and the bag of plain M&Ms at C6. She’d already eaten two Snickers bars when she’d first arrived to work, but lunch was still two hours away. So many decisions. Josey hated making decisions, even about things as delightful as chocolate bars. Chewing her lip, she reached for one of her ponytails and began twisting the blonde locks through her fingers.
“B3,” she announced, finally dropping her coins into the machine and pressing the buttons. “And C5.” A guilty twinge went through her as she pulled the two bags from the machine; she was overweight and knew she shouldn’t eat so much candy. Growing up, her mother had restricted her to one candy bar a week, but she was twenty-eight now and her mother wasn’t around to slap her hand away from the chocolates and cookies. “I deserve it,” she muttered under her breath, remembering how Myers had yelled at her earlier. Her work clothes were getting much too tight, and the seams had stretched just to the edge of bursting on her favorite denim jumper. Sometimes, though, the only answer to stress was chocolate, and Josey’s job stressed her more than anything she could imagine.
Well, almost anything. There was a stack of unpaid bills scattered about her apartment that caused her endless worry as well, at least when she could remember they existed. When she had been a little girl, she had dreamed of growing up and having her own place, but that was before she understood about things like utilities and insurance and balancing checkbooks. Now it seemed as if they never stopped coming, and sometimes she wouldn’t check the mail just so she wouldn’t have to see yet another letter demanding money. It wasn’t that she didn’t make enough money, but while she was capable of balancing accounts for big companies, she was an utter failure at tracking her own finances. More than once she’d wound up pulling money she’d set aside for the light bill and spending it on movies and popcorn and other things more entertaining than signing a check and licking a stamp. Every month she swore she’d do better, but almost every month she wound up rushing to the nearest Western Union office five minutes before they closed in order to keep her lights on or her car insurance from lapsing.
* * *
Papers, pens, and post-its littered every inch of her cubicle, from the barely visible surface of her grey L-shaped desktop to the top of the nubby grey fabric that covered the wall panels. A stuffed mouse perched precariously atop a narrow shelf, his fatly stuffed tail dangling down the edge of her monitor as his nylon whiskers tickled the edge of a candle warmer that looked like a cupcake and currently smelled like cherry limeade. The waste basket overflowed with empty soda cans, discarded wrappers, and crumpled take-out baggies, and every so often a muffled clink could be heard from her foot kicking a stray can beside it.
Josey had finished the Butterfinger on the way back and was contemplating tearing into the Almond Joy when someone whose name she didn’t know leaned over one of the walls and told her Mr. McDonnell wanted to see her. Myers told, she thought as she reluctantly pushed back from her desk. Nervously she scurried down the aisle, tugging her too-snug jumper into place with one hand while she twisted her hair with the other. Her white Keds scuffed softly against the thin grey carpet, and blood pounded in her ears so loudly that she couldn’t understand how the people she passed didn’t hear it.
At the door, she hesitated, her hand frozen just inches from its smooth, faux wood surface. I’ll have the Miller account done by five. She didn’t think it would be a lie. The account was almost three quarters of the way done, and if she pushed she was sure she could finish it. Stupid tattletale Myers.
The instant her knuckles touched the door, the voice behind it called her in. Josey couldn’t tell anything from the tone, and that worried her almost more than if it had sounded angry. Not knowing what to expect was the worst of all, in her opinion. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Mr. McDonnell was a well-built man in his mid-forties with a reputation for fairness and never losing his cool. Although he’d proven on more than one occasion that he had no problem taking slackers to task, his ready smiles and easy disposition overshadowed the occasional chewing out or, even more rare, pink slip. Everyone at the office seemed to like him, even some of the nastier women who thrived on gossip and putdowns. More than once, Josey had found herself gawking at him over the edge of her cubicle as he passed by, and the office harpies had called her Smitten Kitten after seeing her clutching a notebook to her chest and staring wistfully after him. Today, Mr. McDonnell sported a stylish navy suit that matched his almost navy eyes, and his thick, black hair was perfectly combed and styled. Just the sight of him made Josey feel like she was back in fourth grade, standing before the principal for talking too much in class. Nervous. Embarrassed. Even a little excited.
“Miss Tate, have a seat,” the handsome man told her. Sit down? Josey didn’t like the sound of that. Usually bosses only had you sit if they were about to give you bad news. At least the seats didn’t have arms. She hated armed chairs, ever fearful her ample bottom would get stuck in them. For a moment she allowed her eyes to meet his, then glanced away fearfully. People intimidated her easily, especially those with authority, and despite her secret infatuation with Mr. McDonnell, she still trembled to think he might be angry with her.
“How’s the Miller account coming?” His tone seemed neutral, but she knew better than to think she wasn’t in trouble. She should have turned it in days ago but just never seemed to get it wrapped up. Josey opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. She’d rehearsed it in her head all the way down the aisle, but now her memory betrayed her. Nervous fingers caught the edge of her jumper and began to twist and twirl it as she tried to remember what she needed to say.
“Are you even close?” Mr. McDonnell leaned forward to fix Josey with a searching look, and she squirmed despite her best effort to be still.
“I’m… I’m almost done, sir,” she stammered. “I’ll have it finished before I go home, I promise.” She didn’t say five, no longer sure if that deadline could be met, but if she had to stay all night she’d make sure it was done before she left.
Sighing heavily, he leaned back in his chair, his navy eyes studying Josey closely as the silence in the room grew. It was unnerving and made it even harder to keep from wriggling in her seat. She let her eyes roam over the office, the books on the wall, the plants along the window sill, and then counted the number of ceiling tiles that ran across the back. Just as she thought she could stand it no longer and would surely blurt out something inappropriate, Mr. McDonnell asked if she needed help.
“Help, sir?” she asked worriedly. “On the account? No, I can do it, really.”
“I was thinking of a different sort of help,” he hedged. “It’s stressful being grown up, isn’t it, Josey? So many responsibilities, so much to remember. Not quite what you thought it would be when you were little, is it?”
Shifting uneasily in her seat, Josey let her eyes flit up to meet his gaze and was surprised to see kindness and concern reflected back. Not that she’d ever seen anything to be truly afraid of in his expression, not ever, but the way he was looking at her now was like that of a close friend, or a father even. Just seconds before she was almost sure he would fire her, but now he looked like he wanted to hug her instead.
“What would you say if I told you there are people, like me, who like to help people like you? Would you like to meet one?”
“Help you learn to manage your life better, in a manner of speaking. Teach you discipline so you don’t show up to work late because you forgot to set your alarm. Or perhaps help you organize your bills. Help you learn to make decisions better. Maybe even help you learn to make better choices with meals and snacks. ”
As hot as her cheeks were, she was sure her face must be bright red. Listening to someone she admired as much as Mr. McDonnell talk about her like that was embarrassing. It was like he really knew her and all the things she struggled with so much.
It was also more than a little weird. She’d had plenty of bosses sit her down and discuss her shortcomings, but never one who looked at her like Mr. McDonnell was looking at her now, and certainly none who asked if she needed help.
“Would it be you?” she whispered, her eyes never leaving the floor between her shuffling Keds.
“Since I’m your boss, that would be inappropriate,” he assured her. “However, it would be someone like me, yes.” Reaching across, he held a business card out to her, patiently waiting until Josey took it before continuing. “Call the number on the back and make an appointment.”
The card had one name on the front.
Josey flipped it over and back several times, half expecting to discover some text or message previously missed. The phone number on the back was written in pencil, worn and faded.
“Call the number, Josey. I think you’ll be very glad you did. In the meantime, get on that account. I really must have it by five, and if you need someone to help you finish, just ask.”
Eager to be gone, she quickly tucked it into her pocket and turned to leave.
She looked back to find Mr. MacDonald still eyeing her speculatively.
“In the future, let’s leave the Hello Kitty socks for when you’re at home.”
* * *
The card wound up in the laundry basket with her work pants, forgotten by the time she arrived home. By Sunday afternoon, it had joined the rest of the week’s work clothes in the washing machine and later the dryer. It wasn’t until she was tucked into bed with the TV remote, her favorite stuffed cat, and a fresh box of double stuff Oreos that she remembered it.
It survived the washing machine intact, but the writing on the back was nearly washed away, and she almost cried with relief that it was still legible at all. Can’t believe I forgot it. Keeping up with all the things she had to do each day was so hard. Do the laundry, pay the bills, buy groceries, go to work. It’s not my fault I can’t remember so many things. Grabbing her cell, she quickly rang the number.
Almost immediately a smooth female voice answered, inquiring when she would like to set her appointment. No “Good evening, thank you for calling such and such” or “How may I direct your call” or even “Please call back during regular business hours.” Just an expectant request for the preferred scheduling time.
“Um, well…” she hesitated, unnerved to be pressed into a decision so quickly. “I work from eight until five, so um… I don’t know when I could make it.”
“No problem, ma’am,” the chipper voice replied. “We’re available to see new clients 24/7.”
Now Josey was intrigued. Who set appointments around the clock? As she fidgeted and stalled, the pleasant voice asked if she would like to come that evening.
“Um… now? Tonight?” Josey started to decline, but the voice assured her the appointment would be quick, over before she knew it, and there was no need to get changed before she arrived. They had an opening at nine-thirty, and within moments her name was on it. A driver was promised, and before she could protest or inquire further the line went silent.
* * *
The call box buzzed at nine-fifteen to announce her ride had arrived, and she hurried downstairs to discover a sleek, black sedan parked out front and a uniformed driver holding the rear passenger door open. Suddenly, her decision to remain in her pajamas seemed ill-conceived, but there wasn’t enough time to rush back to her apartment and change. To her relief the driver’s eyes never dropped below her own, and if he did notice how her belly peeked out from underneath her cami top or the kittens on her pants, he gave no indication. The ride was quiet and quick, and they pulled up right on time to a well-lit but otherwise nondescript strip mall that she had always assumed to be empty.
The driver escorted her to the front of the building and pulled the door open for her.
“Down the hall, third door on the right,” he said. “I’ll be waiting out here to take you home when your appointment is over.”
The only sound in the building was the muted shuffle of her feet along the thickly carpeted hallway, and possibly the agitated beating of her heart, though she suspected that sound was only audible to her. The faded scent of cinnamon buns lingered in the air, and she wondered if it had come from a candle or the real deal. Reaching out, she trailed her fingers along the out-of-date wallpaper, bouncing them off of door number two’s frame and then landing them back down as she drew past it. When she came to the third door, she hesitated, though the nameplate on it showed it to belong to the mysterious Mr. Green, and she knew she’d come to the correct one. She considered turning back, running for the black sedan, and telling him she’d changed her mind, and she almost did until it occurred to her that they may not be willing to pay for the ride there and back if she didn’t even bother to see what the fuss was about. Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open and went inside.
The modestly-sized office was empty. A simple but massive desk dominated the windowless room, its only adornment yet another nameplate, this time in green marble with black lettering. Taking a cautious seat in the armed chair, she leaned forward and traced the letters on the nameplate with a curious finger.
“Mr. Green,” announced a voice from behind her, nearly startling her from her seat. “At your service.” A trim, well-tanned gentleman circled the desk and took a seat across from her, setting a dark leather briefcase with brass corners down on top of it. She had expected an older man, perhaps with glasses and a turkey wattle neck, but Mr. Green was fairly young and rather handsome, with a slight moustache, neatly styled salt and pepper hair, and a crisp white linen suit. She found it easier to imagine him casually reclining on the deck of a fancy yacht, drink in hand, than cooped up in a stuffy office all day.
“I’m Mr. Green, and I believe you are Miss Josey Tate. Now that the pleasantries out of the way, let’s get down to business.” He folded his hands beneath his chin, fingertips lightly touching each other, and studied her for an uncomfortable amount of time. Bright green eyes roamed curiously over her, making note of every detail as they paused to take in her blonde ponytails, the too-tight kitten print cami and matching pajama bottoms, even the way her fingers nervously twiddled together in her lap.
“Mr. McDonnell referred you, am I correct?” Without waiting for her response, he went on. “I read his recommendation yesterday. He seemed quite convinced you would benefit from our matching service.”
“He said you… you would help me learn to, I dunno, take care of things better.”
“That we do, that we do, my young friend,” Mr. Green assured her with a smile. “Though not me personally. I’m only a matchmaker, a simple go-between for those who wish to nurture and those who need nurturing.” Reaching into his briefcase, he quickly pulled some papers out and pushed them across to her. “If you wish for me to find you a suitable match, all you need do is read and sign the agreement. Everything you need to know is right there in black and white.”
“Oh, um,” she stammered, skimming the papers before her quickly. She hadn’t anticipated there might be papers to sign. Duh, Jos, everything has papers to sign. “I… I would need time to read it over; I didn’t realize there’d be a contract involved.”
“No, no contract, nothing legally binding,” he exclaimed, his bushy eyebrows knitting together in concern. “A mere agreement, stating that you will allow me to select the most suitable match available, and that once that selection is made, you will abide by the rules your new daddy makes.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, blinking warily. “Did you say, ‘daddy’?”
“Yes indeed,” he replied, his unwavering gaze growing stern in an instant. “You come to me unable to function in adult life, Josey. You daydream when you should be working, spend money on treats and trips instead of your bills, eat buckets of junk food without any sort of self-control, and refuse to make even the slightest attempt to clean up your messes.” He leaned forward and waggled a finger at her. “Oh yes, I’ve heard the stories from your office cleaning crew.”
Josey found that hard to believe. “How would you have heard anything from them?”
“Little birds,” he smiled slyly. “They tell me so many things. They flit here and there and come back to me. And you should remember that if you decide to move forward. The agreement this evening is the first step. Once I’ve selected your daddy and he agrees to accept you, the two of you will enter a separate agreement at another meeting which will take place here, more than likely tomorrow evening. And, as individuals vary, so do the agreements. So, while I can assure you it will require your complete obedience, I cannot be specific as to what that might entail at this time.”
“So, it’s not a contract,” she mused thoughtfully. “If I decide I don’t like it, I can quit?”
‘No, not a contract,” he agreed. “Each agreement has a sort of escape clause, if you like, that will allow either party to back out of the agreement at any time, for any reason. However,” he added quickly, “once either party backs out of their agreement, their association with my organization ends. There will be no coming back to complain or whine for a second chance.”
“Has anyone ever backed out before?”
“Only once,” he assured her. “And they did come back to whine and plead, but to no avail. I take great care in my selection, Miss Tate. I assure you, I won’t pair you with anyone but the best.”
Suddenly, the most important question of all came to mind. As usual, she’d forgotten all about the bills, and she hesitantly asked what the cost for the arrangement would be.
“Ahh, have no worries about that, Miss Tate,” he smiled benevolently. “We are a rather… elite service… and as such, our clientele tend to be as well. Your new daddy will assume responsibility for all expenses, from use of our facilities—which I think you’ll find far exceed their outward appearances—to any activities the two of you might engage in outside of these walls.”
Chewing her bottom lip, she considered her options. They seemed pretty simple. She could say no and go back to her unhappy existence, or she could sign on the line and someone would try to help her. A daddy who would help me. It sounded silly, and yet, how many times had she wished to go home and let her own father take care of things once more? She skimmed over the agreement again, but nothing in it seemed sinister or even mildly concerning, and he had said she could get out of it if she really wanted to. Before she could change her mind again, she snatched up the pen and quickly initialed and signed at every highlighted X.
“Now what?” she asked as he quickly tucked the contract into his briefcase.
“Now I’ll make a few calls, and you’ll go home. By the time you fall asleep, I’ll have your new daddy chosen. Check your inbox at work first thing in the morning for an important email from him, and by all means do as it says, or you’ll get off to a very unpleasant start,” he warned, waggling a finger at her as he returned to his seat on the other side of the desk. “In the meantime, go home and get some sleep, my dear. Tomorrow will be a new day!”