Family Tree by Emma Harper

It was 2009 so one really couldn’t be picky when it came to most things.

Lauren’s first job interview was with a man who went by Hamlet and carried a small, thin barber’s comb and a different news clipping from the same November 18th, 1984 New York Times in his right front pocket every day. Hamlet was the founder and CEO of a tech start-up that sought to create the first flying bicycle by 2016—a vehicle that Hamlet felt “inspired, nay, obliged, nay, compelled,” to create, he told Lauren, after having worked down in Palo Alto for three months and deciding that the commute would have been much better had he felt the wind beneath him as he soared over I-280. Lauren didn’t get the job, presumably because she had never flown a plane, was iffy on a bicycle, and could not for the life of her explain what had happened on November 18th, 1984 even despite thorough research later on.   

Sometime around dinner her mom called to ask how the interview went. After the “Hello” (“Hi”) and “How are you” (“Good, how are you”) and “What’s for dinner at your house” (“Spaghetti”; “Dumplings”) her dad picked up the receiver in the living room and said, “Lauren, it’s your father. I’m on the receiver in the living room. I take it that your first interview didn’t go well. Make sure that at your next interview you show them your true Parker colors. 

You’ll do great I’m sure. Must go. Dumplings.” Click.

Lauren’s mom cupped the phone with her palm and Lauren heard the muted “BRIAN!” that had been shouted into her parents’ living room. Her mother followed with a more deliberate, into-the-microphone, “Don’t worry about your father, Lauren. You’ll find something.”  Lauren thanked her, as Parkers do.

Her second job interview was with a man named Sean at a company called EventPro. From the website Lauren gathered that it was a “catering-and-party-planner-in-one” that called itself a start-up but appeared to be a small, family-owned business in its first operational year. (Much later and a bit incidentally she tried to look up the difference between a start-up and a new company but couldn’t figure that out, either.)

During her first and only interview with Sean he outlined the company personnel on a photo-collaged family tree.

“These are the top branches, Ms. Parker. Here you have the CEO and the COO. I’m of course the COO and that is Leslie, the CEO. As you’ll know, she is my sister. You wouldn’t see her very often since she mostly keeps to herself. Always has. Used to play with those Ouija boards. Not so anymore, but, well, I’m sure you understand.”

Lauren nodded and squirmed in her seat. The leather squealed and she froze in discomfort. Ignoring or oblivious, Sean continued talking as Lauren searched for her composure.

“Then there’s my brother, Robert, in IT, of course, and my other sister, Jeanie. As it would turn out, Robert actually is quite brilliant in select areas.”

There was a brief pause, and Lauren knew she was supposed to ask leading questions that could prove she had done her due diligence at Internet sleuthing before she arrived. She racked her brain. She heard a dog bark — a distant, muted, bark, but definitively a bark nonetheless — and she wondered if someone had shut it in a small closet. She knew she shouldn’t ask about that. She focused in on the tree. The candid headshots of each family member and general cut-and-paste construction of the thing resembled to a suspicious degree a second grader’s end-of-year pinnacle project, but she decided that she shouldn’t ask about that, either. She sat hands-in-lap patiently waiting for Sean to continue, awkward silence be damned.

“So, moving on, Jeanie was the COO before me, but her unfortunate divorce with Josh caused the Board to demote her. Now she’s on the Marketing side of things. Often comes in late. Shame how that played out. Anyway, Josh has been replaced by June, whom you’d see around here quite a bit if we’re, you know, aligned. Of course you probably wouldn’t want to mention Josh’s name, but I’m sure that goes without saying.”

Josh’s photograph had been crossed out, and when Lauren looked closely she saw that someone had drawn the Devil’s horns on him. She pretended not to notice and just smiled at Sean, nodding empathically as if to say, yes, of course those things happen; sometimes people get divorced and then you draw antagonizing cartoons on their faces and then they get fired. C’est la vie, mon frere. She hoped it had been the work of a child. Then she hoped it hadn’t.

As Sean squinted and pointed and spoke in a mostly disparaging way about the members of his family, Lauren’s attention dwindled and she grew more worried about the dog. She scanned the room for a clock. Where’s the clock? Aren’t all businesses supposed to have an oversized clock on the wall, visible from all cubes, maybe a work of modern art with just hands, no numbers? No clock. Instead, she caught eyes with a face on a computer screen in the corner of the room. A quick cross-reference to the tree told her it was Sean’s sister-in-law, Aunt Sally. Lauren couldn’t remember the woman’s title or her purpose within the company, but was able to determine by the concentrated expression on her face that she had Skyped in to observe the interview. Aunt Sally hadn’t asked any questions or participated in the conversation, so Lauren wasn’t sure if she was supposed to acknowledge her presence or if it was meant to be a secret that she was even there. She decided to feign ignorance and focus her attention back on Sean, as he continued to describe the hierarchy among his siblings and cousins using the tree, a few off-the-cuff sketches, and the occasional role-play. The dog barked again and Lauren couldn’t help but notice out of the corner of her eye that Aunt Sally whipped around from where she had been hunched over staring into the camera’s eye, and appeared to be scolding something. Lauren breathed a sight of relief that it was probably her dog.

At the end of the interview, Sean presented Lauren with a post-it note that had a sketch of Leslie’s face on it, which he called a souvenir, and a mediocre offer that would be enough to cover rent and a few trips back home. Lauren said she’d have to think about it alongside her other offers, of which there were approximately none, and on her way home she was so flustered she merged directly into the rear passenger-side door of a Chevy Tahoe on the 101. No one was hurt physically. And the next day, determined not to be just another lazy member of the freeloading generation she kept reading about, and despite her best judgment, she called Sean and accepted the job. She began therapy within the same fiscal year.

Lauren’s first day at the office was exciting. She woke up an hour before her alarm, drank two cups of coffee, and changed outfits more than four times before deciding to wear the first thing she had put on. Even in traffic she arrived at the office twenty minutes early, so she drove around the block several times in order to appear appropriately eager, rather than overly so. Mid-morning, as Robert was setting up her computer, Sean came by her desk and presented her with her very own fern.

“Lauren, welcome. I trust Robert is getting you set up.” He paused and looked down at Robert, who was competently and confidently setting up Lauren’s email account. “Let June know if you need anything at all, Lauren. And Robert, let me know if you’ll need me to call a real IT person to help.”

Sean winked cruelly. Lauren nodded and stared down at her shoes. She was glad she decided on blue.

“Oh, Lauren, I almost forgot that I have your first account here. Normally I’ll email this information to you, but since Robert hasn’t finished setting up your account, well, here you go.” He handed her a printout of an email. “It’s a beekeeper-themed party for a child, Lauren. Uniquely, you’ll be on-site for this one. For now, you’ll just record the basic information: party theme, known allergies, special requests. Utilize our list of appropriate vendors. Don’t want you re-inventing the wheel here. Oh, but you may want to get certified in CPR.”

Lauren took the paper from him and started reading it.

“Just kidding,” Sean said.

Lauren looked up. Sean was shaking his head. She didn’t know what it meant. Was he not kidding; it’s impossible to know. His phone started vibrating in his pocket.

“And Lauren,” Sean said as he reached to answer it, “I hope you still have that portrait of Leslie I drew for you. It’s probably the most you’ll see of her.” And at that, he left.

Lauren stared at the email, reading and re-reading it. Her first assignment. The paper shook in her trembling hands, making that awful shaking paper noise that annoyed her so much, the one that sounded like somebody trying to drill into a metal sheet with a wine opener. She imagined disaster scenarios like what if I really do need to know CPR before spinning off into less likely mishaps (with admittedly much lower stakes) that could happen at other parties. Like bringing goats to a roller derby party and shin guards to a petting zoo party and how it would all be her fault now forever.  Shake, shake, shake.

“Don’t worry, Lauren,” Robert said, “you’ll figure it out. Deep breaths.”

People would be sitting around at Thanksgivings years from now, she thought, cackling at the mere thought of the time the goat appeared, unbeknownst to anyone, and it made Johnny miss the winning goal at his own birthday party. “Sure, can’t be too hard,” Lauren said as she used her one arm to keep her other arm still.

In between nightmare fantasies, Lauren spent her first days at EventPro watching the others go about their day-to-days. The building was open in its layout but isolated in most other ways. At lunchtime, a few segregated clusters of second cousins ate together, but mostly people kept to themselves. 

Lauren was reminded that people were related only when they had no patience or seemed too comfortable with one another. For the most part, they arrived, tried to conceive of work to do, and left.

She attended her first company-wide meeting after just four days. Everyone attended, except for Leslie, who was MIA, and Aunt Sally, who Skyped in. In perhaps an effort not to make Lauren feel singled out, Sean announced to “all the new hires” that the two-hour meetings would continue to be weekly events. He spoke mostly in a set of recently learned, disjointed phrases, words like “integrative marketing” and “springboard” and “best practices within various media outlets.” Aunt Sally’s dog barked continuously, and she scolded it in a very quite whisper-yell, a SHHHHH!!!! which the bad internet connection made sound like the slow flooding of a basement. The stress of the terms and the barking dog caused Lauren to experience an anxiety blackout, and she absorbed nothing of Sean’s speech. As the meeting adjourned, she locked eyes with a man named Samuel, who glared at her.

She knew that Samuel was many people’s cousin and also the PR manager, but what with the company not yet having any positive or negative publicity, he took up several pet projects around the office, most of them in the mass-email realm. He sent out several typo-ridden emails that Lauren would grow accustomed to receiving daily, “Announsments” mostly consisting of upcoming birthdays and fire drills. He spent the rest of his time working on a mysterious statistical analysis in the kitchen, and so spent most of his time there. He often clutched a bag of Chex mix and a legal pad that said “The Kitchen Project” at the top. He met biweekly with Sean. Lauren had her suspicions.

Given the lack of events that went on in the kitchen generally, Lauren assumed that Samuel was the designated family bean counter, a crusader of an odd breed sent to ensure that everyone paid their 50 cents before taking a cup of coffee. So she’d make eye contact with Samuel whenever she dropped in her quarters and poured the burnt brew as if to say See, I am not stealing.

After a few weeks, Samuel approached her as she was pouring coffee.

“Do you like coffee?” he said.

Lauren dropped 50 cents into the jar with great exaggeration. “Good morning, Samuel. Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Would you like to have coffee with me sometime? I’ll pay, as is customary on dates, of which this would be one.”

Afraid of getting fired, Lauren said yes, and then she promptly scurried back to her desk with the intention of hiding out for days.

But Samuel’s conscience caught up with him and he realized the tremendous conflict of interest that could compromise the integrity of The Kitchen Project, so he broke off the date with her via email a few hours later:

 Laurn,

 I’m afraid there is a conflict of interest that has arisen with regards to our upcoming date. If we become intimate, it would compromise the integrity of my ongoing project in the kitchen, which is of the utmost importance to the company.

Cordially,

Samuel P. Livingston

Public Relations Manager

EventPro

“The only thing you’ll have to bring is a smile”

She was saddened to be pleasantly surprised that the email was sent only to her rather than as a postscript on the “TGIF” spam that had gone out five minutes earlier. And to her surprise, the only typo in the email was her name. Laurn, she thought. Laurn. Laurn. She liked the curve of the vowel.

It was in fact the case, though Lauren would not learn it for a while, that Samuel had been collecting data on who removed what utensil from the utensil drawer. This was in order to get to the bottom of all of the missing forks, an issue Sean had mentioned in passing once near the water cooler.

Lauren met with June to discuss the finances twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11. As Sean had mentioned briefly at their interview, June was the financial accountant. The CFO, whom it turned out had been Josh, had left the company around the same time that he divorced Jeanie. His replacement took his office, his and his assistant’s tasks, and a third of his pay. Her title was “Accountant,” and she seemed never to go home, unless she had a fort with a sleeping bag underneath her desk, which was possible. Lauren had seen those types of forts in a Land of Nod catalog once. June bought Butterfinger bars from the vending machine daily and she ran from place to place. As such, she was often heard clomping and unwrapping.

Lauren was sitting at her desk sifting through Samuels’ “TGIF” email when she heard the clomp, clomp, clomp of June followed by the inevitable crunching of the Butterfinger. Then an email popped up: “Hi Miss Lauren, come to my office please in 5 mins? 🙂 J.” It was of course June, who sent reminder emails twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:55. For her first few weeks Lauren thought they were automated, but she realized that sometimes the emoticon changed or June would write out her full name. Lauren wondered if she had an internal alarm system, and if so, could she get one, too.

The two sat at June’s desk looking at charts that she had printed from the previous week’s Olympics party. “Lauren, here are the numbers before us. Two times over-budget. Because two times cookies.” Lauren had a difficult time understanding her.

“I think that what happened was a miscommunication over the catering specifics. Namely, the no-peanut peanut butter cookies that were requested by the hostess had to be made on-the-fly, because the caterers sent peanut butter cookies, and the birthday boy had a nut allergy.”

Jean nodded, then shook her head, then nodded. She was impossible to read. Lauren grew anxious, especially at the thought that June could see the anxiety in the tightness of her lips and the rustling of her papers and the deliberate, concentrated stare she held at a tiny piece of dirt on the wall. 

June continued to nod-shake.

The “miscommunication” was of course Lauren’s fault. She had been organizing her paper clips during the final call with the caterers and the no-peanut peanut butter cookies hadn’t made sense to her in the first place, so they didn’t stand a chance in her brain against more important facts like song lyrics and train schedules and that damn near impossible-to-plan beekeeper party and the fact that she still didn’t know if the CPR comment was a joke. In fact, the entire idea of accommodating an allergy like that left her enraged. She could have even blocked it out, she thought. Out of spite.

“Well, Miss Lauren, I suppose these things happen. Don’t worry. I know bees have been the stress of the project.” Lauren could tell that June, while understanding, still seemed disappointed. Lauren nodded. June nodded back again. Lauren took the cue to leave and dismissed herself.

When she left June’s office she walked into the kitchen to pour herself a cup of coffee. She waved a hello to Samuel as she dropped 50 cents into the jar. As she sipped it, she glared at him. She decided she didn’t want to have to face him again at lunchtime, so she took her salad out of the fridge and a fork out of the drawer. Samuel, noticing her fork handling, glared back and scribbled on his legal pad.

The next morning, Lauren headed in to work early so that she could finish up the final catering logistics of the beekeeper party.

As she was driving down the 101 it started to rain, but she was tired enough that it didn’t seem awful. Her mind trailed away from Steve Inskeep’s impassioned commentary on water purification toward the details that would need sorting out that day, the ones she had put off to the last minute because they seemed impossible: like how to rent 25 child-sized beekeeper suits for the attendees, and what should be included on the liability waiver. But she didn’t feel anxious yet. In her car, she was in control. She wondered if she’d rent a suit herself, or if she’d just risk the stings. The thought of taking a risk with the bees kind of excited her. She’d only been stung once before, on the first day of fifth grade, right on her forehead. At the time she barely noticed, she even thought it was a mosquito. Then her teacher said, “Time to get you to the nurse,” and she wailed and sobbed for hours until finally her babysitter arrived. Yes, Lauren thought. Maybe it’s time to get stung again. She shivered, excited, but not in the way she was familiar with, the way that made her want to vomit; just in the way that she was looking forward to something.

Lauren was barely conscious at work. At her 11 o’clock meeting, she sat in June’s office to discuss the party.

“How is the planning coming along, Miss Lauren? Under-budget I hope?” June asked.

Lauren took a slow sip of her coffee and nodded. She knew that a quick sip was a smoke signal for neurosis. Parkers aren’t neurotic.

“I’ve been thinking. I decided to learn CPR, but I’m going to forgo the suit for myself.” Lauren’s words were calm and her eyes were beady, rounder somehow. She had come to the firm decision sometime between 8 and 11 that morning that she didn’t care what happened, that since she had only been stung once, it was time to figure out if she was allergic, and that Sean wouldn’t care anyway because he thinks she’s stealing all the coffee without paying but I am paying.

June looked at her like she was a foreign object.

Lauren said, cutting to the chase, “I guess the good news is that I know there’s a fear of death in there somewhere, or else I wouldn’t notice that it’s gone, you know? June, you know?”

June opened her drawer and pulled out a Butterfinger. Talk of anything but finances made her deeply uncomfortable. “Eaten yet, Miss Lauren?” June asked, as if it were normal to have one’s fear of death be something that comes and goes like moon cycles. Lauren shook her head in silent agreement that they’d change the subject. The toffee stuck to her molars like glue.

For the weeks leading up to the birthday party, Lauren tested every limit. She arrived five minutes late to a company meeting and left early. At her desk, she did nothing but read about bees and children. (By her math, she determined that there was a 91% chance of at least one child getting stung by a bee at this party, and, among children generally, a 35% chance of someone having an allergic reaction and needing an EPI-pen or worse.) She bought all of the Butterfingers out of the vending machine and hid them in her drawer even though she knew she’d never eat them. She began provoking Samuel once she caught on that it was the forks he was watching, and she started taking three or four at a time and then returning them all to the drawer just before leaving the office. She started taking money out of the coffee jar, just in case she was wrong about the forks. And then, two days before the party, as Lauren walked by the Skype camera with a fistful of forks and five butterfingers, Aunt Sally (of all people) in her first direct words to Lauren after months of watching her, said, “I think you should see a therapist.”

Therapy didn’t help. Lauren continued: more forks, more quarters, more candy. She was riding the high. The day of the beekeeping birthday party arrived and Lauren donned street clothes without protection. She even got stung, right on her left quad, but much to her dismay she didn’t have any sort of allergic reaction. In fact the entire party was anticlimactic and nobody got stung besides her. The next day she told Sean, who laughed and patted her on the top of the head and said, “Kids these days.” He actually said, “Kids these days.” She walked into his office an hour later and told him that she was quitting, effective immediately.

Sean said he was very disappointed and thought that she and the company could have developed a very mutually beneficial relationship had they more time together, since things were really about to take off for EventPro. (They weren’t.) June had been eavesdropping on the conversation from down the hall and sent Lauren an email that contained mostly just emoticons. Aunt Sally told Robert, who wished her all the best in her endeavors, poor Robert. Jeanie walked into Lauren’s office for the very first time and, saying nothing, handed Lauren a flask, which she was very disappointed to discover was filled with coconut rum. Samuel sent an email cc’ing the company saying how sorry he was to hear that she was leaving and how he wished he hadn’t canceled their date, because maybe they would have really become something special. Leslie, whom Lauren decided likely didn’t exist, said nothing at all. On her way out, Lauren took all of the remaining forks and shoved them in her bag.

On her way home she decided to take Route 1 back to San Francisco. Her bee sting still hurt a little, and she had adopted the habit of pressing it just to make sure the pain still irked her. Her car hugged the curves. The rocky mountainside framed her right side so closely that if someone had been sitting there, they’d be able to reach out from the passenger side and touch the rough. The ocean, miles below, was so close on her left that she could taste the salt. She imagined driving off the cliff, speeding straight ahead instead of guiding the steering wheel so carefully, tumbling down and banging against the sharp edges of rocks before finally splashing into the ocean. She wondered if it would feel fast or slow, be over in a second or take minutes and if she’d get to see her whole life in images like people said, because it’d be worth it for that. She thought that if she rolled her window down now she could unbuckle herself mid-fall and jump out, and the last feeling she ever felt could be the harsh slap of the ocean against her skin before nothingness.

She pressed into her leg again and thought how nice it would be to fly, and that maybe she should call Hamlet in the morning.


emma

Emma Harper is a writer and editor. She graduated from Kenyon College (B.A. in Italian Studies, cum laude) and the University of Edinburgh (M.Sc. in Comparative and General Literature, with Distinction). She currently lives in Berkeley, California. To read her flash fiction, visit www.emmaharper.co.

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