‘She’s going to be doing the books,’ Maggie told her, although her eyes were on me. When I looked back at her, though, she flushed, turning her gaze to some papers on the counter in front of her, shuffling them busily. ‘Heidi’s been looking for someone since the baby came, remember?’
‘Oh, right,’ Leah said. She pushed back from the counter, hopping up on the one behind her, and folded her long legs. ‘Well, maybe now our checks won’t bounce.’
‘No kidding,’ Esther said. Her pigtails were gone, her hair loose and topped with an army-style cap, which she was wearing with a black sundress, a denim jacket thrown over it, and flip-flops. ‘I mean, I love Heidi. But getting paid at the ATM is kind of sketchy.’
‘You did get paid, though. Heidi’s a good boss; it was an honest mistake,’ Maggie said. Now she was making a studied point of not looking at me as she hit a button on the register, then pulled out a stack of bills, straightening them. Again, she was dressed in pink – both her shirt and flip-flops – and I wondered if this was some kind of signature thing with her. I bet it was. ‘Anyway, someone’s supposed to show her around.’
‘Who?’ Leah asked. ‘Heidi?’
‘No.’ Maggie shut the drawer, then looked at me. A moment later, Leah and Esther both followed suit. Clearly, I’d reached the end of that plank. Nothing to do but jump.
‘Auden,’ I said.
A pause. Then Leah pushed herself off the counter, dropping her feet to the floor with a clunk. ‘Come on,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘The office is this way.’
I could feel the other girls watching me as I followed her past a couple of racks of jeans, a shoe display, and a clearance section to a narrow hallway. ‘That’s the bathroom,’ she said, nodding at a door on the left. ‘Not for customer use, ever, it’s the rule. And here’s the office. Stand back, the door kind of sticks.’
She reached for the knob, then pushed herself against it. A second later, I heard a pop! and it swung open.
The first thing I saw was pink. All four walls were painted a rosy, almost bubble-gummy shade of Maggie’s favorite color. What wasn’t pink (which, at first glance, didn’t seem like much) was orange. Adding to the insanity, the very small space was jammed with all kinds of girly little touches: pink stacking bins, a Hello Kitty pencil cup, a bowl filled entirely with lipsticks and lip glosses. Even the filing cabinets – the filing cabinets! – had pink and orange labels, and a pink feather boa was stretched out over across the top of them.
‘Wow,’ I said, unable to keep my silence.
‘I know,’ Leah agreed. ‘It’s like being in a Starburst box. So, the safe is under the desk, the checkbook lives in the second left-hand drawer, when it’s here, and all the invoices go under the bear.’
She stepped inside the room, walked to the desk, and picked up a little stuffed pink bear. Wearing an orange hat. ‘Here,’ she said, pointing to the stack of paper beneath him. ‘Don’t ask me, it was like that when I got hired. Any questions?’
Of course, I had several, but none she could answer. ‘No. Thanks.’
‘Sure thing. Just holler if you need us.’ She stepped past me, back into the hallway, where I was still standing, having not yet had the strength to actually venture inside. I heard her take a few steps before she said, ‘And, Auden?’
I turned, facing her. ‘Yeah?’
She glanced over her shoulder, then took one step back toward me. ‘Don’t worry about Maggie. She’s just… emotional. She’ll get over it.’
‘Oh,’ I said, wondering how, exactly, I was supposed to respond to this. Even I knew better than to talk about one girl with another one, especially if they were friends. ‘Right.’
She nodded, then walked away, back to the register, where Esther and Maggie were now bent over a box, sticking price tags onto sunglasses. As she approached, they glanced up at her, then easily adjusted themselves, making room for her to join them.
I looked back into the pink room, and for some reason thought of my mother, if only because she was the only person I knew who would have had more trouble entering it than I did. I could just imagine her face, how her eyes would narrow in disgust, the heavy, through-the-nostril sigh that would speak louder than the words that followed it. ‘It’s like a womb in here!’ she’d groan. ‘An environment totally ruled by gender stereotypes and expectations, as pathetic as those who chose to inhabit it.’
Exactly, I thought. Then I went inside.
Heidi’s office might have been over the top, but her books were actually in pretty good shape. When I’d worked for my mom’s accountant the summer before, I’d seen some crazy bookkeeping methods. There were people who came in with registers where entire months’ worth of checks were missing, others who only seemed to keep their receipts on match-books or napkins. Heidi’s stuff was organized, her files made sense, and there were only a few discrepancies, all of which had happened in the last ten months or so. Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, considering what my dad had said about her business background. But it was.
Not shocking was the fact that at first, the office was completely distracting. I actually felt a little nauseated, sitting there, a condition exacerbated when I turned on the desk lamp, which had an orange shade and made everything seem even more radioactive. But after a few minutes with the calculator and the checkbook, it all just kind of fell away. I hadn’t realized how much I missed the simplicity of a project of numbers, how things just made sense in sums and division. No emotion, no complications. Just digits on-screen, lining up in perfect sequence.
I was so immersed, in fact, that at first I didn’t even hear the music coming from the store behind me. It was only when it suddenly got very loud, like someone had twisted the volume from the lowest to highest setting, that it broke through the tax forms I was looking at and got my attention.
I looked at the clock – it was 9:01 – then pushed my chair back and eased the door open. Out in the hallway, the music was positively deafening, some disco song with a fast beat, a girl’s voice chanting some lyrics about a summer crush over it. I was wondering if maybe they were having some issue with the stereo system when I saw Esther suddenly go shimmying past the jeans display, her arms waving over her head. She was followed, moments later, by Leah, doing a slow, hip-swiveling move, and then Maggie, bouncing on her tiptoes. It was like a conga line of three, passing quickly, then gone.