Rupert's Story Shop

Stories to enchant.

Rock and a Hard Place

by Wendy Parker

Sherri Taylor sat in the hallway outside the interview room and wondered how she was going to get out of this pickle.

She was definitely stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock was Cassandra Jones, and her ability to wreak havoc with Sherri's life. The hard place was the manager position for which Sherri was vying.

The only way she could stop Cassandra was to win the job. Trouble was, she didn't want it.

Her problems had started innocently enough.

She and Mike Avery were sipping cold beers after work one Friday when he mentioned the current rumour he'd picked up from the clerical staff.

Sherri gagged on her beer.

"What?" she gasped.

"I asked if you want to go outside with me," he said. "For a cigarette." He cocked his head at her. "Obviously, you don't want to."

"No. Before that."

He looked at her with that supercilious, pseudo-sophisticated pout he affected when he'd had more than two beers.

"Interested, are we? I thought we didn't indulge in that tacky office gossip that I love so much."

She bared her teeth at him.

"Okay, okay," he said. "I heard a rumour that Cassandra Jones, the Vixen of Finance, has applied for our manager position. Does that hit a nerve for you?"

"No," she lied. "Of course not. Why would it?"

"Why indeed?"

"It just surprises me a bit, that's all," she said. "Why would Miss Uber-Alles want to run our dysfunctional shop?"

"Who knows?" He put his empty mug on the bar and favoured her with an appraising gaze. "There's more to it than that, isn't there?"

Mike Ascot was her best friend, but Sherri was reluctant to tell him the whole truth about Cassandra. It embarrassed her, made her feel a bit dirty, and she was afraid he'd blow it out of proportion. Yet she owed him some explanation for her behaviour. She decided to give him the much-abridged version of her Cassandra story.

She and Cassandra had started at the firm during the same month almost a decade before. They had worked side by side as interns in the marketing department and, at first, they had gotten along well. They were two young women just out of college, excited about their jobs and happy to be making a good start in their careers.

The feeling of camaraderie had ended abruptly.

Cassandra had set her sights on a supervisory position occupied at the time by one Dorothy Knight. Sherri had rather liked Dorothy. Dorothy had reached down to teach her the ins and outs of the business, and Sherri had begun to regard her as a mentor and friend. Cassandra, on the other hand, had seen Dorothy as a tasty morsel, another bit of throwaway nutrition for the upward journey.

Sherri didn't tell Mike the best part, the part she'd kept secret all these years, but she hinted at the deceitful, conniving and vicious campaign launched by her young colleague against their boss. Dorothy, a warm and generous woman from another era, hadn't even seen it coming. She had been completely outgunned from the get-go. With her all-girls-together outlook on life, she'd misread the skies and ignored the storm clouds. She hadn't seen anything exceptional about her unmarried status, nor about her continuing close friendships with girlhood friends. She hadn't expected others to see her as exceptional in that respect either. She had been wrong.

Before Cassandra had even completed her probation period, she had Dorothy on the run. A month later, Cassandra had Dorothy's office, and Dorothy was on her way to early retirement.

Sherri had been shocked by her former friend's behaviour, but she'd done nothing about it. She had kept her head down, worked hard and stayed out of Cassandra's path. She'd seen the sideward glances and knowing smirks, but managed to skitter out of harm's way, finding cover in mundane jobs and submissive behaviour. She had survived, hating every minute she had to work for Cassandra.

Cassandra had finally put an end to Sherri's misery by moving up and out into another, more promising, part of the firm. Sherri had lost touch with her, although she had heard the occasional story about Cassandra's professional triumphs from her star-struck colleagues.

Mike was not impressed with her story. He thought Cassandra's hard edges must have been knocked off in the decade that had passed since her first promotion. Besides, he's heard good things about her, and suspected she might be just the thing they needed to get Marketing up and rolling again.

"If you're that bent out of shape by her, you could always apply for the job yourself," Mike told her. "With your record, you'd blow her away. I don't know why you didn't go for it last time."

Later, walking the three blocks home to her apartment, she pondered his words.

She had to admit that she should have seen it coming, but she'd always been so busy with work, with Danny, later with Jason's illness, then her mother's dementia. She'd barely thought of Cassandra. In retrospect, she could see she had been profoundly naive and optimistic. It was inevitable that their paths would cross again some day. It was also inevitable that Cassandra would be the predator and Sherri would be the furry bunny on the path to the executive suite.

That evening, after she had made a light supper for Danny and her mother, then tucked the two of them into their beds, she poured a glass of wine and curled up in her armchair in front of the television to think through her choices.

Mike had suggested she could apply for the manager's job, but what if she got it? She mentally counted off the reasons she didn't want that to happen.
First, it would take her away from work she loved and would fill her days with administrative headaches. She didn't need any more of those.
Second, it didn't pay much more than her current job and, when you factored in the extra taxes, it came out just about the same. What was the point?
Third, and most important, she couldn't afford it. Management jobs demanded time, energy and, yes, dedication to the company. Sherri had already committed her full quota of those values to her mother and son.

To tell the truth, she didn't see herself as a management type. She didn't even like managers. She preferred hanging around the worker bees, chatting about their projects and discussing the assignments that came their way.

But there was that rock, Cassandra Jones.

Sherri knew she'd be toast at Monumental Inc. if Cassandra got the manager's job. Sherri knew about Dorothy, and the snide little backstabbing lies Cassandra had whispered into the ear of the division chief, her squeeze of the time. Cassandra knew that she knew. And Cassandra would spare no effort to remove a threat to her continuing upward mobility.

Another option would be to spill the beans to senior management. Maybe it would cause them to rethink their plans for the golden-girl. Maybe they'd come to their senses and boot Cassandra out. It was just as likely, though, that they'd disbelieve Sherri, label her a bitchy malcontent, or - worse - that Sherri would bare her soul to Cassandra's current bedmate. Hard to see how that would help the career of an over-taxed single mom who just wanted to fly under the radar until she retired, with grace, dignity and an adequate pension, some twenty years down the line.

Still, she couldn't let Cassandra get that job. She could either compete head-to-head for the job, or she could tell her secret to the bigwigs and hope they believed her. Or she could quit right now and go find another job. Those were the choices.

She spent the weekend agonizing over her options. On Monday morning, she submitted her application for the manager position. And why not, she thought defiantly as she slipped the application into the Human Resources mail slot.

She had graduated top of her class from the city's best university. She had an honours BA in English with a strong minor in History. Cassandra had barely scraped through a two-year journalism course at a suburban college. In her years with the firm, Sherri's work record had been exemplary. She had taken on tough jobs and done them well. She had always stepped forward when her department had needed her and had, in fact, backfilled the manager slot several times when her unit had been short-handed.

As Mike had said, she was well qualified for the position. A few years ago, she would have been eager to vie for it. But the opportunity had never arisen. She had stayed put. Now, she'd grown comfortable in her job. She had family responsibilities that absorbed her time and drained her energy.

Cassandra, meanwhile, had flitted from job to job within the firm. She had moved rapidly through the ranks, never staying in one place long enough for her character flaws to become obvious to upper management.

Through all those years, Sherri had waited patiently for the backstabbing Cassandra to get her comeuppance, but it had never happened.

Now she had to grit her teeth and face the Cassandra problem square on.

The first interview had gone well. After all, who knew more about the department and its needs? Then she had impressed them in the second interview with her ideas for new projects and new directions. At the final chat, she could see it in their faces that they liked her and what she was saying.

She had even impressed herself. In fact, as she had prepared for the preliminary interviews, and then, when she had faced the interview panel across the boardroom table, she had become more and more excited about the possibilities of the job.

She knew that Mike was wrong about one thing. They didn't need a person like Cassandra to shake up the department. All the ingredients for success were there. They had a good team. They could turn things around if they were allowed to do what they did best. She had told the panel that, she had shown them how they could do it, and she had seen that they were thinking about it.

So she sat in the hallway outside the interview room, waiting for the panel to decide, and wondering if it wasn't, really, the best thing that had happened to her in years. Her mother and young Danny would adapt. The higher salary would allow her to bring in help. She could finally throw herself into a job that challenged her.

She was imagining herself in her new office, rallying her rejuvenated troops around her, when the interview room door opened and one of the panel members, a Sean Connery look-alike from Finance, came out. She put on an expectant smile and watched him walk toward her.

"Mrs. Taylor?"

She stood and faced him. She didn't like his rueful expression.

"I'm sorry. It was very close, but we've chosen another candidate."

Sherri didn't have to ask him who the other candidate was.

He told her that the panel had been impressed with her and they all wanted to encourage her to apply for other positions at the firm.

She nodded, fighting back tears.

"Look," he said. "I can see you're disappointed and I understand how you feel, but I want you to know how very close it was. In the end, the difference was the performance of the other candidate years ago in your own department. You worked for her then, I believe, so you'll understand what I mean. Her work was so impressive, and we all thought she deserved the chance to come back to Marketing. We think she's just what the unit needs to get it rolling again."

Sherri smiled bravely.

"Of course, I remember," she said. "I'm sure there will be exciting times ahead for the department. I look forward to it."

"That's the spirit."

He patted her on the shoulder, then left her to contemplate the ruins of her career. Sherri looked at the closed door of the interview room for a few minutes. That was that, then. Cassandra had won.

She wanted to tell herself that she had done her best, there was nothing to be ashamed of, but she knew it wasn't true. She had let too many chances go by. The battle had been lost years ago.

Sherri sat in the hallway by herself and wondered how she was going to get out of this mess. She thought about going back to her office, maybe starting to pack up her desk and plan for a new future. She thought she might look up Dorothy Knight and see how things had worked out for her. Maybe the two of them could join forces again, start their own marketing consultancy.

Then the idea came to her, and she smiled to herself. Cassandra wasn't married, was she? And what was that about her Thursday evenings out with the girls? Hadn't she heard that Cassandra hung around with that bunch of brassy feminists from the Professional Businesswomen's Club? And that guy from Finance wasn't all that bad looking, was he?

Now, if she could just remember exactly how it was that Cassandra had pulled the rug out from under Dorothy Knight all those years ago. It wasn't really wrong, was it? It wasn't for herself. It was retribution, in a way, for Dorothy. It was for Danny and her mother.

Sherri smiled as she thought of the fine, ironic hard place she could make for Cassandra.
Rupert's Comments:

Hate office politics? Then maybe you're not playing the game right. How about a board game that allows you to sharpen your claws in the privacy of your own home? You can even customize the board for your own office. Check it out at this Fiendish Games site and start putting your own Cassandras in their place.

2447 words

Submitted on 2007-05-06 21:05:40

Other stories by this author.