Full text of a Weekend Writing Warriors short story I shared, for anyone interested in reading the whole of it–or you can scroll to the end for What Happened Next.
Lily Wasn’t There is an experiment in narrators. The narrator, Becca, is a woman in her late twenties, dissatisfied with her life, who works as an accountant, and spends more time worrying about her clothes and belittling her coworkers than actually working. A favorite is Lily, who Becca views as an anti-social loner, who has no social life, no friends, and no fashion sense–someone she can pity, and feel superior to.
But it turns out Becca is quite wrong about Lily, and the discovery leads to some excitement as Becca rearranges her opinions.
About 4,200 words.
* * * *
Becca slumped over her coffee mug, watching Lily work busily away. How can she look so happy this early on a Monday?
Lily put too much effort into work. She probably went home each night to TV shows, a cat, and an early bedtime. But Becca wanted a life, which was why she’d stayed out until 2 a.m. on another disappointing date. There’s no good guys out there. I’m almost thirty, not much time left.
“Have you finished the H.M.I. folder yet?” Irving, whose desk was next to hers, asked.
“Almost.” Becca opened the top-most folder from the stack on her desk. Five minutes to get some caffeine in her, then she could focus on the deadly boring numbers. The gleaming pink metal clock on the corner of her desk read 9:14– three long hours until lunch.
If she didn’t need the money so badly, she’d quit. But her daddy refused to help her financially when she’d lost three jobs in the year after she graduated.
Later that afternoon Becca suffered through a meeting, trying to appear involved. She was meant for so much more than other people’s budgets and taxes. Lily, who’d worked a year less than Becca but gotten a raise first, was busy taking notes and winning points with her insipid questions.
Finally free, she returned to her desk and commiserated with Irving about the meeting. “I thought Vicki’d never shut up about the Fazio account.”
Becca blinked, colored contacts irritating her eyes, and rummaged in her desk drawer for eye drops. Too bad there wasn’t an easier way to transform her blah brown eyes into an eye-catching green.
“She thinks she’s better than everyone.” Irving shuffled through the pile of folders on his desk, dislodging one that spilled its contents across the brown and gray speckled carpet.
“Like we don’t all have the same job.” Becca eased her feet out of her new Miu Miu heels, and rubbed at the red marks on her ankles as Irving chattered on and picked up his mess. She’d learned to tune him out—he’d talk forever about his favorite sports team or reality show.
Irving finally finished chasing down all the paper and fell silent. He crumpled up discarded pages and tossed them one at a time at his trashcan, which he kept at the end of his desk for target practice.
“Are you going to the barbeque next month?” Becca asked. Irving talked too much, but he was better than most of her coworkers.
“Yeah. I hope Martin doesn’t bring his family. I had to toss the Armani pants his little monsters splattered with mustard.”
“Some people just can’t control their kids,” Becca examined her blond hair for split ends. The bleach made it brittle, no matter what her stylist tried. “But then, Martin’s such a putz, isn’t he?”
“Yeah… We’d better get back to work,” Irving glanced toward the manager’s office.
“Right.” Becca opened several windows on her computer, and called her friend Louisa, cradling the phone against her shoulder as she typed numbers she’d have to double-check later. He’s a putz, too—he worries too much.
* * * *
That Thursday, Becca fidgeted, watching the minutes slowly tick away on her desk clock. Lunch officially began at noon, but she always left a little early so she didn’t have to wade through her co-workers. At 11:49, she shot out of her chair.
Vicki, who worked two desks away, hurried after Becca past the receptionists chirping, “Quinn and Eckhardt Accounting, how may I help you?”
Becca’s heels clicked on the stone floors to the elevators, and she stabbed the down button three times. “Lily’s still at her desk. Think she’s staying in for lunch again?”
“She’s always here. I think she sleeps curled up under her desk each night.” Vicki studied a tiny chip in her deep red nail polish.
“Vicki!” Becca giggled, glancing at her own nails, which sported a much less trampy pale pink and a tiny rhinestone-centered flower on the thumbs.
They spent the elevator ride and walk through the downstairs lobby gossiping about Garry from legal’s latest receptionist. Outside, the dry summer air slammed into them, and Becca’s polyester skirt clung to her legs, inching its way up her thighs. She tugged the skirt down as she slid into her new Mercedes M-Class.
At Koi Garden, one of their favorite lunch spots, they sat in their usual corner table, eating sushi and grading the other customers.
“What’s she thinking?” Becca nodded towards a woman in an unfortunate pair of khaki shorts that sagged in the rear.
“She probably wasn’t thinking at all.” Vicki sipped her green tea, “So, how’d your date go last night?”
“Horrible. Can you believe he asked to split the check?”
“Really?” Vicki’s eyes widened.
She just loves to gossip. Got to be careful how much I tell her. “Yeah. His profile said he’s a doctor, so I thought he’d take me somewhere nice. Instead he picked this greasy diner and asked me to pay!” Becca half-listened to Vicki commiserating about the horrors of the dating scene as she thought about her wasted evening.
The doctor hadn’t been much in the looks department, and she’d tried to be nice despite her disappointment, but he hadn’t appreciated her efforts.
All her friends were married or engaged, and a few already had babies. Becca had been the first of her friends with a high-school boyfriend, first to go to prom with a senior, and first to get a proposal, though that hadn’t worked out. Now she was falling behind and she didn’t like the feeling.
It didn’t help that she’d had a call from her mom last night—who’d been married and pregnant at Becca’s age, too. Looks, she reminded Becca, don’t last. After she’d gotten off the phone, Becca had found not one, but three fine wrinkles on her face. Mom was right.
* * * *
The next morning, at yet another meeting, Becca forced herself to pay attention. They’d be given assignments today, and she hated the way people snickered if she didn’t respond to her manager immediately.
“Rebecca, you’ll have the new Montemayor account,” Mr. Williams said.
Becca nodded, scribbling a note. She forced a pleasant expression while the meeting continued, and after it was finally over, she approached her boss in his office: “Sir, about the new account. I’m not entirely clear on a few of the details…”
“Why don’t you ask Lily?” Mr. Williams glanced at his watch. “She had it previously.”
Becca fixed a bright smile on her face. “Of course, sir. I’ll go ask her now.”
Why’d it have to be Lily?
At her desk, Becca straightened her folders, and squared off her stapler, hole-punch, and container of paperclips, all glossy pink with her name neatly written on the bottom so no one would steal them. She checked her lipstick in her pink floral mirror, and then looked over to the left where Lily sat.
Lily wasn’t at her desk.
With a sigh, she walked over to search for a clue to where Lily might be. There was nothing on the desk except Lily’s computer, phone, and in and out trays. Two photographs taped to the wall caught Becca’s attention. The first was of a teenage Lily holding a dark-haired, brown-eyed baby. One of those stupid awareness ribbons—a zebra print one–was stuck next to the picture.
The second picture was of a grown-up Lily holding to a blue-eyed toddler with a handsome blond man.
That’s weird. Does Lily have kids? It didn’t seem likely that she’d catch a man’s eye with the way she dressed, with hardly any cleavage and no dresses above the knee.
Curious, Becca pulled up the first picture to look on the back. It had “Emma” written on the back in black permanent marker. As she reached for the second picture, someone cleared their throat behind her. Becca flinched and turned.
Lily stood behind her, a stack of folders tucked under her arm.
Unsettled, Becca took refuge in critiquing Lily’s outfit—another forgettable suit, this one gray with a lighter gray pinstripe, and a purple shell. Becca smoothed the ruffles on her aqua suit jacket and tugged at the middle shirt button that always seemed to come undone.
“Can I help you?” Lily’s hazel eyes showed no emotion Becca could read.
“Mr. Williams said I should ask you about the Montemayor account.”
Sitting at her desk, Lily opened a drawer, and pulled out a folder, neatly labeled ‘Montemayor’ on the tab. “Here you go.”
“You should leave a note if you’re away from your desk.”
Lily pointed to her computer screen, which displayed a screen saver scrolling the words ‘Faxing copies, back in ten.’ “I’m sorry you missed it. If that’s all, I need to get this done…” Lily began entering numbers from one of the files into a spreadsheet.
How could Lily just ignore me? Not that I want to talk to her, of course. She must be jealous of me. Becca returned to her desk and played a few games of Solitaire to calm down.
After half an hour had passed, she flipped open the file Lily had given her with a deep sigh.
* * * *
That afternoon, Becca clattered down the stairs, deciding that three flights in heels was a better deal than waiting with the horrid crowd in front of the elevators. She was already late for lunch. She shoved open the stairwell door, nearly hitting a man in the lobby.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Becca stepped out of the way.
“It’s okay,” the man replied, bending to pick up the blond toddler at his side. “Come on, Danny, let’s go see Mommy.”
Becca frowned at the man, running her eyes over his broad shoulders and chiseled features. “Do I know you?”
“You’re one of Lily’s co-workers, right? I’m her husband, Jason, and this is Daniel.”
“Is he your second child?” Becca recalled the pictures taped to the wall above Lily’s desk.
“No. He’s my first.” Jason offered a polite smile. “Excuse me.” He opened the door and disappeared up the stairs.
How rude. Becca shoved her way through the crowd leaving the building. Later, when she was eating, she wondered about Jason. Why’d he marry Lily, instead of a prettier girl like Becca?
* * * *
On Sunday afternoon, Becca stepped out of her fifth store of the day, bags dangling from her wrists containing treasures by Prada, Gucci, and Chanel. There’s no better way to spend the day. Shopping and dinner at Café Voila.
A flash of color from the park across the street caught her eye as she headed toward her car.
A purple kite bobbed in the air, and Lily held its string. Beside Lily, her husband played catch with a shaggy mutt. The dog dropped a no doubt drool-covered tennis ball at his feet and sat, its tail thumping against the ground. On a nearby red plaid blanket, Daniel chewed on his fist. Ew. Too bad kids come with spit, throw-up, and dirty diapers. But you have to get through those to get to the cute stage.
Jason walked over to Lily and kissed her. Together they returned to the blanket, Lily winding in the kite as she walked. They sat, and Lily opened up the picnic basket.
That should be my life. Becca tried harder—dyed her hair, spent an hour getting ready every day, wore colored contacts, worked out three times a week, tanned, and bought expensive clothes. Lily didn’t even have highlights in her black hair and she hardly wore any makeup.
Lily’s husband ran his hand down her shoulder and said something that made Lily laugh. Lily scooped up her toddler and perched him on her lap. They made a sickeningly perfect picture.
Since Becca was a little girl, she’d dreamed of her wedding—a fairyland of flowers and tulle, with her in a designer gown and sparkling tiara. But each year passed and she didn’t find the man she deserved—at least not one who wouldn’t demand a prenup, a sure sign he was planning to trade her in for a newer model later. Her father had insisted on one for her mother, his second wife, and now he was on wife five. Becca refused to end up like her mother and stepmothers.
And there Lily sat, happier than she had any right to be. Pain stabbed up Becca’s arm and she relaxed her fingers, revealing four crescents indenting her palm.
Becca turned away and stomped to her car, bags bouncing against her legs as she walked. Damn Lily for ruining my mood. She hadn’t thought about the debts she couldn’t pay, her lack of a love life, or her stupid job all afternoon. Now, she might as well give up and go home. There was no way her date tonight would go well.
* * * *
The next day of work was worse than usual. Becca had overindulged, just a little, on white wine the night before, and her head throbbed dully as she slid into her desk ten minutes late.
Thankfully, no one noticed, and if she acted busy, who could tell?
A loud, ugly sob broke through the hum of the office background noise, sending a shooting pain through Becca’s temple.
What now? She searched for the source of the noise, and spotted a group clustered around a crying woman in the break area. She recognized a co-worker who had been gone for two weeks—no warning, just suddenly ‘sick’ and her worked shoved on to everyone else. And now she was back and crying instead of working, her and the women making sympathetic noises all interrupting Becca’s concentration.
Becca heard phrases drifting from the break area as she worked, trying to get a stupid spreadsheet done.
“Better place,” and “sorry” and “nature’s plan” were among those murmurs.
Someone had died, then.
Lily walked by, paused, and then hurried away, her feet hitting the carpet much harder for some reason. She came back with a box of tissues in her hand, sidestepped through the crowd, and sat next to the weeper, who had one of those cutesy names. Right, Mary-Ann.
Mary-Ann took a tissue, and mopped at her blotchy, snot-smeared face.
Some people shouldn’t cry in public.
“Don’t worry about what anyone says,” Lily said, silencing the others. Which would have been nicer if she’d stopped talking, too. “This is your loss. You decide how to feel.”
“What would you know about it?” Helen, demanded, hands on hips that hadn’t shrunk any, despite the yoga classes she nattered on about constantly.
Becca couldn’t see Lily’s face, but Helen paled and took a step back, wobbling on her heels. And then she took another.
It was almost as if Helen was afraid of mousy little Lily. No, that’s not possible.
“You do what you need to,” Lily said to weepy Mary-Ann. “If you need more personal time, take it. The healing from a loss like this isn’t just for your body. Sometimes work is a good distraction. Whatever helps you, okay?”
“Okay…” Mary-Ann mumbled into a tissue.
Gross, I bet she’s going to leave those all over the office today.
An alarm beeped on Becca’s phone. She had fifteen minutes until she had to present her still-unfinished spreadsheet. Stupid distracting drama queen. Go away. Some of us have things to do.
* * * *
A week later, Becca sat at her desk, working on a job application. Her phone rang, a light indicating it was the internal line, so she picked it up immediately. “Rebecca Carver speaking.”
“Rebecca, will you come to my office?”
“Of course, Mr. Williams.” Becca cradled the phone. She hoped he was going to give her the promotion everyone had been talking about. If she didn’t start making more money soon, she’d have to quit. Becca paused before her boss’ door to smooth her hair and knocked twice.
“Come in and close the door.”
Becca sat in the high-backed leather chair, summoning an attentive smile.
“You’ve been with us for four years now.” Mr. Williams flipped through the folder on his desk. “Recently, there’s been a marked decrease in your job performance. The Montemayors called yesterday and requested a different accountant.”
“I fell a little behind because of the complexity of the job, but I can still do it.”
“This isn’t the first time you’ve had complaints. We’ve discussed them, and for a time you showed improvement, but your record is inconsistent. I’m afraid I have to let you go.”
“Please clean out your desk immediately.” He closed the folder, and put it in his out box.
Becca stumbled to her desk. She stared at the ugly divider wall covered by her favorite photographs. She pulled down the picture of her high school prom, vacation in Paris, and University of New Mexico graduation, tossing each picture into the empty cardboard box someone had left on her desk.
How could they fire me? I work so hard, but all my clients do is complain.
She threw her stapler after the pictures.
“Did you quit?” Lily looked up from her computer screen at the loud thunk.
“No, I was fired. Not that it’s any of your business!” Becca thumped her clock into the box. “You’re probably glad I’m gone.”
“No, I’m sorry. Losing a job is hard. Painful.” This was one of the things that annoyed Becca about Lily. The woman was the same age as her, but she acted like she was everyone’s mother.
“I don’t believe—”Becca began.
“Congratulations on your promotion, Irving!” Vicki said from the other side of the divider.
“Irving got my promotion?” Becca’s sunflower mouse-pad slipped through her fingers to the floor.
Irving walked around the corner, a wide smile on his face. He stopped when he noticed Becca standing next to her denuded desk. “Oh.”
“How the hell did you get the job?” Becca demanded.
“Becca, don’t get excited. You never did any more work than you had to. You can’t be surprised.”
The bastard! She put up with his stupid sense of humor, the way he talked on and on about nothing, and his annoying fidgeting! How could he say that about her? She kicked over his trashcan, spilling wads of paper on the floor.
That was satisfying. He deserves worse.
She followed up with a kick to the side of his desk, which made a rewarding thump but stung her foot. A few files cascaded to the floor to join the scattered trash on the floor. Well, it was all trash, really.
“Careful of my computer!” Irving darted forward, but retreated when she stalked toward him.
“I’ll be very careful.” Becca grabbed the full coffee pot from the nearby break area and poured it over his computer and the remaining files on his desk. That’s what he deserves for stealing the promotion. She dropped the pot on the floor, swept the rest of her stuff off her desk into the box, and scooped the box up.
“You crazy bitch!” Irving knocked the box out of her hands. “You can’t do that!”
“Don’t call me a bitch, you loser!” Becca slapped at him, catching his arm with her nails.
Irving’s computer crackled and emitted a shower of sparks. A wisp of smoke curled up from the pile of trash on the floor.
“You ruined my computer!” Irving yelled, face flushed with anger. “I’m glad you’re fired! Who’d want to work with a psycho like you?”
Becca lunged at him, and this time her hand connected solidly with his jaw. Her palm throbbed, but she’d left a gratifyingly bright red mark on his cheek.
Good. He earned that, too.
Before she could hit him again, two men from security pulled her away.
“Becca!” Vicki’s hands fluttered, nervously smoothing her hair and clothing. “What’s wrong with you? You need to calm down before you get into more trouble, and-”
“Like you don’t love this? Something else to gossip about. You were never my friend!” Becca swung wildly at Vicki, who recoiled. “You all hate me, but you don’t matter! None of you are as good as me!”
“Excuse me.” Lily pushed through the crowd of people tending to Irving, a red fire extinguisher in her hands. Unnoticed in the commotion, small flames licked the paper on the floor, spreading out to char the carpet. Paper curled and blacked, and yellow glowed at the edges of the charred carpet spots, several flaring to life. The stench of scorched plastic and burning paper wafted from the growing flames.
Lily pulled the pin on the extinguisher just as the fire alarm went off. Ignoring the clamoring alarm, she thoroughly doused the flames in white foam.
“Everyone out! Follow the evacuation plan!” The two security guards shoved Becca toward the stairs, through the mass of panicked employees. Annoyed at their manhandling, she tried to shrug them off. They wanted her gone, and they’d gotten their way.
I’ll be better off when I’m free of these idiots. I hate Albuquerque anyway. I’ll go somewhere else. New York, maybe.
The crowd jostled at her like sheep, tearing her away from the goons latched onto her, so Becca pushed her way through the crowd, trying to get to her car. A hand landed on her shoulder. “Get off of me, you-”
“Is this her?” The police officer asked over his shoulder.
“Yes, that’s her,” Irving said.
“You have to come with me.” The officer moved Becca away from the building. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say…”
That bastard Irving! Hope he gets ulcers from his new job! Becca twisted to look behind her. Her co-workers huddled together, staring at her with pale, shocked faces. What a bunch of losers.
Lily, standing at the edge of the group, met Becca’s gaze. For once, Becca could read the expression on Lily’s face—disapproval and concern. Then Lily looked down, and lifted her cell phone to her ear, her frown fading as she listened.
The police officer pushed Becca’s head down as she got into the back of the police car, and slammed the door shut behind her. Out the window, Becca saw Lily standing in profile, smiling as she cradled the phone against her ear. What’s she have to smile about? Doesn’t she care that my life is over?
* * * *
What Happened After…
When the building was clear, and everyone was called back inside, Lily got off her phone with her husband, and followed the crowd.
For all her rage, Becca hadn’t made much of a mess–the box of her spilled belongings, some charred and damp folders on the floor, a dead computer, and a faint smell of burning plastic and chemicals.
I.T. determined that Becca’s dramatic gesture had destroyed Irving’s monitor and not the CPU, so Irving moved to his new desk, the mess was cleaned up, and the rest of the day went as usual. It took Irving three days to reprint or replace his work. After that weekend, the only reminder was a nearly invisible seam in the carpet.
Though the near-fire was a standout moment in her work history, Lily’s life kept her too busy to dwell on it much. When she thought of Becca at all, she hoped the obviously unhappy woman had turned her life around.
* * * *
Becca did not enjoy her time in jail.
She couldn’t get a hold of her mother or her father, but she eventually reached her father’s third wife, Candi, who had spent more time with Becca during the five-year marriage than Becca’s father ever had.
“Aw, honey, you messed up big this time.”
“I know,” Becca slumped against the wall, and then glanced back nervously to make sure no one else was waiting to use the phone.
“I’m going to help you, but you have to help yourself, too.”
“Anything,” Becca promised.
Anything turned out to be selling her name-brand items, signing a debt-repayment plan, and agreeing to attend therapy. In return, the lawyer Candi hired got Becca off with 90 days in jail, 1,000 hours of community service, and mandatory anger management classes.
The community service made her miserable, and Becca missed surrounding herself with beautiful things. She wasn’t even allowed a credit card. But the therapy helped her accept life’s hard truths—that her father sent her an e-mail saying he was disappointed in her, and cut off all contact; that her mother called to lecture Becca, but didn’t cut her vacation in Tahiti short by even a day; and that it would take decades for Becca to repay all her debt.
She stayed in Candi’s guesthouse until she found a job, saved up her money, and rented a tiny apartment. A couple of years later, she tracked down Lily to apologize.
When she found her, Lily was at another small park, holding a baby and making funny faces at her. Lily adjusted the pink and green flowered headband on her daughter, and applauded when her son caught a wild throw from her husband. The dog bounced after the ball as it was tossed back and forth, tail wagging vigorously.
After watching for a moment, Becca left without interrupting them.