On Second Thought(6)

By: Kristan Higgins


Esther, who was thirteen, was slumped in a chair, the only sign of life her thumbs moving over her phone. Matthias, at fifteen, was similarly slumped, eyeing the young female servers when he thought no one was looking.

“You guys can go down to the cellar if you want and watch TV,” I told them, stroking Esther’s curly hair. They jolted back to life and practically trampled each other in the race to the cellar door, Esther shielding her eyes as she passed the photo montage. Poor kid. No teenage girl should have to see that.

“Hello, Ainsley.”

I managed to catch my flinch at the sound of the voice. My boss was here—Captain Flatline, as we called him. Ollie trotted up to greet him, cheerfully sniffing his shoes, then putting his paws against Jonathan’s knee. Jonathan ignored him.

“Hi, Jonathan!” I said brightly, though almost everyone else at the magazine called him Mr. Kent. I didn’t. I had an Emmy, thank you very much (though I probably should’ve given that back after the debacle).

“Thank you for inviting me.” He looked like he was at a funeral, still in a suit and tie from work, face as cheerful as the grave.

“I’m glad you could come,” I lied. “Is that for us?” I nodded at the bottle of wine in his hand.

“Yes.” He handed it to me. “I hope you enjoy it.” Still no smile. “I’m sorry you couldn’t make your employee review this afternoon.”

I faked a frown. “Yeah. Me, too. That call with the pumpkin farmer went on longer than I thought.”

He lifted an eyebrow. We both knew I was dodging the review. The thing was, the job wasn’t that hard, and I did it well. Or pretty well, anyway. As the features editor, it was my job to assign articles to our vast army of freelancers, all of whom wanted to be the next host of This American Life and/or winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Hudson Lifestyle, however, was glossy fluff. Lemonade stands and barn restorations, new restaurant openings and the history of Overlook Cemetery. Before I worked at the magazine, I’d been a producer on The Day’s News with Ryan Roberts, the second most-watched news program in the country. I could handle Ten Ideas for Fall Porch Decorating.

That being said, yes, I had some difficulty in following every one of Jonathan’s many rules to the letter. He liked us to roll in at exactly 8:30 every morning, which didn’t take into account the fact that I might change outfits or get caught on the phone with my grandmother. He didn’t allow food to be left in the employee fridge for more than four days in a row. No personal phone calls at work? Come on. No checking Facebook? What century was this?

These were the things Jonathan had discussed last year in my review, before I knew that dodging them was a friendly competition held among all Hudson Lifestyle employees. The current champion was Deshawn in Sales, who’d gone three years without one and was now flirting with Beth at the martini bar.

“Hello! Are you married?” Gram-Gram, my stepmother’s cheerful and slightly senile mom, popped over and beamed up at Jonathan.

“Gram-Gram, this is my boss. Jonathan, my grandmother, Lettie Carson.”

“Hello!” she said, taking his hand and kissing it.

He glanced at me, alarmed, then said, “Very nice to meet you.”

“You, too! Ainsley, I was wondering if you could help me, honey. I’m on a dating website, but I can’t seem to swipe. How do you swipe on your phone? My swipe is broken.”

“Um...well, show me, and I’ll help you.” She handed me her phone.

Jonathan didn’t seem compelled to move on. He watched us, expressionless.

“Tinder, Gram-Gram? It’s kind of...trashy. And hey, that’s my picture! Not yours! You have to use a picture of yourself, you know.”

Gram-Gram humphed. “I hate pictures of myself. Besides, you’re so pretty.”

“Well, you’re misleading people.”

She winked at Jonathan. “Maybe they’ll date me if they think I look like her.”

“Shame on you,” I said. “Here. Smile!” Before she could protest, I’d snapped a shot, opened Tinder and changed her profile shot.

“Fine,” she grumbled, scowling at it. “Thank you, I suppose. I’m getting more champagne! Nice to meet you, young man!”

“Go easy on the booze, Gram-Gram.” She wandered away, patting people in her wake. I force-smiled at Jonathan. “She’s quite a character.”

“Yes.”

I suppressed a sigh. Though my boss was somewhere around my age, he gave the impression of being a seventy-year-old minor British lord, an ivory-topped walking stick firmly impacted in his colon. In the two years I’d worked at his little magazine, I had yet to hear him laugh.