I nearly dropped my steaming tall latte when a ghost from my past blindsided me that morning.
Funny how I’d recognized Kirsty Marshall so quickly in the Starbucks line, even though it had been decades since I’d last seen her. I gripped my cup and hurried to the elevator, not daring to look back, and pushed the button for the 12th floor. As the door closed, I breathed out and took a long sip of the latte.
Not that there was any danger of her remembering me. We were a long way from Creighton Junior High. So why the increased heart rate? I tried to focus on the workday ahead as I stepped into the familiar offices of Keleher and Craig.
“Morning, Melissa,” said Gary, my admin assistant, as he followed me into my office, chatting while I hung up my coat. “Do anything exciting over the weekend?”
“Just the usual—driving kids, getting groceries, cleaning the van—you know.”
“Sure,” he lied, single man that he was. “Staff meeting’s been moved up. Starts in about two minutes. Oh, and the efficiency expert is here.”
He’d tried to make that last statement sound casual. We’d all been dreading this day. The company needed trimming, so the board had voted to bring someone in to find out where. I’d been here for 12 years and had loved the first 10. But there’d been a downturn in our industry over the past couple of years, and we all knew there were jobs on the line. But right before Christmas? Couldn’t this have waited till the new year?
“Thanks for the heads up, Gary.” I grabbed my phone and latte and followed him to the conference room. As I settled into a chair and greeted co-workers, I saw her at the end of the table, chatting with Mr. Craig, our CEO. The ghost.
“Happy Monday morning, folks.” The chatter stopped as Mr. Craig brought the meeting to order. “I won’t keep you too long this morning—just a few things to go over as we start the week. First, I’d like to introduce Kirsty Marshall from Stern Leibowitz Consulting. She’ll be with us over the next month or so to help us improve our game. Kirsty, maybe you could tell us briefly what you’ll be doing and how we can all help with the process.”
How was this possible? I was the girl in that movie, You Again, about the high school bully who resurfaces as the fiancée of her victim’s brother. As if in protest, my mind refused to function, so I just stared. But when she uttered the term “HR,” my brain reluctantly resumed operations. Kirsty would be starting with HR—my department. Looking at our procedures, our software, our data, our employees—everything.
I studied her as she spoke. Physically, she hadn’t changed much. Still attractive and stylish, still imposing. But character isn’t as easy to gauge. Had maturity mellowed the cruel streak I’d witnessed so many times as a shy foster kid? Did she still have a side to her that only the weak and vulnerable got to see? I sure hoped she’d changed, for my sake and the sake of my staff.
I’d been 14 when I moved in with a new foster family and enrolled at the junior high where I'd encountered Kirsty. And I’d become her target from the moment Mrs. Danson introduced me to my new classmates. Not that I’d been her only victim; she was nasty to anyone she deemed her social inferior. But once she’d learned my background, she took particular delight in tormenting me. Shaming an outsider who couldn’t fight back. The attacks had been unrelenting. For starters, there was my name, Holly Hooker, which quickly became “Happy Hooker” after the popular book written by a Dutch prostitute a few years earlier. She’d circulated all manner of untruths about me: that I actually was a hooker, that my mother was a hooker, that I’d been in jail, that I had a crush on the gym teacher, and on it went. Mercifully, early the next July, I’d been placed in a new home in another town, where I’d finished my high school years in relative peace.
I was pretty sure she wouldn’t recognize me. Not only were we 2,000 miles from Creighton Junior High, but my name was different. After graduation, I’d adopted my middle name, Melissa, which I’d always preferred. And I’d taken my husband’s surname, Kelly, when we married. Since I had lost weight and exchanged glasses for contacts, I bore little resemblance to my younger self.
Now Mr. Craig was speaking again and I heard my name. “…who hosts our yearly cookie exchange. Melissa, did you want to add anything?”
“Uh—sure. I sent out an email a couple of weeks ago explaining how this works, but if you have any questions, you know where to find me. And please let me know by the end of the day if you’re taking part so everyone’ll know how many cookies to bake. As always, it’ll be at my place, just a block away. No need to bring a lunch, either; there’ll be sandwiches and other munchies. Oh—and don’t forget to bring a donation for the food bank.”
“Melissa is too modest to say so, but she makes all the delicious sandwiches and other goodies herself, in addition to opening up her home to us,” added Charlotte, my co-worker and friend. I sat uncomfortably through the applause that followed and then hurried to my desk to tidy up before Mr. Craig brought Kirsty over.
He wasted no time; they appeared just minutes later. After a brief introduction, Mr. Craig returned to his office and left me with my erstwhile torturer. This would be a severe test of my professionalism. “Why don’t you have a seat over here, Ms. Marshall, and you can explain the process,” I offered as politely as I could.
She produced what appeared to be a genuine smile. “Thanks Melissa. And please, it’s Kirsty. People naturally feel threatened or at least self-conscious and ill at ease when a consultant is called in. But I’m not here to judge, just to observe.”
“Observing us right out of our jobs,” I thought uncharitably. What a great career choice for a masochist—getting as many people laid off as possible. She must’ve been delighted at the added bonus of stressing people right before Christmas.
I spent the rest of the morning sharing the details of my job with the enemy. Though I didn’t see any of the meanness I’d always associated with Kirsty Marshall. She related well to people and even managed to compliment us on some of our procedures. Probably a tactic to gain our cooperation, my inner child warned.
I was just putting on my coat at the end of the day when Kirsty walked by my office. She stopped and smiled, wishing me a pleasant evening.
“Do you bake?” I blurted out. “Cookies, I mean. You probably heard me in the meeting this morning talking about the cookie exchange. You’re welcome to participate.”
Yes, she did, and yes, she’d love to, and she’d see me tomorrow.
What had I just done? What was that all about, I asked my inner child. But the unreliable little scamp had scuttled back into hiding to await another opportunity to behave irrationally.
I was so happy to see supper on the table when I got home that I hugged Jim with all my remaining strength. He worked shifts and would cook when he was off. “You are a prince among husbands,” I declared, digging into the steaming lasagna. “Kids both out?”
“Daniel’s at Marty’s working on that big history project and Sarah asked to stay at Jasmine’s for supper.”
“I love them both dearly, but it’s nice to have some quiet time with just us,” I sighed. “Especially after the day I’ve had.”
I told him about Kirsty and my impulsive decision to invite her to the cookie exchange.
“Do you think maybe you want her to see your life now? I mean, how different it is from when you were a kid? Beautiful home, great kids, handsome stud of a husband…” He grinned. “Or it could be the fact that you’re just a nice person.”
“Aw, you flatter me!”
“Melissa, I mean it. You had a really rough start, but you made a decision not to let that make you bitter.”
“You are a good man, Jim Kelly.”
When Kirsty finished with HR a few days later, she came to my office. “Thanks for your cooperation, Melissa. You’ve been very gracious. And I’m looking forward to the cookie exchange at your home tomorrow.”
I wondered if this would be the last exchange I hosted for Keleher and Craig. If so, I was going out with a bang; we had a record number of participants. Jim was off that day, so he helped Charlotte and me with the gathering. Busy as I was, I observed Kirsty as she mingled with the guests. What was I looking for? Approval? A hint of her old self? I’d introduced her to Jim, but he’d had no time to chat. He was taken up with serving drinks and keeping the sandwich trays stocked while Charlotte and I packed everyone’s containers with samples of each kind of cookie. And then it was time to head back to work. Like the other guests, Kirsty offered her thanks before leaving, cookie tin in hand.
“Well, what do you think?” teased Jim that night. “Is Kirsty going to favour you in her report?”
I laughed at the thought of it. “Because of a fun cookie exchange? Hardly!”
“So did you gain any insights about her today?”
I pondered that question for a moment. “I have no idea what her report will say about me or my position. We’ve known for months that layoffs are a definite possibility, Kirsty or no Kirsty, and I’m at peace with that. It occurred to me as I watched her this afternoon that she was indistinguishable from the other humans in the room.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts anymore.”