Without a doubt or exception, it was the most awkward situation I’d ever been in. Each second of deafening silence and dead air felt like an eternity. It was hard to imagine that ten minutes earlier, the now-empty conference room I was still in had been filled to the brim with other Acanthis employees.

Now, there was no one else but Maxine and I—we’d been left all alone together.

For the nth time since I’d first laid eyes on her, I looked at my new officemate from head to toe. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around why she’d shown up to her job interview in the outfit she was wearing. The white broderie anglaise romper looked great on her, but it was inappropriate for the workplace. I wouldn’t go as far as calling her attire promiscuous or lewd, but her long, tanned legs were very much on full display. The cherry on top though? Her fully visible septum ring.

Personally, I had no problems with piercings… One of my best friends had a bunch of them (along with a ton of tattoos). My issue was that Acanthis’ headquarters was a place of business. It had a dress code that everyone needed to follow. So, the combination of Maxine’s ultra-casual outfit and nose ring was a blatant slight to ‘appropriate corporate wear.’ And yet, she somehow managed to still look presentable. It was mind-boggling to me how much more beautiful people could get away with compared to the Average Joes and Plain Janes of the world.

I squinted at Maxine, silently estimating her height. At the moment, she was just a few inches taller than me, but I was in three-inch heels, while she was in lace flats, so she had to be at least 5’10”. She was definitely taller than average. Which made sense since both her mom and dad were statuesque individuals. A power couple that towered over the people around them in many ways (including but not limited to being physically taller). The longer I studied my brand-new workmate’s appearance, the more similarities I observed between her and her parents.

Together, the three of them comprised such a picture-perfect family.

Although I was in a very stable relationship with my girlfriend of two years, I could still admit that Maxine was stunning. Was she my type? Not necessarily… But she was incredibly good-looking, undeniably so. Like if anyone passed her on the street, they’d probably do a double-take. Just to make sure she was real. Her youth elevated the attractiveness she’d inherited at birth to an almost ethereal realm. Her ‘biological Punnett square’ had to be made up of nothing but good genes. With her flawless olive toned skin, thick light brown hair, expressive honey brown eyes, cute button nose, sharp cheekbones and well-defined jawline, she was undoubtedly striking—indisputably gorgeous.

Fortunately for Maxine (or unfortunately for everyone else), she’d clearly won the lottery of birth. And as if being that attractive wasn’t enough of an advantage, she was also very, very financially secure. So much so that it wasn’t an exaggeration to claim that her grandchildren’s grandchildren would never ever have to worry about making ends meet.

In a nutshell, in terms of personal finances, even my wildest fantasy paled in comparison with her plainest reality.

And yet, despite already possessing the upper hand all her life, she’d been given another trump card earlier when she was essentially gifted an undeserved position in the company I worked for. So what if GPA-wise, I was miles and miles ahead of her? So what if I’d spent my summer breaks interning for other companies in the industry, working for no money but ‘earning experience?’ So what if I’d not only applied for but also excelled in one of the most competitive graduate recruitment programs in our city? So what if her bare-bones resumé was pretty much a complete joke? So what if I truly believed that Acanthis hiring her was nothing short of a mistake?

None of those things mattered. As of today, the two of us were going to be holding the same exact job title. Which was a bitter pill for me to swallow since Acanthis was a globally recognized international shipping and logistics company that had an extremely rigorous selection / hiring process.

After I’d graduated from college with Latin honors in three years, I still wasn’t a ‘sure-hire’ despite my stellar grades, impressive internship experiences and well-earned recommendation letters. Also, once I’d already landed that coveted spot in the company, I still had to work my way up to where I was now from the bottom of the corporate ladder. I spent more than a year doing coffee runs and being lectured at for every little thing by people who still believed age came with ‘automatic seniority.’

Apparently, Maxine was allowed to fast-forward through certain segments of the real world though. She didn’t have to start where I did, she didn’t have to jump through the hoops I’d jumped through to be even considered as qualified by my peers. Everything that I’d worked for years to attain, as a straight-A student all my life and then as an underestimated fresh graduate, was being handed to her on her very first day… All because she’d been born with a silver spoon in her mouth.

Yeah, okay, what I’d achieved so far might’ve not been a lot to most people, but it was hard-earned—everything I had wasn’t just handed to me by the heavens.

But as if all the aforementioned issues weren’t bad enough, the injustice didn’t stop there. Adding further insult to injury, I assumed that her paycheck was going to be bigger than mine. Like a lot bigger. I mean, she was the CEO’s only child… So, it wasn’t really a stretch for me to think that she was going to be making a lot more money than I did. I bit my lip in frustration. The whole thing was so unfair. I felt helpless, but I knew there was nothing more I could’ve done or said. Believe me, I really, really tried to make a difference during her highly unorthodox ‘public job interview’ earlier. Which was why I was in this awkward situation in the first place.

When Maxine’s dad had singled me out a while ago and asked me what I thought about his daughter ‘joining the Acanthis family,’ I decided to be honest and speak nothing but the truth. Fully aware that at the time, everyone in the room was looking at me like I’d gone certifiably insane, I began listing concrete reasons why my boss’ daughter wasn’t ready to join our company’s ranks. I talked about how it was going to be a big, big career leap from being the assistant manager of some boutique hotel in a foreign country to holding a high-stakes, middle-management position in Acanthis. I tried to be as polite as possible, but criticism in a costume was still criticism. So, right then and there, in front of the murmuring crowd composed of everyone from my department, I’d doomed any chance of developing a good working relationship with Maxine. Which turned out to be a mistake since the whole thing had been an exercise in futility… In the end, none of my damning statements had mattered.

The job was still hers.

Honestly, I could’ve yelled until my face turned blue and it wouldn’t have changed anything. She would’ve still been hired. I just needed to accept that being the boss’ child automatically granted her preferential perks and privileges. In essence, her skewed job interview was a microcosm of the real world, wherein the rich (the elite) had access to advantages that were not only invisible to but also unattainable by majority of mankind.

“Hailey, right?” Maxine broke the tense silence first.

“Kelsey,” I corrected her. Based on the facial expression I had on, I obviously wasn’t thrilled by our forced interaction. I knew I was asked to show her around only because we’d be working very closely together, but in my annoyed and disappointed state of mind, I saw it as some form of punishment.

“Oh, my bad… Things were pretty chaotic a while ago,” she replied. I’d already heard her speak when she was fielding her dad’s non-stop barrage of questions, but her voice now was different. It was slightly lower than my own, but she actually sounded much friendlier than I expected. “I can’t believe my dad actually went through with it… That felt more like an initiation than a job interview. Christ.”

“Yeah, it was pretty brutal.”

My description was an understatement. Maxine’s was closer to the truth, what had happened to her resembled an act of initiation… To me, it was borderline hazing. When I was applying for my job, the final interview had been with a four-person panel. A panel that’d asked me a typical set of questions about my strengths, shortcomings and future plans. I didn’t have an audience of around two dozen people present, gawking at me as my own father grilled me without mercy.

“I think my dad made it especially harsh to shut down any talk about nepotism. As if that’s even possible.” She rolled her eyes before extending her right hand to me. “Anyway, it’s really nice to meet you, Kelsey.” We shook hands.

“You, too.” The feeling of her soft palm against mine snapped me out of my anger-inducing existential thoughts. Even if I didn’t like it, I had a job to do. I’d been tasked by the HR head to show the company’s newest hire around… I wasn’t getting paid to philosophize about injustice and privilege. “Look, Maxine, before we start with the tour, I just- I want to apologize for earlier.” I figured saying sorry for what I’d said was the best option since I couldn’t go back in time and tell myself to just shut up.

“Call me Max,” she told me and I nodded. “And apologize for what? You didn’t do anything wrong.” She raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow. I couldn’t really read her face, so I wasn’t sure if she was playing dumb or playing with me.

“Um. When I told your dad that you weren’t gonna be a good hire… I really shouldn’t have done that, especially in front of everyone. You were already dealing with more than enough. So, yeah, I’m sorry.”

“Oh.” She cast her gaze away. I was about to apologize again, just to make sure the hatchet was well and truly buried, but I noticed she was smiling. Her smile widened to a grin that showed her perfect set of pearly whites. And then suddenly, she just started full-on laughing. If I’d been perplexed when I saw her smile, then I was completely stupefied when I heard her laugh. For a while, the only sound in the enclosed, quiet room was her laughter. Until it naturally dissolved into giggles and chuckles, until it finally faded into silence.

“What’s so funny?”

“You are,” she answered through one last chuckle. Even more blood rushed up to my blushing, burning cheeks. “Not like in a bad way, I just remembered all the things you were saying about me earlier and I don’t know… It cracked me up.”

I tried placing myself in her shoes, but I couldn’t imagine reacting the way that she just did to another person basically berating me and my professional accomplishments in front of a crowd of onlookers. I sincerely wondered if she was deriving some twisted form of pleasure from remembering my hypercritical words. “I don’t get it.”

“Sorry, I mean, I laughed ’cause all the reasons you gave against hiring me were the same ones I’d brought up to my dad before we got here,” she explained. Her killer smile never left her face. “I’m just glad that there was at least one person in the room who was being real. Everyone else was walking on eggshells, trying to be PC and please Dictator Dickhead—not you though. You didn’t care about any of that, huh?”

“Wait, what?” I furrowed my brow. “You don’t want to work in Acanthis?” Her revelation made things so much worse. I could feel my annoyance bubbling into anger. What a spoiled, irreverent brat. Also, her father was an incredibly generous and down-to-earth guy, so her referring to him as ‘Dictator Dickhead’ made absolutely no sense to me.

“Nope, not at all…” The little ingrate answered matter-of-factly with a shake of her head. “I’m actually only here because—”

“Oh, grow up,” I cut her off. My voice was noticeably colder. I was so, so pissed off, I couldn’t hide it. “Look, whether or not you wanna be here doesn’t matter to me. And frankly, it shouldn’t matter to you anymore either ’cause as of today, you’re part of the company. I don’t know what you used to do in your last job, but I can guarantee you that the stakes here will be much higher.”

I wasn’t really one for confrontation or conflict, but nothing in the world ground my gears more than ungrateful people. Her nonchalance, her indifference really rubbed me the wrong way. I had to sacrifice so much to be granted the college scholarship that merely gave me a chance to reach where I was today. Which meant I couldn’t stomach how entitled she sounded. Moreover, her utter lack of respect toward my boss who probably gave her everything she could’ve possibly wanted was insane to me.

As someone who had two selfish knuckleheads for parents, I would’ve loved to have a dad like hers. Both her parents were great… Although I wasn’t close to her mom or anything, I’d spoken to her several times in the past. She’d actually just resigned from her executive position in Acanthis recently to ‘pursue other passions,’ but basically everyone in the company loved her. She was pretty much regarded as a living saint.

How Max could’ve been as blessed as she was and not feel lucky was beyond comprehension to me.

“Whoa, wait, I didn’t mean to offend you. I just meant—”

At twenty-two years old, Max was just around a year younger than me. But after the last few sentences that left her mouth, I’d begun to see her as someone who was incredibly immature and out-of-touch with reality. We both might’ve still been in our ‘earliest twenties,’ but for all intents and purposes, she and I were already full-fledged adults. Like in the eyes of the law, at our age, we would be legally liable for anything and everything we did. So, bluntly put, even if she wanted to act like a thankless, self-absorbed child right now, I was under no obligation to treat her with kid gloves. And as far as I was concerned, she needed a cold dose of reality… It seemed to be long overdue.

“Offending me is not the issue here.” Shaking my head, I frowned at her ignorance. “The issue is that you have no idea how lucky you are.”

“Is that so? Cool, I guess I’m sorry for not knowing how good my own life is,” she spat back. Immediately after fieriness flickered in her light brown eyes and venom seeped into her voice, she shook her head and released a heavy sigh. She sent me a nervous smile before continuing in a much more amicable tone. “Look, Kelsey, I don’t know how our conversation turned into a confrontation so quickly, but can we please just rewind, restart or whatever? I don’t know anyone else here and I’d really love to make a new friend right now.”

I gave her another once-over, calculating the pros and cons of a friendship between us. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that being her friend wouldn’t have been conducive to success—for either of us. Also, albeit I didn’t know her very well, I was certain that we didn’t have anything in common… We were much too different. There was just no point in us forcing a friendship.

“Max, we’ll be colleagues, workmates.” I kept my voice steady and stern. “This isn’t school, no one’s really here to make friends.” The evident disappointment on her face made me feel a pang of guilt. I quickly shook away the uncomfortable feeling though. “Plus, you do know someone else in Acanthis… Your dad—and he’s just an elevator ride away.” After almost a full minute of silence, I decided to finally start with the godforsaken office tour. “Come on, I’ll show you around now.”

“Uh, no, that’s okay.” She curled her plump, pink lips into a forced, tight smile. “I’m sure you’re super busy, so don’t worry about it.” I opened my mouth to object, but she didn’t let me get another word in edgewise. “It was great meeting you, Kelsey.” Before I could say anything else, she turned and began walking away from me. “See you or whatever.”

“Max, wait,” I called out. With her hand already on the doorknob of the exit, she turned around. “A bit of advice from one colleague to another? Shop for some workplace-appropriate outfits as soon as you can and at least hide your nose ring during office hours,” I suggested with a shrug of my shoulders. “This is a place of business.”

“Yeah, okay.”

After the door shut behind her, I stood still for god-knows-how-long. I cringed as I remembered the uncharacteristic viciousness that left my lips. But it wasn’t like I was being hurtful just for the sake of hurting her… I was just telling the truth. Furthermore, in the long run, she’d surely benefit from being more grounded in reality. So, in essence, I was actually helping her.

For a long, long time after our first meeting, no matter how hard I tried to rationalize what had happened to make myself feel better, unshakeable guilt continued to gnaw on my insides every time Max and I crossed paths.


. . .

Three years later…

I watched Max and listened as she went through her notes. Unsurprisingly, she had the full attention of the eight members on the team we now co-led even though it was just a last-minute casual discussion. Everyone in the small conference room seemed to be hanging on her every word (like usual).

Though as far as I knew, senior management had never even hinted at it… I’d heard through the grapevine a while back that there were people in Acanthis who believed that my swift rise through the ranks was an indirect result of Max getting hired when she did. To a select few, all of my upward mobility was essentially just a PR tactic meant to mitigate any possible internal backlash. Like yeah, it still looked sketchy that the CEO’s kid was being given relatively frequent promotions… But since so far, I’d also moved up one rung of the career ladder each and every single time she did, no one could outright claim that she was the only one getting special treatment.

Obviously, if this unfounded conspiracy was somehow proven to be true, then I was benefitting from a situation that was neither ideal nor fair. Pretty ironic, huh? I knew in my heart it wasn’t true though… And yet, if I dwelled on the ridiculously absurd idea long enough, it really bothered me. I found it genuinely upsetting that all of my hard work was being reduced by some to pure luck, happenstance. As if what I’d achieved was some kind of undeserved handout and I didn’t consistently give my job everything I had. But I’d learned over the last few years that office politics were rarely ever simple or pleasant. Actual scenarios were almost never as clear-cut as the theoretical ones discussed in classrooms. So, at the end of the day, all I could really do was to keep making sure that my daily performance was worth the monthly salary Acanthis paid me.

Shaking off my pointless thoughts about ‘corporate pitfalls,’ I ran my eyes over ‘Little Miss Star of the Show.’ I tried to ignore her appearance. I should’ve ignored her appearance. I didn’t ignore her appearance.

Based on what she was wearing, she’d clearly taken my harsh but well-intentioned advice to heart. Long gone were her revealing outfits and inappropriate jewelry. Today, she was in a light gray pantsuit number. And instead of the typical button-up blouse, she had on what seemed to be a black satin V-neck top under her fitted blazer. Of course she had to ‘Max up’ the outfit, so her feet were encased in pristinely white, dainty designer low-cut sneakers. But the touch of casualness actually worked really, really well… As always, she looked great. Although I’d never said anything about it to her or anyone else, her sense of style was something I frequently praised in the safety of my own head. For real, if for whatever reason, our office randomly held a ‘best dressed contest,’ then she would’ve won by a landslide. Probably even unanimously.