by Paula R. Hilton
Perhaps the only person on the planet who preferred Ebenezer Scrooge before he spent his night with the three ghosts and woke up a changed man was Sloane O’Neill. In her opinion, transformation was overrated. What counted in life was knowing yourself. Making the most of who you were without brooding over your shortcomings. Some folks were born fuzzy, warm, loved by all. Others were leaders. As president of the Jacksonville Consulting Group, Sloane saw the world as her chessboard and moved her pieces accordingly. In order to keep her kingdom running smoothly, she was ready to sacrifice any pawn, rook or knight. If you were good at what you did, she’d protect you with all she had. If not? Well, she’d lose no sleep over firing you.
Sloane took another sip of a horrendously sweet holiday martini that had a miniature candy cane at the bottom of its glass where the olive should have been and looked at the incredulous faces of the employees she’d been chatting with around the punch bowl.
‘You honestly think Bob Cratchit was a “weakling who probably overestimated his abilities” and “didn’t deserve a raise” or even adequate health care for Tiny Tim?’
Had she said that out loud? Damn these December office parties and the tiresome mingling they required. She was so bad at it, the talking. Even as a school kid, she’d been awful at socialising. All the playing and imagination it required held no interest for her. How was she supposed to get along with other nine-year-olds when she’d always felt forty-five inside? Her entire childhood had been a massive inconvenience.
Back then, all she wanted were the best test scores, to be the most gifted kid in the gifted class, to be, not all the teachers’ pets, but their equal. This was why she’d earned the nickname ‘All-Alone-Sloane’ by third grade. Although she didn’t want to play with anybody and nobody wanted to play with her, this mutual contract between herself and her peers still stung. She’d walk around the perimeter of the blacktop, around the kids playing tag and jump rope and basketball, and sometimes, they’d taunt her, chanting, ‘It’s All-Alone-Sloane! Sloane is all-alone! No one ever calls her on the phone . . .’
“Perhaps the only person on the planet who preferred Ebenezer Scrooge before he spent his night with the three ghosts and woke up a changed man was Sloane O’Neill.”
She took another sip of her too-sweet martini. Decided not to back down. ‘I always saw Scrooge as someone who went soft. I mean, seriously, at the end of the story, he’s running around London in a nightgown, for God’s sake.’ She stifled a burp with the back of her hand. ‘I ask you, where’s the dignity in that?’
Sloane felt a hand on her elbow, a gentle squeeze. She turned. Looked into the brown eyes of Scott Russo, the new hire from the Bronx. A gifted analyst, he’d quickly risen through her ranks. She planned to promote him to senior status in January. Scott was as a bishop on her chessboard. Trustworthy enough to flank her. And creative enough to move diagonally, rather than in the predictable straight lines she herself favored. She assigned him to her more right-brained clients. Scott was great with those emotional, artsy types that made her head pound, because they wanted to talk about ‘gut feelings’ rather than logical steps. He was also great with the pawns. Take now, for example. Scott was laughing loudly, and a few others were joining in. She didn’t get the joke, but she did notice a change in atmosphere around the punchbowl. He clapped Sloane on the back.
‘Boss, you’re hilarious.’
She looked at him, confused, and felt the squeeze on her elbow again, firmer this time. Then Scott addressed the group that surrounded her.
‘This woman gives thousands, thousands, to Saint Jude’s every year. And she pays us all great. Sloane, quit kidding. You’re no Scrooge.’
Scott nodded at her. Gave her arm a final squeeze. She got it at last. Sloane forced a laugh of her own, a grating sound that hurt her ears.
‘Yes, yes,’ she said, ‘nightgown aside, Scrooge was a better boss after he saw his gravestone. Nothing like a brush with mortality to force you to be nice, huh?’
Dear, God, how much vodka was in this deceptively lightweight drink?
‘Ha! Ha! Ha!’ she barked again.
‘Time for gifts!’ Scott’s voice sounded a bit frantic. ‘Sloane, I’m still pretty new here, but rumour is you hand them out yourself?’
At her other elbow, her secretary, Rosalind, appeared as always, on cue. Rosalind was a queen. Backwards, forwards, diagonally – she could move in any direction with grace. To reward her, Sloane had tucked a gift certificate for a deep tissue massage into her envelope, in addition to the bonus check. Having Rosalind in tip-top shape was crucial to Sloane’s own survival.
She took the basket Rosalind offered and walked, a little unsteadily, around the room, giving each employee a generous check. ‘Happy holidays!’ she said loudly, after she’d given out the last envelope. ‘And thank you for all you do to make us the most successful consulting agency in North Florida!’
The expected applause followed, but then Scott surprised Sloane.
‘We have a gift for you too, boss.’
She stared at him for a moment, blinking, not understanding. She gave these gifts because her people had earned them, and studies showed that bonuses increased productivity. What was the point in a gift for her? She was already the most important piece on the game board. King Sloane.
‘This is unexpected,’ was all she said. The room began rumbling with excitement.
‘Grab your coat,’ Scott said. ‘Your gift’s outside.’ Before she could reach for it, Rosalind had already draped it over her shoulders.
Sloane followed Scott into the elevator. As many people as possible crammed in, while others ran down the stairs. Sloane heard laughter and not the mean type she remembered from her school days. This was genuine. Joy-filled.
Scott pushed the button for the courtyard. They quickly descended fifteen floors. Then the doors opened to reveal snow. Beautiful snow. In Jacksonville, Florida.
Sloane remembered speaking with Scott longingly a few weeks ago about missing winter weather since both of them had transferred from the northeast. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ she’d said, ‘I prefer paradise. For eleven months of the year, give me palm trees and Jimmy Buffet songs. But in December, I miss that fluffy white blanket, you know?’
‘Sloane,’ he’d said, ‘you sound almost human. I’ll see what I can do.’
It turned out he’d taken up a collection for a snow machine. The kind they used in ski resorts. An inch-and-a-half was on the ground, and more was falling. Like a child, Sloane stuck out her tongue and caught a few flakes. Then she looked around at her employees, her arms outstretched.
‘Thank you!’ she said, ‘but this wasn’t necessary. This – it’s too much!’
‘You’re the best boss we’ve ever had,’ called out Margot, a knight from accounting. ‘That job interview you gave me? Changed my life.’
Sloane was puzzled. She had a script she never varied from, what could be so special about that?
‘You asked me ‘what is the gift you have that sets you apart?’’ Sloane watched, dumbfounded, as Margot’s eyes teared. ‘I told you I didn’t just understand numbers, I loved them. That on my best days, I could make them dance. And you didn’t act like I was crazy.’ Margot’s nose began streaming in tandem with her eyes. She paused to blow it. ‘You gave me a position three levels above what I was applying for.’
Yes, Sloane remembered that. Beneath Margot’s passionate response, she’d heard galloping hoofbeats worthy of royalty. Since the day Sloane gave her the bigger job, Margot had done nothing but achieve.
The snow machine continued to sputter, shooting ice crystals into the Floridian night, while more stories followed about how Sloane truly ‘saw’ people, putting them in just the right jobs, giving them responsibilities and titles to be proud of, lives beyond their wildest imaginings. Sloane knew all this meant was that she was good at the game. And, like any skilled player, she valued her pieces. When they did good work, she rewarded them, because without them, she was unprotected, vulnerable. It was just logic, but these people? They seemed to take it as love.
‘I don’t know how to thank them,’ she murmured to Scott, who kept his place at her side. ‘I’m bad at this.’ He whispered something in her ear. ‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘It’s too sappy. And I gave up on religion at six. When I told my dad after mass I might want to be Pope one day. And he said the Catholic church would never allow it.’
‘Try not to look at it as a patriarchal religious statement tonight, okay?’ Scott smiled. Brushed some snow from the shoulders of her wool coat. ‘Just embrace the sentiment. It’ll make up for earlier by the punch bowl. You came off a little mean, but Sloane, that’s not you. So just try.’
‘Oh, Scott. Really?’
He nodded, ‘And also, you’re a little drunk. That should help.’
She laughed then, for real this time, and chose to trust her bishop. She put a high-heeled foot on one of the courtyard’s benches. Scott gave her his hand. Helped her up. Steadying herself, she looked out at all her pieces, all those people. She knew they were the best of the best.
‘Thank you all!’ she shouted. ‘We make a great team!’ The machine kept spraying its graceful arcs of snow into the air. It glittered under the courtyard lights. Her words tumbled out.
‘God bless us!’ she shouted, as loony as Scrooge in his nightshirt. And just as happy, sappy, free. ‘God bless us! Every one!’ What took Sloane by surprise was that she meant it.
It astonished her really, how much she meant it.
Paula R. Hilton is a novelist who explores the ways deeply flawed people can still be forces for good. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared on the Feminine Collective, Dear Damsels and NPR’s This I Believe website, as well as in a number of literary journals, including The Tulane Review, Kalliope, and Writing In A Woman’s Voice. Hilton’s debut novel, Little Miss Chaos, was selected as a 2016 Best Indie Teen Read by Kirkus.