~ The Christmas Tree ~
by Anne Azel
Penny LeFleur hated her new job. It wasn't a matter of the mild depression that workers often felt, or even the frustrations of a dead end job. It was hate. She had come to the big company filled with anticipation and nervous excitement. It was the beginning of a new life for her. This was the world that the poverty and brutality of her childhood had always denied her. All of Penny's life, she felt like she had looked in and now she was going to belong.
But she hadn't, of course. The new outfits that she had so carefully picked out at the discount store had looked cheap and informal next to the expensive silk and linen suits of the other office workers. Right from the first day, it had been made clear to her that she was simply a token so that the company could show that they provided equal opportunities to all.
"This is Penny LeFleur, she is the trainee that social services sent us," the personnel manager, Gail Collins, had announced to everyone as a way of introduction.
Bill Knechtel had even come out and asked her at the coffee machine one morning, "What are you?"
Penny had looked up startled. "I beg your pardon?"
"I know you are a visible minority and a poor person that social services retrained but what are you?"
Penny had gritted her teeth and had managed to answer nicely. Bill might have been blunt and rude but at least he was taking an honest interest. That was better than those who whispered behind her back or treated her with the sympathy one reserved for rabid animals or experimental rats. "I am a Canadian. My mother was Cree and my father a French Canadian."
Bill had nodded and was satisfied. Alice Beetlie was much worse. She hid her need for gossip behind a facade of concern. "Oh you poor girl. It is so wonderful that you are with us now. I want you to know that everyone here wants to help you succeed. Is it true your mother was a prostitute? How awful for you! I so admire you for having escaped a horrible childhood and making something of yourself. You are such a good role model for the poor. So many nowadays feel we should just support them on welfare. They are just lazy and have no pride."
Don't lose your temper you need this job, Penny had warned herself. "My father committed suicide because he lost his job and couldn't find work. My mom worked the streets to take care of me. She did the best she could for me."
"I thought you were raised in homes," Alice had asked sharply, sensing she had revealed a hole in Penny's story. Alice would not be surprised if the girl lied, considering her background.
"My mother was beaten to death when I was twelve. Then I became a ward of the city."
This news got around the office before lunch. A new record by all accounts.
Penny worked as a goffor. She worked as Sean Rutley's assistant. Rutley was the administrative assistant to Kimberly Dawson of Dawson Fashions. Penny's job was to make coffee, clean up after meetings in the conference room, run things off on the copier, and do a hundred other jobs that Sean felt were below his dignity.
Kimberly Dawson had only acknowledged her once. Beautiful, talented and openly gay, Kim was always on the go. Penny, considerable shorter than her famous boss, had been almost knocked flat when Kim had suddenly changed her direction while storming down the hall. "Sorry Penny,"she had stated, reaching a strong hand out to stabilize her employee before charging off. Penny had stood in the hall blinking, watching the tall blond's slim figure striding confidently down the hall. Her shock was not caused by the sudden collision but because Kimberly Dawson actually knew her name.
It was late November, some three months after the hall crash, that Penny's life once again collided with Kimberly Dawson's. She was standing beside Sean's desk finding out from him what 'you are in charge of the Christmas decorations and celebration" entailed when the door crashed open and Kimberly strode across the office to disappear into her own private sanctum, leaving the door open. "Did you get me an escort, for tonight?"she asked from within.
Sean cringed and spoke in the direction of Kim's office doorway. "Sorry, Kim, I phoned several of the model agencies and they are all booked up for the winter season. I tried a number of escort services that we have used in the past and no luck either. There are four different conferences in town they tell me. I could get you a guy...
Kim appeared at the door. "Unless he is a cross dresser he is going to look damn silly in one of my designs." It was at this point her eyes snapped to Penny. "She'll do. If it is no problem, you are going to be working late tonight Penny." The eyes snapped back to Sean. "She is a bit short but we can manage. She has a good slim build, and nice cheek bones but she is going to need a lot of work. Take her downstairs for a make over. I need her for seven." With that she was gone.
Sean turned around and looked at Penny's bewildered face. "Are you busy tonight, Cinderella? Because if you are not you are about to wear the glass slippers."
"What? Wait! I can't go out with her! I mean I've never...and she's my boss!"
Sean had already taken her firmly by the arm and was herding her out of the office. "Let's pretend you have expressed all your insecurities and anger at being railroaded into this and I have won you over with my incredible charm. I simply haven't got the time to argue. I have exactly three hours to make you into a princess."
It took the three hours but the result was stunning. With her black hair straight and silky to just below her shoulders and a black evening dress by Dawson Designs, Penny looked as good as any of the models the company employed. Sean was positively beaming when he presented her to Kimberly. "Look what I did. Just look at what I did. Isn't she beautiful?"
Penny was just at the point of smacking the little turd when Kim spoke up. "Penny, you look beautiful, as I knew you would. Sean, thank you for you help and good night."
Sean left, rolling his eyes. Penny stood there rather awkwardly as Kimberly slipped a navy tuxedo jacket over her cream silk shirt and long skirt that was cut up to her thigh. "I appreciate you doing this, Penny. We are going to the opening of the new music hall. Dawson Fashions made a sizable donation to the fund raising efforts."
"I am not sure what I am to do. I have never been to anything like this before."
"Walk straight and gracefully, which you tend to do naturally, and stand at my left at all times. I am slightly deaf in that ear from an accident and so I don't like people coming up to me on that side. If anyone asks you a question simply smile and refer them to me or make some totally meaningless response. The limo is waiting. Shall we?"
Penny trotted dutifully along at the left side of her boss. They stood side by side in the elevator, listening to the canned music and watching the floor lights blink their way down to the lobby. Kim made no attempt to talk and Penny followed her lead.
They arrived in front of the theatre to a blaze of lights and photo flashes. The doorman helped each of them out and they walked side by side into the theatre. The show seemed secondary. Kim worked the crowd of the famous and rich on her way to the members only bar and there continued to work the floor establishing contacts and encouraging interests in her designs as she went. Penny stayed at her left side smiling like the Mona Lisa until her jaws ached.
Kim introduced her simply as "Penny, part of my team". Penny managed to get by using three main phrases. "It is a pleasure to be representing Dawson Designs here," was one "Isn't it a lovely theatre?" another. And "I am sure Ms. Dawson would be in a better position to answer that," was her response of last resort.
Only when the lights blinked a second time did Kim lead the way to her private box. To Penny's surprise and delight, wine and fancy sandwiches sat on a small round table between the two comfortable chairs. Kim poured the wine just before the lights dimmed and for an hour they sat in silence and listened to the beauty of a full and well trained orchestra and choir performing Handel's Messiah.
At intermission, Kim turned to Penny showing interest for the first time. "You enjoyed the music?"
Penny swallowed hard. "I have never heard anything so beautiful. This is the first time I have ever been in a theatre."
Kim smiled. "Then we have something in common," she joked, "this is my first time in this theatre too. Are you enjoying your job?"
Penny looked into deep blue eyes. There was no emotion or warmth there just polite concern. "No, I hate it."
The glass Kim was raising to her lips lowered again. She blinked in surprise. "What?"
"I hate it. I suppose I should be grateful that I didn't have to job hunt and that I got in with such a large and successful company that has good pay and benefits but I dislike intensely being the company token. I can type, I've worked hard to improve my vocabulary and grammar. I can use the software programs your company employs, and I am prepared to work hard. That's what should matter, not that I have First Nations blood and grew up on the streets."
Kim said nothing for a few seconds but looked at Penny with hard, thoughtful eyes. She put her glass down on the table. "And what is your current assignment?"
Penny's eyes sparked. "Christmas decorations and deaf boss escorting."
Kim laughed. If she meant to respond the dimming of the lights prevented it.
They left the theatre a little before eleven and Kim instructed the chauffer to drive to Penny's apartment. The limo looked strangely out of place as it made its way through a rough part of town on its way to a neighbourhood of respectable but struggling households.
"I know this was business but I want to thank you for tonight. I loved it. Once I get on my feet a bit, I think I will buy tickets and go again. Tonight opened a whole new w....stop! Stop the car!"
The limo jerked suddenly to a stop and Penny bounded from the back seat and out on to the dimly lit street. Much to Kim's shock her employee ran down the street and jumped on the back of some Joe who appeared to be arguing violently with a prostitute on the corner. "Call for help," Kim ordered and bounded from the car in her turn.
The street walker made a run for it when she saw Kim coming and the Joe had Penny by the hair and was trying to pull her off. As Kim ran down the street she saw the guy smash an elbow into Penny's face and pull her over his shoulder to the ground. God knows what would have happened next but Kim arrived and let him have it in the face with pepper spray. With relief, Kim became aware of the wail of sirens heading in their direction.
It was three in the morning when the police had finished with them and booked a wanted murderer and rapist thanks to Penny and Kim's help. Kim took Penny by the arm and led her out to the limo and gave her own address.
"I need to go home," Penny protested nasally.
"Ms. LeFleur. It is nearly dawn. I am hungry, tired, and have helped in the capture of a villain. One of my employees has been manhandled and hurt, and worse still, I am sitting beside a ten thousand dollar dress of my own creation that is torn, dirty, and blood splattered. Humour me. I have had a rough night."
Penny felt any reserve of strength she once had drop through the bottom of her gut. "Ten thousand dollars?" she got out in a horse whisper.
"Oh God, I'm sorry."
Dawson lived in the penthouse of a luxury apartment overlooking a green belt in the heart of the city. Kim showed Penny into a beautiful guest room. "The bath is through there and you will find sleeping apparel and toiletry items in the drawers. I will leave tea and a light snack by your bed. I think a few hours sleep is in order. Are you sure you don't need to see a doctor? You have black eyes, and a swollen nose and lip."
"No, I'm okay thanks. He just gave me a bloody nose. It's not broken. About the dress..."
"Forget the dress, Penny. A dress can be replaced, a life can't. Did you know that woman?"
"That is not what you told the police."
Kim looked angry. "For a friend, she sure left you in a deadly situation."
Penny looked defiant. "She heard the police siren and was scared."
Kim nodded. "I am glad you were not hurt badly. We'll try to get to work by noon tomorrow. Sleep well Penny."
"Kimberly? Thank you. You probably saved my life."
"Probably. Perhaps you should consider carrying pepper spray if you insist on being a heroine." Kim turned and left to see to the tea and Penny, confused by the changing moods of her employer, went to soak gratefully in a bath.
The story of the night of the concert was the hot gossip for weeks. From what Penny could ascertain from the whispers and guarded questions, the employees were scandalized that Penny had endangered Kim's life by pulling her into the seamy world of Penny's childhood. When word got out about the dress, they could not understand why she had not been fired. Neither could Penny for that matter. She had tried to make arrangement for a payroll deduction to pay off the cost of the dress in instalments. The request had been turned down by the payroll department at Kim's order.
Then there was the matter of the tree. Penny had dutifully gone down to the maintenance department and checked out the pathetic little Christmas tree that was usually left on a table in the lobby. Years of use had left it looking a rather sorry item. Sean had given her a budget of twelve hundred dollars. It was not for decorations but to cover costs of refreshments for the staff meeting just before the holidays. He had said, however, that she could use her discretion. Her jaw set in a determined line. She had been put in charge of Christmas and she planned on doing it right.
She started by contacting the downtown mission. They had laughed heartily at her request but had agreed. That night, she had, with the help of the maintenance department, dragged a ten foot Christmas Tree into the lobby and set it up. It wasn't real of course, but it was as close as Penny could find and she decorated it with small lights so that it shone magically.
Reg and the other two night maintenance workers stood back and looked at their efforts with satisfaction. "It's a mighty fine tree, Penny, but it's a bit bare. Don't you have any tinsel or balls?"
Penny had smiled. "No, we are going to decorate it with love."
Reg had chuckled and patted her on her shoulder. "Not in this company you're not. These are business people working in a cut throat business."
Penny had to admit that standing alone in the lobby taping up the signs she had made, she felt less than optimistic about her decision. She sighed; she might be fired but at least she could feel that she had done the right thing.
As people walked into work the next day, they stopped dead and stared at Penny's empty Christmas tree and the three signs that she had posted. The first read:
The Three Best Gifts
The three best gifts are peace, harmony, and love. Show you care by placing a pair of gloves, socks, a hat, or scarf on our tree. These will be given to the mission to hand out to the needy this winter. Help warm someone's hands and heart.
The second sign was a poem that Penny had written.
We are all different,
Like coloured mittens.
Each of us woven
From a different
Some are fancy, some
Some are pretty and some are
We are like coloured mittens,
Each of us different,
Yet inside each mitten
We all are the same.
The world is a small village.
Reach out to your neighbours.
The last sign read:
The Downtown Mission wants to thank you all for you gift of a thousand dollars. They will be providing soup, bread, and tea for you at our December staff meeting.
Sean burst into the office to find Penny at her computer-up dating files. "What have you done!? What have you done!? Have you been downstairs? A crowd has formed in the lobby. I think we are going to have a riot! Kim came in and took one look at the tree and walked out again! She didn't say one word. Not one! I'll be fired too. I'll be out of a job and won't be able to pay off my credit card in the new year. I'll end up in jail!"
Penny frowned at Kim's excitable administrative assistant and got up, following him down the hall to the balcony that overlooked the main lobby. Sure enough a crowd of employees was standing there murmuring softly and pointing to the bare tree and the signs. Penny licked her lips nervously. This did not look good.
Suddenly, Kim came through the front door. The crowd parted and let her through waiting to follow her lead. She opened up a plastic bag she carried and carefully hung three pair of woolly gloves in red, green and gold on the tree. As she turned, she saw Penny up on the balcony and their eyes met. "Well done, Penny," she said, and raised her hands and clapped. Slowly, the whole group joined in and Penny blushed and smiled awkwardly.
The night of Christmas Eve, Penny stayed behind to take down the Christmas Tree. It was beautiful now covered in bright patterns and colours of hats, gloves, socks and scarves. The staff had eagerly come in each morning to add something to the tree or to see what had already been hung up. They lingered a few minutes and talked as friends, sharing jokes and smiles. The tension of the holiday season seemed to melt away when they saw their own special Christmas tree.
Penny smiled and carefully placed each item into the cardboard box that she would take into the mission that night. She stood on her tip toes and stretched to reach a hat. A long slim hand got there before her and lifted the item off the tree to give to her. It was Kimberly Dawson.
"Merry Christmas," Penny blushed.
"Merry Christmas, Penny, and thank you for your efforts," Kim smiled down at her.
Penny licked her lips nervously. "Just doing my job."
Kim chuckled. "Ahh, yes, Christmas decorations and deaf boss escorting. Do you still do the latter?"
Penny looked up with startled eyes that suddenly sparked mischievously. "Not since the wild Cinderella wrecked the fairy God Mother's ten thousand dollar evening dress."
They both laughed and then went quiet. A certain tension and awkwardness suddenly surrounded them. Kim looked into chocolate brown eyes sparkling with light. Slowly, she leaned forward and brushed her lips against Penny's. The sweet gentleness of the kiss and the hot strength of Kim's body so close to her own left Penny feeling weak kneed.
"It is very inappropriate for the owner of the company to date an employee. I want you to know that you can turn me down and it will in no way change your position here at Dawson Designs. I want to see more of you Penny...outside of work. Are you free tonight?"
Penny's voice sounded small and weak with emotion. "I...I'm taking this stuff over to the mission and then helping out tonight and tomorrow. They are always short staffed Christmas Eve and Day." Kim looked very vulnerable and lonely and Penny gathered her courage and went on. "You could come...I mean...if you are not busy."
Kim smiled. "I think I would enjoy that very much." Together, they worked to take down the tree and to build the first bridge to a new future.
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