Fiction Friday | 'The Pact' by Amy Heydenrych
When Freya arrives at her dream job with the city's hottest start-up, she can't wait to begin a new and exciting life, including dating her new colleague, Jay.
However, Nicole, Jay's ex and fellow employee, seems intent on making her life a misery.
After a big deadline, during which Nicole continually picks on her, Freya snaps, tells Jay about the bullying and together they concoct a revenge prank.
The next morning, Nicole is found dead in her apartment ...
Nicole pushes past her and holds up her access card. The door slides open with a curt ‘beep’. Does Freya feel the slightest shove as Nicole leads the way inside? She takes a breath, and remembers the advice of her friends. Don’t overthink things. Allow yourself to be happy. Let things be good.
They sit and wait for Jay, the final person expected at the meeting. This is the first project Freya is working on with him and she’s nervous. He could be the office player, waiting to hit on her at the first opportunity, or he could be a genuinely good guy, who wants to get to know her. It would be nice if she had a female friend at work with whom to pick apart such small, superficial things, but she still eats her lunch alone. She looks awkwardly over at Nicole, who has not lifted her eyes from her cellphone once since she arrived.
Freya braces herself to speak. Nicole is probably just shy, as many people are.
‘I love that necklace you’re wearing,’ Freya says, pointing to the intricate silver piece resting against Nicole’s shirt. Silence. The only indication Nicole heard her is the quizzical rise of her eyebrow. Freya feels a little bruised, but tries again anyway.
‘Gosh, have you seen the weather report for today? I don’t remember when we last had rain forecast like this! It’s not normal in fall, even for San Francisco.’ It doesn’t make sense, and it’s a little weak. She waits patiently. Silly as it is, surely Nicole will recognize this as an effort to make conversation?
She looks up from her phone briefly with flashing eyes.
‘Do you mind just keeping quiet until Jay arrives? I’m playing a game on my phone and I’m kinda at a critical point here.’
Freya feels a clenching of irritation and shame in her chest. This is just blatantly rude! Nicole is throwing down a gauntlet, and Freya has no idea why.
There is nothing to do but sit with the silence and embarrassment itching under her skin, making herself look busy by answering emails.
Such a strong reaction feels alien to her. Freya has always been the kind of person people warm to. Once, at school, everyone in class was given a piece of paper to pass around. On it, they had to anonymously write a compliment for every person in the room. Freya was nervous. She hadn’t been at this particular school for long and was worried that her sheet of paper would return blank. There were some superficial comments, of course, such as ‘great hair’, and ‘good at math’, but right at the bottom, someone else had written ‘easy to make friends with’. Since then, she’d always hung onto that. It has been her way to survive and stand out in a world of constant change. That, and her skill in mathematics.
Jay breezes in, holding a laptop, a bundle of sketches and a chewed pencil. Old school. She likes that. Ideas feel clearer in pen and paper before they make their way into code. It’s the way she brainstorms ideas too. He’s wearing a worn Arcade Fire band shirt today. She nods her head. Great taste in music, too.
He sits across from them, oblivious to the tension souring the air around them.
‘Good morning! Sorry I’m a bit late – had to make up my cardio count for the day, so I took the stairs. This Apple Watch is starting to run my life!’ Jay’s eyes linger on Freya and his lips curve into a smile. ‘You look different today . . . Have you done something to your hair?’ He noticed! The night before she had practiced doing it in an elaborate halo braid whilst watching a YouTube tutorial. Today, she has threaded a scarlet ribbon – an off cut from the skirt she made – through her hair. She feels more herself than she has in a long time.
‘Thanks,’ she blushes. ‘I’m trying something different. To fit my new life here.’
‘And what a life that promises to be,’ he says, his voice as smooth as syrup.
Nicole throws Jay a simmering look. It’s quick, but impossible to miss. ‘Perhaps we can try begin this meeting without commenting on a woman’s appearance?’
‘Relax, Nicole, it’s just a harmless compliment. You have to agree that Freya looks lovely today. Really elegant.’ It is a word that makes her push her shoulders back and forget the skulking figure of Nicole darkening the room. Elegant.
Freya soon gets lost in the work. She takes careful notes as Jay speaks, calculating and recalculating in her mind what the solution may be. She’s learned to seek refuge in the cool facts of numbers, and to focus on her ability to make sense of them. Experience has taught her that people can often be disappointing. This is the only thing that is real.
‘Coffee?’ Jay asks as they all gather their things.
‘Better not,’ Freya says. ‘I’ve got a lot of work to do.’
Jay needs to understand that she has been hired at Atypical for a reason and will prove herself, no matter what. He nods solemnly. ‘Respect! Don’t let me stand in your way. But can I ask you one question then?’
‘Sure . . .’
‘Can I have your number?’
Freya laughs. It only took one week of her being here to hit on her. ‘You’re an executive director here, you could just get it from my employee file.’
Jay’s eyes crinkle. ‘I could, but a gentleman prefers to ask.’
‘Well, then, a gentleman can have it with pleasure.’
As he taps her number into his cellphone, Freya looks towards Nicole. For reasons she cannot name, she wants to impress her and win her over. But she has already huffed off, leaving a faint trail of Dior Poison in her wake.
‘Don’t worry about her,’ says Jay. ‘Nicole has gone through a lot lately, and her social skills were the first to bite the dust.’
They turn together and watch her pace between the desks, a shimmering ball of energy. Clusters of people part for her, so powerful is the force around her. But there is a split second where she turns around and looks back. She stares at Freya with eyes so wounded that for a long time afterward, Freya battles to feel at ease again.
- Extract provided by Jonathan Ball Publishers