“Folger, I need to speak with you.”

I’d been dreading this. I knew it was coming, it comes every six months, but around the last six weeks my chest starts to tighten, I’m jumpy, constantly looking over my shoulder. And the last thing I do at night is renew my resume on the resume websites.

It’s my semi-annual job review.

I don’t think I’m alone in my panic. Everyone gets stressed about how they’re doing at work and the job review only adds to the stress. Your boss tries to assure you it’s only formal, it’s as much for your benefit as for the company’s, all that crap. And it is crap: it does not feel casual, your boss becomes a different person, and when you’re done you feel none of the security or complacency you’d been enjoying the previous several months. It shakes you up, rattles your world down to the foundation.

I don’t think I’m alone in my panic, but certainly no one else shares my reasons for this panic—that is, not unless they work here.

Penelope Brigance is my supervisor here at Playcelesta.com, a small but proud video game company. We put out and support a few free MMOs and FPSs–our most popular titles being Glorious Pistols, Foundation of Hella, and Celesta–with a skeleton crew of a dozen coders, skinners, graphic designers, and three writers. I’m one of those writers, and I’m also the liaison with several exchange students from the local university: lately we’ve been courting the highly lucrative but highly competitive South Korean market. We can’t afford any translation errors, and Penny—my boss—has entrusted this risky division entirely to me. She likes to call this the “Thin Ice Project” because my neck is perpetually on the line, here. I have zero support, scant resources… I’m basically running everything on fumes, favors, and the dreams of unborn children.

Penny (I would never call her that to her face, always “Ms. Brigance”) seems to take an unholy pleasure in my distress. She likes seeing how far she can push me, how many resources I can call in on faith alone, and once in a while she tries to set me up for failure, just to see how I’ll recover. I always do, I’m very good at recovery, and that makes up for my lack of ambition or initiative. I follow orders well but I’m not great at starting a new activity. Which is probably why I’m still chained up at Playcelesta.com instead of hunting down a more secure, less threatening position at any of our competitors’.

Her favorite device of torture is the semi-annual review. She doesn’t get to use it often (obviously) but when she does, she savors it with predatory relish. She… well, I’m about to get into that. This was last January, one month before our fiscal year, and I was going over some dialogue to be included in our second expansion of Caprice Blades, a flagging social MMO we don’t have a lot of hope for but can’t justify shelving yet. I was proofing this last set of dialogue for the second time when Penny called me into her office. Never mind that I’d already gotten two e-mail reminders and a pop-up on my calendar, as well as two text messages on my company cell phone two and four days prior to this: I know it’s coming up, she knows it’s coming up, but she likes everyone else to know it’s here.

“If you’re not too busy, Folger,” she hollered over three cubicles between my desk and her office. “And bring a notepad. Something to write on.”

We both knew I didn’t need anything to write on. Everyone in this office knew that. I grabbed a legal pad and a thick pen left by some other employee, some pharmaceutical swag with Saghir Chemise printed on the side. Whatever that meant.

I trudged away from my desk, palms sweating, heart pounding. Dale, the guy next to my cube, glanced at me with a haunted expression, nodding slightly before returning to work. On the other side of him was Schmetak, don’t know his first name. He wouldn’t even look up at me. In the third cube was a young man who hasn’t been here too long—he hasn’t had time for a job review yet. He smiled and told me to “rock it.” I just stared at him for a moment and trudged on before Penny yelled for me again.

My scuffed brown shoes left the grey industrial carpeting of the hallway and shuffled into the deep rust-red low-pile carpeting of Penny’s office. “Close the door behind you, Folger,” she said, even as it was obvious I was doing so. I didn’t want anyone to watch this and no one wanted to see it. She invited me to have a seat and pardoned herself: she was finishing an e-mail. Another tactic of hers, just to let you know you’re not important enough for her full attention. As though this little meeting was a favor to you, something she was squeezing into her… oh, poor word choice.

Penny finally crossed the short distance to her little office table and sat down. She was clad in a tight, boxy grey tweed jacket and skirt that had a vaguely ’20s retro feel to it. She looked like a female Gestapo officer in dinner dress. “How are you, Folger? How have you been?’

I hated the pleasantries, when we both knew what was coming. “Oh, you know…” I fumbled for words (bad, for a writer). “The, uh, forest mountain dialogue’s coming along. We’ve finished all the back-and-forths for the first twenty quests in the new territory and Dale’s hacking out some combat incidentals. We’ll be done by Friday.” I realized I’d been white-knuckling the notepad on my lap, under the table; I placed it on the table and arranged my pen smartly parallel to the right edge, about half an inch away. It took me a few tries but I got it.

When I looked up, Ms. Brigance (it’s hard to think of her as “Penny” so close, staring right at me) was staring at me, one corner of her lip curled upward. On anyone else it might have been a smile. “That’s good to hear, Folger. I look forward to the playtesters’ feedback on Monday.” She leaned back in her chair, and I should note she has enormous breasts. There’s no graceful way to allude to it: she has huge cannons, and that is the exact phrase that comes into everyone’s mind—male or female—who sees them for the first time. Between the gunmetal grey of her lapels there was a low horizon of burgundy silk and lace, her blouse, and it all framed her famous decolletage: round, firm breasts that never wobbled but occasionally heaved, in which cleavage you could lose an entire pack of Bic disposable pens. As she stretched back, her tremendous bosom seemed almost to clench and stand even prouder upon her rib cage. She turned her face upwards and closed her eyes, seemingly to enjoy the stretch, but really it was to give me the false sense of security that I could ogle her without fear of being caught. That’s how confident she was in her physical appeal, and I really wish my body didn’t respond to that, as scared as I was, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away and there was a certain tension in my boxers. Damnit.

With a sigh she returned to sitting upright. “Well, let’s get on with it,” she said, unbuttoning her jacket. Three buttons shouldn’t take so long, but they took a while for her. “How do you feel the past year has been for you and the Thin Ice Project?”

“Actually, really well, actually,” I tried to sound defiant, but her lacquered crimson fingernails danced about her first large grey button before it finally popped through its hole. “Ji-hun and Chin really seem to have a feel for the atmosphere, and they’re under 25 so I’m trusting their grasp of slang and popular expressions, you know.” Ms. Brigance’s chestnut bob fell from behind her ear and swung against her chin, partially occluding her smirk in red-brown lipstick. She was staring down at her jacket, running the tip of one elongated nail around the rim of the second button, before giving it a twist and letting it slide through. “And, uh, and… well, the new guy, he seems to get along with the students. They’re even teaching him a little Korean and they hang out on the weekends. They should have this, uh,”—she was grabbing the sides of her jacket and clenching them around the last button, trying to loosen it that way but actually causing her boobs to swell up to her chin—”they, they should, uh… have this wrapped up soon.” Damnit.

Her jacket sleeves hissed quietly as they slid off her silk blouse, and she hung her jacket on the back of her chair, behind her back. With lots of struggling to do this, to make her huge breasts shudder back and forth beneath a sheer layer of silk—two marble-sized points poked at the fabric. Was she not wearing a bra?

“That’s great to hear, Folger… do you mind if I call you Neil?” Her nails clattered as she rested her hands on the table in front of her and she smirked at me, her hazel eyes now trained on my face, unblinking and intense. “I’m glad to see my trust in you was not mistaken. I would hate to hear that anything had gone wrong because that wouldn’t just be your failure.” She leaned forward to reach one index figure out and thump down in the space between us, as her breasts generously rested upon the table in front of her. “Whose failure would it be, besides yours?” she asked, tilting her head expectantly.

“It would be yours, Ms. Brigance.” I know the answer: we’ve done this three times before, and that was after my first disastrous job review.

“That’s right,” she nodded, leaning back. Her hands slid beneath the table and smoothed out some wrinkles in her skirt. Stubborn wrinkles, apparently, the way her hands kept sliding up and down her thighs. I didn’t mention this before, but she has very strong, curvy thighs and round hips. The skirt she wore today was really being tested for its tensile strength, and I guess there wouldn’t actually be any wrinkles in any fabric stretched that taut. “My failure, because it was my judgment that allowed your hire here at Playcelesta.com. It was my judgment that looked at your—you won’t mind me saying so—scant resume, my judgment that estimated your potential based on how you represented yourself at our interview. Do you remember our interview, Neil?”

I did. I was a few years younger with many fewer grey hairs. She was a brilliant, sexy, and powerful woman—I mean, of course she still is, but she uses those gifts for her own twisted agenda and they don’t feel the same.

“So I really took a considerable risk in taking you on at my company. If you fucked up here, it would be as much the fault of my poor judgment as your basic ineptitude. Do you see what I mean?”

“I’m glad to not have caused you to question your judgment, Ms. Brigance.” I looked down at my pants: I’d made a hand-shaped stain of sweat on the thigh of my gabardine trousers. Damnit, anyway.

She grinned, with only the barest sliver of white, strong teeth peeking between those deep red earthtone lips (I don’t know what that color’s called). “You haven’t yet, you mean,” she said. “It’s only July. There’s another six months of production ahead, in which time I want to see three realms complete and polished—forest mountain, gold mine mountain, and brackish moors written up, tested, translated, and ready for beta gold.” She grinned harder and showed more of her teeth. “Plenty of time between now and then to fuck up. Plenty of things to go wrong in the Thin Ice Project, right, Neil?”

I’d picked the wrong time—I couldn’t help it—to notice the thin gold necklace that broke its circular orbit around her neck to veer and plunge directly, almost violently, down between her breasts. I have, however, over the years, picked up the talent of instantly recalling the last few half-heard words being said at me. “Plenty of things, conceivably, Ms. Brigance, but I won’t allow that to happen.” See? I have great recovery. Or good enough, anyway.

But she noticed me noticing, and that wrapped up the first half of our interview. “Well. Since you’re so confident in your capacity here, Neil,” she rose and walked behind her desk, “let’s move on to the next part of this process: your performance review.” My eyes were drawn inexorably to her large round hips and the strong buttocks that lolled beneath that poor, exhausted skirt, as she rounded the corner of her desk. Without taking her seat, she opened up one of the desk drawers and…

Well, this is where anyone else would pull out a file, like an employee’s record. This would be where we reviewed my achievements of the last six months. They would bring it back to the table and pull out a sheet of highlights, say, or an incident record. Or both.

Not Penny, not Ms. Brigance, chief creative officer of Playcelesta.com, that’s not how she tests your performance. She reached into the drawer and withdrew two small glass bottles, blue and violet, and set them on the desk. “Remove your jacket and pants, Folger,” she ordered, unstoppering the blue bottle. An eyedropper was built into the cap, and with this she sucked up four or five drops of a pale golden liquid. “Fold them up on your chair. Remove your shoes, slide them under your chair. And Neil?”

“Yes?”

“Kneel.”

“Yes, Ms. Brigance.” I tried not to sigh too visibly, but I did and she saw it and smiled. She knows I hate that pun.

(To be continued.)

One thought on “The Performance Review, part 1

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