They had all gathered in the parking lot just after dawn, driven for three hours and struggling to find the enthusiasm for the day ahead. Dressed in income-dependent variations on the guidelines sent in Times New Roman, littered with emoji like dead bugs on a wind screen. The tone aimed for friendly, but came across as written by a child dictator.
Judy was wrapped up in jogging pants that were translucent at the knees, sneakers with soles that had once been as thick as a childhood duvet but were now cracked and worn. She was swaddled in the sweatshirt that had been her evening and weekend uniform for years. She had scraped back her orange hair into a braid and worn little more than lipgloss.
Kandi had not gotten the memo. Kandi never did. Juicy Couture leisure suit and pink sneakers that looked like they had never left the box before today.
She had written it, after all.
When Judy learned that Kandi failed beauty school, she had snorted dishwater coffee through her nostrils. The jokes had lasted right up until Uncle Alex put her in charge of the office, mistaking accidents of birth for demonstrations of virtue. Louise had quit and Kandi had managed to gift Tito with the dubious honour of becoming the first custodian to suffer from work-related stress.
So here they were, in fifteen pristine acres of woodland, encouraged to cheer and chant by facilitators in olive polo shirts and cargo pants. Judy decided that even wiping spilled cereal off the counter was preferable to being a walk on part in Kandi’s bullshit. Alex was home with gastric flu, but Judy guessed that it was the kind that required treatment over nine holes of golf and a leisurely lunch.
Then, they were introduced to the final exercise. An assault course, taken in pairs with the fastest time getting a ‘prize’. The facilitators paired them up and Judy wanted to weep as one of them brought over her partner, giggling and fawning at being the centre of attention.
‘So, I wanna win this, you’d better lean in, girlfriend.’
Girlfriend. Kandi never spoke more than two words to her. Except to steal her ideas and occasionally commiserate at getting the job that Judy worked sixty hours a week and weekends for a shot it.
‘Sure, Kandi, sure.’
They were not the first to go across, that was Mitch and Rachel, who trudged forward without enthusiasm or stamina.
Laura and Paula, cringing and desperate for the day to be over.
Judy looked up at the sky, dark and thick with clouds. The whistle blew and Kandi elbowed her, sharp enough to make her wince.
Judy burned with umbrage and powered ahead. She leapt at the first obstacle, a vertical rope that required a challenge to anyone’s lower body strength. Kandi could not gain purchase, the soles of her sneakers sliding off the damp wood with squeaking noises that made her jaw twitch with frustration and humiliation. Judy was at the top, and had her left leg over the other side.
She looked down, saw the pleading light in Kandi’s eyes. Kandi reached her hand up and glared at her, the eyebulging look that said please don’t embarrass me in any language. Judy took it and pulled her up, Kandi cackled with triumph.
‘Knew you’d take one for the team, girlfriend’
Judy continued to pull her up. Kandi scrabbled up and got her leg over. Judy huffed and raised her right hand for a high five.
Kandi wiped her palm on her thigh, low so that she thought Judy didn’t see it. She raised her hand to slap with Judy’s bringing both hands off the top of the climb. Judy looked around, saw that no one was watching, the facilitators ahead with the others, and gritted her teeth together.
She pushed hard.
Judy realised that today was going to be great for morale after all.