The False Flat

Equality Award
Book Cover Image
Logline or Premise
In this uplifting story about friendship, love, and growth, a thirty-three-year-old, emotionally-distant financial planner must untangle herself from a past that’s holding her back in order to move forward into the life that will set her free.
First 10 Pages

5, 4, 3, 2, CHAPTER 1

Life was easier when you pretended people were numbers. I didn’t mean it in the typical way people mean this, like a faceless corporation with too many employees. Not a rating system either. I meant literal numbers: hard-edged, perfectly sequenced, constant, definable números. People had too many crevices, too many preferences, too many irritating qualities. People couldn’t be easily divided, added, or subtracted. Numbers were straightforward, uncomplicated—at least for me—even the decimal points: especially the decimal points.

That’s why I assigned nearly everyone I met a number. It had nothing to do with how attractive they were, their socioeconomic status, or their age. It was mostly decided based on their personality or the feeling they elicited when I was around them, occasionally their shape. It was a coping mechanism that had started at fifteen, when I saw a little girl conversing with the numbers she’d drawn on a piece of paper in a therapist’s office. My robotic mother had ripped me from the waiting room, insisting I didn’t need therapy. So, I hadn’t had it, but I’d kept the numbers.

I rubbed my hands together to warm them, then secured my bicycle to the rack located in front of the law firm next door to Twin Cities Financial, my office building in downtown Minnesota. Several people used the rack, but I felt particularly entitled because my boyfriend was an aspiring partner at Simon, Crusler, and Bach. I pulled my high heels out of my backpack and clipped down the sidewalk, past the gold-handled front doors where thousands—no, millions—of dollars walked through every single day. More numbers. The best kind of numbers, the kind with decimal points. Money.

I slipped into the elevator and turned in time to see Lynn, a perky number eight from the marketing department in my office, running for the door, way too excited to see me. I eyed the gleaming side panel and contemplated pushing the “Door Close” button, but the smile under her expertly applied lipstick made me feel guilty. She meant well. I jabbed my finger into “Door Open” and forced my lips upward, a maneuver that made me feel plastic.

Smiling was ridiculous. It looked nice on Lynn, the perfect complement to the pencil skirt currently hugging the lower circle of her eight-ness, but a smile always seemed wrong on my face. If the corners of my mouth stretched too far, it was entirely possible my cheeks would crack and fall onto the elevator floor.

“Penelope! Hi!” Lynn cooed, shifting into the elevator, her red coat slung over her arm. Everyone—except my mother, and apparently Lynn—called me Pen. That sweet-as-sugar tone . . . I knew exactly what she’d talk about next—her most recent email. I could feel it. The polite request that would be posed as a question but really was a demand for me to do something utterly outrageous.

I should’ve pressed “Door Close.”

I pulled my wind-resistant trench coat around me like a shield. “Hi, Lynn.” This elevator was too slow and too small. I should’ve called maintenance, had a discussion about how slow and small the elevator was, which was surely a code violation.

“How has your week been?” She drew out the words, practically singing them.

Instead of contemplating ways I could hoist myself through the trapdoor at the top of this too-tiny box to avoid the inevitable, I concentrated on her assigned number. Eight. This wasn’t human Lynn with ulterior motives to find out more about my personal life. It was a congenial number eight. (Because if the number eight were a human, it would be congenial—a delight—most of the time.)

“It’s been great,” I said, desperate to think of another word or several more words to keep the eight from detouring to the email.

I watched the electronic number at the top of the wall, changing like molasses as the box moved through space like it was on a sightseeing tour.

This elevator!

I took a breath.

“I haven’t heard from you about this weekend. Are you coming to the dinner?” There it was. We’d made it to the fourth floor, our floor, and I’d failed. All I’d had to do was ask her about her week or where she’d bought her skirt—the woman knew how to dress—or mention my really good business news. But I’d panicked at the possibility of her asking exactly this, giving her the opportunity to ask . . . exactly this.

The doors finally opened, and I squeezed through them before there was room to exit. Lynn followed me. Why was she following me? Right, she worked here.

This weekend. Not a client dinner, which I never missed, but a company-wide family gathering where people would talk about gardening or football or the million other activities they had outside work, which I did not have and could not relate to.

Four weeks ago, when the event had seemed fictional, I’d told Lynn, “Sure! Count me in.” I’d even waved my hand like I’d bring the potato salad. But when she’d sent her follow-up email, I’d smelled the burgers on the grill, felt the wind from the passing Frisbee—did people play Frisbee?—and I’d deleted the email. The last thing I needed was for my coworkers, who respected my job acumen, to see my questionable performance at interacting with other humans in a nonwork capacity.

I adjusted my bag on my shoulder. “What are you talking about? What email?”

She hadn’t mentioned the email, had she?

She crossed her arms and stood in front of me, a demanding marketing professional’s stance and stare. She was going to get what she wanted.

“It’s just the office and their families,” she assured me. “Really casual. Everyone’s anxious to get to know the Pen Auberge under all the fancy clothes and spreadsheets.”

My face was doing that cracking thing again. “I’ll be there,” I heard myself say.

Thankfully, she walked down the hall. I turned in to my office and dropped my bag and helmet by my desk.

I needed to forget about Lynn. Today was my day. In about five seconds, I’d walk through Houston McGregor’s door and be lavished with congratulations. I smoothed my hair in front of his door. I’d risked helmet hair even after I’d freshly straightened my unruly curls, because riding was my medicine, something I needed a dose of every day.

“Pen,” Houston’s secretary said.

I turned toward Erin, who was chewing on a pen. I wasn’t sure if she was calling my name or talking to the writing implement. She opened her mouth, then shook her head as if I should disregard her sudden outburst.

I turned back to the door. I didn’t want whatever had caused her look of concern to ruin this moment.

I knocked, and Houston bellowed, “Come in!” As I stepped into his office, I was hit with the cloying scent that is Houston McGregor, the kind of stench only a man utterly in control and with an obscene income could get away with. His neck fat shook over the top of his collar, part of the overpriced suit that looked like it was trying to eat him. “Good morning, Pen. Good news.”

He gestured to the maroon leather chairs opposite his shiny executive desk—complete with a gold-embossed lion’s head on the front—and crossed his Italian loafers on said desk. This was why finance people got a bad rap, but I focused on Houston’s more charming qualities, namely his “Good news” comment.

“My clients signed,” I affirmed, ignoring how my throat wanted to close at the concentrated cologne in this room. How did he function in here? He needed to open a window. He needed a good scrub with unscented soap. I needed to stop. This wasn’t about his cologne or how near to passing out I was because of it. My clients had signed.

Six months earlier, I’d decided to go from financial analyst to financial planner. CFA to CFP, a move from behind the scenes to in front of them. Some saw the transition as a step down. I saw it as conditioning. Because, while I exceled in business, I did not excel in personal relationships. It’s not that I wanted to be cold, but at twelve, I’d lost my brother, my best friend, the one person who understood me and my (our) biracial struggles. And when the people I should’ve been able to turn to weren’t there, I built up a shell and latched on to what I was good at, my distraction. Yep, my numbers.

So why the recent job change? Aurora Auberge (my mother) had turned her (well-meaning) attention on me because my dad had died, and she needed someone else’s life to hyperfocus on. I quickly saw that I needed other people in my life, real social engagements, a.k.a. excuses. So it made good sense to me that if I wanted to start making those personal relationships, and chipping away at that twenty-year-old shell, then I should interact with people in an arena in which I was most comfortable.

When I was talking estate planning or finance, I was completely at ease. Apparently, I was pretty good at interacting with finicky, opinionated people, as long as my precious numbers were there as a buffer. Which was why I was standing in this migraine-inducing office. I’d schmoozed a whopper of a client. Not only were the Fletchers a high net worth catch, but they promised generational wealth. If I played my cards right, I’d not only add the Fletchers to my book, but I’d manage the massive wealth that came with their extended family. Mrs. Fletcher was a fashionista, and, much to her delighted surprise, I’d worn shoes by her favorite designer to a multiclient dinner meeting, which had instantly connected us. Though, secrets revealed, I’d known this tidbit of information thanks to Chad, my observant lawyer boyfriend, who’d dined at the Fletchers’ home several days before and had witnessed the shoe delivery.

Life was all about connections. It’s who you know.

“Yes,” Houston replied. “You did a good job.”

I beamed. Actual light was probably coming out of my ears.

I opened my mouth to reply, but he wasn’t finished. “A great job indeed, but I’m putting the Fletchers on Tyler’s book. You two worked together on this, and he needs the victory more than you do.” His condescending gaze slid down my face and back up, making me wonder if this was a race thing or a gender thing. But I didn’t think Houston even realized I was biracial because he’d made a comment about a Black client that bordered on racist several months back in front of me. He might’ve been arrogant, but he wasn’t the type to make that kind of mistake.

I blinked.

I coughed.

I asked him to repeat himself.

He repeated the same words. The same words.

He was giving my client to the new guy I’d been training for the past month?

This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. Was this happening . . . again? I looked around the room, but for what? A pair of scissors to cut off the tie that must’ve been restricting the blood flow to his brain?

Weeks ago, I’d worked hard to win a modestly funded client, the Herberts, and when they’d signed, I was informed that Dougan—I know, ridiculous, but that was his name—would be adding the client to his book. I was frustrated then, but Houston had assured me it would only be this once and that Dougan had initiated the relationship with the Herberts, so the clients were rightfully his. It didn’t seem fair, but I’d let it slide.

The Fletchers had been initiated by me, through Chad, who’d made the introduction when he’d heard they were looking to invest their funds.

The Fletchers were mine.

“No.” My whole body shook.

He smiled, like the word was a fly, irritating but easily eradicated.

“I’m sorry. Decision’s been made. You’re good at this. Your next one will be worth even more.”

“And who will you give that one to, Houston? The janitor?”

“Come on. You know these things are complicated. It has nothing to do with you personally.” There it was again, that sweep, almost imperceptible this time, that assured me that it most certainly was personal. And he was trying to sweet-talk me. I struggled to control my breathing. My fingernails dug into my palms.

“Pen, Pen, Pen, don’t get worked up. You know you’re my gal.”

His gal? His. So it was a gender thing then, confirmed by his unconcealed eye drop to my chest.

I buttoned my blouse all the way up to the collar. It felt ridiculous, but I didn’t care; I was proving a point. Then, I splayed my hands on his desk and leaned in, coming close to touching the eggplant posing as a nose in the center of his bulbous face.

“The Fletchers are my clients. Tyler was on the sidelines for this. I was lead. I’m not going to let you do this. Do they know? Did you tell them you’re handing them off to an inexperienced new guy?”

“Tyler’s not inexperienced. He’s been a planner for nearly as long as you have.”

Choked disgust flew out of my mouth in a sound that was half scoff and half growl. “I’ve been an analyst for years. He was an adviser.”

“Then you agree: he’s got more people experience.”

“Fuck you.” I shouldn’t have said it, but, I mean, seriously, how could I not? He deserved it. He deserved a lot more.

“For your sake, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” He stood, adjusted the dark-gray flap of his jacket across his gut, and sauntered over to me, then wrapped his arm around my shoulders and leaned in. “Now, suck it up and go grab us another client because, between you and me, you’ve got something they don’t have.”

“Breasts?” I jerked away from him and stomped back to my office.

From the hallway, I heard Houston call out, “We’re team players around here, Pen. You’d be wise to remember that.”

I should’ve been praised for my restraint.

I did not slam my door. I did not run outside and slash his tires.

A soft knock interrupted me midfume.

I said nothing, but the person came in anyway. Erin, Houston’s secretary, stepped into my office and closed the door.

“I’m really sorry.” She sat in one of the so-purple-it-might-as-well-be-black chairs across from my desk.

“You knew?”

“I heard them talking yesterday. It’s not right.”

“No, it isn’t.” My anger was morphing into anxiety.

“When I get back from Nashville, I’m going to do everything I can to find you someone else. I wouldn’t go, but I’ve got to help clean my grandparents’ house in Nashville. We’re selling it because they’re moving into an assisted living facility.”

As Erin detailed her trip, likely feeling the need to further explain why she wasn’t dropping everything to support me—she wanted to climb the corporate ladder—I stared out my crystal clear, single-paned office window. In the parking lot of the building next door, an extremely fit woman in a hot-pink yoga outfit and matching earbuds stood on tiptoe and kissed a tall, brawny man in a suit that screamed “high-priced lawyer.”

My chest started to hurt as the anxiety made its way up my body, like a disembodied hand clutching at my windpipe. I didn’t want Erin to see me have a panic attack, so I tried hard to focus on what she was saying. Her grandparents’ old house, the Nashville market, the boyfriend she’d moved to Minnesota for, how much cleaning she was going to have to do, how many repairs.

But my eyes strayed back to the couple, the woman reaching up to touch the man’s clean-shaven face, her finger tracing his jawline.

My phone pinged. I tore my gaze from the window long enough to see who the text was from. My mother. It didn’t even matter what the text said. The fact that it existed on my phone, along with everything else now crashing over me, made the thin threads of an idea knit themselves together: escape.

I looked back at the couple. “I want it.”

Erin paused, confusion scrunching her features. “You want what?”

My eyes remained laser focused on the public display of affection outside my window, something I would never do.

“I want your grandparents’ house. You don’t have to worry about cleaning it or repairing it.”

I was minutes away from putting my head between my legs. I needed the comfort of my bicycle before I broke in front of this woman and ruined my reputation.

“You can’t be—”

I held up a hand. “I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.” It was so much more than her grandparents’ house. It was freedom from a life that was suddenly suffocating. A career shift wasn’t enough change. I’d been kidding myself, distracting myself from what was really going on with me.

I stood, kicked off my heels, and shoved my feet into my sneakers, my heartbeat whirring in my ears. Then I grabbed my helmet as Erin repeated the word “but” over and over again.

“Listen, Erin.” Whir. Whir. Whir. “I’ve got to . . .” Whir. Whir. Whir.

Was I still speaking? I swallowed and glanced at the couple one last time, then looked in Erin’s direction, avoiding eye contact for fear that would be the last straw. At the sound of another ping from my phone, the whirring turned into a helicopter, and my vision tunneled.

“Gotta go. Want the house. Serious. Make it happen.” I think that’s what I said, at least, or something to that effect. I ran down the three flights of stairs and into the lobby, then pushed past a three on my way out the door. The three cursed.

My hands shook as I fumbled with the lock on my bicycle. The lock and key fell to the ground. I left them both. I needed to ride, and so I did, right past the PDA couple, past the high ponytail that swung back and forth as the woman teasingly turned her head, past the man who held her in his muscled arms, arms I knew well because they belonged to Chad, my boyfriend.