Mister hit Josephine with the palm of his hand across her left cheek and it was then she knew she would run. She heard the whistle of the blow, felt the sting of skin against skin, her head spun and she was looking back over her right shoulder, down to the fields where the few men Mister had left were working the tobacco. The leaves hung heavy and low on the stalk, ready for picking. She saw a man's bare back and the new hired man, Nathan, staring up at the house, leaning on a rake. The air tasted sweet, the honeysuckle crawling up the porch railings thick now with flower, and the sweetness mixed with the blood in her mouth.
The blow came without warning, no reason that Josephine could say. She had been sweeping the front porch as she always did first thing, clearing off the dust and leaves blown up by the night wind. A snail had marked a trail across the dew-wet wood of the porch floor and rested its brown shell between the two porch rockers. Josephine had caught that snail with a sharp swoop of the broom, sent it flying out into the yard, and then she heard Mister's voice behind her, coming from inside the house. He said something she could not make out. It was not a question, there was no uplift in tone, nor was it said in anger. His voice was measured, it had seemed to Josephine then, before he hit her, not urgent, not hurried. She stopped her sweeping, turned around, looked to the house, and he walked out the wide front door, a proud front door Missus Lu always liked to say, and that's when his hand rose up. She saw his right arm bend, and his lips part just slightly, not to open but just the barest hint of dark space between them. And then his palm, the force of it against her cheek, and the broom dropping from her fingers, the clatter as it fell.
Something shifted in Josephine then, a gathering of disparate desires that before had been scattered. She could not name them all, there were so many, but most were simple things: to eat a meal when hunger struck her, to smile without thinking, to wear a dress that fit her well, to place upon the wall a picture she had made, to love a person of her choosing. These distilled now, perfectly, here, this September morning, her hunger for breakfast sharp in her belly, the sun pink and resplendent in the sky. Today was the last day, there would be no others.
New York City
The brief was not finished. Lina Sparrow, first-year litigation associate, took another sip of cold coffee. Her eyes flipped from her computer screen to the digital clock glowing red on the wall: 11:58 pm. Get it to me Wednesday, Dan had said. Counting on you to work your usual magic. Never had Lina been late before, never, and yet here she sat, the last two minutes of Wednesday dangling just out of reach, her office a cave of paper and tented textbooks, the cursor blinking relentlessly on her screen. The brief: 85 pages, 124 perfect citations, the product of 92 frenetic hours billed over five ridiculous days, a document that would go to the judge, be entered into the official court record, be e-mailed to dozens of lawyers, to the client, to the opposing side. But was it good?
Lina's shoes were off — she always wrote barefoot — and as she stretched her toes, she wondered what precisely was her problem. Last year she had graduated at the top of her law school class, and she was now the highest-billing first-year associate at Clifton & Harp LLP, the preferred legal services provider for Fortune 100 companies and individuals of dizzying wealth. Lina had heard of other people's performance issues — time management, crises of confidence, exhaustion, depression, collapse — but never, in three successful years of law school and nine prolific months at Clifton, had she frozen like this. She rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands and blinked fast. Her office vibrated in the cold fluorescent glare: beige walls, grey carpet, white particleboard shelving units of the kind found in college dorm rooms, office buildings, prisons. On her second day at the firm, Lina had arranged a careful selection of personal items: on her wall, the law degree and one of her father's smaller paintings; on her desk, the glass snow globe of a pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline and the photo of her parents circa 1982, both with longish hair and secret smiles. Each item represented a unique stamp on the exchangeable, impersonal nature of this space: I am here, the snow globe said. This is mine.
Lina picked up the snow globe now and shook it. Fake granular flurries settled over the city and she repeated the question again and again: Was the brief good? Was the brief good? Was it? Silently the clock shifted to 11:59. And as the deadline slipped away, Lina felt a rush like skiing, or eating sugar straight, or that icy morning a taxi had careened toward her as she'd waited on the corner of Fifty-first and Fifth and watched helpless, immobile, infused with a wondrous dread as it spun out inches from the curb. An intoxicating, brief adrenaline. 12:00. What was she waiting for? Resolution? Inspiration? The brief said exactly what it had to say: our client wants money and the law says give it to him.
From The House Girl by Tara Conklin. Copyright 2013 by Tara Conklin. Excerpted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.