A warm gust of stale garlic and bacon struck Brynn in the face as she tugged open the thick glass door, etched with the name AdArt in flowing gold cursive. Instantly, she walked into a shiny, curling red ribbon that hung down directly in front of her; looking up, she saw that it was attached to a white balloon stuck to the ceiling. Confetti lay all around the entryway. Beside the deserted reception desk, empty champagne bottles protruded from the wastebasket, their rumps all insolently turned toward her. As she passed the conference room, she glanced in and stopped short to gawk. The long, polished cherrywood table was crowded with plastic cups and liquor bottles. Somebody had spelled out ‘fuk me’ with swizzle sticks. Puddles reflected the morning sky beyond the panoramic windows, and mammoth platters offered stale sushi, desiccated cheese wedges, and flattened dolmas. Cocktail wieners bulged obscenely from bread rolls, fat congealed around their folds. A greasy pizza box gaped at her. Nothing, thought Brynn, says forgotten like an old pizza box. So they had thrown The Big Bash without her! Even as the realization dawned, a part of Brynn wanted to start cleaning up—like some spineless toady of a team player: She was still that anxious, angular eighth-grader, impaled on the sharp thorns of rejection; eternally watching and waiting for invitations that would never arrive, She searched her recollection. Had anyone mentioned a party yesterday as she shut down her computer? No. She, the senior copywriter, linchpin of the agency, had been premeditatedly excluded from the celebration of the Ataxia Software account that she had helped win! All of those concepts had been hers: the distorted dinosaurs, the missing tooth, the exploding phrenology head. Brynn recalled herself hydroplaning north last night in pelting rain, brakes mushy on her old Honda. And all the while, this party had been taking shape like a succubus. Of course they had no reason now to conceal all this garbage, this rancid affront. Well she must be stoic now and deny them the satisfaction of seeing her pain. With an anguished effort, Brynn composed her features as Eric, that puppy of a graphic designer, bounced up and stood beside her, peeking in at the mess. “Mornin’, Brynn.” He winced and rolled his eyes. “Our bad.” Why, you talentless, creepy little sycophantic pissant, Brynn thought. “Oh, I’ve seen worse,” she said, flashing a tremulous smile. “I hope everyone got home okay.” Her faux concern provoked a shrug and a head shake at the opacity of fate. “Me too.” Eric opened his mouth to say more, but Brynn strode forward briskly, grabbed the pizza carton, and tried to stuff it into the trash. The overflowing can rejected it, and the carton slid onto the floor, releasing a leathery hunk of cold pizza upside down on the carpet. The warped crust reminded Brynn of a manta ray. “Oh don’t bother with that,” Eric said. “The janitors’ll be here unamomento.” … revenge, a dish best eaten cold, Brynn was thinking, looking at the pizza. She walked unsteadily to her desk. On her chair was a folder of busy work that somebody had not been too inebriated to plop there. Coils of purple crepe paper dripped onto the folder from her chair back. The chair itself was littered with little colored paper dots; when she turned her keyboard upside down, more dots rained out and pattered onto her shoes. So this was how it felt to be superseded. Passed over and phased out. It was a physical pain that dispersed throughout one’s very molecules. That primal dread of exclusion hearkened back to the australopithecine band, hooting and posturing in the cracked mud of the Olduvai Gorge. Poor Uk-Uk with her 800 cc brain case had felt the same bottom drop out of her world, abandoned to the hyenas over some inadvertent violation of primate protocol. But wasn’t she inflating a simple oversight beyond its actual significance? Hadn’t she dashed out at five o’clock to pick up Allison at day care? They probably didn’t tell her because they were so sure she could not stay late. Of course, she could have had Larry pick up Allison. But maybe they thought that would cause waves in her custody arrangement, so to spare her further conflict… Oh stop! Brynn clenched her chapped hands into fists, the knobby knuckles and greenish veins interlacing vinelike amid protruberant tendons, the blunt-nailed fingers grown spatulate from typing hyperbole, provoking ersatz desire. Polluting the collective human spirit. At least, Brynn thought, they hadn’t fired her, and she must not give them an excuse by storming out. Steady on. You can’t control what they do, you can only control what you do about it. Or is it how you feel about it? Or is it you can’t control how you feel about it, but only how you feel about what you do about it? And here came Eric again, serious now: “Brynn, can you write some copy about this vest for the Summit winterwear catalog?” He shoved under her nose a tiny photo of a gray vest that reached new levels of nondescript. “Just a snippet,” holding his fingers an inch apart. As he leaned over her, the folder he carried gaped open like cleavage, and Brynn reflexively peeked in. From a page inside exploded a luminous purple-and-chartreuse printed retro-psychedelic headline: “Thump It!” The realization hit her: why, that must be the main theme for the whole Summit ExtremeGear WinterWear campaign! The concept Brynn had been waiting to be asked to create. “Thump it?” She could not resist blurting. Eric flinched, snatching the folder away, holding it behind him as if concealing a biopsy result from a terminal patient. “All we need right now is that vest copy.” We, thought Brynn. Now they were “we.” And she, Brynn, was the binomial non-we. Meanwhile she of Thump It!, Gaylinn Pratt, junior copywriter, had been secretly invited to concept the theme for their biggest client’s most important campaign. Brynn’s head swam. Soon, skiers worldwide would Thump It! At Aspen, Vail, Biarritz, Gstaad. T-shirts by the millions would Thump It! Billboards. Posters. TV commercials and celebrities; a new Everest ascent or South Pole trek would Thump It! And next year would arrive the follow-on campaign, Thump It Harder! or Thump It Higher! An article in Advertising Age would highlight the daring strategy behind Thump It, focusing on how smaller, fast-moving west coast agencies were seizing the creative vanguard from the ponderous behemoths of the past, the Saatchi & Saatchis, the DDB Worldwides and BBD&Os, brontosauruses munching their clueless cud as the mammals Thumped It. Gaylinn Pratt would be featured in San Francisco Magazine, a worldly gamine in torn jeans, hugging her knees before a manual typewriter, or having her hair chopped short by a crusty old barber. Chatting with Clint Eastwood at a Pebble Beach charity gala. The article would be titled: “Today’s adfemme–not your mother’s English major.” And Brynn the English major, would write a snippet. A slow burn crept up her neck to ignite the hair follicles at her temples. Tears welled. “Not a problem,” she said, with a catch that Eric must have noticed, but ignored. He flapped the forbidden file bye-bye at her and turned away. A weight pressed on Brynn’s thorax. The keyboard blurred. Hadn’t Sid himself reassured Brynn only last week that her position was solid? He had hired Gaylinn only as a floater to relieve Brynn of the heroic burden she carried so well. Now Brynn could do more with her life than write copy. Why, she could begin her novel! But …Thump It! What a lousy theme. Brynn thought of the bunny in Walt Disney’s Bambi. Wasn’t he Thumpit? And what about Things That Go Thump in the Night? Rhymes with Lump It, had they considered that? What kind of theme was Thump It for a company that outfitted Everest teams to the summit? Why, the words even sounded like a fall, right down the Hillary Step, thumpit thumpit thumpit. It was now eight-fifteen, and the agency, after its riotous debauch, remained eerily silent and deserted. Peeking out at the reception desk, Brynn saw unanswered calls blinking. Here was an ethical dilemma: should she pick up the phones until Pam dragged herself in? Oh, don’t be a schnook, Brynn told herself. It’s their problem if Pam got so drunk she couldn’t make it this morning. Brynn’s reflection loomed translucent in the glass door, a lonely, metaphysically solitary figure, curly dark hair escaping its haphazard twist—unlike Gaylinn’s blonde Veronica Lake, sweeping her shoulders. The minute I see her, Brynn thought, I start to lumber instead of walk. Even my writing becomes obtuse and Victorian. I am the hulking shadow on the mountain, the Yeti, watching Gaylinn the jet-setter whirl effortlessly past. And now Brynn noticed that the door to Sid’s corner office was shut, but the lights were on. They must be within already, meeting early—Gaylinn, of course, and Randy Papen, the creative director, that pretentious ass with his gray hair flowing over his black turtleneck, who declared “I go weak,” every time a cute young woman walked by. Once, Brynn had echoed ‘I go creep’ had he heard that? Why did she always have to take the cheap shot? Oh stop it! You really are clinically paranoid, she told herself. But the thin, bright line of light beneath Sid’s office door burned her eyes like a white-hot needle. They were in there talking about her, phasing her out, shrinking her job to a snippet—or even canning her. What a pleasure it would be to abandon her ersatz poise and just go off like a magnificent animal: hurl coffee mugs, kick over wastebaskets. Brynn looked at the vest and began to type her snippet. Her fingers on the keyboard reminded her of cocktail wieners. The tiny mirror above her desk reflected a face inflamed and swollen with suppressed pain. The corners of her mouth twitched downward: The Sulk, her answer to The Scream. Brynn suddenly recalled an American girl she once saw pitch a seamless, perfect fit in a restaurant in St. Tropez. Brynn, backpacking across Europe with her roommate, MaryEllen, had been sitting a few tables away. The waiters had been pointedly ignoring all of the Americans for the better part of two hours. Suddenly, an empty wine bottle sailed through the air and shattered at the feet of a waiter. The girl who hurled it was tall, striking, and very drunk. Her beauty was almost cartoonish: a long honey-blonde ponytail protruded from her perfect head. It had taken three waiters to wrestle this amazon outside. All the while, the girl, her impossibly long legs kicking out giraffe-like at her handlers, had continued to scream admirably specific epithets until friends arrived and hauled her away. A well-executed sundering scene would be an ending to treasure. Brynn could become, for one defining moment, a magnificent, rampant animal, heedless of consequences. The moment was everything—but was she equal to it? Because the alternative was to seethe for the rest of her life—not over the insult, but over her own timid, craven response. Brynn rose, smiling beatifically, a servant of destiny. She recalled vaguely that assassins were said to see themselves from the outside before their defining acts. She shivered a little, yet her legs propelled her toward Sid’s office. She stood for a moment, glanced behind her at the past, and flung open the door. “This place is a fucking travesty!” she shouted in, tossing an imaginary ponytail. The first thing she saw were Randy’s bare buttocks facing her. He was lying on his side on the floor cozily spooning Gaylinn, also naked, while Sid, the third nude in the tryptych, slumbered on, on his back. The air smelled vaguely of sex. Even at this juncture, insanely, Brynn felt the old fangs of envy. Almost in slow motion, the three awakened in a horrified chain reaction. The room erupted in a mad scramble as heads and limbs and genitals tried to bolt out of sight. But there was no place to hide. Brynn, frozen with disbelief, was witnessing universal panic: the hominid band ambushed by smilodon at the tarpit; sleeping Britons roused by the plundering Danes; speakeasy flappers barreling past cigar-chomping Prohibition dicks. In less than two seconds, the world had changed. Brynn gasped and slammed the door, turning her back and bracing herself against it as hard as she could, as if afraid they would come stampeding out and flatten her. But behind the door was now only silence. She could not hear even a shuffle. An unexpected sense of exhilaration and power suddenly flooded through her, as if they were her prisoners. She could hold them in there forever. But instead, she left the door and glided back to her desk as if borne on magic slippers. “Hey Eric,” she grinned as she passed him. He glanced up from Thump It! with a little frisson of irritation, blinking rapidly. “Yes?” “I’m going to get some air.” “How’s that copy coming along?” “The snippet?” “Whatever.” “I’m on it.” “By the way,” Eric winked at Brynn. “Can you get us some coffee this morning? I don’t think Pam’s gonna make it in.” “Of course.” Brynn winked back. “By the way, where’s Sid?” she asked, innocent as Satan. “They have an early meeting at Ataxia,” Eric said, without looking up. “And Randy and Gaylinn too?” “They’re going to present some new ideas for an ad campaign.” “That must be where they are then,” said Brynn. She walked past the fetid conference room and the reception desk. A lightness perfused her being, though her legs still felt a bit unsteady, as if they were only now being fully used. She barely touched the heavy office door, and yet it gave way easily, respectfully. The Bay was clear and blue after last night’s showers, pure in its unrelenting coldness, its chilly kelp forest swaying greenly beneath, in blissful indifference to human pettiness and perversity. She walked down the office steps and turned onto Del Monte Avenue, the sun seeking her eyes, richly warming her hair, loosening her joints. Beside her, traffic seethed in comforting swishes and blatts and groans. Brynn felt protected, even anointed. She cocked her head upward, and the sky looked back, vast and inviting. “I was left out.” She spoke aloud into the crisp air, and the universe nodded its curved space-time warp kindly. “I was handling it okay,” she added, though she knew that was not entirely true. But symmetry had finally been established. From now on, everything, everything would be easier. She might not be able to see it yet, but the path ahead of her was clear. The way to the future lay open at last.