by D. Allison Smith

“You know I’m not a bad person, right?”

The sun glared directly into Sarah’s eyes and, without sunglasses, she had no choice but to squint at the woman in the driver’s seat next to her. Wisps of Jillian’s dark hair were fluttering in the air as the open convertible sped down the Florida highway. She weaved in and out of several lanes as the car raced past eighty miles an hour.

“What?” Sarah said.

“I’m not a bad person,” Jillian repeated. “I know you’re thinking it after what happened yesterday, but I’m really not.”

“I don’t think that, Ms. Grant,” Sarah said.

“I’ve told you, you can call me Jillian and I know you think it. That’s why you’re so quiet. You haven’t got anything else to say because it’s eating away at you. You think I’m a bad person, but I promise you I’m not.”

“I’m only quiet because…I guess I’m just tired and I don’t have anything else better to say, but I don’t think you’re a bad person.”

“Fine,” Jillian said. “Lie to me.”

“I’m not-”

“It’s okay. I’ll win you over, eventually. Just like the previous owner won me over. I’m no different from any other real estate agent. I just do it a little more creatively than others. But I promise I’m not a bad person.”

Sarah shrugged and turned her attention the scatters of stucco condominiums and bright-colored timeshares that stood in long rows not far from the highway. Next to her, Jillian sighed and Sarah raised her eyebrows, knowing another speech was imminent.

“Sarah,” Jillian began. “I know you think there’s some hidden reason as to why I picked you up this morning, but you can relax. I promise I just wanted to take some time to get to talk to you outside the office and, since I’ve got so little time, I decided to make the most of my morning.”

“I understand, Ms. Grant. I’m not nervous.”

Jillian smiled. “At least you can lie with an honest face, Sarah. That’ll be very useful while you’re working for…with me.”

They arrived at the square office building twenty silent minutes later and parted ways once they got to the fifth floor; Jillian toward her office, Sarah toward the coffee maker that stood in what had once been a closet. It was just wide enough that Sarah could slide into with several side steps, but still had room to turn as she made Jillian’s morning tea.

Making Jillian’s tea had been the first task given to Sarah when Jillian presented her with the only offer for a paid internship at a job fair filled with small companies looking to exploit young and often free labor. She still ensured that the water was the perfect temperature, that the Orange-Mango tea bag had steeped for long enough and that the tea was sweetened precisely to Jillian’s liking. Jillian had promised Sarah that she would not be making tea forever once her internship was lengthened, but nearly a year had come and gone and, even with increased responsibility in the firm, Sarah still made Jillian’s tea every morning.

“Ms. Gr-…Jillian?” Sarah said as she entered Jillian’s large, but sparse office. “I’ve got your tea.”

Jillian motioned for Sarah to set down the steaming cup on the brown coaster that sat to the left of her desk, but smiled at Sarah as she did.

“You planning on bringing in the big one today, Sarah?” Jillian said.

“Um…yeah. I try for the big one every day.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” Jillian said, laughing. “Go out there and bring ‘im in!”

Sarah tried to smile and quickly left the office for the space she shared with the Jillian’s other intern. The room was small, barely big enough for the two desks that sat facing one another within and Sarah let out a happy sigh once she saw that Andy had not yet arrived.

On Andy’s desk sat dozens of framed images of various classic cars and miniature scale models of the same cars. Apart from the cars and the pictures of cars, there were countless sheets of paper and the crumpled wrappers of a dozen Egg McMuffins covering every other spot of the desktop. His array of garbage and clutter often spilled onto Sarah’s desk and each morning was spent throwing away Andy’s garbage and making a division between the two desks placed in what had once been the break room.

Only one image sat framed on Sarah’s desk; a picture of herself at eleven years old with her parents on either side. Many mornings it was half-hidden behind Andy’s bags from McDonald’s, but once she saw it clearly, the picture was always the cause of her first genuine smile of the day. She loved looking at the image of her parents a year before her mother had started to lose her hair, before her mother had lost most of her teeth, and before the doctors had proclaimed that all they could do was make her mother comfortable.

Sarah threw away a bundle of Andy’s paper and garbage in a robotic routine and, as she began to push several of Andy’s old wrappers onto his desk to settle at her own, she heard the buoyant whistling echoing from the corridor indicating that Andy was coming toward the room.

“Goooood morning!” he shouted as he walked toward his desk. “Ready to rake it in today?”

Sarah let a full minute pass before answering, watching Andy plop into his chair with a wide grin. “Just like any day, right?”

“Aaaaabsolutely!” He placed his feet on the edge of his desk and leaned backward in his chair as he rested his hands at the back of his head. “Just like every day!”

Sarah withheld the grimace that was attempting to spread across her face from the sight of him and began reading her e-mail.

Unlike Sarah, Andy enjoyed every aspect of their meager responsibilities, from making morning coffees and teas to flagging potential customers. Also unlike Sarah, Andy somehow found pleasure in groveling in front of Jillian, Pam and especially Jeff.

With an office across from Pam’s and directly next to Jillian’s, Jeff openly called Andy his lackey instead of his intern and would send Andy on trips to the store to see how often he would dutifully bring back the precise energy drink or iced coffee that Jeff wanted. Andy, having been raised in a house without a father, always obliged Jeff’s commands in a manner that echoed Sarah’s willingness to follow Jillian.

“Morning!” Pam said as she stepped into their office with a stack of the day’s literature. “We want you guys out there by eleven. Let the ones you get know it’s at three, not four. Jillian wants to get them in and out of here quick today.”

Sarah smiled at Pam as she accepted the literature, wondering why the happiness conveyed in her voice never seemed to show in her eyes.

“We’ll take care of it, Ms. Evans,” Sarah said.

Pam. We keep telling you first names are fine. Anyway, just make sure you find some that are little more accepting today. The ones we had yesterday were a bit much.”

As Pam left the room, the smile faded from Sarah’s face from the mention of what had happened the previous day, but she gathered her things to follow Andy to his car and toward the gateway to the park.

The grand gateway to Universal Studios had a series of bars and restaurants as well as shops that ran along the lake, and Sarah stood on the bridge with Andy just in front of the enormous rotating ball that stood as the emblem of the park and its famous studio.

The paint was chipping on the “O” and “S,” but as it was close to the end of the season, Sarah knew no cosmetic touches would be added to the globe. She took a deep breath as she watched the sunlight dance on the water and turned her focus to the swarms of people coming in and out of the park.

She stared into the smiling faces of hundreds of passersby hoping to find just one who looked gullible or at least easy to mislead, but found no immediate customers through the throngs of people. Sarah glanced across the bridge and saw that, while Andy was faring no better, he could still manage to give her a happy thumbs-up in the midst of the hot sun.

Three hours later, she was about to consider the day a wash when she spotted them; a middle-aged couple holding a park map, confused, but still happy to be in the Florida sun as their eyes caught the sights outside of the park. Their kind faces and expensive, but subtle clothes gave Sarah the extra push she needed to make Jillian proud once she saw them.

“Hello!” Sarah said as she stepped into their path. “Good afternoon! How are you both doing today?”

She flashed a smile filled with perfect teeth straightened through the braces her father had nearly bankrupted himself to get for her, and the surprise that had replaced the mild expressions of the man and woman slowly melted into bright smiles of their own.

“We’re both doing fine,” said the man.

“Wonderful!” Sarah said. “Is this you’re first time to Orlando?”

“No,” said the woman. “We try to get down here at least once a year, but this is our first time to Universal. Are you selling something, dear?”

Sarah smiled again and took a deep breath to begin a prepared monologue about the opportunities awaiting them if they “took just a moment out of the day for a presentation about real estate in the area.” Within the first minute, she had fully captivated their attention and, by the end of her polite proposal, the couple had accepted her offer to view the presentation that would be held in the large room next to the one she shared with Andy.

With the literature dispersed and the couple chatting to themselves as they left the park, Sarah let her eyes close for a moment as a cool breeze from the lake hit her face. She had encouraged one couple into the presentation and she knew Andy would be more than prepared to take on the challenge of attaining the other two necessary couples.

After an hour of simply staring through the crowds with no goal in mind, Sarah heard Andy whistle toward her and she immediately followed him out of the gateway. She threw a glance over her shoulder as she tried to keep up with him and was not surprised to see two officers on bicycles pacing the area where she and Andy had just stood.

By three o’clock Sarah’s solicited couple had arrived at the office as well as both of Andy’s and Sarah prepared the normal set of mimosas for them as they settled themselves in the presentation room.

“Oh, I don’t drink this early on a Wednesday,” the man said when she offered him the drink.

“You’re on vacation,” Sarah said with a smile. “It’s okay.”

He laughed and he and his wife accepted her drinks while Andy made small talk with the two couples had coaxed into drinks of their own.

At exactly 3:10, Jillian stepped into the room followed closely by Jeff and Pam. Jillian smiled at the fourth couples in the room, including one that worked under her payroll, and went into a prepared speech about what her firm did and what the guests were about to see once they watched the film about the offers in the area.

Sarah stood in her normal corner of the room and stared at each couple who watched the presentation with expressions of combined awe and skepticism. The three couples she and Andy had gathered were present and also a fourth couple. She knew them by name, Oliver and Karen, and they were dressed like average tourists, drinking whatever was offered to them.

Many times Oliver and Karen were the fourth couple in the room, but sometimes Jeff would switch with Oliver and, on one occasion, Sarah had seen Pam in place of Karen as the other half of the last couple in the room, though she suspected that was a last minute option for Jillian.

The last couple was always the most buoyant of all four in the room and seemed more enthusiastic about the offers presented by the film and later by Jillian’s persuasive words.

Sarah knew, as Jillian had told her during several extended lunches, most people felt more at ease doing something they know they should not if there were others around them doing the same thing. As long as Karen and Oliver were in the room, lapping up the free alcohol and portraying excitement about an offer that sounded ridiculous, there would always be buyers. While Sarah served as a kind face that customers could trust before they entered the presentation, Karen and Oliver gave them a sense that everyone in the room could be trusted.

The lights were dimmed and the large screen at the front of the room turned grey before showing a bright image of a Florida lake. A voiceover echoed through the room as a series of condos were shown in conjunction with what Sarah always thought was appropriate elevator music.

“Ravina Condominiums,” said the voiceover, “offers beautifully furnished summer homes for couples and families. Each one has been recently remodeled while maintaining the luxurious design of the original architecture.”

In her corner, Sarah listened to the same dialogue and watched the same imagery as she had countless times and lip-synched along with the voiceover as it described the golf courses, tennis courts, gym and pools available in Ravina Condominiums.

“…as well as breakfast served each morning and close proximity to several of the choice restaurants. Ravina Condominiums is a paradise right here in America and we welcome you to our family and our exciting opportunity.”

The video faded to black and Sarah turned on the lights to reveal Jillian’s smiling face at the room of the room.

“Okay, Jillian said. “I know what you’re all thinking. ‘Too good to be true’ right? ‘Why would someone who stopped you on the street be willing to give you such a great deal?’” She paused for a moment and Sarah could see a consensus of slight nods from the various heads in the room. “I’ll tell you this much, about ten years ago, I was just like each of you. I sat in a room just like this with my husband, hearing a sales pitch and thinking, ‘These people are trying to pull something.’ In fact, when we first heard this, we rejected the offer. But…we got lucky and the offer presented itself again and when we jumped on it…” Jillian sighed. “After we spent the first week down here in our own condo, we just kept thinking, ‘Why didn’t we do this earlier?’ We you start relaxing here without the trouble of trying to find and book hotel rooms through Expedia or some crap. Or worse trying to deal with their unhelpful staff who, as we all know these days, rarely ever speak English, you’ll love your condo so much that you will be just like me and want to tell others about it too…”

By the end of Jillian’s speech, each couple had had several mimosas, Karen and Oliver had simply had orange juice, and the pair went into a well-rehearsed dance once Jillian, Pam and Jeff gave them offers for condos around Florida.

“I don’t know,” Oliver said shaking his head at the large screen. “It’s ninety thousand dollars, Karen. I don’t think this is something we should do.”

“Oh, please!” Karen said tugging at his arm. “Just think of about it! We’d get to spend so much time down here and at a condo on a lake! Can you imagine spending Labor Day or even the Fourth of July out here? We could bring the kids and they can bring Jimmy and Katie. C’mon, Oli. This is just too good to pass up.”

“And, I promise,” Jillian said, the lights in the room giving her face a slight glow, “if you decide to change your minds later, everything can be cancelled and you can still get a refund on your deposits. What d’you all say?”

Heads were nodding at one another and minutes later the contracts were presented to the three couples and the set of decoys.

Oliver and Karen simply signed the last page of the contract, one after the other, without pausing to sift through the pages and pages of legal conditions and, despite their hesitant expressions, the other couples in the room followed their example. Pam made another round of drinks once all the contracts had been signed and all those present in the room toasted the happy couples on their newest purchase.

By the time Sarah shook hands with the couple she had enticed to the presentation, nausea began to take hold and she rushed to bathroom afterward to expel the remaining contents of her breakfast into the toilet.

She flushed the toilet and walked toward the sink to stare at her reflection. Two faces stared back at her: One was the flush, pink face to which she had grown accustomed throughout twenty-five years, yet the lines of red that ran toward the brown of its eyes made the face appear naive and juvenile in place of intense and capable. The other seemed to be staring at her from behind the first and its beguiling smile belonged to someone who acted with a corrupt, amoral mind. Neither face was the Sarah her father had wanted her to be.

“Sarah?” Pam’s voice called from behind her. “Jillian’s looking for you. You know she’s always ready for another tea once she’s done performing.”

“I’ll be there in a second,” Sarah said, her voice weak and unsteady.

“Are you okay?” Pam asked. “You look kinda…sick.”

“I’m fine. I just kind of…I don’t know. It must just be the heat. You know, I’m not from down here.”

Pam nodded, looking skeptical at Sarah’s answer. “Okay. Well, if you ever need to talk about anything…you can always give me a call. I know how tough this job can be.”

“Thanks. I’ll be out in just a second.”

Sarah watched Pam’s reflection leave and within minutes, Sarah had left the bathroom, perfected Jillian’s tea and then sat obediently in the chair in front of Jillian’s desk as her boss stared out the window.

“Another day, another three K.”

Jillian turned toward Sarah and felt her jump for a moment. In place of Jillian’s usual icy and business-like demeanor, was an expression of warmth, almost like kindness.

“I’m getting old, Sarah,” Jillian said.

Sarah tried to hide her surprise, but her eyebrows betrayed her and Jillian laughed.

“I know I don’t look it, but I’m quite a few face lifts from my thirty-fifth birthday.” She paused and stared at the table for a moment. “I know I can’t go on forever and eventually, I’ll need a protégé. Someone to follow in my footsteps…”

Sarah only blinked at Jillian, pretending not to understand the hidden meaning. Jillian’s once kind vanished quickly in Sarah’s silence and she cleared her throat.

“Well, anyway. I’ve got to pick up my kids from school today. They’re father, the bastard that he is, has got his own BS to tend to and I’ve got to race off across the city to gather up the little monsters. I know I drove you here today, but you can take the bus home, right?” Sarah nodded and left the office quickly without another word.

The air was humid and sticky once she reached the outside and she knew rain was coming as she waited patiently for her city bus to take her back to her apartment. She had half a mind to simply jump on the next bus that came barreling down the street and allow it take her out of the city altogether, but she sighed and then let pass when it paused in front of her.

By the time the Number Seven had arrived, the humidity had reached its limit and the clouds poured down rain. Sarah hurried onto the bus and stared out the window.

The rain ran down the window panes in tiny rivers, creating distorted images of the people still walking on the street. She made careful observations about each of the faces she saw, as she had been trained to do, yet the more she watched, the less they stopped looking like potential customers with money to be coaxed from their wallets and instead, like ordinary people with jobs and children and meaningful lives; people like just her parents.

Her father had worked long hours cleaning toilets in high schools after the cancer smothered the life out of her mother and he had always told Sarah that he wanted her to make them proud.

He had worked overtime and took on a second job to send her to college, all the while asking Sarah to simply make them proud; he had asked her to bring pride to their family every day they had spoken.

“Make us proud,” he had said in the hospital when years of work and smoking a pack of cigarettes a day had taken its toll on his health. He always spoke as if her mother was still in the room with them, even long after she was buried.

“Just promise you’ll make us proud,” her father had said and within moments he had died leaving, her all alone in the world.

The bus passed by the same convention center where Sarah had met Jillian a year and a half earlier and Sarah shifted from the window, meeting the face of an elderly woman with roadmaps of wrinkles and small yellow teeth.

Her college loans were coming due and, combined with the expense of trying to bury her uninsured father, Sarah accepted Jillian’s offer, telling herself it would only be to help pay off the funeral expenses and until she found better work; good work that would have made her father proud. However, as interest seemed to compound on the loans and past debts appeared to grow larger instead of subside, there was never a chance to even look for good work and her unfulfilled promise to her father became more hollow with each new customer found.

Three bus stops later, Sarah stepped off the bus and walked into her apartment building, feeling depressed yet lucky.

The one-room efficiency apartment was barely big enough for her to a full-sized bed and a TV stand, but it was the only unit on the floor that had its own bathroom instead of forcing Sarah to use the community toilet and shower down the hall and for that, she was very grateful.

Sarah entered her apartment and went straight into her bathroom to wash the stink of immorality off of her face for the day. Once again, she found herself staring at her reflection trying to make some sense of what she was doing. When no moment of clarity came, she shook her head and said what she did every evening.

“They’re just stupid people,” she said aloud to her reflection. “No normal person gets suckered into something like that.”

This time, however, the words did not have the desired effect and sounded jaded and unconvincing. The previous day, she had watched silently as Jillian lied to the couple who had remained hesitant about signing the contracts before reviewing them with an attorney. Jillian’s words were clear and calculated as if she had planning such lies since the day she learned to speak and she omitted enough details to ensure that she could still operate her business if a lawsuit came in her direction.

Sarah had watched in muted horror as she watched the couple finally succumb to Jillian’s pressuring and, for the rest of the day, tried to tell herself that no strong-willed or intelligent person would have fallen into Jillian’s web, but a day later, Sarah was still queasy at that the thought that she had lured the unsuspecting to Jillian and did nothing to help once they were helpless.

Her father would have been suckered in by the stunt; she was sure of it. Jillian would have batted her large eyes at him and finagled the only legal way of cheating him out of his hard-earned money. Or worse, Sarah could have managed the feat on her own and conned her father out of thousands of dollars. The idea nauseated her, but she knew Jillian would find pale pride from it.

Nothing about Jillian’s firm seemed to evoke the passionate pride of which her father had spoken, and if anything, working for Jillian gave Sarah the sense that she had shamed both of her parents while they lay in their graves.

Her phone rang from her pocket while she stood in the small bathroom, but she did not want to answer it. Only one person could be calling her as only one person ever called her since her father had died and Sarah was in no mood to speak to her while she remembered the only reason she had not held out for a better internship was the way Jillian’s voice seemed to sound so like her mother’s when she said her. Her will failed her in the end and she answered on the second ring.

“Hello M-…Jillian,” she said.

“Sarah, hey!” Jillian said from the other side of the phone. “You’ll never believe this, but Pam’s leaving. She says she’s getting out of the game, though I’m not sure where else she’s planning on going. There’s no one else out there who’ll give her the kind of salary I gave her. Not during these times.”

Sarah let out a soft grunt of understanding into the phone while she resisted the urge to ask why Jillian had called.

“And, really, when you think of all the things I’ve done for her…I mean when she got to Orlando, her boys were little and she didn’t even have a degree. I’m the one who gave her the paid time off to get her goddamn MBA after she promised to stay with me afterward. But, anyway. Enough about Pam. Onto to better things and better people.”

Sarah held her breath.

“Sarah,” Jillian said. “I’d like to offer you a full-time position with the firm.”

“Me? You mean Pam’s job?”

“Yes, but I’d start you out slow. You’d really just be observing for the first month until you’re able to put your own spin on a program.”

“What about Andy?” Sarah said. “He’s been at the firm longer than me, hasn’t he?”

“Well, yes…but Andy is got his head so far up Jeff’s ass, he’d probably think it was an insult that I propose he work with Jeff instead of for him.”

“I don’t know. I’m still thinking about going to grad school and maybe look into a different kind of real estate.”

“Trust me Sarah, in these times this is probably the best venture that’s going to get thrown your way for a while. And I promise you won’t be making my tea in the morning anymore. What d’you say?”

Sarah stood silently as she stared at a spot on the wall in front of her. There was a place where previous tenants had drilled a hole, but the landlord had done a hasty job in filling and then set a few layers of paint over it.

Throughout her silence, she could hear Jillian shifting from the other side of the phone, but it was Jillian’s defeated sigh that caught Sarah off guard.

“Look,” Jillian said. “Let me be honest with you. I know it got kind of ugly in there yesterday. I wished you didn’t have to see that, but I’m really not a bad person. I’m just like every other person in the world. I have credit card debt and a mortgage and three kids who all need braces. I have bills to pay and still need to make a way in the world just like Jeff and Pam and…well, even you.”

“Ms. Gr-…Jillian. I’m just not sure if this is the kind of work I want to be doing.”

Jillian was silent for a long while before speaking again. “Well, what kind of work would you like to be doing?”

Sarah let her shoulders rise and fall in an unconscious shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe something that helped people a little more. Instead of just…I just don’t know if this is the kind of work I’d like to be doing.”

“Sarah, we’d all like to be doctors or nurses or… I don’t know, goddamn nuns or something. Everyone in the world wishes that they could work someplace where they helped people every day and made the world a prettier place. I know this. I get it. I really do. But we live in the real world and, in the real world everyone’s got to make a living somehow. I admit it. This isn’t the best work imaginable, but why not think of the positives?”

“Like what?”

Jillian laughed. “Like the buckets of cash you’ll be making once we get you in here. You have such a trusting face…people will believe anything you say.” Sarah went silent again, but Jillian was determined. “And…and think of all the good you could do with the money you’d have. You could give to some charity. Plus, you’d be working a four-day week for less than six hours a day instead of these ten-hour days all the time. Hell, with all that time and money, you could start up your own charity if you wanted. I mean, Pam reads to kids in a burn ward when she’s not in. I’m sure Jeff must do something good in his spare time. Please, Sarah. Just consider what I’m offering you. I can’t promise the Church will make a saint out of you for working with me, but who knows what you could do outside of the job.”

Sarah shut her eyes. “Well, okay. I’ll sleep on it.”

“Oh c’mon,” Jillian said. “We both know you won’t be sleeping with this kind of offer resting on your mind.”

Sarah sighed again. “Okay…I’ll take it.”

“Perfect! I’ll pick you up early tomorrow so we can start going over all the necessary paperwork.” She snorted into the phone. “I promise you can read over everything before you sign.”

Sarah closed her phone and slid it back into her pocket, wanting more than ever to have her father to call and ask if taking Jillian’s offer was the right thing to do. The bills were piling every day and an internship was just barely keeping her afloat. There was nothing else that could be done.

“Pam got out,” she said once more into her reflection. “This isn’t a life sentence, right Daddy?” She waited for a response, though she knew none was coming and then lay on her bed to stare at the ceiling.

Her father had worked hard in his life so that his daughter could do some good in the world and yet she was about to follow in the footsteps of someone who had to verbally assure herself and others that she was not a bad person.

“It’s not a life sentence,” she whispered to her father’s memory. “I’ll do some good in the world, Daddy. I promise.”