Book cover: Grand Central Publishing
Excerpted from Chapter 13
Eliza needs to go to the bathroom. She needs to go to the private bathroom, so she can cry alone. In her hands, she clutches two things—her phone and a printout of the Career Tree she filled out with Preston just last Friday. We aren’t sure why she grabs it. She intends to rethink it? Or she wants to stare at it for a while. Perhaps she wants to rip it up and flush it down the toilet; we hope for the third option. She repeats to herself that this might not be a big deal, that she is making something out of nothing, that this only feels so shitty because it’s never happened before, that a heap of tears and a splash of cold water can make everything fine again, that all new jobs are hard for a while. We think she’s being a little bitch. It’s not a big deal! She’s making a mountain out of a molehill, and at the first sign of actual gaming culture, she’s running away and crying. If she can’t do the job, she doesn’t belong here. But whatever, cry alone. Go for it.
Using that bathroom means passing the glass wall that does a bad job of hiding Preston’s office. When asked why he designed it that way, Preston’s answer is always, “Transparency!” She sees him in there, gesturing to no one, practicing some presentation or another—probably for the big announcement. Beyond is New York, darkening quickly with office buildings reflecting what remains of the harsh winter sun. For a breath or two, she thinks she is in Windy City. She’d rather be. If she were, she’d be tall, tan and blonde instead of short, skinny and rat-faced; she feels certain that she’d know what to do if she were a superhero. She wouldn’t be running to the bathroom to sob if she were Circuit Breaker, hardwired to ignore rules in favor of chaos, all to further what is good. What is right. What is fair.
We should interrupt here to clarify: we don’t know exactly why she does what she does next, especially since all of us agree, even those of us who have a molecule of sympathy for her, that of the million ways to handle this, what she chooses is the worst one. Eliza herself will say the same after it all happens. But we do know one thing for sure: nerds like us, like who she’s trying to be or pretending to be, love a Chaotic Good protagonist. A hero who can say “fuck the rules!” Someone whose moral compass is greater than the law, than a bureaucratic government or social propriety. Chaotic Good is romance. It’s standing up for the little guy. It’s robbing the rich to give to the poor. It’s bold. It’s big. Our mythos is built on the individuality, the genius loner nobility of Chaotic Good. The Robin Hoods, the Wolverines, the Kvothes. Perhaps it is a moment of weakness or insanity, but most of us think this stumble-step moment is a simple—if ill-advised—realignment, a wish that life was a little more like the world she helps to build, where her own personal idea of justice is served and consequences are pixels. It is the only explanation we can offer for how she changes her mind, midstep. Or perhaps she’s just an idiot. That could work too.
So, let’s continue.
Eliza examines the last few minutes—she’s taken a swing into Lawful Neutral and has been coasting, stuck. Or perhaps, she thinks, she’s transformed from a superhero into someone who needs rescuing. When had she gotten complacent? she wonders. When had her alignment shifted without her noticing? When did she start taking the safe option instead of the brave one?
Instead of bursting into Preston’s office like the Chaotic Good badass she wishes she is, she retains the good sense to knock. She longs for a proper wooden door—it would make a good smacking sound and she could use a hearty thwap; she could imagine an in-game bubble stating her sonic results, like a comic book, one made of candy-colored polka dots and bold, satisfying outline. Knock! Bam! Thwap! But the glass makes a hollow clink against her knuckles. “Preston?” she asks, fighting the prickly pins behind her eyes threatening to push tears out.
“I’d like to have a Conversation with you. Is now a good time?”
Preston’s smile falters. Fancy Dog corporate culture says that Conversations (capital “C”) are a gift. But no one ever has Conversations for positive stuff (even though it is encouraged). Good things are reserved for regular conversations without the capital letter, and what is left over is critical feedback. So Eliza knows that Preston knows that what’s coming isn’t anything super. And you are supposed to give the recipient control over when they hear it, except everyone knows that’s bullshit: no one can ever say “not fucking now” even if it isn’t the right time, because Conversations are gifts and one should always be willing to receive a gift.
“Yes, of course! Did you want to talk some more about your Career Tree?” Preston asks.
“No.” Eliza hesitates. Suzanne’s words rattle in her brain. But—and we truly do not understand why—she keeps going. “It’s about—I think I’m experiencing some sexism? On my team?”
Preston’s eyes widen. He is shocked. “Come in, come in. Close the door.” He remembers that his office is glass. He wonders if either of the two deaf people on staff can read Eliza’s lips. Would they tell anyone? Should they both face away, toward the windows? Or could sound travel through glass? He thinks about the collaboration rooms, but they’re glass too. And accusations like this—they spread things. Things he doesn’t fucking need.
“No, wait.” Preston pushes Eliza back out the door and closes it behind them. “Let’s go to dinner. I mean, I’m taking you to dinner. My treat, obviously. Well, the company’s treat. A business meeting. Let’s talk this out.” He walks two steps forward and remembers it is cold out. He backs up and grabs his coat from the spiny coatrack.
“I don’t have my coat,” Eliza says because there is nothing else to say.
“We can stop by your desk, not a problem.”
Eliza considers saying she isn’t much hungry, or that she has a ton of work to do; she considers saying she just found out about all this, and she needs a minute; she considers backing down entirely, but she doesn’t. Preston accompanies her to her desk. She puts on her coat and they leave in the elevator together.
Excerpted from Chapter 27
They duck into the first place that looks private: Castle and Cognac. The walls are cream and the light is dim. A cocktail menu lazes on the table, and both parties ignore it. Some of us can see them; some of us are close enough, in meatspace, to actually touch them. It is unusual, to run into them anywhere that isn’t digital.
Preston looks bewildered, eyes wide and metaphorical feathers ruffled from stuffing himself in his coat too quickly. “So what happened?” he asks, a little less professionally than he likes. “What did he say? Tell me everything.”
Eliza recounts the conversation in the collaboration room. She sounds meaner than we expected. Strident. Like she’s licking her lips with a predatory relish. Or maybe recounting the incident actually hurts. But there is a calmness to her. That, at least, we all agree on. A confidence we don’t usually imagine into her mouth. Not the person we imagined coquettishly standing with her foot popped onto her toe and her knee turned in. How does she pull off all of it, this version and that one? How does she manipulate him into liking her when she’s not only a six on her best day, but a six with a shrill voice like a goddamn fire alarm?
“Fuck,” Preston says when she finishes her story. He covers his mouth. “Sorry. Pardon me. I didn’t mean to—” He interrupts himself because he’s thought of something. Something that will surely take her down. We lick our lips. “Am I to understand you didn’t have a Conversation with Lewis before coming to me outside the theater?”
Eliza blinks. “What?”
“Did you have a Conversation? With Lewis?” Preston repeats.
“So what I’m hearing is that you came right to me without having a Conversation with them, rather than modifying your behavior based on our last Conversation and talking to them first?”
“Welcome to Castle and Cognac!” A waiter materializes next to their table, as if out of the miasma of sheer enthusiasm. “Something to drink for you both?”
“We need a few minutes, thank you.” Preston has not forgotten his manners; he’s handling himself perfectly. The waiter dematerializes.
“I came right to you,” Eliza continues. “I had no idea what to say to him. It was blatant sexism. And he thinks you and I—” She pauses, her body not letting her talk and turn red at the same time.
“Yes, that—that is a little embarrassing.” Preston looks down at the tablecloth. “But once you’ve cooled off a bit, you have to start first by telling him about his specific, observable actions and how they made you feel.”
“And give him a chance to rectify his behavior.” Preston takes a breath and his face becomes the man we see in photos. It’s debonair, but—safe somehow. We feel safe when we see him like this, in control of everything around him. Eliza recognizes his company-meeting expression. “Policy is in place for a reason,” he begins. “The Conversation policy is there to create a corporate culture of openness and mutual respect. It allows us all to correct each other’s behavior without putting any emphasis whatsoever on management—your Conversations aren’t less important than mine, for example.” Except they are. Eliza knows her Conversations are inherently less valuable than those of the co-founder, original game designer and CEO. We know it too. She is nobody and yet here she is, somehow. “I see you jumping straight to me to have a Conversation about someone else’s behavior and asking me to deal with it. That undermines the culture we work so hard to create in a number of ways.” Preston holds up his hand and ticks his fingers with his thumb. “First, it teaches everyone to respect my Conversations more. We should be respecting everyone’s Conversations. Second, it makes me the referee for all sorts of—”
“Can I get you guys anything?” the waiter asks, pen touching paper in anticipation.
“No, no, we haven’t looked at the menus yet,” Preston says, smooth, as if that’s what he intended the rest of his sentence to be.
“Anyway.” Preston keeps his eye on the waiter to make sure he is out of earshot before continuing. “It makes me a referee for all sorts of interpersonal disputes when I should be running a company. And thirdly, skipping Conversations and going right for me takes the opportunity away from Lewis to correct his behavior. Lewis is a good guy. I’m sure he would have corrected his behavior if you had given him the chance to.”
“How can he correct something that’s already happened?” Eliza asks. Christ, what a fucking idiot.
“Well he could have apologized to you. Taken it back. Promised to do better in the future. And—” Then Preston smiles. His face softens into something different, but just as safe. Just as welcoming, understanding. What a stand-up guy. We take notes. His posture seems to say, I’m here for your existence, here for your feelings. What a fucking good play. “You might have told him that we weren’t seeing each other. In any capacity.” He blushes and it looks like he’s been dipped in a bucket of bright red bicycle paint. “He could have retracted that statement. Said he believed that we weren’t together.”
“That’s what you’re concerned about?” Eliza asks, incredulous.
“Well, that and other things,” Preston says quickly. “Of course, other things as well.”
“Like the fact that all those statements he made, those things he said, point to a dislike of women that will interfere with any woman he works with and impact Fancy Dog culture and maybe, if he ever gets to design games, affect the kinds of games he produces?” We’re surprised; given how flustered we have imagined her up to this point, she is pretty eloquent. We feel ourselves start to nod our heads. Then, wait—we don’t believe in this kind of bullshit. It’s just games. Games don’t affect how you are in the real world at all. Hysteria.
“See, I don’t think his little outburst points to that. I think it points to—I dunno—insecurity, stupidity, a lack of social skills.” Preston pauses and mutters, “or a lack of a hold on reality.” It doesn’t occur to him that he might offend Eliza, that he is hitting the we-are-definitely-not-fucking note a little too hard. It does occur to Eliza, we can see it on her face (inside, we scream with laughter), and Preston attributes her horrified look to recent events. “But they don’t point to a hatred of women, I don’t think.”
“And if I disagree?”
“Then you should tell him that his observable actions,” Preston stresses that last part, “make you feel disliked as a woman. Because you’re a woman. And you should assume his positive intent, so you’ll probably want to add something like, ‘and I don’t think that’s what you intended for me to feel.’ Or maybe something like, ‘and I recognize you were just trying to make sure that all was right with the world.’ See, there’s a million ways to talk to him about this without accusing him of something that’s going to wreck his life. We don’t want to wreck anyone’s life here.”
“What about mine? My life?”
Preston squeezes his lips together and furrows his eyebrows until they join at the center and make him look like a Muppet. “I’d hardly call your life wrecked. You’re on a well-paid team that’s launching a premium product this week.”
They sit in silence for a second. Until: “Hello again, guys! Have you had a chance to look at—”
“NO!” Eliza and Preston both yell in unison. The waiter scampers backward.
“Look, we have to order something soon or leave,” Preston says. He squeezes his temples with his palms, eyes closed, tense. “Eliza, why couldn’t you have just had a Conversation with him. You’re good at Conversations. I’ve seen you do it—you keep having Conversations with me, for Christ’s sake; that’s not an easy thing to do. You can’t say you were scared of him. Frankly, he’s a lot less scary than I am and you seem to have absolutely no issue speaking your mind to me.”
Eliza chooses her words very carefully, afraid, we think, that they don’t feel like they are in the right order or the right words. “I just felt like this was too big for a Conversation.”
“Well it’s not. Eliza. You seem to have the idea that this is a bigger deal than it is. If everyone came to me every time they were personally offended by one of my employees, I’d never get anything done.”
Eliza pushes her chair back and stands. “Wait!” Preston says. “Where are you going? I’ll treat you to dinner, obviously. Consider this the hazard pay for the day.” Let’s pause here to wonder at something— why is he trying to get her to stay? She’s terribly annoying and he won. Is her strange enchantment bleeding into his personal feelings for her? We trust JP and Lewis, and even though we haven’t truly imagined it until now, it could be that Preston hasn’t won at all. Perhaps he’s already lost. Aw fuck, they’re totally boning. She’s got him entirely under her control.
Eliza looks past Preston’s shoulder, and the light in her eyes switches off for the second time that day. Dead shark eyes. Preston visibly recoils; so do we. It is scary, in person, and much scarier for Preston who is seeing the veil ripped off his girlfriend for the first time and realizing there is something grotesque underneath. “I’m going back to work. You said it yourself—I’m part of a well-paid group of people who are launching a premium product this week. Tonight was always going to be an all-nighter. I suppose I should be grateful that I won’t be able to sleep anyway.”
“Actually,” Preston corrects, “I said ‘team.’ Part of a well-paid team.”
“I know what you said.” She walks out of the restaurant, passing their very confused waiter, passing us. Her head is buzzing. Electric. She leaves her coat hanging on the back of her chair.
“Wait,” we hear Preston say. “Your coat! Your coat!” But she continues anyhow. She doesn’t want her coat. She needs the cool night air on her skin or she might spark and catch fire.
Excerpted from the book We Are Watching Eliza Bright by A.E. Osworth. Copyright © 2021 by Austen Osworth. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Read an interview about We Are Watching Eliza Bright between A.E. Osworth and Public Seminar’s Vicky Oliver.
A.E. Osworth is Faculty at The New School where they teach fiction and digital storytelling, and also serve as Education Director for WriteOn, a burgeoning Fellowship that places MFA candidates in creative writing classrooms as instructors. Their debut novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright (Grand Central Publishing, 2021) was longlisted for The Center for Fiction First Novel prize.