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Austin McLellan short story

A Miraculous Takeover

by Austin McLellan

A Miraculous Takeover

pink slip laid off reorganized downsized fired booted axed
dismissed canned thrown out let go terminated given notice walking papers

All these words occupied the minds of the little group gathered in the Conference Room that day at Miraculous Technology. They were the Executive Team, and the words felt like ping pong balls in their heads. Still, amid this noise, the only voice the Team actually heard was the simple command of their CEO, Henry Kimball, who sat at the head of the gleaming walnut conference table that morning:

“Maryanne Nelson has got to go.”  

Kimball said it without emotion, without feeling, without even looking at any one of the four people seated before him. Then he got up and walked back into his private office and slammed the door.

The Executive Team looked at one another. They blinked. They looked down at the floor. Jim Spencer, the VP-Operations, coughed dryly. Kathy Welch, the CFO, sipped at an empty cup of coffee. Robbie Mack, who was in charge of business development, ran his fingers through his hair, then checked to see if any of the gel he applied that morning had stuck to his fingers. And Cynthia ‘Cindy’ Morris, the VP-Human Resources grabbed one of the chocolate donuts Kimball had brought in for the meeting. They looked at each other again. Then they looked away.

They all knew Maryanne Nelson, a senior staffer in Marketing. They all knew what the CEO wanted. The only question was who was going to do it. No one wanted to do it. No one wanted to say it.

“Sounds like an HR thing to me,” Jim Spencer observed, eyeing Cindy Morris. Spencer had come to Miraculous Tech from the steel industry. He liked to think, as he often said, that he was ‘all business’.

“HR, huh?” Cindy retorted. “It’s not my decision.” She popped a donut in her mouth. The VP-HR was younger than the rest of them, and pretty too, which they resented as they suspected she was Kimball’s favorite. Also, unlike the others, she had an advanced degree, an MBA from an institution that existed only in cyberspace. Yes, Cindy Morris had discharged employees before, but it had always been for obvious infractions like stealing or gross absenteeism; in other words, for cause, so it was fairly painless. But this was different. Maryanne Nelson had done nothing wrong.

“We need a reason, or something, to make it look right,” complained Robbie Mack, picking at his nails. Mack’s career to this point had involved selling cars, furniture, pharmaceuticals, and swimming pools. He had never done anything except sales, nor had he ever been in management. But he closed a few strong deals for Miraculous last year, and Kimball named him VP-Business Development. Now in a leadership role, Mack simply yelled at the people who reported to him. He looked over at Kathy Welch, the CFO. “How about the financials, Kathy? Maybe we—”

“What about them?” she interjected. Kathy Welch didn’t care for Mack. She didn’t think sales warranted a spot on the Executive Team; in fact she thought the entire team superfluous. She believed everything Mr. Kimball required was nicely maintained in the spreadsheets she managed. What else did a CEO need? He certainly didn’t need these people, she thought.   

Mack asked her, “Maybe you can get the financials to show some kind of . . . justification?”

“It’s not there,” Welch insisted. “There’s nothing in the financials. You want me to make something up?”

Jim Spencer cleared his throat. “Well, we’ve certainly done that before.” The VP-Operations liked to think he was The Leader when Kimball was away, though the entire team were equals on the Miraculous org chart. Spencer was in fact older than the others, but no one paid him much attention.

“That’s the way Hank wanted it done!” Kathy Welch exclaimed. This silenced them. She was the only one who called Mr. Kimball by his nickname. They went back a long ways.

But the entire Team certainly understood why Maryanne Nelsonhad to go: because Henry Kimball said so. Since the last management retreat, he had been preaching something about ‘Good to Great’ or ‘Great to Good’ or ‘Average to Better to Fabulous,’ or ‘Worse to Better,’ or whatever. No one quite understood it.

But they knew Maryanne in Marketing had to go. The only good part was, she was at home sick today with a stuffy head. The Executive Team could hatch their little plot in secret. They sat together glumly. Their coffees grew cold.

“We must do something,” Cindy Morris said, frustrated.

“Robbie? How about you?” Spencer asked. “Marketing is part of biz development, right?”

“Could be, but it ain’t,” Mack countered. “Besides, Maryanne has been here a lot longer than me. It would be weird.” Mack considered how to give such bad news, running his fingers through his hair again as if he might find the right words there. (He didn’t.) Maryanne Nelson had, in fact, been at Miraculous Technology longer than most anyone except the boss himself.

“Well, we need to get this done soon,” Spencer said, eyeing Kimball’s door. Through the conference room windows, they all stared outside at the green, manicured lawn of their corporate campus. No, they didn’t know who would fire Maryanne. They hated that Kimball wouldn’t do it himself. Spencer said, “You know, Mr. Kimball wants us to . . .”

“We heard him Jim,” Kathy Welch snapped. They all rose awkwardly and left the room. Nobody worked late that day. The weather was nice. They went home to their families, their golf, their drinks, their dinners, their TV – but they didn’t sleep well.

The next day each member of the Executive Team tried to stay busy or look busy. They avoided Maryanne Nelson, who returned to the office that day, feeling better. Spencer occupied himself with paperwork, and thought about running his own company where he would really be in charge. He had always liked the sound of ‘management coaching,’ and felt he would be good at it. Cindy Morris reviewed the new Miraculous Tech drug policy, then spent the rest of the morning shopping at Nordstrom.com. Kathy Welch totted up the quarterly revenue, and then made appointments to get her hair and nails done, even her toenails. Robbie Mack scheduled a sales call for later that day, and spent the rest of the morning flirting with the young women who staffed the Call Center.

Mr. Kimball finally showed up about eleven. He strolled from office to office, glaring at his department heads. Spencer announced, “The new production line is firing on all cylinders!” Kathy Welch exclaimed, “We’re gonna make target!” Mack cried “I’m meeting today with that big account!” And Cindy Morris reported dutifully that the new drug policy looked “bullet proof.”

The CEO returned them all a stony silence. He eyed them hard, with a smirk thrown in. They all either looked at their feet or stared at him like zombies. When Kimball saw Maryanne Nelson in the hall later that morning, he chirped “Good morning Maryanne. ‘Glad to have you back.” Then he retreated into his suite adjoining the Conference Room.

A few hours later, Jim Spencer crept out into the hallway. He saw Maryanne Nelson and bid her a good morning. “Head feeling better?” he asked brightly, then walked past her toward Kathy Welch’s office. Her door was open, he stepped inside. The CFO knew Spencer thought himself #2 in the company, after Kimball, but no one including Kimball had ever said that. Spencer’s imagination on this point did however lead him to conclude that responsibility for terminating Maryanne was mostly his. Welch asked him,

“Jimmy? You got a plan together?”

Spencer opened his mouth but no words came out. She frowned and said, “Hank was here a minute ago, asking about Maryanne.” Spencer never called Mr. Kimball Hank. He stumbled back into the hallway, a bit dazed. He took a moment to gather himself, catching a drink at the water fountain. At that moment, Robbie Mack popped out of the Call Center, the sound of giggles following him into the hallway.

“Well, well . . . what’s up with sales?” Spencer asked, with false enthusiasm. He thought Mack beneath him, since he didn’t consider sales a professional activity. Operations, his people, performed the real work. They manufactured things. Mack only took commissions.

“It’s business development,” Mack corrected.

“Development, sales, marketing, whatever. It’s all one thing, right?” Spencer straightened the large knot in his tie. He was the only man who wore a tie at Miraculous. He leaned toward Mack’s ear.

“Look Robbie. You’ve worked with Maryanne, spent time with her. Maybe you can think of something, anything she did wrong. Whatever it is, I’ll back you on it. Maybe that e-commerce thing?”

Mack remembered the e-comm project. It was a big flop. But both he and Maryanne were involved on that. If they blamed it on her, Mack would look bad too.

“That was Kimball’s decision,” Mack said.

Spencer leered at him. “Uh-huh.” The men eyed each other. “Well Christ, we’ve got to do something,” he growled. “Maryanne is in your department Mack, more or less. Dream something up!” Then he turned and stomped down the carpeted hallway.

Mack shrugged his shoulders, then re-entered the Call Center to the sound of giggling. Spencer got back to his office, feeling worse than when he left a few minutes before. He checked his email Inbox. There sat a message from Kimball. When the CEO was upset, he just filled in the email Subject line; this was all the Recipient needed to know. Spencer saw it. Subject: “Well Jim?”

He winced.

The day dragged on. The air conditioning roared but the office grew warm that July afternoon. Maryanne Nelson went about her duties, unaware of the plot unfolding around her, but she wondered why no one had stopped by to chat. She worked on the website revisions. She was presenting to the Executive Team at two o’clock.

About one thirty, Kimball emerged from his suite, looking mad, waving a paper in his hand. He marched into Cindy Morris’s office.

“Have you seen this?!” he demanded. He threw the paper on her desk.

“Uh…yes…certainly…no…maybe …what?” the young woman stammered, as she clicked away from Nordstrom.com, missing a 10% off sale which expired that moment.

“Well, you signed it,” Kimball declared. Cindy picked up the paper, a Vacation Approval Form, submitted by Maryanne Nelson.

“Uh, well, Sir, yes I did. That was a week ago and I didn’t know then about Maryanne . . . that we planned to let her  . . . uh . . .”

“Oh just fix it,” Kimball bellowed.

“OK, sir. Definitely. Right away.” Kimball frowned and glided away on the plush carpet. Distraught, Cindy picked up the phone and dialed Kathy Welch who was already in a bad mood.

“You’re approving vacation for people who are leaving??!!” the CFO hissed into the phone.

Cindy Morris whimpered, “I didn’t know about Maryanne when I signed it.” She gave a little sob. “And now Kimball wants me to fix it.” Welch was silent. She knew Morris was stuck. They were all stuck. Morris said, “Maybe you can come up with something? How about…there’s no room in the budget, right? Right? Something like that, huh . . ?”

“Let me think!” Welch answered, and hung up. She had spent many years rising to the CFO position at Miraculous, many long nights sitting with Kimball straightening up the books. She wanted to help her colleague in HR, but she had little sympathy. She was jealous of Cindy Morris, who’d made the Executive Team in two years. And Cindy was young and attractive and stayed in great shape because she was single and had time to work out at the gym, or the Club as she liked to say. Kathy Welch wanted help too, but she didn’t trust anyone. She thought about her older sister Amy, who was employed at a big corporation that offered a mentoring program. That’s what I need, Welch thought, a mentor. But who, she wondered. Kimball? She stared out the window again where a solitary man with a blower cleared dead leaves from the sidewalk.

At two p.m. the members of the Executive Team dragged themselves into the Conference Room. Maryanne Nelson sat there with a projector. Jim Spencer had taken the head of the table. Cindy Morris folded herself against the wall with a laptop, trying to hide. Kathy Welch brought an armful of spreadsheets to keep busy. Robbie Mack came in late with a strong coffee and slumped into a chair and yawned.

“Where’s Mr. Kimball?” someone asked. They all fidgeted. They knew Kimball might show up, he might not. His office door was closed and no one dared knock, so Maryanne started her presentation. Spencer pretended to be listening, and asked a few questions about ‘hits’. Kathy Welch scribbled notes on a spreadsheet. Robbie Mack couldn’t understand why Miraculous was relying so much on social media. Cindy Morris nabbed a pair of shoes at zappos.com.

At the end of the presentation, Maryanne beamed. The site updates looked fresh and professional. Traffic was up, hits were up. Everyone thanked her, and she thanked them. Then she apologized — she had to run to another meeting. The Team smiled. In a second she was gone.

The little projector fan continued to whirr for a very long minute after Maryanne’s exit. Then it stopped. Then it was quiet. Spencer drummed his fingers on the table. Kathy Welch looked up from her numbers. Mack rubbed his eyes. Cindy Morris closed her laptop. It was all in slow motion, as if an hour passed in the warm room.

“OK, I’ll do it.” Spencer whispered hoarsely. No one answered. They didn’t want Spencer doing it, but they didn’t want to volunteer either. He said it again, louder “I’ll do it.”

Mack asked, “What are you going to say to her, Jim?” He had no answer. Cindy Morris spoke up. “Does HR have to be there?”

Spencer explained, “I’ll just tell Maryanne we’ve decided to move in a new direction.”

“What direction?” Kathy Welch said.

“Well, we gotta do something!” Spencer shouted, folding his arms across his chest. He was frustrated, but even more he wished he hadn’t raised his voice. It was unprofessional, not leader-like. He wondered what a good management coach would do.

“What about her vacation?” Cindy Morris complained. “I said she could take a vacation!” Kathy Welch shot her a glance cold as ice, tired of her whining. She looked at Spencer.

“Look Jim. Just mention something about the budget,” the CFO explained. “Tell her it’s not a discharge. Miraculous is simply eliminating a position in her department. Costs, you know?”

“That’s a lie,” Mack blurted. He looked over at Cindy Morris for support. She smiled weakly.   

Spencer mused. “Position eliminated, huh? Hhmm . . . I like the sound of that, position eliminated. Right. Yes! A re-org. So it’s about the position. It’s not about her. Not really.”

“I think it is about her,” Mack countered. “She’s the one losing . . .”

“Well maybe you should tell her, Mack,” Spencer barked. They looked over at Kimball’s door. It was still closed. He was in there, they knew. “I’ll send her an Email.”

“No. You’ve got to talk to her,” Cindy Morris said, stiffening. “That’s the only way.”

“OK, so I’ll call her tonight.”

“No no no!” Kathy Welch insisted. “If you can’t speak to her in person, face to face, then don’t do it.” Spencer drummed his fingers on the polished walnut table. He straightened the large knot in his tie and said,

“Alright. Whatever. So I’ll meet with Maryanne tomorrow. Who’s going to help me?”

There was no answer. Then . . Henry Kimball’s door opened. Not quickly, not slowly, but measured, grim almost, like the ponderous jaws of a terrible crustacean at the bottom of the dark sea. The CEO stuck his head out. He didn’t acknowledge any of them. He just stared into the room. Only the faintest smile appeared on his face, then vanished. Then he withdrew. His door shut.

The next day was Friday. This was lucky for Spencer since he had heard Friday was the best day to terminate an employee; because if any drama broke out, the weekend gave everyone a chance to cool off. But still he didn’t know when, or how, or why he was going to fire Maryanne, or even what to say. ‘Position eliminated’ felt right yesterday, but now it seemed dry and officious. Spencer considered alternatives: budget problems, a new direction, good to great, great to better, downsizing, rightsizing, a pivot. Nothing made sense. The VP-Operations drank six cups of coffee that morning.

Kathy Welch buried herself in work. It was month-end, and she had to complete the financials. This gave her an excuse. She slammed her office door and locked it. Kimball himself knocked but she wouldn’t answer. She turned off her phone and logged off email, trying to disappear.  

Robbie Mack talked it over with Cindy Morris, who was an eager listener. She thought Mack’s work in sales was exciting. She knew he often visited customers in Chicago and it made her envious. He came into her office and flung himself into a nearby chair.

“This Maryanne thing. It sucks,” he told her.

“I hate it,” she said.

Mack added, “Why can’t Kimball do it? It’s freaking bullshit.” Cindy Morris laughed lightly at his vulgarity. Mack noticed, and offered more. They went back and forth in this manner and arrived at nothing.

By lunchtime the Executive Team was exhausted. Spencer was sick to his stomach from too much coffee. Kathy Welch had become lightheaded staring at numbers. Robbie Mack was so disgusted he left the office, went to the golf driving range and hit a bucket of balls. Cindy Morris felt good. She had found another bargain online. But she grew nauseous when she sent Maryanne Nelson an email, inviting her to a meeting at 3 in the Conference Room. Jim Spencer had told her to do it. He said he would handle things. In her email, Morris left the Subject: line empty even though she knew what the meeting was about. Her heart tripped when Maryanne quickly accepted the invite.

At ten to three, the Executive Team assembled in the Conference Room. They were wound up tight as a steel spring. They blamed Kimball and mistrusted each other at the same time. Panic gripped them. They could barely speak. For Spencer, it had become clear to him now . . . with the crisis at hand . . . that he couldn’t go through with it. Kathy Welch also knew he couldn’t do it. Mack thought Spencer might really fire Maryanne, but hated him for it. Cindy Morris was just glad she didn’t have to do it. Spencer gazed absently out the window at the lawn care guys and wondered if he could get a crew together and do that for a living.

The Team looked at one another in sweaty silence and stared at Kimball’s door, which seemed to mock them. He’s in there, they knew. Maybe he’ll reconsider, they hoped. Maybe this can wait till next year, they fantasized. Perhaps Maryanne could be re-assigned to another role? That’s it . . . they would talk Kimball out of it.

Jim Spencer finally rose (it took a while) and approached Kimball’s lair. He walked in a measured pace, like a man on his way to the gallows. At the CEO’s door he raised his hand to knock . . . and . . . and there it froze, in mid-air, suspended, paralyzed, like a statue. A forever passed. Then another one. Finally, at long last, Spencer’s hand fell . . . but not on Kimball’s door. It fell to his side, a flabby lifeless thing.

Next, Robbie Mack rose, almost. He was mad, but he couldn’t quite get his feet under him. Cindy Morris tugged on his sleeve, her face a confused mixture of anxiety and affection. The man fell back into his chair, the woman gripping his arm. He couldn’t do it either.

At last Kathy Welch stood. They all looked at her. The CFO had known Kimball the longest. She approached his door and prepared to knock, but thought better of it, calling out his name … “Mr. Kimball. Mr. Kimball. Henry. Hank!”

But Kimball’s door remained quiet as a tomb. In two minutes, it would be 3 pm.

“Maryanne will be here soon!” someone gasped.

“We can’t do it!” somebody moaned.

Suddenly, a sound … a distinct something… emanated from behind Kimball’s door. It may have been laughter. No one could be sure. Then silence, again.  

“Alright,” Spencer spoke up, with all the confidence of a man who had given up. He tore a sheet of paper from his legal pad: “If we can’t say it to her, goddamn it, maybe we can just write it down. But we’ve all got to do it. Together. So this will look like a joint decision of the Executive Team, and irrevocable.”

“That sucks.” Mack burst out.

“Just do it!” Kathy Welch snarled. She tore a sheet from her pad. The others found scraps of paper.

“Maryanne’s coming!” Cindy cried. They all scribbled something, and tossed their messages onto the table. Then, the Executive Team departed quickly.

Maryanne Nelson arrived a minute later. The Conference Room was quiet and very still save for the afternoon sunlight pouring in through the big windows, illuminating the dust motes floating in the air. Maryanne checked her watch. ‘Give them a few minutes, she thought, and of course Mr. Kimball was always late.

Then she noticed the four sheets of paper on the big table. They were face down, but she could make out writing on the other side. She looked at Kimball’s door. All quiet. She checked the hallway — no sign of anyone else. She was curious. She reached for one sheet of paper, turned it over, and slowly read it.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with sincere regret that I must resign my position at Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have been very stressed and I cannot fulfill my responsibilities. Also, I am starting my own coaching company. Sincerely, James Spencer, VP-Operations.”

Maryanne gasped. She had known Jim Spencer for a while and respected him. That’s too bad, she thought, but I’m sure he had his reasons. She put the message back on the table. Kimball’s door remained closed, the hallway silent. She reached for another.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with deep regret that I must quit Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have been unable to concentrate on my work due to internal conflicts that I cannot resolve. I am also hoping to spend more time with my family. Robbie Mack, VP-Business Development.”

Another one! Maryanne Nelson’s knees grew weak. What was going on? She had enjoyed working with Mack on the e-commerce project. And now he was going. It made her sad. She looked around again . . . all quiet still. She reached for another note.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, I’m so sorry but I must give up the HR leadership position, effective immediately. I apologize for signing the Vacation Approval Form for Ms. Nelson. It was a mistake that has upset me to no end, to the point where I can’t work anymore! Besides, I am thinking of going into retail. Respectfully, Cynthia Morris, VP-Human Resources.”

Maryanne felt a hollow place in her gut. She felt terrible her time-off request had upset Cindy Morris, caused such trouble. Maybe this was her fault?

Still no sound came from Kimball’s office, nothing from the hallway. Only silence. There was one last paper. Maryanne picked it up.

“Dear Mr. Kimball, it is with sincere regret that I must resign the CFO position at Miraculous Technology, effective immediately. I have spent too many years submerged in numbers, and I need a break. A long break. I am thinking of buying a condo in Miami Beach. Yours truly, Kathy Welch, Chief Financial Officer.”

Maryanne Nelson fell into a chair. She felt faint. Everyone was going; in fact they were already gone. What was going on? There was almost no one left. She choked up a few tears and felt very alone.

Henry Kimball, CEO, opened the door of his office and stepped briskly into the Conference Room. Maryanne rose to greet him, but he waved her off. The CEO took his big chair at the head of the table and made a somber face. “I guess maybe you’ve heard by now,” he said. Maryanne thought of Jim and Kathy and Robbie and tried to speak, but couldn’t.

“I’m afraid it’s done. ‘All over,” Kimball said. “We’ve sold Miraculous Technology.”

Maryanne’s eyes, already moist, now grew large as dinner plates. “Yes,” Kimball said, “the Fabulous Computer Corporation finally made us an offer we couldn’t refuse.” He chuckled at his choice of words. “It’s a total buyout, a takeover. Shareholder values, you know! We’ll be merging with Fabulous Corp right away.” He then took a confidential tone and said, “Actually Maryanne, this could be a pretty good deal for staff-level folks. The new company will be a bigger operation, with more products and more opportunities for employees.” Maryanne looked at the resignation letters on the table.

“But for top management?” Kimball shook his head. “I’m afraid there’s quite a bit of overlap with Fabulous. Duplicated roles, you know? The Fabulous Corp managers will be running things around here. And our Executive Team—?” Kimball regarded the notes on the table. Maryanne sank deeper into her chair, if that was possible. “They won’t be needed,” the CEO said somberly.

They sat together in silence for a few long minutes. They had both been at Miraculous for years. Eventually acceptance crept in. Kimball gathered up the notes his Team had left on the table. He slid them into a folder, but he didn’t read them. ‘Almost like he didn’t need to.

“I suspected this day was coming,” he said.

Maryanne knew it was the end. “Is there anything I can do, Mr. Kimball?”

“No thanks, Maryanne. You’ve been a great help already.” He patted his folder containing the resignations. “Now I’m sure we’ll have a smooth transition with the Fabulous leadership.”

Maryanne Nelson nodded in agreement.

“I tell you what . . . ,” Kimball added. “Why don’t you take a few days off, enjoy a nice vacation? On the house, as it were. ‘For all you’ve done for Miraculous.”

Maryanne brightened at this. Then Kimball smiled as he rose and disappeared into his suite.  


Austin McLellan lives and writes in Memphis, TN. His first novel was published in 2016: Twenty Grand, A Love Story (Harvard Square). His stories, essays, and journalism have appeared in a variety of creative and commercial media. See Akashicbooks.com, Bangalore Review, Stepaway Magazine, In Recovery Magazine, Monarch Review, BroadwayWorld Review, Patient Health Journal, the Memphis and Nashville Business Journals, and StoryBoard Memphis.  

In a previous life, Austin taught English and writing at universities in Asia, Europe, and the United States. He has also operated an art gallery, sold books, developed software, and acted in local Memphis theater. When not writing, Austin works as a healthcare technology consultant. He has BA, Philosophy from Rhodes College; MA, Literature from the University of Memphis.