No one who knew Terence would ever say that he was a natural outdoorsy type. Rather, he was more the type of guy who would show up to an all-night Dungeons, Dragons and Dwarves’ Quest Party, complete with costumes and character sketches and nary a female in sight. So it came as a bit of a surprise when he suggested the office attend Camp Union, a five-day team-building camp and retreat, stationed in the heart of the Olympic Mountains. It came as an even bigger surprise when Heather, the office manager of the new kick-start company Webmasters United, got the go-ahead from the company’s eccentric owner, Taz.
Taz was eager to turn his new little website-building company into Seattle’s premier website creator. He figured that the best way to channel his employee’s creative forces was to make them feel more like a team, rather than a handful of coworkers.
Heather was a bit more skeptical. Although she appreciated the team approach, becoming a group who can bounce ideas off one another and getting the creative juices flowing, as the office manager she had the inside knowledge of one who has seen this particular group of people day in and day out. She was also privy to all the office gossip and drama, including who was wasting office hours video chatting with his girlfriend in Pakistan, who was likely to come in late because of a certain all-night gaming party, or who was likely to swipe your tuna fish sandwich sitting in the fridge.
Besides, like Terence, this group of people wasn’t exactly your adventuring outdoors type. Heather wasn’t sure how they would cope for an entire five days basking in the glow of natural sunlight, rather than a computer monitor.
Everyone seemed excited, however, so the plans were set for the office retreat near the end of May.
The team met early on a sunny Monday morning, with their duffel bags, pillows, and laptops, ready to embark on their outdoor adventure. They then carpooled to the ferry, which would take them across the Puget Sound to get to the Olympic Peninsula.
While the team was excitedly looking out the windows of the ferry, watching the water as it crested on the sides of the boat and keeping an eye out for any signs of sea creatures emerging from the waves, Heather thought it would be a good time to get everyone gathered together for a brief meeting on Taz’s expectations for the retreat.
“Alright, people,” she began, looking around at all her pale-faced co-workers. “Taz was disappointed that he wouldn’t be able to come up to the retreat until the end of the week, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have some expectations as far as what we accomplish.” She heard a few groans, but chose to ignore them.
“First off, since we are all still getting paid this week, he expects that we will use our time wisely, thinking of ways to implement what we are learning into our work. This also means that he expects everyone to fully participate in the scheduled activities and training sessions which Camp Union has set up for us.”
Heather saw a few faces starting to cringe a little, and hoped that the camp’s activities and trainings were something her crew could handle. Terence’s face was starting to take on a greenish hue.
“Lastly,” she continued, “Taz wants us to use this experience to bond us together like a team. Let’s get to know each other and learn how to work together in the most efficient ways we can, so that we can make this company a huge success!”
Heather wasn’t used to being a cheerleader. She wasn’t sure how to do it. It didn’t help that as she ended her little speech, Terence suddenly bolted up, his hand over his mouth, and ran for the bathroom.
She could tell that this was going to be a long week.
Once the ferry docked, the team drove an hour and a half, winding through the mountain roads to get to Camp Union. Heather was glad that she wasn’t in the car with Terence, who hadn’t looked fully recovered from the ferry ride when they started off. She had Gary, Pete, and Martina in her car. The guys spent most of the drive arguing over the best way to integrate two systems into a single interface, while Martina’s eyes and attention never left her smart phone.
After several wrong turns and detours, getting lost on unmarked roads that were covered in gravel, they finally found the little wooden sign which pointed out the turnoff to Camp Union. As the roads became more narrow and rough, the trees became more dense and the sky began to grow dark with ominous-looking black clouds. Martina issued an exaggerated sigh of frustration at the lack of cell phone reception, finally giving up and putting the phone in her bag. By the time they passed under the entrance sign which read “Welcome to Camp Union: Building Teams Since 1924,” it was pouring rain.
They were greeted by two people in blue rain ponchos and boots who were wearing shorts. It wasn’t quite warm enough for that thought Heather. Heather wondered again what she’d gotten herself into. She parked the car in the direction the blue ponchos pointed, drifting just a bit in the mud as she tried to stop. Heather turned back to look at her coworkers. They looked shocked.
Heather, the cheerleader, was about to make another appearance. “Okay guys, let’s get our stuff and make a break for the lodge. The faster we get our stuff out of the car, the faster we can get inside. Let’s go.”
Heather pushed the button to pop the trunk and then burst from the car, not waiting for her companions. She hurried to the back and was joined by Gary, Pete and Martina all trying to huddle under the protection of the popped trunk. Arms shot out and everything disappeared until Heather was left with her duffle bag which she pulled from the trunk. She closed the trunk hood and turned and ran right into one of the blue ponchos.
“Hi, I’m Lars. Let me help you with your bags,” said the blue poncho.
“Oh, okay thanks,” said Heather as she relinquished her duffle bag.
Heather followed him through the mud and away from the car. She hoped she’d be able to get her car out at the end of the week. Finally they made it to a stone path and she looked down at her shoes. She had been smart enough not to wear her ballet flats but her tennies hadn’t fared very well either. What she should have worn was her rubber boots! She looked up just in time to run into the blue poncho who had paused to open the door to the lodge.
“Oh sorry,” said Heather, flustered that she’d been pondering her shoes and not watching where she was going.
“No problem,” said Lars as he removed the hood of his blue poncho and ducked into the lodge.
Heather almost fell over. He was gorgeous. Blond, tall, beautiful features and blue eyes to boot. This week definitely just got better. “Eye candy is always a plus when business is involved,” thought Heather. She smiled to herself. There would be perks to being the office cheerleader this week.
“What was your name again?” asked Heather. She hadn’t remembered when he’d just been blue poncho guy but now that he was gorgeous blue poncho guy he needed a name.
“Nice to meet you Lars, I’m Heather.”
Heather saw Martina out of the corner of her eye making a beeline for them, she’d already entered the lodge. Heather realized she must have just seen Lars.
“Oh Heather, you look like a drowned rat. Come on in by the fire,” said Martina.
Martina was nothing if not subtle. Heather let herself be led to the fire by Martina who was carrying on a conversation with Lars. She managed to find out in three minutes or less that he’s a Capricorn, has a master’s degree in natural sciences and has worked here for the last three years, plus he doesn’t like cats. Martina can really get the info. Heather sat down by the fire and enjoyed the heat both from the fire and from Lars. Heather looked around and everyone had made it into the lodge.
The other blue poncho guy called everyone over to the fireplace and introduced himself as John. He was probably in his fifties and very business like. He gave everyone their room assignments and told them to meet back in 30 minutes in the dining room which could just be seen through double doors to the right of the fireplace. He also told them there was no cell service or internet available at the camp. They had one phone and one computer with specific times and a schedule which they would be signing up for after returning from their rooms. Everyone looked very shocked. They all hoped the world wouldn’t fall apart while they were at camp!
Heather grabbed her bag, which Lars had deposited next to her, and headed up the stairs to find room number 8. It was to be her home for the next week!
Heather spent a long night on her narrow bed. It was lumpy but thin. The sheet seemed way too big and the scratchy blanket seemed too small.
“This is going to be a long week,” Heather told her weary reflection in the mirror the next morning. Then, she remembered Lars! She gave a practice smile into the mirror. She groaned and gathered up her make-up. It was going to take some work to make herself presentable.
At breakfast, she was seated with her co-workers. Terence was reading a sci-fi book, Martina was swooping her phone around, trying to get a signal and Gary was staring straight ahead, at nothing in particular. He didn’t look like he’d slept very well either. Pete hadn’t emerged from his room yet.
There was a bang as the door behind them opened. They all turned to see John and Lars enter the room. “Good morning,” John said. Lars smiled. Heather smiled back, then she noticed the ridiculous smile on Martina’s face. She hoped she wasn’t that obvious.
“When you’ve finished eating, join us in the conference room for some team building activities,” Lars said.
“Isn’t there one more of you?” John said.
“I will go find Pete,” Heather said, standing up and dropping a fork in her eagerness. Lars smiled at her again. Heather felt herself blushing as she left the dining room.
She had to knock for a full minute at Pete’s door. He finally answered the door, hair disheveled and eyes dull. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Overslept.”
Heather rolled her eyes. “This is like work,” she said, “Remember? You are getting paid to participate.”
“OK, OK,” Pete said, “I’ll be right down.”
In the conference room, Heather sidled up to Lars. “Pete will be right down,” she said with what she hoped was her most charming smile.
“Great, thanks!” Lars said.
“Gather ‘round,” John said, “We are going to start the morning with some team building exercises. These are pretty common and you may have done some of them before but there’s a reason why they’re so common. They’re effective.”
“The first thing we’re going to do is a trust fall,” Lars said, “John and I will demonstrate.”
Lars stood a few feet behind John then John fell backward. Lars caught him.
“OK,” John said, ”Any volunteers to go first?”
Heather’s hand shot up. She could think of nothing better than falling back into Lars’s arms.
“Great,” Lars said, “Anyone else?”
Terence raised his hand in a weird stunted reach. Heather rolled her eyes. Terence thought it was hilarious to have T-rex arms. What was he? Eleven?
“OK, Heather, is it?” Lars asked.
“Yes,” Heather said breathlessly. He knew her name?
“You stand here, Heather,” Lars said, pointing to an area on the floor. “You stand in front of her,” he told Terence.
“Really?” Heather asked. This wasn’t what she was hoping for.
“Trust me,” Lars said, turning his gorgeous eyes toward her, “You can catch him.”
Heather was still reeling from those eyes when Terence was suddenly falling into her arms. She quickly reached her arms out and awkwardly caught him. Terence looked up at her with a hard to read expression.
“Thanks, Heather,” he said with a nervous smile. “Did you see the way she caught me?” he asked Pete who had finally shown up.
“Yeah,” Pete said, yawning.
Was Terence looking at her with adoration? “It was no big deal,” Heather said. Was it her imagination or was Terence standing really close to her?
It was not Heather’s imagination; Terence orbited around Heather all day like she was a celestial body and he could not escape her gravitational pull. By the time Heather had turned and tripped over him for the third time that day, her patience was gone and she was ready to launch him into a black hole.
Terence had elbowed both Pete and Martina out of the way when it was time for Heather to do her own trust fall to ensure he got to cradle her in his arms. He followed her up the ladder on the ropes course, nearly tripping her up, he was so hot on her heels. At dinner, he pulled out Heather’s seat as she was trying to sit down--which resulted in a spilled soda and awkward looks from the rest of the Webmasters United team. Over beef stroganoff, Terence enthused about the day’s events, reminding everyone that this retreat was his idea.
“Don’t you all feel closer now? As a team? I know we’re a company, but it’s almost like a family thing. I’m feeling it? Are you feeling it?”
Terence’s zeal was met with silence.
Martina looked at him with pity and Pete frowned and seemed slightly bewildered by the family comment. Gary appeared indifferent. Did he even notice that Terence was talking? Heather made a mental note to watch Gary a little more closely. Was he this much of a non-person in the office and she just hadn’t noticed it until now? Heather turned her attention back to Terence who was trying desperately to make eye contact with someone.
Finally, as office manager and unofficial cheerleader, Heather felt the need to break the silence. “I do feel like we got to know each other a lot better today,” she conceded. “I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
There actually had been some great moments. After using some real ingenuity and teamwork to conquer the obstacle course, John had informed them that they were the fastest group to complete it all year. An impromptu performance of “We are the Champions” and countless high-fives followed. And when they were working on the ropes course, Pete had frozen once he got to the top of the ladder. But they were able to talk him through his minor meltdown together and he had gone on to finish the challenge. Heather had always scoffed at the term, but she had felt some real synergy going on with her people. There would be some definite positives to report to Taz when he showed up in a few days.
Heather had worried all day that Terence had taken some kind of romantic interest in her, but after the comment about family at dinner, she wondered if maybe he was just incredibly lonely. He had suggested this trip after all, knowing full well what they would be in for. Heather started making a mental list of what she knew about Terence. He never took time to make personal calls at work. Heather was positive he didn’t have a girlfriend. And he had mentioned several months ago during some watercooler talk that his fantasy D&D group was dwindling; he lamented that so many of his friends were being lured into online gaming instead of showing up for the face to face encounters.
Besides Terence’s physical nearness freaking her out much of the day, Heather was also peeved that with him as her sidekick, she had hardly had a chance to get friendly with Lars at all. She had watched as Martina had chatted him up all day. Despite Martina’s advances though, Lars maintained his professionalism.
Heather leaned back in her chair and studied Lars from across the dining room as he restocked the hot chocolate packets in preparation for tomorrow’s breakfast. Maybe she could just enjoy the eye candy from afar. She was here with a mission after all. She wanted to really impress Taz with all they had done. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt their business if they did end up becoming a better team and company when all was said and done.
Heather stood up. “Well, I’m headed up to my room for a little quiet time and then I’m going to bed. I hope my muscles let me move tomorrow.”
There was an empathetic murmur from her coworkers. For a group of tech geeks who had little experience for the outdoors, they had really pushed themselves to the limit.
Terence hopped up. “Will you allow me to escort you?”
“No!” Heather emphasized her response by holding up both hands in a universal stop gesture. She was ready for a break. But after witnessing Terence’s hangdog look, she smiled kindly and tried to soften the blow. “I genuinely appreciate the offer though.”
Terence returned the smile as he sank into his seat. “Good night, then.”
Heather unlocked her door and threw herself on the bed with a giant sigh. She regretted it immediately when the thin mattress did little to cushion the fall. “Dang it!” She grumbled as she rubbed her hip gingerly. She could feel a bump already forming and knew she’d have a bruise to show for her dramatics.
She rolled over and draped her arm over her eyes as she tried to figure out how to unify the team without making Terence feeling overly comfortable. “I should have dropped him.” She huffed. A soft knock on her door shook her from her thoughts.
“Sorry to bother you,” Lars said as she pulled open the door, “you have a call downstairs. Someone named Taz?” He shook his head slightly and raised an eyebrow as though he were wondering why anyone would name their child Taz.
Heather laughed at his facial expression. “That’s my boss; and ya, that’s his real name. Thanks, I’ll be right down.”
“I’m headed that way if you want me to walk you down.”
He was so easy on the eyes. How could she refuse? They made small talk as Heather intentionally passed the elevator and detoured for the stairs. Lars didn’t seem to notice that she took him the longest route possible as he asked “Are you enjoying your stay?”
“It’s nice. It’s not at all what I was expecting though.”
“Oh?” Lars paused with a concerned look on his face.
“No, no. It’s better than I expected. When Terence suggested a company retreat I guess I just pictured leaky tents, a mess hall for meals and canoe rides. I guess I watched ‘Parent Trap’ too many times as a kid.” Lars laughed at her reference, but Heather was sure it was just a courtesy laugh. “The exercises have been fun though and everyone is at least talking more to each other, so that’s progress. It’s just awkward being the company cheerleader. I prefer my laptop and office.”
“What do you do? “
“I’m a glorified office manager. Our company builds and maintains web-sites. It’s a small company so we all wear several hats. I handle advertising on social media sites and oversee the day to day stuff. ” Lars was quiet as he listened to her explain how a website was born. He nodded and smiled and occasionally seemed to have a hint of admiration on his face. She couldn’t tell if he was legitimately interested or just being polite. Either way, she liked that she had the chance to talk to him without Martina vying for his attention.
“Sounds interesting. I’m sure our owner would benefit from your expertise. You’ll have to leave your card...” Heather raised her eyebrows a little and smiled coyly. Lars cleared his throat “…so he can call you.”
“I can do that.” Her heart was beating fast and she hoped that her attempt to look alluring wasn’t mistaken for gassiness. Flirting did not come easy to her and she didn’t have the “assets” Martina had.
“Well, here we are,” Lars acknowledged as they reached the lobby. He spoke to the woman guarding the one and only working phone in the retreat, “Marge, Heather has a call holding on line 2. Please enter it into the log.” He was obviously joking, but the woman stood there with pen in hand ready to enter it somewhere. Lars patted her shoulder and laughed, “At ease Marge. I was kidding.”
“Of course Mr. Goldstein,” she said. Marge put the pen down and handed Heather the phone connecting her to an impatient Taz on the other end.
“Good heavens what took you so long?! I was on hold for a good 10 minutes!”
Heather rolled her eyes and was thankful her boss couldn’t see her mocking him. Lars waved and walked away laughing to himself. She was disappointed that their conversation was over and answered Taz a little more curtly than intended. “This is the only phone in the whole place Taz. I got here as fast as I could.” Then realizing she was talking to the man that signed her paychecks she added, “Sorry, sir. What can do for you?”
“I’m not going to make it to the retreat. Something has come up. I need you to finish up without me.” Heather wasn’t surprised, but irritated none the less. Taz was well known for adding things to her job description. “How are things? Are we one big happy family?”
“Almost. It’s only day three though. Don’t worry we are in good hands.” Heather swept the lobby for any sign of Lars. Nothing. “Well, my allotted time on the phone is up Taz. I’ll keep you updated.”
“Watch out for poison ivy…and snakes…and bears.”
“Bye Taz.” She handed Marge the receiver and started to walk away. Then turned back to the keeper of the phone and asked, “Can I make an outgoing call please?”
Marge whipped out the sign-up sheet for the phone and put her reading glasses on. Heather tried not to laugh. The lobby was empty except for the moose on the wall, and Heather doubted he was waiting to make a call.
“I suppose.” Marge leaned in and whispered, her face dead serious,“Just don’t tell anyone.”
“Cross my heart,” Heather whispered back and refrained from smiling. Marge handed her the phone and went back to her crossword puzzle. Heather dialed her best friend Laura and strummed her fingers on the desk as she waited for her to answer. Marge looked up and gave her the stink eye. Heather stopped the strumming and turned her back to Marge. When Laura finally answered Heather excitedly said, “Hey stranger!”
Marge gave her an irritated, “Shhhhhh!”
Heather couldn’t wait to tell Laura all about Lars, but there was no private place to talk. Heather silently cursed the ancient phone for not being cordless. She sunk to the floor, stretching out the phone cord as far as it would go and began recounting her stay, leaving no details about Lars and her Terence dilemma out.
“He follows me everywhere now Laura. I don’t know what to do,” she whispered as she relayed the events regarding Terence.“…He’s a really nice guy, but he is starting to creep me out. I would have just let him fall if I would have known I’d get this reaction.” Heather’s foot was falling asleep and she stood to shake it. She shifted the phone to her other ear and turned around. There, under the moose head, was Terence.
As soon as their eyes met, Terence spun around and ran out of the room. Heather tried to call after him, but her voice just clattered around the big empty lobby. Instinctively she looked at Marge but then immediately regretted it. Marge had a disapproving scowl on her face and she was shaking her head at Heather.
“I gotta go, Laura,” Heather said quickly into the receiver. “I’ll talk to you on Friday.”
Heather tossed and turned for most of the night on her lumpy mattress. She almost convinced herself that maybe Terence hadn’t actually heard her talking about him, but the memory of the crushed expression on Terence’s face squashed that hope. She kept replaying the conversation in her head, what he must have heard: “I would have just let him fall if I’d known I’d get this reaction.”
Those words now sounded so cruel.
Before finally drifting off to sleep, Heather decided the only thing she could do was apologize. It was her only option.
The next morning came much too early. After a rough night of poor sleep and a guilty conscience, Heather did not want to face the new day.
“Let’s just get this over with,” she said to herself, groaning as she hoisted herself up off the mattress.
Almost everyone was already down eating breakfast when Heather got to the dining area. She looked around, but could not see Terence anywhere. She walked over to Pete, who was helping himself to a stack of pancakes warming under a heat lamp.
“Where’s Terence?” she asked.
He shrugged, unconcerned. “I dunno,” he said.
Heather poured herself a bowl of cold cereal and wondered what to do. Should she go check on him? Was it considered unprofessional to check on a co-worker of the opposite sex when they could still be in bed? That was a question she never thought would roll through her head.
Breakfast was over and there was still no sign of Terence.
John and Lars moved the group to the conference room, where they would be doing some team-building exercises. Heather caught hold of Alan, one of the newer members of their staff, on the way in to the conference room and sent him off to check on Terence.
They spent most of the morning playing communication games, learning how to listen and convey information accurately and role playing scenarios of conflict resolution. Alan had returned without Terence. He shrugged and shook his head when Heather looked pointedly at him.
“He said he is sick,” Alan said.
At lunch Heather went up to Terence’s room herself. She knocked on the door, calling his name. There was no response.
“Terence, come on, I know you’re in there,” Heather said, getting a little annoyed. This was going far enough.
Finally Terence answered the door, but he wouldn’t look into her face. He kept looking down at his hands instead.
“Look, Terence, I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” Heather started. He looked to the side awkwardly, like if he angled himself far enough away from her he wouldn’t have to hear what she said.
“Terence, look at me. I’m sorry for what you heard last night. I really am. I don’t know what else to say.”
They stood there silently for a few moments. Heather kept waiting for a response, but he wasn’t giving one.
“Are we okay?” she asked finally. “I really am sorry. Now can you come down and join the rest of the team?”
Terence mumbled an assent and followed Heather down to the dining room.
Maybe it will just take a little while to get over the awkwardness, Heather thought. But Terence continued to avoid being near Heather or even look at her.
Lars came into the dining room carrying a tray of brownies and Heather bolted up to talk to him before Martina could get her talons into him again. Heather greatly needed the distraction. This situation with Terence was emotionally draining.
Plus those brownies looked awfully good.
“Who can resist chocolate?” she asked as she approached Lars standing at the counter. She felt strange flirting with this guy, but things just seemed to roll out of her mouth whenever she saw him.
Lars laughed and handed her a brownie.
“I made them myself,” he said, smiling.
“All on your own, huh?” Heather asked. “Muscles and cooking skills, I’m impressed.”
“Yeah, well, I can follow directions on the back of the box as well as the next guy.”
“You’d be surprised at how difficult it is for most men to follow any of those directions,” Heather teased.
They laughed together loudly over a few cooking catastrophy stories, until Heather looked across the room and saw Martina staring at her, jealousy written all over her face. She also noticed Terence sitting at the next table by himself, his sandwich held halfway to his mouth, as though frozen in mid-bite. He was watching her and Lars with a stricken look on his face. He suddenly dropped his sandwich and ran from the room.
“Oh boy,” Heather said, smiling wryly at Lars. “Looks like it’s time to rally the troops.”
Martina swept in the instant Heather left Lars’ side.
Could this day get any worse?
After begging and pleading for him to join them, Heather was finally able to coax Terence back to the lobby where everyone was meeting for the final exercise of the day.
“All right, folks,” John said loudly, getting everyone’s attention. “Our last class of the day will be outside. It’s a little wet, so we have some rain gear you can borrow.” He motioned to a large plastic bin full of army green rubber boots and a stack of plastic parkas.
The group rummaged through the bin, trying to locate matching boots, and arguing over sizes needed. Heather ended up with a pair way too big for her feet, but it was better than soaking through her canvas sneakers. She donned the yellow plastic poncho and felt like a complete fool.
Oh yeah, this is a hot ensemble, she thought.
Looking up, she saw Lars helping Martina put some boots on. He had his own personal gear on, which meant he didn’t have to look like an overstuffed rubber duck. He looked up at her as she pulled the poncho over her head, giving her a little wink. Heather flushed, wishing she had brought her own rain gear so she wouldn’t have to be seen in this getup, but appreciating the attention all the same.
The group made their way outside, where the rain was coming down in a light drizzle. They followed John to the same trail they had used the last few days in their outside exercises, but then took a fork in the path that was new. The path was muddy and full of large rain puddles, making Heather grateful for the boots, even if they did not fit well. She could hear Martina behind her, complaining about the mud and clinging tightly to Lars’ arm, saying she needed his help to steady her. She was good, Heather had to admit. The trail ended in an open green meadow, surrounded by tall dripping trees.
John instructed them to stand in a large circle. Lars extracted himself from Martina and made his way around the circle to stand next to John.
“This is the Circle of Affirmation,” John said to the group. “In this circle we speak words of truth and words of recognition. When we build each other up, we only make our circle stronger. When we tear each other down, we weaken our circle. A broken circle is not whole. A broken circle will not function properly. A broken circle will inhibit the progress of the entire team.”
Heather’s gut began to churn. What were they going to have to do?
“You will each go around the circle, pointing out the positive qualities of each person in the circle. It can be an acknowledgement of a job well-done or recognition of their positive traits, anything that would help build them up.”
John instructed Pete to start the process. He started around the circle in a half-hearted attempt at compliance, pointing out worthless traits for each person. Roger is good at remembering passwords, Terence is excellent at picking his nose in private, Martina has a smokin’ hot…
John stopped Pete before he could finish the thought. He looked angrily around the circle. “This is serious business, folks!” he barked. “Do you think it is a game? We are trying to build up a team, not waste our time standing in the mud!”
Heather felt her blood pressure rise. Pete was being completely unprofessional, and now it made her look bad since she was the leader of the team. How was she going to explain this to Taz? She could have kicked Pete in the shin.
Terence raised his hand timidly, as though he was in elementary school waiting to be called on by the teacher. John looked surprised. “Yes?” he asked.
“Make Heather go first,” he said, pointing at her across the circle. “She’s supposed to be our team leader. She should start it off. I want to hear what she has to say when she can only tell the truth.”
There was a stunned silence.
“W-what??” Heather asked, bewildered.
“Tell us how you really feel about us, not what you normally say to our faces. Tell us how you feel when our backs are turned!” Terence said hotly, increasing in confidence and volume as his speech progressed.
Everyone turned to look at Heather, John and Lars included.
Suddenly it was like a spark exploded in Heather’s head, making her ears roar. How dare he talk to her like that? How dare he humiliate her in front of everyone, including Lars?
“What do you think you are doing, Terence?” she practically shouted, but her voice sounded muffled in the wet air. It didn’t matter. Now that the dam had burst, Heather could no longer keep the flood of frustrated emotions from pouring out. “I apologized for what I said earlier, but you won’t let it go! You’ve been moping around all day, and it’s all I can do to keep this stupid group together! What were you thinking, suggesting we all come out to the mountains together? Did you think we would all become a happy family? Did you think all these techie geeks would be your friends? All they care about is when the next comic book conference is scheduled. What were you expecting??”
Just then a bright flash of lightning illuminated the meadow, followed quickly by a boom of thunder. Everyone remained rooted in the spot, however, glaring at Heather.
“You think we’re stupid?” Gary asked.
“You think we don’t care?” Alan said, looking between Heather and Terence.
Martina stepped forward, putting her arm around Terence and looking pointedly at Heather. “I think you’re the one who doesn’t care,” she said, then guided Terence back toward the path, the others quickly following behind glaring at Heather as they left.
There was another burst of light and a boom of thunder. Then it seemed like an entire bucket of water was dumped over Heather’s head, as the rain began to fall in sheets.
“Come on, Team Leader, let’s get out of this rain,” Lars said dryly as he led Heather back toward the lodge. Heather followed him in a daze.
“What just happened?” she asked. “One minute we’re fine, and the next, everyone is out to assassinate me!”
Lars chuckled a little. “Well, it is called the Circle of Affirmation, not the Circle of Doom. I don’t think they were expecting that tirade from you.”
“Hey, Terence has been driving me insane. He’s like a little kid. I don’t even know how to talk to him. And now I don’t know how I am going to pull this group back together. This retreat was supposed to be a team builder, not team annihilator.”
Suddenly she stopped in her tracks. “What am I going to tell Taz? I could lose my job over this.” Heather could feel her pulse starting to race and the blood drain from her face. Taz was going to be furious. And it was all her fault.
“Look, I’ve been helping John do these team building exercises for five years now. Almost every group has some sort of breakdown at some point in the week. Frankly, I’m surprised you guys made it this long,” Lars said. He stepped closer toward her. “I can tell you what I have seen this week. I’ve seen a team pull together, making it through some of the hardest physical tests in our outdoor course. I’ve seen your people turn to you time and time again for leadership and encouragement. And I’ve seen you stepping up to the challenge, cheering them on as you work together with them side by side. You’re a great leader, Heather. You just need to remember that, and remember why they are part of your team.”
Lars reached out and lightly touched a stream of water drops that were flooding down Heather’s face and dripping off her chin. She could feel her face begin to flush with heat, despite the wet chill of the rain.
“You’re getting all wet,” Lars said.
“Um hmm,” was all she was able to respond with.
“I better get you back to the lodge.”
“Yes….wet….lodge,” she said incoherently.
Lars lightly took her hand and led her the rest of the way back.
At dinner that night Heather noticed everyone talking and laughing together, reenacting some of their crazier adventures on the retreat, that is until she came close. As she drew near they would suddenly get quiet and awkward until she moved away from them, and then the frivolity would continue.
Heather set her food on an empty table on the side, but decided she would rather eat in her room alone than face the nasty looks her colleagues were shooting her way. She headed to her room, wondering what she could do to resolve this situation, and also what Lars meant when he told her to remember why this bunch was part of her team.
After another restless night, the next morning came far too early. At last it was Friday. The week at the retreat was almost up. But how could they return to work with so many unresolved feelings? How could she fix what had been broken? Like John had said, the circle needed to be whole in order for the team to progress. Taz would totally notice something was up when they all got back. Then she would really have it!
After another awkward meal in the dining room, the group met in the lobby for the week’s final activity. Looking up at the moose head hanging above her, Heather wondered what they could possibly do to culminate this entire experience.
It had finally stopped raining, but the ground was still wet outside. They borrowed the green rubber boots again and followed John and Lars along the path that they had started on the day before. Heather hoped that they weren’t going to try to recreate the Circle of Affirmation. Her circle was beyond repair at this point, she thought.
They didn’t turn off toward the meadow, however. They continued on the path past the obstacle course and ropes course which they had toiled over and conquered earlier in the week. Finally they came to a small clearing which came to an abrupt stop at a steep ledge. Everyone wandered over to the edge to see what lay below. There were jagged rocks cascading down the cliff, which dropped into a wide expanse of vibrant green trees.
John stood next to a curious set of posts set into the earth close to the edge of the cliff. They were positioned like a sort of staircase, five of them in graduating heights until they reached the final post, which was around six feet tall. The group gathered around where John was stationed.
To Heather’s surprise, John began to speak to them in an almost hushed tone. “These are the Pillars of Trust,” he said, patting the middle post and pausing for effect. Everyone turned their attention to the posts and waited expectantly. “Your team has been through many struggles and hardships this week. You have learned to rely on each other for strength and inspiration. This is where the true test lies. Consider this your final exam. Pass this test, and you will discover what a true team is.”
Lars began to climb the posts until he reached the final one. He stood on it, legs together, his feet barely fitting on the top. He faced toward the valley, crossing his arms across his chest. Heather wondered if this was some strange meditation ritual.
“One at a time, you will each ascend the Pillars of Trust. Your teammates will stand at the base of the pillars, standing in two lines facing each other, their arms clasped together. When you are ready you will release your fears, put your trust in your teammates, and fall backwards into their arms. It is the epitome of a trust fall.”
Everyone stood speechless. Heather looked up at Lars, who seemed so high off the ground. How could anyone break the fall of someone from so high up?
Martina was the first to say anything, as Lars climbed back down from the posts. “Are you sure this is safe? I mean, has anyone gotten hurt?”
“Oh yes,” John said, “It’s safe. But only if you follow the rules. Plenty of people have gotten hurt.”
There was a general groan that swept through the group.
“Exactly what are the rules?” Pete called off loudly.
Lars stepped in with the response. “First, you must remain stiff and straight. If you bend at the waist you will probably fall through your teammates arms. Second, you must keep your arms tight into your body. The more you flail around the harder you are to catch. And third, you must trust your team. Know that they are there and they won’t let you fall.”
A general mumbling flew through the group as people talked nervously about what they were expected to do. How could anyone trust these people enough to break a fall? With these pale, spindly arms as the only means of protection, they would probably go crashing right through. Who would be brave enough to go first? Who would be willing to put everyone to the test?
Heather felt like she had no choice. “I will go first,” she said, and everyone turned toward her. They had a curious assortment of expressions directed toward her: surprise, annoyance, skepticism, relief. She moved toward the posts and stood close to the tallest one, which towered over her head.
“I know that this has been a rough week,” she said, looking imploringly around the group of people that stood there, her teammates. “I know that I said things that I shouldn’t have and I regret it. But I also know that we have overcome some major hurdles together as well. We made it through that obstacle course in record time. I know we couldn’t have done that without Alan and Steve leading the way. Who would have predicted that? I am sure that I am not the only one who was amazed by our performance. And then when things got tough in the ropes course, Martina was incredible showing us how to change the way we positioned ourselves, helping us be the most productive. And where would we have gotten without Roger’s and Pete’s strong backs? We would probably still be stuck back behind that ridiculous wall we had to climb over. The point is, we all have things to offer the group. We all play an important role. We came together and solved the problems as a team, because that’s what we are: a team. And I think that Terence is right. We are even more than just a team. We are a family.”
Heather looked at Terence, who was starting to blush, and he quickly dropped his eyes. Everyone stood completely silent and still. Heather didn’t know what they thought of her. Had she said enough? Would they be willing to step up to the commitment of catching her, or would they let her fall?
As she climbed the steps, the words that Terence had overheard her say ran through her mind, “I would have just let him fall.” She tried not to think about it.
When she reached the top step, she placed her feet tight together, trying to keep her balance on the tall post. She was looking out over the valley below. The posts were set close enough to the edge of the cliff that it made her feel like she was standing on the edge of the world. She looked out at the rolling green of forest and hills, spreading as far as her eyes could see, which only ended as it met the vast expanse of blue overhead. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
Heather folded her arms tightly across her chest. From below John called out that they were ready for her. In the silence that followed she could hear the sound of a bird calling its mate from the trees below. The second bird echoed its partner’s call. She thought for sure that everyone, including the birds, would hear her heart practically beating out of her chest.
Finally, after one last deep breath and with one last look at the horizon, Heather closed her eyes and allowed herself to slide back into the nothingness of air. It felt like her body was moving in slow motion. Her gradual drop felt as though she would fall forever. They were going to let her fall. She anticipated the brutality of her impending crash. But then suddenly she was engulfed in arms and hands and cheers and cries. Cradled in their arms, she looked up and all she could see was her teammates’ beaming faces, their hair set afire from the warmth of the sun overhead.
As they set her back on the ground, Heather looked over at Lars who was standing next to the Pillars of Trust. He smiled and gave her a thumbs up, while Terence let out a whoop loud enough that it echoed through the valley below.