The first sign was the smell of cocoa butter.
When it initially crept around the wall of her cubicle, Nella was too busy filing a stack
of pages at her desk, aligning each and every one so that the manuscript was perfectly flush.
She was so intent on completing this task—Vera Parini needed everything to be flush,
always— that she had the nerve to ignore the smell. Only when it inched up her nostrils and
latched onto a deep part of her brain did she stop what she was doing and lift her head with
It wasn’t the scent alone that gave her pause. Nella Rogers was used to all kinds of
uninvited smells creeping into her cubicle—usually terrible ones. Since she was merely an
editorial assistant at Wagner Books, she had no private office, and therefore no walls or
windows. She and the other open-space assistants were at the mercy of a hardboiled egg or
the passing of gas; they were often left to suffer the consequences for what felt like an hour
Adjusting to such close proximity had been so difficult for Nella during her first few
weeks at Wagner that she’d practiced breathing through her mouth even when it wasn’t called
for, like when she was deciding between granolas at the grocery store, or when she was
having sex with her boyfriend, Owen. After about three months of failed self-training, she
had broken down and purchased a lavender reed diffuser that had the words just breathe
scrawled across its front in gold cursive letters. Its home was the far corner of her desk,
where it sat just beneath the first edition of Kindred that Owen had given her shortly after
they started dating.
Nella eyed the gold foil letters and frowned. Could it have been the lavender diffuser
she smelled? She inhaled again, craning her neck upward so that all she could see were the
gray and white tiles that lined the ceiling. No. She’d been correct—that was cocoa butter,
alright. And it wasn’t just any cocoa butter. It was Brown Buttah, her favorite brand of hair
Nella looked around. Once she was sure the coast was clear, she stuck her hand into
her thick black hair and pulled a piece of it as close to her nose as she could. She’d been
proudly growing an afro over the last three years, but the strand still landed unsatisfyingly
between her nose and her cheek. Nonetheless, it fell close enough to tell her that the Brown
Buttah smell wasn’t coming from her own hair. What she was smelling was fresh, a coat
applied within the last hour or so, she guessed.
This meant one of two things: One of her white colleagues had started using Brown
Buttah. Or—more likely, since she was pretty sure none of them had accidentally stumbled
into the natural hair care aisle—there was another Black girl on the thirteenth floor.
Nella’s heart fluttered as she felt something she supposed resembled a hot flash. Had
it finally happened? Had all of her campaigning for more diversity at Wagner finally paid
Her thoughts were cut short by the loud, familiar cackle of Maisy Glendower, a
squirrelly editor who appreciated modulation only when someone else was practicing it.
Nella combed through the bray, listening hard for the hushed voice that had made Maisy
laugh. Did it belong to a person of a darker hue?
“Hay-girl-hay!” Startled, Nella looked up from her desk. But it was just Sophie
standing above her, arms wrapped snugly around the side of her cubicle wall, eyes as wide
and green as cucumbers.
Nella groaned inwardly and clenched a fist beneath her desk. “Sophie,” she mumbled,
“Haaaay! What’s up? How are you? How’s your Tuesday going?”
“I’m fine,” Nella said, keeping her voice low in case any more audible clues floated
her way. Sophie had tamed her eyes down a bit, thank goodness, but she was still staring at
Nella as though there was something she wanted to say, but couldn’t.
This wasn’t unusual for a Cubicle Floater like Sophie. As Cubicle Floaters went, she
wasn’t the worst. She didn’t play favorites, which meant that your chances of seeing her more
than once a week were slim. She was usually too busy hovering beside the cubicle of another
assistant, her lazy smile reminding you of how good you didn’t have it. By the luck of the
draw, Sophie worked for Kimberly, an editor who’d been at Wagner Books for forty-one
years. Kimberly had edited her first and last bestseller in 1986, but because this bestseller had
not been just a bestseller—it had been adapted into a television show, a blockbuster film, a
graphic novel, an adult film, a musical, a podcast, a miniseries, and another blockbuster film
(in 4DX)—she was granted a pass on every non-bestseller that followed. Royalties were
nothing to laugh at.
Now nearing the end of her long career, Kimberly spent most of her time out of the
office, and Nella suspected Sophie spent most of her time waiting for Kimberly to kindly
retire already so that she could take her place. In a year, maybe less, it would dawn on Sophie
that her boss wasn’t going anywhere unless someone told her to, and no one ever would. But
for now, Sophie hung on naively, just as every single one of her predecessors had.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is available to buy for R325.