Dave Nelson was sitting at his desk reading the most recent edition of the Workplace Ethics Manual. To his dismay, he noted that his morning cup of coffee was not waiting for him in the usual spot. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen his secretary all morning, which was unusual because Beth didn't skip work unless she had some flight of fancy and an awfully good alibi. Dave smiled, shaking his head as he tried to imagine what could possibly be keeping the quirky redhead. He looked up suddenly as Beth dashed into his office and slammed the door shut, pressing her back against it. She looked panick-stricken and seemed to be out of breath, as if she had just run a marathon. This should be good, thought Dave.
BETH: “Dave, you've gotta help me!”
DAVE: “What's wrong?”
BETH: “I- I think I'm being stalked!”
DAVE: “By who?”
BETH: “Your knife-throwing loser friend from the talent show yesterday.”
BETH: “Don't say that name, Dave! Don't even say his name around me!”
DAVE: “What did he do?”
BETH: “Well, for one thing he searched my dressing room while I was onstage.”
DAVE: “How do you know?”
BETH: “The gift-wrapped, custom-engraved set of throwing knives were kind of a tip-off.”
DAVE: “Custom engraved? What did they say?”
Her eyes narrowed to mere slits and her voice came out almost in a whisper.
BETH: “To my Celtic cupcake...”
Dave fought to suppress a smile as he looked down at the book on his desk, which offered a momentary distraction from Beth’s latest tirade. She didn’t miss the look of amusement on her employer’s face, however.
BETH: “It's not funny, Dave! He's creeping me out!”
DAVE: “Okay. Calm down for a minute.”
Her shoulders fell as she started to relax. Dave closed the book and tried to speak calmly, letting his voice assume a reasonable, understanding tone.
DAVE: “Let's be rational. Throw-”
BETH: “DAVE! ”
DAVE: “He's harmless. I've known him since college. He has always been a desperate, obsessive, love-struck...”
He searched for the right word. Beth's eyes widened and she tilted her head imploringly at her boss. The woman was clearly trying to cling to the last thread of sanity that she had left.
DAVE: “Let me put it another way. In college, Charles was voted ‘least likely to marry before reunion.’”
DAVE: “You didn't think 'Throwdini' was his real name, did you?”
Beth shuffled her feet uncomfortably, as if suddenly embarrassed. She twisted her hair in her fingers, and then replied innocently:
BETH: “It could happen...”
Dave crossed his arms and regarded her with a look that seemed to say: Now you should know better than that. Then he wondered briefly if his secretary was really that naive, or if it was simply an affected behavior. It seemed as though he would have to talk some reason into her.
DAVE: “What are you going to do, get a restraining order against him?”
BETH: “Get real, Dave. I can barely afford gas for my car each week, plus my daily yogurt and gum each month, let alone a restraining order.”
DAVE: “Well what are you going to do?”
Beth smiled coolly. Now it was her turn to cross her arms. The naive, childlike mantle that she had adopted a moment ago fell away as she beamed triumphantly. Beth seemed to radiate confidence. Dave suddenly realized that she was either badly disillusioned, or must have an ace up her sleeve. In any case, she would have made a terrible poker player.
BETH: “I already have the key to his downfall, Dave.”
DAVE: “And what might that be?”
BETH: “The engraved throwing knives. I didn't know what the word 'Celtic' meant, so I did some research at the library after work yesterday.”
DAVE: “You went to the library?”
BETH: “Yeah, I know it sounds weird, right? ME in a library- come on... I just put on my old argyle sweater, held my head high, and proudly marched into the library and braved the wrath of dateless geeks and perpetual spinsters. That's right, Dave- I infiltrated their lair and lived to tell about it.”
Dave began to laugh but tried to hold back, hoping not to offend her.
DAVE: “H- you did? Hm- that's interesting... So, what did you find out that will help you against Throwdini?”
BETH: “Well, after a quick lesson on how to use a card catalog, I discovered my strength.”
DAVE: “Which is...?”
Beth walked away from the door and leaned on the edge of his desk in a confidential manner. She looked at him with a Cheshire cat smile, and Dave swore that he could see canary feathers at her mouth. He then wondered if he really wanted to know what she was up to.
BETH: “My heritage, Dave. I have warrior blood in me.”
This was about the last thing he expected to hear. The whole concept of his personal secretary declaring that she was now a great warrior was enough to make anyone laugh out loud. The woman did not resemble a fighter in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it would require a great leap of the imagination to envision the petite redhead as anything more intimidating than a rave participant. Dave tried very hard not to smile, so instead he nodded in agreement.
BETH: “Dave, my ancestors were warriors. We conquered Europe before the Middle Ages. I am a Celtic warrior. They had red hair and pale skin... See?”
She grasped a tuft of her hair and waved it in front of her face as she stood up. Then she displayed her arms, palms-up, indicating the fishbelly shade of white. Dave had no idea what the hell she was talking about. Since when did somebody's hair color suddenly make them worthy of warrior status? Dave studied Beth with a perplexed look. Now he wasn't sure what to make of her.
DAVE: “Beth, what are you doing?”
BETH: “I'm a warrior, Dave. But I need a weapon. Can I borrow your sword?”
Dave looked up sharply, a worried look on his face.
Beth exited Dave's office and closed the door behind her. It didn't matter if he wasn't convinced. Beth knew that she was right, and that was all that mattered. She took a seat at her desk and opened the daily newspaper. She began perusing the classified ads to take her mind off of the situation. Lisa wandered over and looked over her friend’s shoulder, curiosity piqued. She had never seen Beth display that degree of concentration at work before.
LISA: “Hey, Beth, what are you doing?”
BETH: “I like to proofread the New York Times for typos everyday before lunch for entertainment because I have nothing better to do.”
LISA: “Come on…”
BETH: “I’m trying to find a way to make some extra money.”
LISA: “What for?”
BETH: “Well, like most people, I’m kind of used to having electricity and lights in my apartment, not to mention that whole eating thing.”
Lisa rolled her eyes briefly, regarding Beth the way she normally did when she was being sarcastic. Then she remembered why she had been so curious about Beth's activities- she had blazed through the office directly from the elevator without stopping. And she had spent the past fifteen minutes in Dave's office with the door closed. It didn't take the naturally inquisitive mind of a journalist to put two-and-two together. Something was going on, and she wanted to get to the bottom of it.
LISA: “What were you talking to Dave about?”
BETH: “Nothing. It’s personal... just a personal thing, Lisa. Never mind.”
LISA: “Come on, Beth, I’m your friend. You can tell me things.”
Beth turned around in her seat and faced Lisa, considering how to answer. Knowing Lisa, she wasn't going to drop the matter until she was satisfied that she had the whole story. Beth was an eavesdropper herself, so she could sympathize with the other woman's curiosity. That was natural behavior for a woman, a fact that could not be denied. Beth decided to throw her a rope.
BETH: “Okay, fine. I'll meet you in the break room in five minutes.”
LISA: “Why then?”
BETH: “Why not?”
Lisa knew better than to press the issue. She moved back to her desk. Beth folded the newspaper and stuffed it inside of her leather backpack. She shouldered the bag, pushed her chair beneath her desk with a foot, and walked out of the office. Just then, Dave stepped out to speak with Beth about her problem with Throwdini. Lisa hopped from her chair and skittered over to him, anxious to her what he had to say. The news director looked around, puzzled.
DAVE: “Oh, hi Lisa. Where’s Beth?”
LISA: “She just stepped out for lunch.”
They both looked over at Matthew, who was working on the puzzle page of the newspaper with a great deal of frustration. His desk was once again cluttered with an assortment of unicorn statues, toys, prescription drugs, and stickers. Dave noted a box of crayons near his elbow and had no doubts that a coloring book was tucked just out of sight.
DAVE: “You know, you’d think he would actually find some work to do after Mister James was kind enough to give him his job back.”
LISA: “Do you think he's okay?”
DAVE: “I think he’s still upset about his puppet.”
LISA: “Why did you do that, anyway?”
DAVE: “To put the poor guy out of his misery.”
LISA: “Come on Dave, Matthew wasn’t that bad.”
DAVE: “No, I was talking about Billy.”
Lisa started to walk away, heading toward the break room.
DAVE: “Where are you going?”
LISA: “Beth's acting strange.”
DAVE: “As opposed to…”
LISA: “I’m going to talk to her.”
DAVE: “Don’t you have work to do?”
LISA: “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Just let me talk to her.”
DAVE: “Try to see if you can actually get her to do some work today. There’s been too many distractions around here lately. Now that Matthew has his job back and the talent show is over, maybe we can get back to the business of reporting news.”
LISA: “It must be lonely at the top.”
Beth returned from her trip to the cafeteria downstairs, carrying a cup of yogurt and a Mr. Pibb. She walked past Matthew and noticed that he was getting nowhere with the Jumble in the newspaper. She looked over his shoulder and studied the cryptic word puzzle. The answers fell into place within a matter of seconds. These things were much too easy. Matthew tapped his fingers annoyingly on the desk as he contemplated the letters.
BETH: “Gawky, unify, martyr, and… bishop. Um- 'How the beauticians ended their quarrel: By making up.”
MATTHEW: “We almost tied that time!”
He quickly erased his work and started filling in the circles, pleased with how quickly he had figured it out. Beth headed into the break room, shaking her head and giggling hysterically as if it were the funniest joke in the world. Lisa was already there, sitting at the table, a bottle of Evian in hand. She looked up as the redhead entered the room. A straw was tucked behind her right ear, disappearing beneath her long red hair.
BETH: “Making up…”
Beth pulled up a chair and dropped her knapsack on the table. She placed a 5-ounce container of blueberry yogurt, her soda, and a napkin on the Formica surface. Lisa arched an eyebrow at the meager rations. The journalist lost no time getting to the point while Beth busied herself with the yogurt.
LISA: “Okay, what's going on?”
BETH: “I'm being stalked by Dave's friend.”
BETH: “That weirdo from the talent show.”
LISA: “Are you serious?”
BETH: “Lisa, the man went through my dressing room yesterday.”
LISA: “He did? How can you be sure?”
BETH: “He took my clothes!”
She dropped the spoon and tossed up her arms in exasperation. Lisa could see that her friend was completely serious. Beth snatched up the bottle of soda and unscrewed the cap. She seemed to be very upset over the matter.
BETH: “I had to wear that black dress home with me!!!”
LISA: “Which I'm sure you didn't mind, right?”
BETH: “Well of course not, but it's the principle of the thing…”
LISA: “Did he follow you?”
BETH: “Not yet, but I'm expecting him to try something.”
LISA: “Are you afraid?”
BETH: “Yes. He's totally freaking me out.”
LISA: “Beth, you can’t help it that Throwdini fell for you. Come on, what do you know about the guy?”
BETH: “Only that he didn’t fall far enough.”
LISA: “He probably just has a crush on you.”
LISA: “What do you have to lose?”
BETH: “Well, for one thing, my reputation. I only date cool guys.”
LISA: “He's a professional knife-thrower. Isn't that cool?”
BETH: “Oh yeah, almost as cool as Dave. I wonder if he can tap dance and throw knives at the same time?”
Her eyes became distant as she stared into space. Beth absentmindedly spooned yogurt as she considered the thought. Lisa took a drink from her bottle of water. She still had not learned about the closed-door meeting that had transpired in Dave's office earlier that day. Lisa decided to make it the next question in her interrogation.
LISA: “Did you talk to Dave about it?”
BETH: “First thing this morning.”
LISA: “What did he say?”
BETH: “He recommended a lawsuit, which I can't afford.”
LISA: “Beth, you can't file a lawsuit until he does something to you.”
BETH: “He did do something to me! He gave me a set of throwing knives and stole my dress!!!”
LISA: “Which doesn't constitute a lawsuit.”
BETH: “What DOES constitute a lawsuit, Lisa?”
LISA: “Following you home, prowling around your apartment, spying on you...”
BETH: “That's what my ex-boyfriends usually do.”
LISA: “Don't you feel threatened?”
BETH: “Well no, because I know them. Throwdini is some kind of desperate freak who happens to be armed with three sharp bowie knives and probably won't hesitate to play target practice with me if he feels rejected.”
LISA: “Were you like this as a child?”
BETH: “Lisa, this is serious. I don’t know if I can deal with this everyday. Do you know what it’s like having someone following you everywhere you go, lusting after your body, taking your clothes and smelling them in some sort of sick attempt to get closer to you?”
LISA: “That would be unpleasant.”
BETH: “Yeah, my eighth-grade P.E. teacher didn’t like it either.”
After their discussion, Lisa went out for lunch and Beth returned to the task of searching the classifieds for a way to earn extra cash. She leisurely paged through the ads, elbow on her desk, one hand propping up her head, the other holding a piece of red licorice. Suddenly she bolted upright, as though shocked with electricity. Beth swiped the phone from its cradle and dialed a number. After a few seconds, the line picked up.
BETH: “Hi. I’m calling about your classified ad: ‘Married couple seeks part-time babysitter for precocious eight year-old. Must have experience.’ I watched my next-door neighbor’s kid once, when I was in high school. Does that count?”
She listened for a few minutes, starting on a new piece of licorice while staring at the ceiling. Beth rolled her eyes impatiently as she listened to the woman on the other end of the phone. The soft-spoken lady was incredibly kind as she explained the situation. Beth stopped chewing and listened more carefully. After a time, she removed the licorice from her mouth and spoke up.
BETH: “Well, I’m very nice, I'm fun to be around, and I could really use the money.”
BETH: “Really? Wow, what a coincidence, I have red hair, too! Can I meet her? …Okay, hold on a minute.”
She jotted down the address on her hand and thanked the woman before hanging up. This was putting her receptionist skills to good use. Beth clamped the licorice between her teeth like a cigar while she recopied the address to a small slip of paper. She came out of her chair and was about to run in to talk to Dave when Lisa spoke up from her desk.
LISA: “I had no idea that you used to be a babysitter…”
Beth stopped in mid-stride and turned around, grabbing the back of her chair. She grinned brightly, eager to share her story, which was actually more of a confession.
BETH: “I wasn't.”
LISA: “But I just heard you say-”
BETH: “Last year, the woman in the apartment next door asked me to watch her kid for a few hours while she went to the bar down the street.”
LISA: “She did?”
BETH: “Well, she didn't actually ask me. The kid came to my door crying after he realized that he wasn't going to catch the car on foot.”
LISA: “That's terrible! Was he okay?”
BETH: “Well, he was for awhile. Then he started misbehaving and I had to punish him, which made me feel really bad because I've never had to correct anyone before, and I wasn't sure what to do.”
LISA: “So what did you do?”
BETH: “I took him back to his apartment, taped him to a chair, and made him watch Event Horizon for an hour or so.”
LISA: “What's that?”
BETH: “Oh, it's a really gory, sort of… bloodbath slasher sci-fi movie. It was working out okay for awhile until he started screaming. Then I think he got scared because he was really quiet for the rest of the time.”
BETH: “I'm no expert, Lisa, but when you have a small kid running around the house trying to set things on fire, you have to draw the line somewhere!”
Dave, who was busily typing away on his laptop computer, looked up as his secretary came flying into the room. At this rate he would never get his work finished. Dave noted that she was wearing her jacket and backpack as if she were about to go somewhere.
BETH: “Hey Dave, could I have tomorrow off? I know it’s kind of sudden, but I might have a really good-paying part-time job as a babysitter, but I need to go out for the interview. It could be my big opportunity.”
DAVE: “Correct me if I’m wrong, Beth, but don’t you already have a really good-paying full-time job as a personal assistant at a radio station?”
BETH: “But this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, Dave! I love working with children and I’m tired of eating food that was prepared by short-order cooks who don’t speak English and check the rat traps more often than the stove.”
BETH: “Well, I remember how nice you were last year when you let us go early if we finished up our work, so I figured that you wouldn’t mind if I took a day off to make a little extra money before Christmas.”
She hopped up and down with impatience, eager to leave. Before Dave could respond, Mr. James walked in carrying a bag of candy. The billionaire CEO removed a piece from the plastic bag and regarded it with curiosity.
MR. JAMES: “Dave, how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a tootsie pop?”
DAVE: “Sir, we’re kind of busy right now.”
BETH: “Why do you want to know that?”
MR. JAMES: “See, I sort of made this bet with Ted Turner.”
DAVE: “Can’t this wait, sir? I was just talking to Beth about-”
MR. JAMES: “There’s fifty bucks in it for the first person who finds out.”
Beth took the opportunity to dash out of the office. She grabbed the lollipop from Jimmy's hand as she ran past him. Dave stood up behind his desk and looked out the door after her. Mr. James beamed at Dave.
MR. JAMES: “That’s my girl! See, Dave? You could learn a lot from Beth. If the workers at my mercury processing plant had that kind of dedication…”
DAVE: “They would still be making minimum wage with no health insurance?”
MR. JAMES: “…Yeah. Kinda of puts it all in perspective, don’t it?”
Beth flew Manhattan in her red Miata, savoring the tootsie pop that she had taken from Jimmy's bag of candy. According to the directions, the estate was about thirty miles north, located in the village of East Hills, New York. It was a cool December morning, and she had the top down on her car. Beth's red hair whipped in the frosty wind. She left the city behind and followed the dark highway as it threaded into the northern wilderness. Crisp, dry leaves swirled madly in the wake of the racing sports car. This is going to be great, she thought. Not only would she make a little extra cash before Christmas, but it would also get her out of the office for a day or so. Everything was going to work out just fine.
She arrived awhile later in a rich neighborhood occupied by well-to-do people. Doctors, lawyers, dentists, and people with professions at the higher end of the income tax bracket occupied these houses. Beth had almost no hope of ever living in a place like this, but if she played her cards right, she might be able to enjoy a bit of the high life.
The estate was set off of the main road, back among the trees. It resembled nothing less than a fairytale cottage in the dark woods, though on a far grander scale. The effect was almost whimsical. Beneath the leaden gray sky was a sprawling, two-story mansion with a cobblestone facing. It was situated upon a massive lawn which was quickly dying, as dictated by the season. Several pines and evergreens with bright red berries split the monochromatic world, shattering the gray monotony.
Beth stepped from her car and made her way up the driveway, shivering in the chilly air. She climbed three steps and knocked at the heavy oak door. Beth waited expectantly with her hands tucked deep in the pockets of her overcoat. She was facing the door at eye-level, and was puzzled to see it open inward, apparently with nobody there. She brought her gaze down and watched as a little girl poked her head around the door and looked up at her in surprise. Her head was covered with wavy, cinnamon-colored hair that fell to her shoulders. She had the round, lightly freckled face of a cherub, expressive gray eyes, pale skin, and a high forehead. After studying Beth for a moment, her complacent, sleepy-eyed countenance beamed like sunlight. She brought a hand to her mouth in surprise. Beth’s face lit in recognition and her jaw dropped when she realized who it was.
She bent down and put her hands on her knees to speak face-to-face with the child whom she had spent a day with last year. Mr. James had invited a group of third graders to the station in a ploy to get closer to their teacher, who became an unexpected addition to his list of prospective wife candidates when he accidentally bumped into her on Fifth Avenue. They were both on their lunch breaks, and Jimmy had lost no time in trying to pick her up. He was surprised to discover that she was a teacher in upper Manhattan. Over lunch, the pair discussed the educational system, and by the end of the hour he had arranged for her to bring her class up to the station for a field trip the following week.
The plan was brilliant. The billionaire could get rid of the kids and pick up their teacher in one fell swoop. He dropped the class off and left with their teacher to have lunch at a fancy restaurant downtown, leaving the WNYX staff to look after the children. Beth had taken an immediate liking to the shy little girl who had the same color hair that she did. Little Missy had tagged along with her as she went about her normal office work, although the events of that day had been far from normal. At the close of the workday, Beth had said goodbye to the quiet little girl who she thought was cute as a button.
But now fate had brought them together again. Beth marveled at the situation. It was the sort of thing that only happened in movies: two long-lost friends reunited under amazing and unlikely circumstances. She grew warm all over, despite the cold weather. She had a very good feeling about this. Beth spoke in a gentle, enthusiastic voice to the flame-haired child before her. The little girl stepped forward and took the lollipop from Beth’s mouth and put it in her own. She looked up at Beth with bright eyes and favored her with an adorable smile.
BETH: “I don't believe this. Wow… you look so grown-up. Do you remember me?”
Beth looked pensively at the eight-year-old and held her breath, not daring to hope. The girl tilted her head to one side like a confused animal. It was an adorable gesture. Missy stepped forward and poked Beth’s navel.
Beth laughed, her eyes shining with happiness. She almost didn’t care about the money. It no longer seemed as important as it had earlier. She looked up as the door moved and a pretty, red-haired woman stepped outside. She was dressed in a crisp, forest green pantsuit that bespoke a formal occupation with a handsome salary. Beth rose to shake hands with her, smiling fondly as she glanced down at Missy. The child looked back and forth between the two women and grinned with delight. She held each of their hands and bounced up and down happily.
BETH: “Hello, Miss Miller. I’m Beth. You may not believe this, but I actually met your daughter last year.”
Beth stepped from the elevator and walked back into the offices of WNYX. She removed her backpack and tossed it down on the conference table. She pulled her chair away from her desk and dropped into it. Dave, Lisa, and Mr. James walked from the news director's office to see her. Beth leaned back and threaded her fingers together behind her head, stretching.
DAVE: “Where the hell have you been?”
BETH: “Sorry I'm late, Dave. On the way back from my interview I had a run-in with the police.”
DAVE: “Beth, how many times have I talked to you about speeding?”
LISA: “What happened?”
BETH: “Well, the cop pulled me over and ordered me out of the car. He told me to keep my hands visible. Then he frisked me and wrote me five tickets. After that he interrogated me and made me walk the line. And… then he frisked me again, although I'm pretty sure the second time was just for fun.”
Dave furrowed his brow, considering how to explain the way the law really worked to his misguided secretary. Lisa cut in before he could say anything.
LISA: “So, how was the interview?”
BETH: “I got the job! I got the job!”
MR. JAMES: “Well, that’s great! I knew you could do it!”
DAVE: “I don’t recall giving you permission to leave the office today, Beth.”
MR. JAMES: “Oh, it’s okay Dave. If I had to give you permission to leave the office every time you wanted to make out with Lisa, I’d never have time to run my company or battle lawsuits, or play poker with my other rich friends.”
BETH: "Actually, Dave and Lisa don't always leave the office when they want to make out.”
DAVE: “Sir, that’s beside the point. Beth left without saying a word about where she was going, or how long she would be gone.”
BETH: “But the important thing is that I got the job, and you’ll never guess who it is.”
BETH: “Missy! She was one of the kids that visited the station last year, remember?”
DAVE: “Say, didn’t they trick you into playing hide and seek, and then tape your wrists together when you were counting with your eyes closed?”
BETH: “Those kids are a lot stronger than they look, Dave.”
DAVE: “Getting back to my point: you can’t just run off whenever an opportunity arises.”
MR. JAMES: “You don’t seem to have that problem when Lisa’s 'in the mood', Dave.”
DAVE: “Sir, this might go better if you weren't here.”
LISA: “We make a concerted effort to keep our workplace behavior completely professional.”
BETH: “You liiiiie…”
MR. JAMES: “Regardless, regardless… I’m giving Beth the day off tomorrow. Let her spend some time with her little friend, okay Dave?”
DAVE: “But sir-”
MR. JAMES: “Come on, Dave. Beth deserves a Christmas bonus as much as the next hungry wage ape. Besides, everyone needs a few bananas in their stocking sometimes.”
DAVE: “You amaze me, sir.”
MR. JAMES: “I do what I can.”
At the end of the day, Beth packed up her belongings and left the office. She was looking forward to spending tomorrow with Missy. She walked out into the hallway and activated the elevator call button. After what seemed like an eternity, it arrived and she stepped on. Beth looked pointedly at her watch as the lift descended. The bell chimed, announcing arrival at the first floor. She stared ahead vacantly as the doors opened. THUNK! Beth screamed as a heavy bowie knife sliced into the wall, six inches from her head. She ducked instinctively, hiding behind her overcoat. An all-too-familiar, pompous voice exclaimed:
THROWDINI: “There you are, my little firebrand! I’ve been expecting you!”
BETH: “What do you want?!?”
THROWDINI: “What do I want? Ha ha ha… I want your love, as well as your lovely hand in marriage!”
She reached over her head and clicked the DOOR CLOSE button repeatedly, shaking with fright. As the doors came together, Beth heard the boastful prophecy:
THROWDINI: “I will never give up on you, my love!”
Beth raced frantically from the elevator into the darkened offices of WNYX. She ran into Dave’s office and shut the door, locking it behind her. Wild-eyed, she scanned her boss’ desk for the phone. There! She picked up the receiver and dialed 911. Instead of the comforting hum of an empty phone line, she heard only eerie silence. He cut the line… A dark cloud seemed to envelope the room, and Beth grew cold. The hairs on her arms stood up in terror. She pushed the hang-up button repeatedly, then dropped the phone back onto the cradle and dashed over to the couch. Beth threw herself across it and covered her head with a pillow.
Beth was sound asleep on the couch beneath her overcoat. Her arms were wrapped around Mister Bubby Wubby Shmoopsypoops, the teddy bear that Mr. James kept in the office for emotional support. It was most likely a childhood security blanket that the billionaire refused to part with. The redhead turned over and mumbled in her sleep.
BETH: “…give me the car… ohh kay… bread feels toasted good… I will crush you like a little blue ant, Dave…”
Beth was wrenched from her sleep by the sound of someone knocking at the door. She eyed the portal with a growing sense of dread. Was Throwdini back for her? Her heart raced with fear. The knock came again, more insistent. Beth made a whimpering noise in her throat. She hugged the stuffed bear. No… Then she remembered what she discovered in the library book. She swallowed her apprehension and found her voice. Beth spoke up with an edge.
BETH: “What do you want?”
DAVE: “Beth? Open the door.”
She hopped off of the couch and unlocked the door. Someone- anyone, was here. Beth threw herself at the news director and embraced him tightly, thankfully. Dave was shocked speechless at his receptionist's behavior.
BETH: “Thank goodness you’re here!”
DAVE: “Have you been here all night?”
Dave disentangled himself from his secretary, certain that she had become a basket case. She must have a good reason for being so shaken up. He would be in big trouble if Lisa caught Beth with her arms around him. He gave her a troubled look and set his briefcase on the table. Beth spread her fingers through her hair in exasperation and looked around quickly. Dave moved over to the window and drew the blinds open, allowing the morning sun to illuminate the room. Beth took a few deep breaths and began rattling out the details of her ordeal like a machine gun on auto-fire.
BETH: “I was trying to go home yesterday, and he was in the lobby and he had me trapped! Then he threw a knife at me when I opened the elevator. Then he said he wanted to marry me! I've never been so terrified in my whole life. Thank you for saving me!”
Dave looked at her frizzed, slept-on hair, then down at Mr. James’ teddy bear.
DAVE: “I take it you didn’t sleep well?”
BETH: “How could I, Dave?”
She noticed him looking at the stuffed animal in her arms.
BETH: “He kept me company last night.”
Beth favored him with large, innocent eyes and then kissed the bear on the head.
DAVE: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you say something about your ‘warrior heritage’ yesterday?”
BETH: “I panicked, Dave! I forgot all about it!”
Then Beth suddenly remembered something else: today was the first day of her new job and she couldn't be late. The hyperactive redhead shrugged into her long overcoat and picked up her backpack. She quickly fluffed the pillows on the couch and then pressed the stuffed animal into Dave’s arms. He looked at the teddy bear in bewilderment.
BETH: “Give this to Mister James for me. I have to go now!”
DAVE: “Even after what happened last night?”
BETH: “I can’t let Missy down. She'll be heartbroken if I don’t show up.”
DAVE: “What about my coffee?”
Her mouth twitched in irritation. How could he ask for coffee after everything she'd just been through? Beth exhaled deeply. She raced from the office, sprinted past her desk and over to the coffee machine, where Bill had just poured himself a steaming mug. Beth had to work quickly. She pointed over his shoulder and shouted a frantic warning. Bill turned to see what she was talking about. Beth removed the cup from his hand and laid him out with a solid right to the jaw. She apologized as she raced the freshly brewed cup back to her employer. Beth pushed the hot, enameled mug into his hands and took off again.
BETH: “Bye, Dave!!!”
She was already out of the office and heading to the elevator. Dave looked after Beth in amazement. She was one in a million. He gestured in the direction of the elevator, saluting her with the cup of coffee, then closed his eyes and savored the elixir of life. A few moments later Bill staggered in, rubbing his face tenderly. He looked at Dave with a mixture of pain and questioning.
DAVE: “Bill? What happened to you?”
BILL: “What the hell happened to my coffee?”
DAVE: “I asked Beth to get me a cup.”
BILL: “Well, she took mine and then handed me my hat.”
DAVE: “Is this yours?”
BILL: “It was.”
DAVE: “I'm sorry. Here, Bill.”
BILL: “No, keep it. What happened to Beth?”
DAVE: “Strong warrior coffee woman. Watch children, earn plenty.”
Beth’s car tore out of the parking garage, leaving a twin set of tracks smoking on the ground. She negotiated the heavy New York morning traffic with a reckless ease born of experience. She had lived in the concrete jungle for most of her life, and it was her turf. She felt confident as she weaved in and out of traffic with blatant disregard for established laws. By the time she arrived to pick up Missy, she was beaming with pride at her skills. Never had she exhibited such a wild array of illegal lane changes, cut-offs, and hard cornering. She was so good.
She sped into the driveway, braking hard, but not quick enough to avoid taking out a steel trash can, which crumpled in half at the blow and skidded ten feet before coming to rest on its side. Thankfully, it was empty. The moment she pulled up, the front door opened and out hopped Missy. She was dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeved sweater, with a bright yellow plastic backpack over one shoulder. Beth honked the horn and waved cheerfully. A bright smile graced the child’s features as she skipped to the car. Beth now sported a pair of black shades and her leather jacket. She waved to Melissa's mother, who stood in the doorway with her arms crossed. Tianne smiled, knowing that her daughter finally had a true friend. Beth rolled down the window and called to her.
BETH: “Be back later!!!”
She leaned over in her seat and opened the door for her companion. Missy jumped in and Beth pulled the door shut. She looked admiringly at the girl, noting how closely she resembled herself at the same age. Beth reached into the back seat and pulled out a blue Donald hat with eyeholes cut into it, which she dropped over Missy’s head. The child laughed with delight as she adjusted the funny looking headgear.
BETH: “Ready to have some fun?”
Missy smiled and nodded quickly, but didn’t say a word. Still shy, but she would come around. After all, Beth herself had been a quiet child, a loner among her school-age peers. Until after high school, anyway. Then she discovered the joy of being able to express herself without being mocked or made fun of. It was the most liberating time of her life, and she did not intend on letting it go to waste.
BETH: “Seatbelts first!”
Beth shifted the Miata into gear and hit the accelerator, spinning the car through the crescent driveway and into the street. They roared off in a cloud of exhaust smoke. As Beth drove back, she thought about what Tianne Miller had told her on the phone the day before; the real reason why Missy needed a babysitter. It turned out that she was getting a divorce with her husband, which the child was too young to understand. Missy was also somewhat of an outcast at school. She kept to herself and didn’t participate in most games or activities unless a teacher personally got her involved. She had come home crying on more than one occasion because the other kids had teased her about having red hair. Therefore, she was also beginning to have self-esteem problems, and her mother was concerned that it would be her ruin. So she had placed an advertisement in the classifieds for a babysitter. But it was much more than that. She was also looking for a companion for the child, someone who could be a friend. Finally, she needed someone to take care of her daughter while she went to court to settle the divorce proceedings.
The red Miata hugged the curves of the serpentine highway that led back to New York City. Beth remained focused on driving, but briefly looked over at the girl in the passenger seat. Missy Miller was fidgeting with the knit hat, paying no attention to her chauffer. Beth tried to break the silence.
BETH: “Want to go shopping? Then maybe we can have lunch somewhere. How’s that sound?”
Melissa looked up, but said nothing. Then Beth decided to try a different tack:
BETH: “Want to go to the toy store? I hear they have some really cool stuff there…”
The girl bobbled her head up and down agreeably.
BETH: “All right, now you’re talking! Let’s do it.”
Beth and Missy pushed through the doors of FAO Schwarz at 767 Fifth Avenue. The place was bustling with people, all doing last minute shopping before the twenty-fifth. School was out, and the store was packed with kids accompanied by their parents. Beth held onto Missy’s hand as they wandered through the store, while Jingle Bell Rock played festively in the background. It was almost overwhelming. The entire three-story department store was decorated for the season. The walls, ceiling, and floor were strung with rows of multicolored lights that blinked in time, then chased in rapidly changing sequences. Silver and gold-colored foil paper and garland were fastened to the walls and shelves. Giant plastic candy canes surrounded a large Christmas tree, which threatened to topple under the weight of a dangerously excessive amount of Christmas lights. The tree was also frosted with a healthy coat of allegedly fireproof artificial snow. Joe would probably deem it an accident waiting to happen. Or maybe he would approve. As they rounded the other side of the tree, they saw a small cottage set up amidst a blanket of sparkling cotton, designed to represent snow. Santa Clause sat regally in his high-backed red and gold throne, proudly surveying his kingdom. Beth tapped Missy on the shoulder and nodded toward Santa.
BETH: “Would you like to go talk to Santa? You could tell him what you want for Christmas.”
The girl twisted around and looked sideways, diverting her attention from Santa Clause. Beth took Missy’s arm and gently turned her around so that she was facing her. Missy looked down at the floor, avoiding Beth's gaze.
BETH: “Have you been good this year? I bet that Santa would give you lots of toys if you told him how nice you were. Do you want to talk to him?”
She felt so sorry for Missy. Beth understood how she felt, and sympathized with her. But she could change all of that. She was going to do everything in her power to make this child feel good about herself. Now she just had to figure out the best way of going about it, one that wouldn’t intimidate her.
BETH: “Hey, want a candy cane?”
Missy gave a hesitant nod, but still looked at the ground.
BETH: “Let’s go talk to Santa and see about it, then. Okay?”
She straightened her jacket, then gently took Missy’s hand and led her over to the line of children waiting to see Santa Clause. As they approached, she noticed that Santa had already spotted them. He must have seen us talking, thought Beth. The line was about twenty kids long, so she took Missy over to the base of the tree and they both sat down in the deep, soft cotton snow that blanketed the floor. Missy flopped down on her back and watched the lights twinkle in the tree above her, lost in thought. Beth smiled at her, then followed suit.
Missy was happy that she had a friend now. Mom and dad were acting funny, and she could sense that something wasn't right. Last night, mom had told her that she was going into the city with her new babysitter. Although she didn’t remember Beth that well, she did recognize her. She had a fuzzy memory of going on a school field trip last year. A big man with glasses had walked into their class one day and talked to Miss Mary. Then, a few days later, they got on the bus and drove downtown. Their teacher said that they were going to see a radio station. Missy was confused because she knew that you couldn’t see radio stations, you could only hear them.
Her class had stepped off of the bus and walked out of the big parking garage. After a few minutes, they found themselves in front of a large building. Miss Mary had told them the name of the building, but she couldn’t remember the strange word now. They had taken the elevator upstairs and waited in the hallway until the man named Jimmy told them to come in. This was an exciting new change from school, and the class had stumbled into the busy office with joy. Missy trailed off to one side of the group, trying to stay out of the way. She heard Adam call the skinny man ‘stupid’ and sort of smiled at that because it was funny. Later, their teacher left and they wandered around the office looking at everything. Each of them found a grown-up to spend the rest of the day with. They were supposed to learn about work, and then write a report for class.
Missy soon found herself alone, so she went to sit at the table beside the large glass window. She climbed into a chair that was too tall. Her feet didn't touch the floor, so she just kicked them in the air and rested her head against her arms on the table. Then the lady with the long coat and pretty red hair sat down and gave her some licorice. She asked what her name was, but Missy was sort of embarrassed. The lady said that her name was Beth, and remarked that Missy’s hair was very pretty. Missy decided that Beth was nice, and told her what her name was. They talked for a few minutes, then Beth said that she had work to do, and walked away. Missy followed her and stayed by her side for the rest of the day. She found out that Beth was very funny, and thought everything was a joke. As the hours passed, she became more and more comfortable around her. Then later, in the small office, she noticed that Beth’s belly button was showing. She started poking it because she was bored. Then Beth grabbed her arm and said that she was going to torture her, so Missy stopped.
BETH: “Want to hear a story while we're waiting? I found a good one that you'll like.”
Missy turned her head sideways to look at Beth, who was kneeling in front of a colorful wooden shelf, overflowing with books. She watched as her babysitter selected a thin hardback with a blue cover from the shelf, and crawled over next to her, where she lay down, sinking into the thick, soft cotton. Missy turned back and closed her eyes, folding her arms across her belly and clasping her fingers together. She heard the crackle of the book being opened, followed by the turning of crisp pages. Beth cleared her throat and began to read.
BETH: “The sun did not shine, it was too wet to play. So we sat in the house, all that cold, cold, wet day.”
She heard Beth turn another page. This was really nice. She always liked story time because she could use her imagination to get away from school and go wherever she wanted to.
BETH: “I sat there with Sally, we sat there, we two. And I said, 'How I wish we had something to do'. Too wet to go out and too cold to play ball, so we sat in the house, we did nothing at all.”
Missy relaxed, absorbing the words as pictures appeared in her head. She became drowsy in the warm, billowy snow. Beth's voice started to sound like it was coming from underwater, and the noise of the people in the store faded away. In the dreams swirling within the world beneath her orange hair, Missy drifted on a sea of warm foam. She watched clouds pass lazily in the deep blue sky overhead. The sun was shining and birds flapped and circled above her. Then Missy could see herself from above, floating on the water. She watched as a great big sea turtle surfaced beneath her. Then she stood up on its shell, which became an island! The reptile blinked at her with soft black eyes, and Missy patted him on the head. Then the turtle paddled its flippers and carried her away.
BETH: “So all we could do was to sit, sit, sit, sit. And we did not like it, not one little bit…”
Missy awoke to the gentle sound of Christmas music being piped in through the store speakers. She turned her head sideways to see Beth sleeping peacefully at her side, the book tucked under her arm. The girl was pleased to see her friend lying down in the snow, exactly like she was. She noticed Beth’s hair spread around her head like a red halo. Beth was special because she had red hair, too. Maybe that was why she was so nice. Maybe people with red hair were supposed to be nice to each other. Missy sat up and saw that the line was down to a few kids. She pushed up from the snow and walked over to join the line. Beth was at her side within a few seconds. As long as her friend was with her, then she could do anything. For the first time in awhile, she was really happy. Beth didn’t make fun of her like the kids at school. She felt proud to have someone who would stand up for her. It made her feel good. Nobody would bother her as long as Beth was with her.
BETH: “Are you ready to see Santa now?”
Missy looked up at her friend with a smile. Santa Clause was talking, and she began to really notice him for the first time. Something wasn't right. Santa looked a little too skinny. And his glasses were too thick. She looked at him doubtfully.
SANTA: “What an adorable little child.”
BETH: “Her name is Missy. She wants to talk to you.”
SANTA: “You have a very beautiful mommy, Missy.”
BETH: “Actually, I’m not her mother…”
Missy looked up at Beth for support. Beth glanced down into the angelic face framed in orange hair.
BETH: “I’m her best friend.”
Beth said it with as much conviction as she could. After speaking the words, it suddenly dawned on her that they were true.
BETH: “Missy has been really good this year.”
SANTA: “Have you, my dear?”
Beth helped Missy up to the pedestal beside Santa’s chair, but she refused to sit. Suddenly, the kid behind them protested loudly.
KID: “Hey, that’s no fair! She has ugly red hair! I should be allowed to go next!”
Beth whirled around quickly and looked the kid directly in the eye, hoping to terrify him. Her voice was dark and cold:
BETH: “Say that again and you’ll be sucking your next candy cane through an I.V. at the hospital.”
Wide-eyed and stunned, the brat ran off crying for his mother. Probably thought I was a witch, Beth thought. With that, she turned back to Santa and smiled cheerfully at Missy.
BETH: “Okay, tell Santa what you want for Christmas.”
SANTA: “And what would you like, my child?”
She looked uncertainly at Santa, then back to Beth for approval. The secretary nodded enthusiastically. Missy turned her head sideways and regarded the man in the funny-looking red suit, which didn’t fit well. She scrunched up her face and rolled her eyes, thinking, and replied:
Beth stiffened. She spoke lightly to the child, as if she had said something immature.
BETH: “Don’t be a rattlebrain, Missy. Barbie dolls glamorize the image of air-headed bimbos, and I will not buy you one.”
SANTA: “I can bring you a nice Barbie if you like.”
BETH: “Stay out of this, Santa.”
Beth tried to speak reasonably with her misguided little friend. She looked around quickly and dashed over to a nearby display, grabbing a boxed doll. She ran back to Missy and crouched down on her knees in front of her. Beth held up the box and tried to look eager, hoping to convince the child to change her mind.
BETH: “See? Here’s a nice one. She has red hair, and her name is Vicki. Isn’t she pretty? She’s yours if you want her.”
Melissa accepted the box and turned it over, examining the new doll. Beth was right! The doll did have red hair! Hey, this was even better than stupid Barbie. She hugged the box and favored Beth with a large, happy smile as she shook her head up and down, her red locks swaying.
BETH: “That’s a good girl. We redheads have to stick together.”
Beth patted her on the head affectionately. Missy was in a considerably brighter mood than she had been earlier. In fact, she was back to being her usual playful self. She decided that it would be amusing to pull on Santa’s beard, since he seemed to be preoccupied with Beth. She reached for the tuft of white hair and grasped it in her hand.
Melissa was horrified when it separated from Santa’s face, stretching away on two white cords, seemingly in slow motion. Then everything happened at once. Missy gasped in surprise as Beth screamed and grabbed her arm, jerking her away bodily, which caused her to pull off the entire hat-and-beard ensemble. The doll tumbled over the side of the chair and landed in the fake snow. Missy cried out in surprise as she made a futile grasp for the box. Beth pushed her away and swung her backpack upward at Santa, slamming him in the side of the head. He reeled to one side and toppled over like a chopped tree, taking down the red plastic bowl in his fall. Candy canes flew everywhere as Santa hit the floor like a sack of flour. A collective gasp went up from the crowd in the immediate area, and several kids started crying.
How did he find her here? There was no way he could have been following her. Beth had lost cops with her driving before. Throwdini was an amateur. It didn't matter- she wasn't afraid of him anymore. She would be tough and take control, just as her Celtic ancestors had done centuries ago. It was time to settle this once and for all. The faux Santa wobbled to his feet, seemingly unfazed.
THROWDINI: “The one and only!”
BETH: “Leave us alone!”
THROWDINI: “Don’t you see? We are meant for each other! It is our destiny!”
BETH: “Why me? What about Throwdetta?”
THROWDINI: “She’s divorced, with two kids and has an ex-husband in prison… I can’t compete with that.”
Beth didn’t want to hear his insane rants anymore. She just wanted to be left alone. She felt compelled to protect Missy. This psychopathic maniac needed to be stopped. Dave clearly had no idea just how screwed up his arch-nemesis really was. Now she could see why he seemed to despise him so much. She now felt the same sense of repulsion.
THROWDINI: “Perchance are you a member of the International Knife Throwers Alliance? I could pull some strings for you.”
BETH: “Are you insane? I am not in love with you!!!”
THROWDINI: “When I saw you singing yesterday, I… knew I had to have you.”
BETH: “Don’t you have a life or something?”
THROWDINI: “Ha ha ha… That's funny as all get out.”
By now a crowd had formed around the three of them. Missy freed herself from Beth’s grasp and scrambled away to retrieve her doll. Beth quickly stepped over and seized her by the hand once she had reclaimed her prize, never taking her eyes off of Throwdini. They were getting out of here. The police would be there soon, she hoped. Beth thought that she had enough evidence to convict him. If he made any attempt to grab her or Missy, she would make him sorry. Of that she was certain.
THROWDINI: “My life is not complete without you, my love.”
BETH: “One more step and you’ll never throw knives with your hands again!”
THROWDINI: “I have composed a poem in honor of you. If you would allow me:”
He went to the floor on bended knee and held one hand dramatically in the air. Beth shook her head, backing up with Missy in tow.
THROWDINI: “Princess red, my one desire… eyes of gray and head of fire… like an angel-”
Beth leapt forward and drove her boot into his crotch. He grunted with surprise and fell face down on the floor, holding himself protectively. She took the opportunity to grab a handful of candy canes from the ground, slipping her shades on as she did so. Then she pulled Missy away and they left the store, followed by the eyes of stunned onlookers. When the doll passed through the security field, an alarm went off. Beth ignored it, thinking that someone had sounded the alarm because of Throwdini. She quickly sidestepped a group of police officers that raced by.
Beth located her car and they quickly left the scene. She glowed as a warm sense of security overcame her. She had defended herself against a formidable, mentally disturbed enemy, and had won. She would never be afraid of anybody again. Beth glanced over to her little companion in the passenger seat. The child stroked the doll’s hair and looked appraisingly at her guardian. She held up the red-haired doll proudly.
Beth removed her sunglasses with one hand and looked over at the girl.
BETH: “Ohh… that is so sweet.”
Beth was genuinely moved. She felt a pang in her heart at what Missy had said. Clearly, she was a hero in the girl's eyes. Beth placed her sunglasses on Melissa, noting their physical resemblence more closely. She reached over and tousled her hair playfully.
BETH: “Let’s get lunch. How about some yogurt and a Pibb?”
Missy nodded in approval. Then she raised the shades and whispered:
MISSY: “Santa’s beard came off…”
Beth laughed and couldn’t stop. She knew then that Missy would do just fine. She was a bright kid with a positive future. She had started on the path of instilling her with confidence. With a little support and encouragement, Missy would grow up to be as cool and headstrong as Beth. She needed to work with her on developing a little cynicism, but she would eventually have it. All redheads had a natural sarcastic streak. It was just a matter of time before Missy would find hers.
As they drove back to WNYX, Beth decided that she would have a talk with the girl’s mother and make arrangements to take care of her on a regular basis. The kid was more than just a babysitting job, she was Beth’s friend. Maybe Mr. James had actually been onto something when he signed up for the mentoring program. Beth vowed that she was going to be the big sister that Missy never had. Maybe she didn’t have to start a family after all. She had just skipped to the good part.
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