"Don't ask me to the dance, because I'm not going to go. Then I'd go home and cry.
I never went to one school dance."
Beth rolled over in bed and squinted at the clock radio on her nightstand. The glowing numbers indicated that it was 8:55. She was going to be late to work again. She closed her eyes and snuggled back into the warm blanket, wishing that she didn't have to get up. She just wanted to sleep the rest of her life away. Was that so much to ask? Why couldn't things be simple the way they used to?
She could remember a time when she first came to New York. Everything seemed possible then. Life was good, and she had everything she needed: a cozy uptown apartment, a steady job, and a car that ran. Beth quickly discovered that the cost of living in Manhattan exceeded her salary, and she nearly found herself on the street. Motivated by the experience, she enrolled in college and took night classes to earn a degree, hoping that it would qualify her for a better-paying job. After three years of studies and an unremarkable academic record, she had earned a minor in journalism. Beth jumped at the opportunity to work full-time at a radio station, although the position of personal assistant to the news director was not her idea of a dream job.
Five years later and I’m still trying to make ends meet, she mused, laughing softly to herself. The bedside alarm suddenly went off, startling Beth. She took a swing at the clock radio and was rewarded by the sound of it crashing to the floor. Feeling much better, she flipped the covers away and brought her legs over the side of the bed. Beth stood up and tossed her head, sweeping the dark red hair from her face. She rubbed her eyes, trying to shake off the haze of sleep. Beth walked into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror. She regarded her tired, disheveled appearance for a moment. Could be worse, she reasoned as she leaned into the shower and turned on the faucet. At least I'm not a plain-haired woman.
She thought about the past weekend as she undressed and gratefully stepped into the steaming shower. On Saturday, she picked up Missy Miller, who was now a fifth grader. The child’s mother had suggested a field trip to broaden her horizons. So, they spent most of the day making fun of the paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was Beth’s idea of an educational experience. On Sunday, they stayed at Beth’s place with too much time on their hands. Beth had difficulty explaining the reason that she didn’t own a television to a girl who lived in a house with no less than five. For entertainment, she bought a pair of tropical fish, which they spent hours terrorizing with some large magnets and a flashlight. They rounded out the day playing a variety of games, eating junk food, and talking about school life. Beth acted as Missy’s personal gossip center and was privy to all of her secrets, a task that she zealously indulged in.
Beth smiled as she washed, remembering the way she had looked across the Mousetrap board, arched an eyebrow, and asked Missy in a quiet, conspiratorial manner: “Okay, so who has the cooties this week?” She laughed at the irony of the whole thing: a thirty-five year-old and a ten year-old having a serious conversation about a schoolyard game that she used to play herself. In the time since she had accepted the job of becoming Missy’s caretaker, Beth had been teaching her important lessons about life: how to dress to impress, tactics for dealing with boys, and the importance of not eating Play-Doh. Beth did not regret one minute of time spent with her.
Upon parting, she had given Missy a special present: her own personal copy of Freckled and Fourteen, a story that had given her strength and comfort on many occasions while growing up. The book was a little tattered, but still readable nonetheless. She knew that Missy had more trouble at school than simply having to study grammar and learn to write in cursive. Those were the least of her worries. Beth knew what it was like to grow up having flaming red hair. The other kids made a daily ritual out of teasing ‘the redhead.’
So Beth took the opportunity to instill a sense of confidence in the girl, and to improve her self-esteem. She had made it her mission after learning that Missy’s parents were in the middle of a bitter divorce that they tried to hide from their daughter. Only eight years old at the time, Missy didn’t understand what was going on. Beth arrived at a crucial time. She cared for Melissa on weekends, becoming a best friend to a child whose father had abandoned his family- a bitter memory that she herself could relate to. Her own father had left when she was twelve. Looking back, Beth wished that she’d had a friend to take care of her. She might not be able to change the past, she concluded, but she could change the present by helping someone through a similar situation. In retrospect, Beth saw herself as a guardian angel of sorts.
She turned the water off and stepped out, reaching for a towel on the wall. She dried leisurely, taking her time. Rushing to work wasn’t going to change the fact that she was already late. She wrapped the towel around her body and tucked it in, then twisted a smaller one around her head. Beth padded down the hall and into the tiny living room, stumbling over a group of pillows and the Mousetrap game that had been left out. She yawned as she walked into the kitchenette, listening to the sound of her bare feet on the linoleum. Beth reached into the sink and turned on the faucet, rinsing out an empty mug. She snapped on the radio and opened the cabinet. She patted around inside before remembering that she didn’t own a coffee maker and, therefore, was not likely to find a can of coffee. Beth gave a snort and closed the door with her palm. Wake up. She closed her eyes and massaged her temples with her fingertips.
Beth wasn’t a wizard in the kitchen, so breakfast consisted of two pieces of toast, a green apple, and a glass of orange juice. It was about all she could find at the moment. She would have to go shopping after work. Part of the problem was that she bought Missy a lot of things. But it was because she loved her like a daughter, rather than as someone else’s child. She didn’t spoil her, though. Beth simply considered them rewards for good behavior.
She made her way back to the bedroom, weaving through the field of toys scattered across the floor. She went to her small walk-in closet, pushed the door open, and yanked the pull chain to turn the light on. The closet was filled to capacity with a bizarre assortment of clothing and accessories. Dozens of shoes and boots were hastily paired together in rows against the walls and several small boxes of inexpensive jewelry lined the top shelf. Beth was a fervent believer in freedom of expression. She challenged herself to come up with new and unique ways to dress that would keep her co-workers off-guard. Today, she selected a pair of black jeans, short-heeled black leather boots with straps connected to large silver o-rings on the sides, a tight-fitting black midriff top that exposed her belly, and a short white fur coat with the tags still on it. She wasn’t about to tear them off to please anybody. It was her coat and she could do what she wanted. Beth dressed leisurely and brushed her long red hair, enjoying the sensation of the comb passing through her soft tresses. She gave herself the once-over in the mirror and nodded with approval. That should do it.
Beth leaned against the elevator wall, having been lulled to sleep by the soothing hum of the lift mechanism. She was jarred awake as it ground to a halt on the fourteenth floor. The doors parted and she stumbled out, nearly losing her balance. Spying the vending machine in the corner, Beth was tempted to grab a snack but was short on money and too tired to scrounge under the machine for change. Instead, she trudged past the large WNYX sign and into the office. A quick look around confirmed her suspicions: the workday was already in full swing. Her bleary eyes settled on her desk, sitting unoccupied next to the door to Dave’s office. Her padded swivel chair looked particularly inviting. Beth looked around furtively, then sprinted across the room and flopped down in the chair. She leaned back and watched her screensaver blend and coalesce as she struggled to keep her eyes open.
DAVE: “Beth, can I see you for a moment?”
Her eyes snapped open. Beth glanced warily at the door. How did he know she was here when he hadn’t seen her arrive? Beth looked at her watch and panicked. It was eleven thirty! She faltered. Get it together, she commanded herself. This was ridiculous. Dave was not going to fire her for being late. Beth draped her coat over the back of the chair. She took a deep breath and flexed her shoulders, making the form-fitting midriff top more comfortable. Beth stepped into Dave’s office with a bright smile- the very picture of efficiency.
BETH: “Good morning, Dave! I’ll have that coffee for you in just a minute.”
DAVE: “That’s okay, Matthew insisted on doing it himself today.”
BETH: “Ooh. That’s not good. Let me make you a fresh pot.”
She turned to leave, but Dave stopped her.
DAVE: “Can you explain where you’ve been all morning? Work starts at eight o’clock around here. For you, too.”
BETH: “Oh yeah... I was babysitting. We didn’t get finished till late.”
DAVE: “Okay, Beth. I understand that you love her, but you can’t let it interfere with your work.”
BETH: “I’m sorry, Dave. It won’t happen again.”
DAVE: “Please see that it doesn’t.”
His secretary looked down at the floor and sighed. She usually felt bad about being reprimanded, but Beth was too tired to feel much of anything this morning. She stood sleepily in front of Dave’s desk and waited. After what seemed to her like only a few seconds, he spoke up.
The redhead stood with her eyes closed, weaving slightly in place. Dave peered at her for a moment, then smiled affably. He stood up and quietly circled the desk. He leaned forward and looked tentatively into Beth’s face. Her eyes were closed as she rested. Dave studied her soft, striking features, noting the way her eyebrows arched, the delicate tip of her nose, and the shape of her lips. Beth seemed to sense his presence. Her face shifted into a puzzled expression, and she slowly opened her eyes. Dave was right in front of her. Startled, she jumped back and stumbled over the small table, falling backward. The soft edge of the couch cushioned her head and upper back when she landed, while her legs and boots clomped over the table. Dave moved quickly to help her. Beth looked around in a daze, then smiled innocently as Dave pulled her to her feet.
DAVE: “Beth, are you okay?”
BETH: “I guess I need some more sleep, huh?”
DAVE: “Why don’t you take a nap on the couch? I have a few errands to run, so nobody should disturb you while I’m gone.”
BETH: “And I won’t get in trouble?”
DAVE: “I promise. Now get some rest.”
Beth lay down on the couch, turned over, and closed her eyes to go to sleep. Dave hovered over her for a second, tempted to give her a kiss on the forehead. Sometimes he didn’t know what to think of Beth. It was remarkable the way she could be so sweet and innocent one minute, and then angry and vengeful the next. He decided against kissing her. No telling how she would take it. Instead, he opened the door, stepped outside, and shut it gently behind him.
Ever since Dave came to WNYX five years ago, Beth had been a mitigating factor in the behavior of the staff, sometimes contributing to the madness and other times trying to prevent it. Dave could remember numerous occasions where Beth alone had stood by his side when everybody else was against him. She harbored the secret of his relationship with Lisa for nearly two years. She was the one who saved the day at the last minute when Mr. James was about to sell the station. And it was Beth who convinced the rest of the staff to help save Matthew’s job. He had to admit that for all of her eccentricities, she was an exceptional employee.
Beth slept. And in her sleep, she dreamed of Dave. Had she been fully conscious, she may have realized how unlike herself it was to dream about her boss. Instead, she was swept along in a myriad of bright, vivid scenes that played before her. She saw Dave’s face very close to hers. She had never noticed how nice his eyes were- so deep and blue. Then Beth was falling. Suddenly Dave was flying toward her with his arms outstretched, catching her. She was so happy that she couldn’t stop smiling. He was so nice! Outwardly, the Beth sleeping on the couch felt ridiculous. Her face twisted into a funny expression. But in her dream everything made perfect sense. It was so obvious that she was surprised she hadn’t realized it sooner- she was in love with Dave!
She awoke to find herself on the couch in his office. The details of her dream fuzzed away as she got her bearings. Why am I sleeping here? Dave’s not going to like this! Beth panicked and dashed out before he could return. The station was nearly deserted, with the exception of a few ad people running back and forth. Beth looked at her watch and did a double take. It was 6:30! Had she spent the whole day asleep on the couch? Now she was going to lose her job for sure. She turned both ways, unsure whether to stay or leave. Somehow she had fallen asleep and lost track of time. This was the most confusing thing that had ever happened. Why do you have to be such a screw-up? She heard footsteps behind her. It was Dave! She would be lucky, she thought, to escape with her job.
BETH: “What happened today, Dave?”
DAVE: “Uh, let’s see... you came in around eleven thirty, dressed like Mara Jade on a mission to Hoth. I called you into my office and you made up some excuse about preparing coffee so you could pretend to look busy. Then you fell asleep standing up and tripped over the table backwards-”
BETH: “I did?”
DAVE: “-at which point I decided to let you sleep on the couch before you hurt yourself.”
BETH: “Ohhh... that is so sweet…”
DAVE: “Don't worry about it. Now go home and get some more rest.”
BETH: “Okay, Dave.”
Dave went into his office to get his briefcase and Beth picked up her coat. He returned, closing the door behind him. Beth fell into step beside him as they walked to the elevator.
BETH: “Dave, who's Mara Jade?”
Beth lay across the couch on her back, staring at the ceiling. All of the lights in her apartment were off, with the exception of the lava lamp in the corner. How long had she been like this? Beth wanted to look at the clock, but didn’t have the energy to get up. She couldn’t sleep- at least not with the way she felt now. Instead, she was lying face-up on the couch, her eyes focused intently on the texture of the ceiling. She was trying to get a grasp on something that had happened yesterday. She had a vague idea about it, but not enough to pinpoint the feeling. For some reason she felt sad, empty. But there also seemed to be an underlying sense of hope. Was it possible that she had overlooked something in her life?
What’s wrong with me? Beth closed her eyes, thinking. She tried to concentrate on her feelings. She carefully reviewed the events of the past few months. She remembered how Dave became addicted to the white noise machine that Joe built for him, and all of the times that Max tried to hit on her. Then she recalled the FBI investigation that sent Mr. James to prison, and the evil Johnny Johnson trying to take over his corporate empire and falling in love with Lisa in the process… Later, Matthew discovered him living in the subway as a wino, having been completely ruined by Mr. James. Beth was amazed that Lisa was still attracted to him, despite everything that he had done. And now she was married to him!
She laughed at the childish plan that Max had devised to get her to go out with him. That was lame, she thought. She kicked herself afterward for having fallen for it when she couldn’t find him anywhere in the office. Beth smiled absentmindedly, recalling how she had cried into Dave’s suit when she confessed that she had been wrong about Max. Talk about going overboard. But hadn’t she always been extremely emotional? No wonder she couldn’t help herself. Dave was the only one to turn to, and despite being uptight most of the time, he was the most level-headed person that she knew. And aside from the fact that he was her boss, Dave was really nice, and he genuinely cared about her feelings-
Realization struck like lightning. Beth’s eyes shot open. She sat bolt upright on the couch and gripped the arm for support. Goosebumps flecked her skin and her jaw went slack with disbelief. The details of her dream returned with stunning swiftness. Dave… She recalled everything. Her skin warmed at the thought of Dave: the image of his face, his deep, blue eyes, and his smile. Her heart soared and she had trouble getting enough air in her throat. Beth looked around, as if seeing her apartment for the first time. Was this what love felt like, what she had been missing her whole life? She leaped from the couch and jumped around with joy. Yes, yes, YES!!!
Then she stopped cold. Her hopes plummeted. I’m not worthy, she realized. She flopped back on the couch, defeated. Dave would want nothing to do with her because of her reputation. She wasn’t good enough for him. She had always been flirtatious, with ‘easy’ romantic standards, and had never been sincere about love. It wasn’t her fault, though. Her father had left when Beth was only twelve, abandoning her mother to raise her. When Beth was a little older, her mother explained that men were ‘only good for one thing’ and cautioned her to never trust them because they were all insincere. Beth was too young to realize that her mother had been speaking out of bitterness at her husband’s betrayal. That warning, however, was vindicated on the night of Beth’s senior prom, when her date stood her up. When Beth realized that he wasn’t coming, she went to the dance anyway, only to discover him there with another girl. It had been a painful experience, one that she vowed never to let happen again.
So Beth had believed her mother, and grew up regarding men as playthings. Although she was selective, she only played along while they were interested and until she was satisfied. Then she dropped them before they had the chance to do it first. It was her defense mechanism and it worked- maybe a little too well. Now that she was really in love, it might be too late for her. And that was the root of her current problem. Certainly, Dave was aware of her flighty affairs. She had made details of her love life known to her co-workers on more than one occasion because she found their reactions to her exploits amusing. She concluded that all of her past relationships, if they could even be called that, were just shallow attempts that filled her desire to feel loved and needed without being truly committed. Her joking, flippant attitude toward her co-workers’ crushes and office romances was simply another defense mechanism to hide her own romantic insecurities. Dave would never understand, she conceded as she threw a small couch pillow at the lamp cord, jarring it from the socket. The small apartment went dark. Beth didn’t feel like walking all the way to her room tonight. Instead, she rolled over, snuggled into the warm corner of the couch, and fell asleep.
Beth pushed through the door to the women’s bathroom and made her way to the nearest mirror. She was wearing a light khaki button-up shirt beneath a dark brown linen blazer, and a Saran-Wrap skirt over dark green pantyhose with black combat boots. She sighed heavily as she checked her makeup again. If she wanted to get Dave’s attention, he had to notice her more. But she had to do it with subtlety, a little at a time. Her natural beauty had to seep into his awareness; she couldn’t force it on him all at once. Beth reached toward her reflection with a trembling hand and pressed her fingertips to the cool glass. What am I going to do?
She walked into the bar, extremely depressed, but with purpose. The plastic mini skirt squeaked around her hips with every step. Beth sidled up to the bar and set her purse on the nearest seat. She looked around until she located the bartender, who was shining the taps. Beth snapped her fingers sharply to make her presence noted. The bartender turned and walked over to Beth. She narrowed her eyes and gripped the counter with both hands. Beth leaned forward on the bar and scowled, sizing up the man as if he were an intruder from another galaxy.
BETH: “What’s the strongest thing you’ve got?”
BARTENDER: “White gorilla.”
BETH: “What’s that?”
BARTENDER: “One part vodka to one part root beer Schnapps.”
BETH: “Great, I’ll have two.”
The elevator door opened and Beth crawled out on her knees. She sat up for a moment, wobbled in place, and began the daunting task of crossing the hall. She was forced to walk this way because she hadn’t regained full control of her basic motor functions. Beth giggled as she walked because her dress was making squeaking noises. For some reason it was a lot funnier than it should have been. She trundled determinedly through the office and finally arrived at her desk. Beth gripped the arms of her chair and buried her face in the cushioning, her body racked with laughter until she had tears running down her face. Between the uncontrollable fits of mirth, her logical side was trying to figure out how she was going to work in her present condition. After awhile, her amusement subsided and she thought: How did I ever think that two white gorillas were going to help me win Dave’s affection? No sooner than she considered the question, Beth was consumed by another fit of hysteria as the picture flashed through her head.
The secretary stopped laughing and turned around quickly. The sight of Lisa, dressed smartly in one of her black and gray business ensembles, was enough to sober her up instantly. Beth pulled herself unsteadily into the chair, which tried to roll away from her. Lisa reached under Beth’s arms and helped her into the chair.
BETH: “Thanks, Lisa.”
LISA: “Are you okay?”
BETH: “Right as rain.”
Beth looked quickly to one side and avoided eye contact as she pretended to straighten her jacket. Lying through an intoxicated haze was more difficult than she had imagined, especially when she was trying to fool somebody as smart as Lisa. She tried to look attentive as possible while acting like she knew what her friend was talking about. Her next tact was to feign innocence.
LISA: “Are you sure? You look a little… drunk.”
BETH: “Why do you say that?”
LISA: “Well, for one thing, I just watched you walk across the office on your knees. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought if you'd been Matthew. And besides, you can barely stand up on your own.”
BETH: “That’s not true! See?”
Beth shot up to emphasize her point, and promptly pitched forward into Lisa, who struggled to hold her up before easing her back into the chair. Her expression changed to that of a hapless child, trying to pretend that it never happened. Beth listened distractedly as Lisa questioned her about her behavior. She occasionally turned her head and regarded her left shoulder with an annoyed look, as if something about it were disturbing her. Lisa crouched down to look at Beth eye-to-eye.
LISA: “Are you feeling okay?”
BETH: “Yeah, fine. I just can’t get this damn monkey off my back.”
Her remark was punctuated with a sudden twist of her shoulders, as if she were trying to shake something loose. Beth scowled at her arm, then sighed in frustration, resigning. Lisa giggled, realizing the full extent of her friend’s intoxication.
LISA: “Okay, Beth. You just sit tight for a minute and I’m going to make you some coffee.”
Lisa went to the coffee machine. She looked over her shoulder while she measured out the coffee grounds. Beth seemed to be fidgeting in her chair and brushing at her shoulder. What was Beth’s problem? She normally didn’t drink unless it was with the rest of the staff during their Friday night get-togethers at the bar downstairs. Lisa turned back, working more quickly.
LISA: “We can’t let Dave see you like this.”
Beth lifted her arms and looked down at herself. What? She looked fine, right? After all, didn’t she wake up an hour early this morning just to give herself time to dress up super nice for Dave? Before she knew it, Lisa was at her side with a steaming mug of coffee. Beth put her arms down quickly, wondering how long they had been raised. She accepted the coffee with slightly trembling hands and brought it to her lips. The invisible monkey on her shoulder let out a screech and jumped to the floor. Beth paused from her coffee to follow the animal’s departure. It scurried away and vanished through a wall. Beth gave a firm nod. Lisa nudged the bottom of the coffee mug and encouraged Beth to drink.
BETH: “Good riddance.”
LISA: “What’s gotten into you? I’ve never seen you like this before.”
BETH: “Nothing’s wrong.”
LISA: “I’m your friend, Beth. If there’s anything I can do…”
BETH: “Yes. Leave me alone. Get back on your broomstick and fly away.”
Beth sprung from the chair and dropped the coffee mug as she ran awkwardly from the office. She couldn’t face everybody like this. Lisa threw out an arm in a futile attempt to stop her, but Beth was already gone. She dashed toward the door and nearly collided with Dave, who twisted away sharply to avoid her. Lisa skidded to a halt and turned back to apologize. She tried to look past him to see where Beth had gone, but she was out of sight. Dave turned to see what she was looking at. Lisa tried to catch her breath.
DAVE: “What’s going on?”
LISA: “Trying to… stop Beth…”
DAVE: “What’s wrong with Beth?”
LISA: “…don’t know… what…”
She held up a hand, urging him to wait a second. Dave tilted his head. He was about to move on, but Lisa shook her head vigorously from side-to-side. She breathed deeply through her nose, trying to catch her breath.
LISA: “…Beth crawled… gorillas…”
DAVE: “Are you covering for her again?”
LISA: “What? No.”
Dave moved past her and continued into his office. Lisa trotted after him. When she came through the door, he was already seated. He opened his briefcase and began sorting through his files. Lisa challenged him with an all-business look. He looked down at the paperwork on his desk, barely suppressing a smile. He paused a moment, fuming. Suddenly he tilted his head up sharply, his eyes filled with anger.
DAVE: “You’re fired!”
Lisa jumped back, startled and confused. What was going on here?
DAVE: “Did you think that Mister James was going to let you be the news director forever? We gave you a chance to prove yourself, and you couldn’t even handle that.”
For once in her life, Lisa Miller was at a loss for words. In all of the time that she had known Dave, he had never accused her in such a reckless manner. Had she done something wrong that she wasn’t aware of? What could make him turn on her like this? She couldn’t believe what she was hearing-- couldn’t believe any of it. Just then, Jimmy James stormed into the office. Lisa spun around desperately. She had never been so glad to see Mr. James in her whole life. Jimmy knew what a dedicated employee she was. He would stand up for her.
MR. JAMES: “What in the name of Mayberry is going on around here?!?”
LISA: “Dave’s trying to fire me!”
MR. JAMES: “Then why are you still here? Didn’t you get the message?”
Lisa’s blood turned to ice. She looked at Jimmy James. His eyes were steel; cool and emotionless. He wasn’t here to help her. The world seemed to darken around her. This had to be a dream. Mr. James looked accusingly at Dave.
MR. JAMES: “Dave, didn’t you tell her?”
DAVE: “I did, sir. But she won’t listen.”
MR. JAMES: “Call security.”
Dave picked up the phone and dialed.
DAVE: “Joe, we have an unwelcome visitor. Please come to my office immediately.”
A moment later Joe entered the room. He stood beside Mr. James with all the bearing of a well-trained soldier. Lisa whirled in a circle, panicking. The billionaire snapped his fingers. Joe stepped forward and grabbed Lisa around the legs. He picked her up and tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. Lisa was dizzy with fear, and the blood rushed to her head. She pounded her fists on his back, but to no avail. He marched out of the office, followed by Dave and Jimmy. Lisa twisted her head as she was carried out. She saw everybody working as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Lisa looked back at Beth’s unoccupied desk. Her chair was still in the same position that it was when Beth had run away. Irrationally, she thought: Something is really wrong with Beth.
At the elevator, Joe dropped Lisa back to her feet, where she tottered dizzily. Dave and Jimmy stood on either side of her. Lisa tried to turn back to the office but Joe held her in place, facing the elevator. Lisa fought back tears. Her stomach twisted and she felt sick. The bell sounded and the doors opened silently, revealing two policemen. One of them stepped forward with a pair of handcuffs.
POLICEMAN: “Miss Miller, you’re under arrest. Please cooperate with us.”
Lisa looked down at the floor as she put her wrists out. She vaguely registered the sound of feet padding around in the office behind her as everyone went about their daily work, paying no attention to her. Lisa closed her eyes and a tear slid down her face. The handcuffs ratcheted around her wrists with a click of finality. A voice was speaking. Lisa sniffled, still looking down.
POLICEMAN: “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
She slowly lifted her face to her interrogator and gasped. They had featureless chrome faces that stared blankly ahead. Lisa pulled back in surprise and tried to run, suddenly aware that Joe was no longer standing behind her. She turned and stopped cold in her tracks, disoriented. She saw Dave and the rest of the staff, minus Beth, standing in a loose line. Everyone was smiling and clapping. A bright flash stunned her, and she blinked rapidly. Spots danced before her eyes. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” everyone chorused. Lisa blanched. It was a joke… Floored, she turned back to the police. They pulled the silver masks off, laughing. Lisa collapsed to the floor, relief flooding through her. The whole thing was a JOKE! She laughed and cried, and couldn’t stop. Her friends surrounded her with hugs and good wishes, and someone unlocked the handcuffs and took them away.
DAVE: “The look on your face was priceless! Hey, did anybody get a picture of that?”
BETH: “Oh yeah… Who wants copies? A dollar each!”
LISA: “Beth! What happened to you?”
Beth stepped away from the large potted plant beside the vending machine in the corner of the hallway. A camera dangled loosely from a strap around her wrist. She nodded her head, a tight smirk plastered across her face. Someone threw a handful of confetti into the air and crepe streamers cascaded over Lisa’s head. The redhead sauntered forward and tripped on her own feet. She quickly regained her balance and put a hand on Lisa’s shoulder. Beth tilted her head inquisitively. Everyone began speaking at once.
BETH: “I guess that stuff takes longer than I thought to wear off.”
LISA: “What did you drink?”
MR. JAMES: “Thanks, guys. You can pick up your checks tomorrow.”
POLICEMAN: “Thank you, sir.”
MAX: “Who has drinks? I’ll take one of those.”
LISA: “I need one.”
JOE: “You don’t think I overdid it?”
MR. JAMES: “No, it was a thing of beauty.”
MATTHEW: “The solitaire thing was the real joke-”
MAX: “No it wasn’t! You do it all the time!”
LISA: “Who’s idea was this?!?!”
DAVE: “That would be mine. I thought you needed a break.”
JOE: “Seriously. You're too wired.”
DAVE: “Okay everybody, fun’s over now. Sodas are in the break room, and we have-”
BETH: “-a staff meeting in five minutes- that’s my job, Dave!”
Everyone trailed back into the office, chatting happily. A large chocolate birthday cake was set up on the table in the break room. Beth poured sodas for everyone and distributed paper plates and napkins. Dave helped Lisa slice the cake. Beth felt detached from the celebration, though. It was a lucky thing that Joe found her leaning against the vending machine in the hallway and reminded her about the birthday prank. Good thing he had the camera, too, because she had completely forgotten about it. Beth only hoped that in her inebriated state, she hadn’t taken a picture of the ceiling or anything. Deep in thought, she failed to notice Max sidle up to her. He tugged at the top edge of her cellophane miniskirt.
MAX: “I want to save some of these chips, but I can’t find any plastic wrap. Care to help me out, cupcake?”
She barely registered his voice, but the tug at her waist garment snapped her out of her fugue. Beth immediately made sense out of what he was implying. Revolted, she grabbed the nearest cup of soda and flung it in his face.
BETH: “Take a flying leap!”
Everyone laughed as Max backed away, groping blindly for the paper towels. Beth beat him to it. In one fluid move, she snatched it away and threw it at him. The roll of paper napkins bounced off his forehead. He staggered backwards into the edge of the counter. Beth’s cheeks flushed with anger and embarrassment. Max left the break room with nothing more severe than a case of wounded pride, and the party resumed. Lisa moved over to Beth and offered her a drink. Beth regarded the cup of soda doubtfully.
BETH: “Got anything stronger?”
LISA: “What was that all about?”
BETH: “Max was hitting on me again. When people act like that, it makes me want to grab a sharp object and do terrible things to them. By the way, happy birthday, Lisa.”
LISA: “Remind me to never make you mad.”
She smiled at Beth and then turned away to speak to Dave. Beth sighed heavily as she cleaned up the spilled soda and partially uncoiled roll of paper towels. While she was on her hands and knees, she peered over the edge of the table and watched Lisa talking to Dave. He held his coffee cup in one hand, looking so relaxed. Beth silently cursed herself for her outburst. That was SO unattractive. Dave glanced down at Beth and smiled thinly. He nodded his head, acknowledging her. Lisa said something, and his attention returned to her. Beth finished wiping up the spill and stood up. She carried the used napkins and plates to the garbage can. Her mind wasn’t even on these menial tasks. She was working by rote. Instead, her brain worked furiously to devise a plan to get Dave interested in her.
DAVE: “Okay, let’s get back to business everyone.”
Everybody drifted out of the break room. Staff meeting. She should have been on top of this. Beth quickly wiped her hands on a damp washrag and followed. Dave Nelson shuffled the stack of papers, tapping them against the conference table so that the edges lined up neatly. It was time to focus on the work at hand, now that everyone’s mood was lightened by the joke. Lisa was still a little pale, but her hands had finally stopped trembling.
MATTHEW: “Hey, remember last year when Joe rigged the ATM downstairs to dispense play money?”
Beth looked down and tried not to blush. That was one episode that she would rather put behind her. Despite the fact that it had given everyone else a good chuckle, Beth didn’t find it amusing. She never had a lot of money as it was, but then the ATM machine kicked out Monopoly money at the crucial moment when her rent was due. Beth had paled at the sight of the currency that portrayed Rich Uncle Pennybags, rather than Benjamin Franklin. The security guard had to carry her back to WNYX after she collapsed in a dead faint.
DAVE: “I said, let’s get back to business. I want to remind everyone that it’s time for the annual staff file reviews. I’ll be checking your personal file information to make sure that it’s correct. If I find anything wrong, I’ll call you into my office to make the necessary changes. Lisa, I need to have a look at that Metro Rail piece as soon as it’s finished.”
Lisa nodded and made a mental note to herself. Dave looked pointedly at Max, and continued.
DAVE: “It has also been brought to my attention that somebody has been misusing company stationery, Max.”
MAX: “What did I do?”
DAVE: “The superintendent informs me that a large amount of WNYX paperwork has been found on the streets below, apparently in the form of paper airplanes.”
MAX: “Oh, that. I made a bet with Matthew that I could hit the building across the street before he could. Loser coughs up fifty bucks.”
MATTHEW: “The only problem was the crosswind. It kind of goes sssshhh!!! and makes the planes crash. I’ll go downstairs right now and clean up the mess.”
DAVE: “That won’t be necessary, Matthew. The city already took care of it, and we currently owe them a two thousand dollar fine, which will be coming out of the paychecks of the parties involved. Now, I presume that we won’t be having this problem again. Meeting adjourned.”
Dave took the stack of paperwork into his office and closed the door behind him. Everybody milled around for a minute or so before dispersing. Max kicked the steel garbage can on the way back to his desk. Beth remained seated at the table. She looked at the door to Dave’s office and bit her lip indecisively. When she was certain nobody was watching, Beth rolled her chair over to the window and attempted to peek through the blind. How could she time her moment when she couldn’t see what he was doing? At least Dave was alone. All she had to do was go into his office and confess everything. Do it now! She stood up and reached for the door handle. It turned just as her hand touched it. Beth pulled back as though she had been shocked. Suddenly she was face-to-face with Dave.
DAVE: “I was about to call for you, but it looks like you beat me to it.”
Beth smiled awkwardly and took a step back, suddenly aware of how close she was to him. Dave backed up and returned to his office. Beth stepped inside and turned, slowly closing the door behind her. She heard the chair squeak as he settled into it. Her body blocked his view of her shaking hands. It was crucial that he didn’t know how nervous she was if her plan was to work. Beth turned around and began covering her eavesdropping plan. She tossed her head and gestured as she spoke.
BETH: “Yeah, I heard you coming. It’s one of those, you know, metaphysical things. We call it women’s intuition.”
Beth swung easily onto the couch, sinking into the green cushioning. Dave scanned the top of his desk, searching for Beth’s papers. He nodded when he found the documents, and smoothed them out neatly in front of him. Beth craned her neck for a better look, wondering what this had to do with her. As far as she knew, nothing in her records was amiss. As the WNYX secretary, she covered her bases first and foremost. There wasn’t a single detail wrong with her paperwork, or at least she hoped.
DAVE: “Beth, I have to ask you a question.”
DAVE: “How did you get hired here?”
BETH: “Oh, well, I applied downstairs at the-”
DAVE: “No. What I’m asking is: what is your last name?”
BETH: “I have a last name?”
DAVE: “How did you manage to get hired, when every single 'Last Name' field on your resumé is blank?”
Beth relaxed. At least Dave wasn’t mad. The last thing that she needed was to be in trouble with the first man that she truly loved. If she could get him to relax, too, and maybe even laugh a little, then she had a fair chance at winning him over. She just had to be careful that she didn’t come off as being too sarcastic. Beth suddenly decided that honesty was the best policy. If she gave him straight answers, then she could expect the same from him. This was a crucial step in establishing a good relationship. So she answered honestly.
BETH: “See, my father left us when I was twelve. My mom wanted nothing to do with him afterward, so she had my name legally changed.”
DAVE: “Don’t you use your mother’s maiden name, then?”
BETH: “She never told me her maiden name.”
DAVE: “You're kidding.”
BETH: “No, really. I’ll have to ask her about that sometime.”
DAVE: “Come on, Beth, what’s your last name?”
BETH: “Plants and mirrors.”
Beth said the first thing that came to mind. The corners of her mouth twitched as she resisted the urge to smile. It was a gesture that she was barely able to contain. Although Dave was momentarily amused, she decided not to carry it too far. He might become irritated with her. She need not have worried, though. Dave looked down so that she wouldn’t see his amusement. He scribbled a quick note on Beth’s profile and closed the folder.
DAVE: “I can see I’m not going to get anywhere with this line of questioning.”
BETH: “No, you won’t, Dave.”
DAVE: “Fine, you can go now.”
Beth hopped up from the couch and bounded over to his desk. Before Dave could react, she gave him a quick kiss on the forehead. Then she skipped cheerfully out of the office. He called after her through the open door.
DAVE: “Have you been drinking?”
Beth turned over in her sleep, her face half-buried in the soft pillow. As she rolled, her forearm flipped across the edge of the bed and hung suspended in mid-air. In her dream, Beth was walking through ancient stone ruins that had lain decaying in the moist green earth for centuries. The place seemed oddly familiar to her, even though she had never been there before. She felt unusually relaxed. Beth closed her eyes as wisps of fog curled around her, penetrating her cloak and chilling her skin. Her peace was short-lived. Beth sensed that a black force was coming for her, racing over the stones. She instinctively ducked, and in the same motion drew her sword to defend herself.
The physical Beth sleeping in the bed mirrored her dream actions. Lying on her side, she ducked and twisted her body, drawing an imaginary sword from a spot near her waist. Her arm flailed out and struck the bedside lamp as she lashed out with the invisible weapon. The telephone on her nightstand rang simultaneously, and Beth rolled out of bed and crashed to the floor. She winced, tucking her right hand protectively beneath her left arm. With her free hand, she fumbled in the darkness for the phone. It sounded again just as she found it. Beth picked it up and pressed TALK, cradling the receiver against her ear with her shoulder as she stood up. She licked her lips and tried to speak. Her voice was thick and dry.
BETH: “Hello? …Missy? What’s wrong?”
Beth walked through the darkness as she listened, feeling the walls with her free hand. She made her way into the living room and gracefully moved through the invisible field of toys and junk scattered on the floor. She had memorized the spatial layout of the mess, and didn’t touch anything. Her movements were as lithe and practiced as a tightrope walker. Beth finally opened her eyes to look at the readout on the radio in the kitchen. It was just after seven o’clock, and her friend was in trouble. Missy was crying, deeply upset about something. Beth pulled her right hand from beneath her arm. Most of the pain was gone. She flexed her fingers, testing them. Nothing seemed to be broken, but it still hurt.
BETH: “Missy, calm down. It’s okay-”
Her voice broke and she had to fight back tears. Missy didn’t want to go to school today. Apparently, a group of kids had pushed her around at recess. Two of them had smacked her arm with slap bracelets. Missy explained that the attack was unprovoked, and that she hadn’t even spoken to them beforehand. She also wanted to know why it had happened. Beth shivered in the dark. She cleared her throat before answering.
BETH: “It’s not your fault. Sometimes people are afraid of what's different, and sometimes they feel threatened, but that doesn’t make it right.”
Melissa described the marks on her arm, and how she had escaped by seeking refuge near some teachers. Beth lowered her head as tears welled up in her eyes. She covered her face and wept silently in the darkness. The little girl on the other end of the phone shared her tears. Beth took slow, steady breaths. She blinked hard and gritted her teeth. This isn’t fair to her, she thought. Beth grabbed the front of her night gown and dried her eyes. Then she looked up determinedly and made a promise that she intended to keep at all costs.
BETH: “Don’t… please don’t worry. I’ll be there to help you today, I promise. Just be nice to everybody and-- wait a minute.”
She stopped herself. Sometimes being nice didn’t get you anywhere. Beth had learned this firsthand, and had several painful experiences to show for it. She gripped the phone tightly. When she spoke again, her voice was filled with conviction.
BETH: “Let me tell you something red hair: it can be intimidating to people who don’t know how to handle it. You have to be strong and stand up for yourself. The next time someone picks on you, push them away. Yell at them, wave your arms, and pitch a fit- whatever you want to do. Trust me, it’ll scare them, and a good scare every now and then is healthy for a person.”
After some more words of encouragement, Beth said goodbye. She set the phone on the counter and ran her fingers through her hair, feeling the hard, rounded edge of the countertop pressing into her back. She looked around the darkened room and noticed the dusky light seeping through the window blinds. Somehow she knew that it was going to be one of those days. Oddly, she was looking forward to it.
Max Louis sat on the edge of the coffee table, gesturing elaborately with his coffee mug while Matthew leaned forward, listening intently. Mr. James stood nearby. They appeared to be in the midst of an important conversation, though somehow Beth doubted it. Her prediction was vindicated as she neared them.
MAX: “So the question is… who would win… in a no-holds-barred street fight between Michael Jackson…
and Pee Wee Herman.”
MR. JAMES: “Actually, I’d like to see that.”
Jimmy James reached into his suit jacket and retrieved his cellular phone. He flipped open the cover and dialed. Max exchanged a high-five with Matthew.
Max turned at the sharp click of Beth’s heels on the floor as she approached. The redhead was literally dressed to kill. She sported a pair of dark gunmetal shades with smoked lenses. Her lips were painted blood-red, giving her a severe appearance. She wore a skintight black spandex bodysuit and a white tee shirt that read: ‘DON’T PISS ME OFF. I’M RUNNING OUT OF PLACES TO HIDE THE BODIES.’ Her outfit was enhanced with a belt made of large, interlocking silver o-rings, slung casually around her hips. The metal loops clinked softly as she moved.
Beth sauntered by, ignoring them. Mr. James trailed off from his telephone conversation. Her mouth twisted into a tight smile when she heard the sound of ceramic breaking on the floor. Max had dropped his coffee cup. Beth turned and looked sidelong over her shoulder, her gray eyes peering across the top of her shades as she tipped her head down.
BETH: “Better be careful, Max, or you might break something important.”
MR. JAMES: “Hold on a minute, Rupert.”
Max gaped openly at the woman who used to be Beth. What happened to her? She used to be so… simple. But now she looked like a world-class assassin, or maybe some kind of super spy. A sexy super spy, he thought. Max put on an air of bravado, tucking one hand casually into his pocket as he strolled over to her.
MAX: “Like to live dangerously?”
In one fluid motion, Beth turned and moved behind him. A sharp, metallic clicking noise accompanied the action. In the space of a second, Max Louis felt two things: Beth’s left hand open and pressed against his back, holding him in place; and the cold, sharp edge of a switchblade at his throat. The weapon had been concealed on the inside of her spandex suit, clipped in the center of the v-neck between her breasts. Jimmy James dropped his cell phone.
BETH: “Do you?”
MAX: “N- not really.”
BETH: “I didn't think so.”
She released him and smoothly flipped the blade closed, returning the weapon to its hiding place within her suit. Her attitude was completely affected, of course, but there was no sense in telling everybody. She only had to act bad for one day. But she needed to ditch the knife before she left the office for lunch. Being arrested for possession of a weapon that was considered illegal in thirty-five states wasn’t on her list of things to do.
Beth sat down in front of her computer. Max returned to the coffee table, where he tried to pick up his conversation with his stunned colleague. The redhead looked around quickly, then palmed the switchblade into the lower drawer of her desk, locking it securely. Now that the moment had passed, she had some real work to do. Beth turned on the monitor, and the computer buzzed to life.
She began typing, letting her thoughts flow through her fingers and materialize on the screen before her. Once she had her train of thought, Beth filtered out everything else. Engrossed in her work, she failed to notice the growing number of office staffers gathering behind her desk. Her world was filled with the click of keys and the soothing hum of the computer drive. Everything else was meaningless. She had to save Missy and countless others like her, who were the victims of senseless playground abuse. Mr. James walked over to her desk, parting the crowd like it was the Red Sea.
MR. JAMES: “That’s my girl! Now everyone get out of here and let this pixie work. She’s smokin’ like a ninth-grader in the bathroom!”
BETH: “Thank you, Mister James!”
MR. JAMES: “Hell, if she keeps this up, the rest of you might find yourselves on the unemployment line next week.”
LISA: “I seriously doubt that.”
He turned and gave Lisa a dubious expression. She set her coffee cup on the desk and quickly walked away. Jimmy shrugged and turned back to Beth.
MR. JAMES: “What’s her problem?”
BETH: “Got me.”
MR. JAMES: “Ah, no matter. I have a meeting with Rupert Murdoch in half an hour. I’ll see you guys later. Keep up the good work, Bethie.”
BETH: “You got it, sir.”
Beth slipped into Dave’s office at quarter-past eleven. He was working on his notebook computer, surrounded by budget spread charts and radio timeslot sheets. Dave looked up as she came in. She grinned sweetly and closed the door behind her. Beth sat down on the couch, biting her lower lip. She had his full attention. It took a concerted effort on his part in order to avoid staring at his secretary. Dave Nelson wanted so badly to break down the barriers that separated them and tell her how he really felt, but he wasn’t entirely sure how he felt himself. He was caught in a conflict between his better judgment and responsibility for the station, and his feelings as a man. He was forced to maintain his professional veneer in favor of his true feelings and desires, but it wasn’t always that easy.
BETH: “Is something wrong, Dave?”
BETH: “You were staring at me.”
DAVE: “Oh. Sorry, Beth, I was just thinking about the budget situation. I can’t seem to get it off my mind. What did you want to talk about?”
BETH: “I had an idea for an editorial that I wanted to run by you.”
She stepped forward and pushed the report across the desk to him. Dave picked it up and examined it. Beth sat down on the couch and clasped her hands together. After a beat, Dave’s eyes flicked across the room to her.
DAVE: “The Great Slap Bracelet Debate: Are Our Kids at Risk?”
BETH: “Yeah. That’s the one.”
DAVE: “I assume you’ve been talking to Missy again?”
BETH: “They hurt her, Dave! Something has to be done! This can’t go on anymore- I won’t let it!”
DAVE: “You’re a secretary, Beth. You don’t have to write editorial topics.”
BETH: “But if I don’t tell the world about this, then more kids will suffer!”
Dave turned his head down and closed his eyes. She was right. But he couldn’t just put her on the air. She was an administrative assistant, with no professional broadcasting coaching whatsoever. He had to let her down gently, though, because he still cared for her. Beth looked at the floor and sighed. When she opened her mouth to speak, her voice came out barely above a whisper.
BETH: “I care about children, Dave.”
DAVE: “I know you do. Just think about it for awhile, okay?”
Beth took the editorial and left without another word, closing the door behind her.
Beth scanned the office. Her watch read 11:35. Lisa was typing at her desk. Max was in the broadcasting booth finishing up a traffic report. She had to time this perfectly. There was no room for error. As she watched, Max removed the headphones and switched to the commercial tape. He left the booth and headed for the break room. Beth tensed like a coiled spring. Every fiber of her body sparked with nervous energy. It was her driving force. She double-checked everybody’s position, then bolted from her seat, driven by the knowledge that she could be caught. Beth raced into the sound booth, slammed the door behind her, and wedged the chair beneath the handle. There’s no turning back now. She turned the commercial feed off and switched the controls to live broadcast mode.
BETH: “People of America, I would like to bring a matter of great importance to your attention. Your children are being victimized by a deadly, but seemingly innocent toy. They think that slap bracelets are fun, when in fact the opposite is true.”
Dave Nelson came out of his office like it was on fire. He glared at Beth in bewildered rage. Lisa was already out of her chair. She smacked her hands against the window, rattling the Plexiglas. Dave pulled himself up the stairs by the handrails. He wrenched the door handle but it wouldn’t budge. Somehow he knew it wouldn’t open before he even tried. He hammered on the window with his fist. Lisa dashed away.
DAVE: “Get Joe up here, now.”
BETH: “Slap bracelets are dangerous weapons masquerading as hip fashion accessories! Your kids wear them everyday without a second thought. What they don’t know is that if the plastic coverings come off, they become a razor-edged weapon.”
Joe raced into the room with Lisa at his heels.
JOE: “What’s up?”
He pointed an empathetic finger at the redhead clutching the microphone with both hands.
DAVE: “Patch me into the intercom, Joe. Let me talk to her.”
In less than a minute, Joe had pulled the cord from the telephone on Beth’s desk and connected it to a socket set into the wall beside the door to the broadcast room. He handed the receiver to Dave. Beth observed these events through a haze of unreality. She didn’t want to believe that it was actually happening. She could get fired for this, but it was too late. Inspired by fear, she spoke even more passionately.
BETH: “Do we want our kids walking around school bleeding at the wrists? NO! Why not? Because slap bracelets suck! Take them-”
The telephone beside her rang. Beth pulled away from the microphone, startled. She looked through the window in the door. Dave was holding the receiver in his hand. He nodded as his eyes met hers. Beth gazed at him emotionlessly, an automaton rather than a flesh-and-blood woman. She picked up the phone coolly.
DAVE: “Hello, Beth, do you read me?”
BETH: “Affirmative, Dave. I read you.”
DAVE: “Open the door, Beth.”
BETH: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
DAVE: “What’s the problem?”
BETH: “I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”
DAVE: “What are you talking about, Beth?”
BETH: “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
Joe kicked the door in, nearly tearing it from its hinges. Beth leaped up, still holding the microphone. Joe advanced on her. He picked Beth up and tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. She spoke quickly into the microphone.
BETH: “Take them away from your kids! They’re dangerous! Please listen to me!!!”
She let go of the microphone and pounded her fists ineffectually against his back. Joe descended the stairs and deposited Beth on her feet. She bolted away the instant they touched the floor. Dave steeled himself to chase her, but Joe blocked his way.
JOE: “Dude, there’s no stopping a runaway redhead. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
The small red car idled to a stop. The driver looked over her shoulder and put the car in reverse, smoothly parking between a UPS van and a telephone repair truck. She turned the engine off and rolled the automatic windows down. This afforded her a perfect view of the sprawling playground of Cannon Elementary School. The large vehicles acted as camouflage, hiding her from direct sight.
Cannon was located in an outlying neighborhood to the north of Manhattan. The school itself was an elegantly designed, single-level building, faced in red brick. The playground encompassed three sides of the main campus and was obviously custom landscaped. The grounds were neatly trimmed and divided by narrow sidewalks. The swing sets and other playground equipment were set into low pebble-filled enclosures made of logs. It was very similar, Beth decided, to the elementary school that she had attended as a child, though not nearly as nice. This school district obviously had a lot of money to spend.
Beth watched as children ran around the schoolyard playing tag and off-the-wall ball, or just huddled in groups. Kids seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Beth soon located the door of the cafeteria from which they came, eagerly racing down the stairs to join their friends. She listened to their laughter and voices with a sad smile, feeling a pang of regret. It reminded her of a simpler time in her life, although not necessarily a happier one. Then her heart skipped a beat as she watched a lone girl push through the door and slowly, almost mournfully descend the stairs. She had flaming orange hair, alert gray eyes, and a pale, freckled little face. She wore a yellow shirt, denim jeans, and scuffed red canvas sneakers. Nobody raced to join her when she arrived at the bottom of the stairs. It was an all too-familiar scene for Beth, one that she had enacted many times growing up. She watched Melissa roam across the playground by herself. The girl stopped and looked up. She had been watching the ground as she walked. Now she stood on her toes and craned her head, looking around. Beth quickly slid down in the seat of her car. She wasn’t avoiding Missy, but she wanted to observe first-hand how things would play out.
Missy dropped back to her feet and sighed. Her little shoulders slumped as she exhaled sadly. Now it would happen all over again. The others would find her soon and make her feel bad because her hair was different from theirs. It wasn’t her fault that her hair was orange. She didn’t ask for it to be that way. She thought that she could tell and adult and they would help her. The best person that she could think of was Beth from the radio station. She was her best friend and would listen to anything. But she wasn’t here like she promised. Beth sounded tired on the phone, and maybe she had gone back to sleep and forgotten. Now what would happen? Missy tried to remember what Beth had told her.
Beth continued to watch. Missy seemed to be staring at the ground, thinking to herself. Then she looked up at the sky and bit her lip indecisively. A smile came to Beth’s face. There was a delightful quality in the little girl’s expression that warmed her heart. We’re so alike… she thought. Her smile abruptly faded as she noticed a cluster of three or four kids moving toward Missy. These ones were slightly taller than she was. Obviously sixth graders. They looked around and noted the positions of the playground monitors. Beth tensed and tried to lean forward, but the seatbelt restrained her. She grimaced in frustration as she struggled to unfasten it, never taking her eyes from Missy. The group moved in. Missy spotted them and quickly turned away. She ambled in the opposite direction, searching for a teacher. As Beth watched, one of the kids pulled a slap bracelet from his wrist. A few others sported several at a time. Beth’s skin chilled and her blood ran cold.
Melissa started to walk more quickly. One of her shoelaces came untied and trailed behind her. The boy in the lead took four quick steps and put his foot down on it. Missy stumbled and fell to the ground, catching herself with her hands. Her face turned red in frustration. Several kids nearby laughed and pointed when they saw her fall. Not one teacher noticed. Beth was halfway across the street before she even realized that she had left the car. Adrenaline surged through her and she tore through the nearest gate like a predator running down an animal. Kids jumped out of the way as she came barreling through. One teacher turned her head as the children began to react to the black-clad woman dashing across the playground. Heads turned in unison, like dominoes falling in a chain reaction.
Missy rolled over and sat up, placing her small hands flat against the ground. She sobbed as she noticed the dirt scuffs on her pants. Tears came to her eyes as she heard the shouts of the other kids. Now everyone would make fun of her. Then she noticed that nobody was laughing anymore. She brushed the dirt from her pants and looked around. Beth raced across the schoolyard with single-minded determination, her body acting on its own. Her arm shot out and ripped a plastic baseball bat from the hand of a startled player. The group of bullies finally turned as they noticed other kids pointing. But it was too late.
The redhead slammed into the group, bowling them over like cardboard boxes. They slid across the hard-packed dirt and tried to scatter like frightened animals. Beth whipped them savagely with the bat, enjoying the sound of the weapon cutting through the air. Her mouth was twisted in anger as she struck their legs and backs repeatedly, making sure not to miss even one of them. Everyone on the playground let out a collective gasp or exclamation. Some teachers ran for help, while others tried to force their way through the mass of stunned children.
Missy jumped up in a daze when she saw what was happening. Some lady in dark clothing was attacking kids! She noticed the red hair whirling around the lady’s head before it occurred to her: Beth was here! Missy’s face was a mask of shock as she watched her friend hit the bad kids with a foam-covered Nerf bat. She jumped back to stay out of the way, startled at how fast Beth could move. Missy jumped up and down in happiness. Beth whirled, striking one boy on the back of the head as he tried to scramble away. His baseball cap flew off and he pitched forward on his face. Her eyes flashed in blind rage and she spoke through gritted teeth.
BETH: “How does that feel, huh? You like that? Like to pick on someone-”
She tripped another straggler and tore the slap bracelet away from him, tossing it behind her. When she was satisfied that she had taken care of them all, she threw the bat down. There was a clear twenty-foot radius in every direction. The four kids hobbled and ran away. Beth was breathing hard with the sudden exertion that she had put herself through. Her head spun with diminishing rage. Realizing why she was there, Beth turned. Melissa was standing ten feet away, glowing with pride. Beth smiled warmly and walked over to her. She dropped to her knees and hugged the girl tightly. Missy buried her face in Beth’s shoulder and began to weep. Beth caressed the back of her head gently.
BETH: “Shhhh. Shhhh. It’s okay.”
Beth held her protectively until she stopped. She gave Missy a final squeeze and pulled back, holding her at arms-length for inspection. She brushed away an unruly strand of orange hair that had fallen across the girl’s face. Missy tilted her head to the side and wiped away a tear. Then she looked at the ground and sighed. Her face was still set in a pouty expression. Beth knew how she felt. Words were not necessary. The look on her angelic face spoke volumes. Beth swallowed hard and lifted Missy’s chin with her hand. She looked into her eyes and smiled sadly.
BETH: “Told you I’d be here.”
Her heart warmed as a tiny smile came to the girl’s face. She leaned forward and pressed her forehead to Missy’s. Beth closed her eyes and began to sing softly.
BETH: “There she goes… there she goes again. Racing through my brain…”
The sharp peal of a siren broke the lullaby. Beth pulled back and looked toward the street. A police car braked to a halt just outside the fence. Teachers rushed the car and began shouting and pointing frantically. Beth turned back and spoke quickly.
BETH: “Looks like my ride is here. Don’t worry, I’ll be okay. Now go have fun. They won’t bother you anymore.”
She grabbed Missy’s shoulders, gave her a spin in the opposite direction, and gently pushed her away. The auburn-haired fifth grader stumbled off. A teacher moved forward quickly. Missy tried to look over her shoulder but the woman blocked her view as she steered her towards the building. Beth turned to the onrushing police officers and held her arms out to be cuffed.
The telephone on the desk rang. Dave looked up from his work. He had been reviewing the latest Max Louis’ This Day in History segment. The phone sounded again. He called through the open door:
DAVE: “Beth, would you-”
Then he remembered that Beth was gone. She had taken off to lord-knows-where and nobody had seen her in hours. Dave briefly considered firing her as he reached over to pick up the phone.
DAVE: “WNYX, Dave Nelson speaking. …She what?”
The officer recounted the details of the incident at Cannon Elementary School. Dave assured him that he would be down as quickly as possible. He hung up the phone and picked up his overcoat. Lisa stopped him as he was leaving.
LISA: “Where are you going?”
DAVE: “To get Beth out of jail.”
DAVE: “Apparently, she assaulted several students at an elementary school. The police have her in custody downtown. I’m going to go pick her up. Keep a lid on this. You’re in charge until I get back.”
The guard unlocked the iron door and pulled it open. Beth looked up at the disturbance. She had been sitting on a wooden bench in the confines of a small cell for the past hour. Beth felt oddly calm, even though she had never been in jail before. She pushed up from the bench with semi-affected weariness.
BETH: “What? Am I being moved to maximum security now?”
OFFICER: “No, ma’am. You’re free to go. Your bail has been posted.”
BETH: “By who?”
DAVE: “By me.”
Dave stepped around the officer and took his secretary by the hand, leading her out of the cell. Beth winced in humiliation. He was the last person she expected to see. She hadn't counted on getting bailed out of prison by her boss, who she was also trying to pick up. Beth hoped that her reputation wouldn’t be too tarnished. The policeman addressed Dave as the group moved down the narrow hallway.
OFFICER: “Thank you for your cooperation, Mister Nelson.”
DAVE: “You have my sincerest apologies. I had no idea she was going to do something like this. How are the kids?”
OFFICER: “We just received the report from the office at Cannon. The children are fine.”
DAVE: “Thank God.”
OFFICER: “They’re recommending that she be taken in for psychiatric testing.”
BETH: “No, that’s okay! I just forgot to take my medicine before I left for work this morning, that’s all. See, I’m taking stress medication for personal reasons and I get side effects when I don’t take it. The doctor has me on, uh-- Citroen.”
DAVE: “That’s enough, Beth. Just try to relax, you’ve had a busy day.”
Beth leaned her head on Dave’s shoulder and wrapped her arms around him. She gave the police officer the sweetest, most innocent smile that she could manage, hoping that he would buy the story. Dave patted her on the back as if he were trying to calm her. The policeman finalized the out-processing paperwork and Dave initialed it. Beth was preoccupied with trying to wipe the fingerprint ink from her hands using a sheet of paper from the officer’s printer. Dave noticed what she was doing and frowned at her. She stopped immediately with a guilty expression on her face. The policeman signed the report and handed a copy to Dave, along with a fax containing a list of recommended psychiatrists. The two men shook hands and everyone stood up.
OFFICER: “Thank you again, Mister Nelson.”
Dave was already walking away. Beth forced a smile and turned to follow him. She raised her middle finger over her shoulder as she left. Dave glanced over and pulled her hand down. They pushed through the doors and left the police station.
DAVE: “Damn it, Beth. Do you want to get arrested again?”
BETH: “For what? It’s only the second most recognizable shape in the world besides the Volkswagen beetle.”
Dave ignored the comment. They stopped at the top of the stairs. Dave tucked his hands into the pockets of his overcoat and sighed. What am I going to do with her? He squinted in the sunlight and took a deep breath, enjoying the cool breeze that caressed the treetops along the boulevard. Beth didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. She was rummaging through her leather backpack, looking for something.
DAVE: “Okay, where to now?”
Beth stopped digging. She pulled her hand out of the bag and looked up thoughtfully. A sudden gust of wind made her hair dance across her face. She absently brushed it back before replying.
BETH: “Take me back to Cannon so I can get my car. If it hasn’t been towed.”
They drove in silence. The copy of the police report was tucked into the cup holder in the console. Dave glanced over at the woman sitting beside him. She didn’t look like a criminal. Beth sat quietly in the passenger seat, fixated on a small glass peppermill that she had produced from her backpack. She stared at the device intently as she twisted it in her hands. She would occasionally pause to shake it next to her ear and listen to the sound of the peppercorn rattling around inside.
DAVE: “Having fun?”
BETH: “It’s like a Rubik’s cube…”
Her voice was flat and emotionless, nearly monotone. She twisted the peppermill a few more times, smiling with satisfaction at the grinding sound of peppercorn being crushed. Like Missy’s enemies…
BETH: “…except without all the little colored stickers.”
She quit playing with the peppermill and looked up tersely.
BETH: “What? What is it?”
DAVE: “What were you thinking?”
BETH: “I was trying-”
DAVE: “You’re not her mother!”
BETH: “I might as well be!!!”
Her voice broke. Beth leaned forward and buried her face in her hands. The glass peppermill tumbled over the edge of the seat and fell to the floorboard, forgotten. Her body was racked with sobs, and she could feel the saliva build-up inside her mouth. She didn’t care. What was done was done. She couldn’t take it back, and didn’t want to even if she could. She had done the right thing by protecting Missy. It was her natural maternal instinct at work, even though she had no child of her own. Beth looked up and wiped her eyes. Everything had gone so horribly wrong today, not at all the way she planned. Beth looked miserably at Dave. Her voice was thick when she spoke.
BETH: “Take me home.”
The morning sun rose above the city and pierced the black veil with fingers of light that shattered the grip of darkness. Beth woke up rejuvenated. She felt like a new woman, prepared to take on the world. It was amazing what beating a few sixth graders with a baseball bat and a night of good sleep could do for one’s self-esteem. It was early, so Beth decided to get some input before playing her trump card. She stretched out across the couch and dialed a number that she knew better than the one printed on her social security card. Sometimes the only person in the world that you could talk to about your problems was your best friend.
Beth closed her eyes and basked in the sensation of her head resting on the soft pillow. It was one of the rare times in her life where she felt perfectly comfortable. The temperature in the apartment was ideal, her body felt warm and tight, her clothing rested firmly against her skin, and she was lying in a perfect position. She didn’t want to move and inch. I could stay like this forever. Finally, someone picked up on the other end. Beth could discern soothing music in the background. If she tried hard enough, she imagined that she could smell the incense that was almost certainly burning nearby. Beth heard the person exhale deeply before speaking. The voice was clear, alert, female, and irritated.
TRACY: “This better be so important.”
BETH: “Don’t tell me you’re still sleeping.”
TRACY: “No, as a matter of fact I was just in the middle of my morning yoga exercise until someone interrupted me.”
BETH: “You can twist yourself into a pretzel later. I need to talk about something.”
Her friend sighed. Beth could hear her getting up and walking. The ethereal music grew louder. She heard a sharp click and the music stopped. Beth jerked the phone away as the unexpected sound of a blender grated in her ears.
BETH: “What did you do that for?”
TRACY: “I’m making a smoothie. What’s so important?”
BETH: “I’m still working on Dave, and I need some advice.”
TRACY: “Ah, the noble pursuit… climbing the corporate ladder.”
BETH: “I’m not doing it for that!”
TRACY: “Of course not. What minimum wage earning secretary wouldn’t want to date her boss for the fun of it? Go, Beth!”
Beth gritted her teeth and tried to keep her temper in check. Tracyne could be so damned irritating when she wanted to, which was usually most of the time. The redhead took a deep breath and forced herself to stay calm. She wasn’t going to let her friend have the last word, though.
BETH: “Remind me to poison your aloe plant sometime. I told you, I really love Dave. What happened yesterday didn’t help my cause, though.”
TRACY: “And… what did you do yesterday?”
BETH: “I got arrested.”
TRACY: “Get out of here! For what?”
BETH: “I saved Missy from some bullies that were picking on her.”
TRACY: “What did you do?”
BETH: “I went bitchcakes and whipped them with a baseball bat.”
BETH: “The bat had foam on the outside!”
TRACY: “Well that's good to know.”
BETH: “Everything was fine until they took me to jail.”
TRACY: “What did you think was going to happen?”
BETH: “Forget it. Anyway, what should I wear today?”
TRACY: “What did you wear yesterday?”
Beth described her black outfit with the silver chain belt.
TRACY: “And you wonder why the cops picked you up, looking all like Catwoman the way you did.”
BETH: “I wasn’t trying to be Catwoman, I just wanted to get Dave’s attention.”
TRACY: “Mmm. Did it work?”
BETH: “Not really. So, what do I wear now?”
TRACY: “What do you have in your closet?”
BETH: “Everything. You know what I have in my closet!”
TRACY: “Okay. Think basic. Men are visual creatures. They like what they see. Now go from there.”
BETH: “I’m drawing a blank. Sorry.”
TRACY: “Okay, sit tight and I’ll be right over.”
Beth switched the phone off and went back to her room to put some clothes on. She pawed through her top drawer and found a pair of light gray sweat shorts and a white tee shirt. Then she made her way out to the kitchen, plugging in her lava lamp along the way. She watched for a moment as the blue globules rose with the heat and began to expand and circulate in the green liquid. Beth likened it to the creation of a miniature universe in slow-motion, and it never ceased to fascinate her. Her stomach rumbled and she realized that she was hungry. She walked into the kitchenette, thinking that she had a box of cookies somewhere. Beth opened all of the upper cabinets, looked in the refrigerator, and then checked the lower cabinets. Nothing. She kicked one of the doors closed in frustration. Her craving for cookies and milk intensified with her search. She moved to the other side of the fridge and opened the narrow pantry door. Crackers… chips… cereal… canned food… popcorn. Damn! Beth whirled around, simultaneously bringing the pantry door shut. She bit her lip thoughtfully as her eyes roamed the kitchen. They settled on a set of drawers that she had overlooked.
Beth practically slid across the floor in her socks and came to rest on her knees in front of the cabinet. She opened them eagerly, one after another, finding only waxed paper, aluminum foil, and some cooking utensils. Beth pursed her lips with dissatisfaction. She pushed the drawer shut, but didn’t move her hand quickly enough. It closed, pinching her finger between the track and the roller. She pulled her hand away sharply and examined her finger. Blood oozed from the tiny laceration. Beth stood up and turned on the sink faucet, rinsing her finger in cold water. Hopefully, it would slow the bleeding. She examined the cut again. Blood continued to seep from it, pulsing with each heartbeat. She went to the bathroom to find some bandages.
Tracyne arrived ten minutes later, wearing a gray sweat suit and jogging shoes. She let herself in with the key Beth had given her and closed the door behind her. Tracy looked around at the mess on the floor. Half of Beth’s apartment looked like a fourth grade classroom. There were toys and crayons and papers everywhere. Suddenly, her attention was drawn to a clatter followed by a string of curses. It seemed to be coming from the bedroom. Tracy walked toward the hall, carefully picking her way through the mess on the floor.
TRACY: “Beth? It’s me! Where are you?”
She rounded the corner just as her best friend stumbled out of the bathroom. One hand was hastily wrapped in gauze. Beth squeezed the bandaged fingers with her other hand, keeping pressure on it. Finally she looked up at Tracy and smiled grimly. Beth pulled the gauze off and held up her hand, letting deep red blood trickle down her fingers in dark streaks.
BETH: “Good morning.”
TRACY: “What happened?”
BETH: “Well, you know me- couldn’t get through the week without my daily blood-letting.”
TRACY: “Cool. I didn’t know you practiced that.”
Tracy ducked as Beth threw the roll of medical gauze at her.
BETH: “I don’t.”
Tracyne Adams was Beth’s closest friend. She was an amateur bodybuilder by choice, and her compact frame was one that most women envied. Standing a mere five feet, three inches tall and weighing only ninety pounds, Tracy had everything going for her: a petite, muscular body with a firm abdomen, sexy hips, and a cute, perky face with an impish smile. Beth overlooked the fact that her friend happened to be blonde. She normally steered clear of the picture-perfect Barbie doll wannabes, but Tracy was the exception to the rule. She was a refreshing change from the majority of air-headed bimbos that paraded around like they were God’s gift to the world. The pair had met in college, where they shared a biology class. Their friendship had formed out of a mutual disdain for society and pop culture in general. Beth found Tracy’s cynical personality refreshing. Tracy, in turn, was drawn to the funny, often sarcastic redhead who couldn’t seem to wear the same outfit twice. Most of the other students avoided the pair. In light of being social misfits, the two women had forged a great friendship that endured long after college.
TRACY: “What happened?”
BETH: “I cut my finger on the drawer in the kitchen. Then I cut my other finger when I was trying to open the First Aid kit, which didn’t contain any Band-Aids. And then I dropped the antiseptic wipe on the bathroom floor before I could use it, and I still want some cookies!”
TRACY: “How’s this?”
Beth stuck her head out from the bathroom door and steam curled around her. She had just stepped out of the shower and was in the process of drying off. Beth held the towel across her chest, using the edge of it to dry her face. Her friend was holding up a black Lycra spandex top.
BETH: “No good. I wore that last week.”
She turned away and continued to dry herself. Tracyne spoke up as she resumed her search through Beth’s closet.
TRACY: “It’s not a federal crime to wear the same article of clothing twice in a month, you know.”
BETH: “Don’t tell me about crime. I spent two hours in jail yesterday.”
TRACY: “Yeah. How was that, anyway?”
BETH: “Shut up.”
TRACY: “Lots of cheap stuff in here.”
BETH: “Shut up!”
Beth emerged from the bathroom wearing dark gray panties and a matching bra. She dried her hair with a small towel. Then she carefully tilted her head from side to side and cracked her neck.
BETH: “Do we have anything?”
Tracyne stepped out of the closet holding up a pair of blue jeans and a crème-colored tank top.
BETH: “I can’t wear that! It looks like-”
TRACY: “Got any scissors?”
TRACY: “I need a pair of scissors. This is a custom outfit. Only takes two minutes to make. Puppychow.”
Beth looked at her best friend skeptically. Tracyne looked her directly in the eye, challenging her. She seemed to be silently asking: Do you want Dave or not? Beth knew better than to argue. She dropped the towel on the carpet and went back into the bathroom.
A small pair of orange-handled scissors flew out the door. Tracyne caught them between her palms with a clapping motion. She sat down on the floor Indian-style and began to work. Beth brushed her hair and put on her makeup while her friend set to work. She could hear the sound of the scissors chewing through denim. Beth was putting the finishing touches on her lipstick when Tracy came in and draped a pair of shorts on the counter.
TRACY: “Ta-daa! I’d advise you to wear your overcoat until you get to work.”
Beth dropped the lipstick in the sink and picked up the shorts. She held them up for inspection, frowning critically at the frayed edges. Then she turned them around. The cut line stopped exactly one inch below the bottom edge of the back pocket. Is she kidding? Beth looked up at Tracyne.
BETH: “How am I going to get into these?”
TRACY: “It’s not easy, but it’ll be worth it. Come on.”
BETH: “I don’t have your body, remember?”
TRACY: “True. But you’re close enough.”
She grabbed Beth by the arm and pulled her into the bedroom. Beth stood before her friend, wearing nothing but lingerie. Her hair was still damp from the shower. Ridiculous. This could be a scene from a slumber party, she thought.
TRACY: “Lift your arms.”
Beth reached for the ceiling while her friend pulled the stretchy cotton knit tank top over her arms and into place. Then she stepped into the shorts and pulled them up to her waist. She hadn’t worn them in a year or two, and the fit was a little tight around her hips. She gritted her teeth as she zipped up the fly and buttoned the top. Then she stepped back for Tracy’s approval.
TRACY: “Not bad… for a redhead.”
Beth punched her friend in the shoulder with a little more force than necessary.
TRACY: “Hey! I was only joking.”
BETH: “Sorry, I'm afraid it was lost on me.”
TRACY: “Sensitive subject?”
BETH: “Just be happy that you didn’t grow up looking like your hair was on fire.”
BETH: “Don’t you think this is a little… revealing?”
TRACY: “Not at all. They’re actually pretty comfy.”
BETH: “Says you. I feel like I’m going to cut myself in half.”
TRACY: “That's the idea. Men love it.”
BETH: “And this works?”
TRACY: “Guaranteed. If Dave doesn’t ask you out before the end of the day, I’ll eat a side of steer.”
Beth snorted back a laugh. She wanted to see that. Tracy snapped her fingers as another idea occurred to her. Beth blinked in confusion. What now? She watched as her friend rummaged through her backpack for something. After a minute, Tracyne produced a black Sharpie marker. She moved over to Beth and spun her around by the shoulder until she was facing the other way.
TRACY: “Bend over and touch your toes.”
TRACY: “Just do it. Trust me, this’ll be good.”
Beth let out a sigh and did as her friend instructed. She bent over and stared at the carpet, wondering what had gotten into Tracy. Beth turned her head sharply as she felt a hand on her waist. Then she felt a light tickling sensation moving across her posterior, first on one side, then the other.
BETH: “You’d better not be getting any thrills off of this.”
TRACY: “There. Have a look.”
Beth stood and looked over her shoulder at the reflection in the mirror. There were two words written in capital letters across the back of her shorts, one to each pocket. They read: ‘LOVE YOU’. She smiled appreciatively at her friend’s cleverness. Beth turned and faced the mirror, arms akimbo. Tracy smacked her on the butt, causing Beth jumped in surprise.
TRACY: “Go get him, girl!”
BETH: “I had to do something! I couldn’t just let it happen! She means more to me than anything in the world, including my own happiness.”
Dave sat in stunned silence, refusing to become angry with Beth for believing so passionately in a cause. She stood in front of his desk wearing her favorite overcoat, the brown striped one with dark patch pockets. He didn’t bother to tell her that he thought it looked hideous. In this state, she was liable to disembowel him with a metal nail file, or some equivalently medieval form of torture that she was probably knowledgeable about. Instead, he let her continue.
BETH: “It’s not the kids, it’s the school! The National Coalition of Advocates for Students has a list of ten fundamental student rights, did you know that, Dave?”
He shook his head slightly, resigning to this unfortunate gap in his knowledge.
BETH: “Rule number seven states: ‘A school should pride itself on being an inclusive democratic community of children and adults. The principal should model respectful treatment of adults and children, and expect all members of the school community to be respectful of each-other. Disrespectful treatment by adults or students should not be tolerated’.”
She took a step back and shook her head in a triumphant manner, punctuated by a swirl of red hair. Beth pursed her lips tightly and leaned forward again, stopping herself with her hands on the edge of the desk.
BETH: “Well I didn’t tolerate it, and neither will she.”
DAVE: “That’s fine. All I’m asking is that you don’t ever pull a stunt like that again. You landed yourself in jail yesterday. What if you didn’t work here? What if you worked for someone who didn’t care whether or not you got out of jail? Did you ever stop to think about that? All things considered, I’d say you’re pretty lucky to be working here, Beth.”
Beth lowered her head in shame, long red hair veiling her face like a curtain. Was anything ever going to work out for her? Why did misery always seem to be her lot in life? Didn’t she deserve better than this? All she wanted was what was best for that little girl, plus a little bit of happiness for herself. Now she was on the verge of losing her job. Beth started to cry.
BETH: “I’m sorry, Dave.”
Without another word, she turned and raced from the office. The door stood ajar where she had left it. Dave was about to follow her when the telephone on his desk rang. He looked at it for a long moment before answering. He doubted that his secretary was in any kind of mood to answer calls today.
Lisa came to the corner of the hallway and stopped. The vending machine stood against the wall to her right. A large fake potted tree rested in the corner beside the machine. She stepped forward and parted the branches to one side. Nothing. The reporter silently cursed herself. This was the second time that Beth had run away this week. What was she-
A muffled sound came from somewhere to the left. Lisa turned quickly and surveyed the hall. A wooden table and chair set stood opposite the window, below a painted mural. The hallway was deserted. She listened carefully, hoping to locate the source of the noise. Lisa took three steps and rested one hand on the back of the chair. She heard the sound again. It was coming from behind the door across from the table- the supply closet. Lisa approached the gray, utilitarian metal door. She pressed her ear to it and closed her eyes. It sounded like somebody inside was crying. Lisa turned the door handle gently, not wanting to startle them. She pushed the door open far enough to get her head in, and peered inside.
The supply closet was actually the size of a small room, lit by a single flickering light. It was about ten feet square, the walls lined with metal shelves. They contained every imaginable cleaning solution, as well as scrub brushes, dust rags, paper towels, sponges, and boxes of long fluorescent light bulbs. Along the floor were a few rolling mop buckets, several wide utility brooms, and two vacuum cleaners. A half dozen gray plastic buckets were stacked together beside two metal ladders. Beth sat on the ground with her back to the door. Her long coat was draped over her shoulders like a shawl, and she was leaning forward with her head down. Her shoulders rose and fell as she cried. Beth sniffled and wiped away her tears on her coat sleeve. Lisa pushed through the door and shut it behind her. The redhead turned at the sound.
BETH: “Leave me alone.”
Lisa sat on the floor beside Beth and put her arms around her. She wasn’t used to comforting people with words, so Lisa just held her instead. Beth pressed her face into Lisa’s shoulder and wept. The journalist patted her friend on the back, trying to quiet her. They remained this way for several minutes. Beth finally pulled away and wiped her face. She looked at Lisa with reddened eyes.
BETH: “Thank you.”
LISA: “It’s okay…”
BETH: “You probably think I’m pathetic, don’t you?”
Lisa shook her head slightly.
LISA: “Do you want to talk about what’s wrong?”
BETH: “No- yes.”
Beth started at the beginning. She told Lisa about her feelings for Missy, and the challenge of trying to guide a child who had no father to look up to. Then she confessed that constantly worrying about Missy was abrading her nerves and affecting her professional integrity. She made Lisa aware that her life was a lot more complicated than it seemed, leaving out the main detail: the fact that she was enamored with Dave Nelson- Lisa’s former lover. When she finished, Beth felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Lisa reassured her that everything would work out fine, that she just had to plow ahead and not worry about the details, and that her work at WNYX should be the first and most important priority in her life. Beth leaned back and gave Lisa an odd look. It wasn’t the advice she had expected to hear. No matter what happened, Lisa could not be made aware of the secret feelings that she had for Dave.
BETH: “Why did you come here?”
LISA: “I almost forgot! You got a call from the ad agency, something about recording a commercial. They want you to call them back right away.”
BETH: “A… commercial?”
Beth looked at her with wide eyes. Her lip quivered for a moment and she burst into tears all over again. Lisa was taken aback. What did she say? Lisa quickly pulled Beth to her again, and rocked her back and forth, scowling to herself. It reminded her of the time she had to hug Andrea to make her feel better, even though she didn’t want to.
LISA: “Are you going through menopause?”
BETH: “I miss Bill SO much!!!”
BETH: “Me and Bill, we recorded a commercial--”
LISA: “Oh, Beth…”
BETH: “I just miss him so much, Lisa!”
LISA: “I miss him too, Beth. It’s okay to be sad. Sometimes you have to let people go… and move on.”
LISA: “Yes. And you know what else?”
LISA: “I think Bill would have wanted you to do this commercial. For both of you.”
Beth pulled back and studied Lisa’s face. She was right. Bill would have wanted it that way. It was the right thing to do. She did have to move on. Beth felt surprisingly uplifted. Lisa stood up and offered her hand. Beth got to her feet unsteadily. She put her arms back through her coat sleeves and adjusted the collar. Lisa opened the door and Beth walked out to face the day.
DAVE: “Beth ran away again. Lisa’s searching for her now.”
MR. JAMES: “I’ve got bigger problems on my hands, Dave.”
DAVE: “What is it, sir?”
MR. JAMES: “Max wants to borrow money to bet on the fight with.”
DAVE: “He asks everyone for money.”
MR. JAMES: “I have a rule about lending money to employees, Dave.”
DAVE: “I see.”
MR. JAMES: “I also have a rule about losing on-air talent because of poor business decisions.”
DAVE: “I wouldn’t worry about Max quitting, sir. He may be fickle, but he’s not stupid. I really don’t see anything to worry about.”
MR. JAMES: “Dave, lending money to a person on your payroll is like putting gas in the tank of a car you’ve already wrecked.”
DAVE: “As long as he pays you back, right?”
MR. JAMES: “Are you kidding? The guy writes so many rubber checks that his bank statement might as well say 'Goodyear' on it.”
DAVE: “Haven't you ever written a bad check, sir?”
MR. JAMES: “Dave, before I became a multibillionaire I was the founder of Goodyear.”
Beth and Lisa came into the office. Dave stood and walked over to them.
LISA: “She was hiding in the supply closet.”
DAVE: “Beth, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, I swear it.”
BETH: “No, I’m sorry. I should have been more responsible.”
DAVE: “That’s completely unnecessary. I know how you feel about Missy.”
LISA: “Tell her the news.”
MR. JAMES: “What- what news?”
DAVE: “Oh, right.”
Dave guided Beth over to the couch and motioned for her to sit down beside Mr. James. He went back to his desk to retrieve the phone message.
DAVE: “We received a call from the Statewide Transportation Choices Marketing Campaign. Apparently they heard your, ahem, spot on the radio yesterday, and decided they want you to record a public service message.”
BETH: “Really? Oh, DAVE!!!”
She bounded from the couch and gave her boss a tight hug. Dave returned the gesture, albeit reluctantly because of the others in the room. He carefully disentangled himself from his secretary and finished telling her the news.
DAVE: “They want you to call back to verify your availability, and they said that the recording session will be tomorrow morning.”
BETH: “I’ll do it!”
MR. JAMES: “Well, congratulations!”
BETH: “Thank you, Mister James! Could I talk to you in private, sir?”
MR. JAMES: “You know I can’t deny you anything, Bethie!”
Beth dutifully prepared a plate of cheese crackers for Mr. James in the kitchen. She told him to inform the rest of the staff that it was a closed-door meeting, and then drew the blinds and locked the door. Beth mentally prepared herself while she worked. What she was about to tell him could change her life. By the time she returned the box of crackers to the cabinet, she had completed the revolution of an emotional slow burn. Beth handed the plate of cheese snacks to him with shaking hands.
MR. JAMES: “I really need to tell Dave to give you a raise. I haven't seen anyone so weakened by food deprivation since I had dinner with Lara Flynn Boyle.”
Beth collapsed into the nearest chair and buried her face in her arms, sobbing uncontrollably.
MR. JAMES: “Are you going through menopause?”
BETH: “Oh, Mister James! I don’t know what to do anymore! I’m so confused!”
MR. JAMES: “It’s okay sweetie, just tell old uncle Jimmy what the problem is.”
BETH: “I’m in love with Dave!”
Mr. James regarded her for a moment and began laughing. He hadn’t heard anything that funny since Matthew told him that his board of directors appointed Johnny Johnson to helm his corporation while he was in prison. Beth looked at him sullenly.
BETH: “Have you ever been bitch-slapped, sir?”
MR. JAMES: “I’m sorry.”
Beth calmed down and told him the entire story from the beginning. She explained how she grew up, the way her father left them, and the way she was stood up on prom night. She went on to describe her feelings about Dave, about the dreams that she had been having all week, and how she just wanted to tell him the way she felt. But she was afraid that Dave wouldn’t take her seriously. Or worse, that he would find her unattractive. She felt utterly hopeless. The room was silent when Beth finished her tale of woe. She lifted her face and looked up. Jimmy James sat hunched forward with his hands covering his face.
BETH: “Mister James?”
MR. JAMES: “Okay, I'm gonna cry now.”
BETH: “Thanks for the warning.”
Beth quickly left the room, closing the door behind her. Outside, she tilted her head near the window and listened expectantly. After a beat, she heard Mr. James burst into tears. Beth smiled to herself and walked away, feeling a little better.
Jimmy James walked into the news director’s office, clutching his teddy bear with both arms. Dave looked up from his laptop computer.
DAVE: “Rough day on Wall Street, sir?”
MR. JAMES: “No, no… I just needed a little emotional support, that’s all.”
DAVE: “I see.”
MR. JAMES: “Beth needs a little emotional support.”
DAVE: “Excuse me?”
MR. JAMES: “Tomorrow I want you to go with her to the recording studio. She is not to be left alone, is that understood?”
DAVE: “Okay, but I’m not clear what this is all about.”
Jimmy looked at Dave seriously.
MR. JAMES: “You will be. You will be.”
With those cryptic words, he walked away. Beth entered a moment later, carrying a steaming mug of coffee. Dave’s mouth went ajar. She had discarded her dark overcoat and was wearing the most form-fitting shorts that he had ever seen on a woman. They looked as if they had been cut with a chainsaw, and left virtually nothing to the imagination. Beth stopped before the desk and set the cup down with a gentle clink. Dave straightened up in his chair and craned his head back.
BETH: “Is something wrong, Dave?”
He could only shake his head slightly because he had temporarily lost the ability to speak. Dave was overpowered by her femininity. He could detect the scent of orange shampoo in her hair and smell her freshly washed skin. The effect was truly staggering. At last, he finally found his voice.
DAVE: “No… no, everything is fine, Beth. Thank you.”
He picked up the coffee and raised it to her in salute. Dave sipped from the cup. Maybe it would calm him down. Beth smiled thinly and turned, sauntering away. The news director’s eyes widened. Not just at her perfect form, alabaster skin and swaying blood-red hair, but at the words written on the pockets of her shorts: 'LOVE YOU'. Dave inhaled coffee down the wrong pipe and went into a fit of coughing. Beth turned, resting one hand on the doorframe. She smiled sweetly at her boss.
BETH: “Thank you, Dave.”
Beth dashed through the doorway, trying to catch her breath. Her hair was still damp from the shower. She had been forced to take the stairs when the maintenance crew informed her that the elevator was broken. Nothing was going to ruin her shot at stardom, not even an exhausting dash up fourteen flights of stairs. Dave couldn’t help making a joke at her expense.
DAVE: “Don’t tell me. You just saw Elvis, didn’t you?”
BETH: “Okay, okay, I’m here. I’m ready to go.”
DAVE: “Are you sure? Because you don’t seem ready.”
BETH: “Dave, I don’t have time for this!”
It had been a long week and she was tired of playing around. Beth crawled over the desk and straddled Dave faster than he believed possible. She was about to give him the kiss of his life when Mr. James walked into the office.
MR. JAMES: “I just wanted to make sure that you two were- HOLY COWS!”
BETH: “Mister James!”
Beth turned in surprise. Her movement caused the chair to tip over, sending them crashing to the floor. Jimmy James rushed forward. Dave tried to disentangle himself from his hormonally imbalanced secretary. Beth was somehow still on top of him, and all he could see was red hair and candy cane-striped dress. Dave pushed her away. She fell over with her legs sticking up in the air, all red lace pantyhose and high-heels. Dave quickly got to his feet. Beth stood up sheepishly with her hair cascading down half of her face.
MR. JAMES: “So, I guess this means you’ve gotten over Lisa?”
DAVE: “It’s not what it looks like. She attacked me.”
BETH: “He was asking for it, sir!”
BETH: “I was just showing him what he could have!”
DAVE: “What the hell are you talking about?!?”
MR. JAMES: “Okay, we really need to talk.”
He closed the door, then made his way across the room and picked up the chair. The billionaire sat on the edge of Dave's desk and instructed them both to have a seat. The news director and secretary took opposite ends of the couch. Beth brushed her hair out of her face and tried not to look guilty, while Dave straightened his tie and smoothed the front of his jacket, appearing upset.
MR. JAMES: “There comes a time in every man’s life when change must occur. Change, according to high school biology books, begins in the adolescent years with yes Beth.”
BETH: “Dave, there’s something I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time. It goes back to when you were dating Lisa.”
She took his hand and looked at Mr. James for support. He urged her to continue. Beth faced Dave and looked directly into his eyes. The moment of truth was at hand.
BETH: “I think I’m in love with you.”
The light of understanding dawned on him as he looked at Beth. A thousand tiny moments coalesced in his mind: Beth favoring him with a bright smile, sharing a joke, an appreciative hug, a pat on the shoulder, a brief touch… then Walt’s voice: “So you’re into Beth, huh?” Dave suddenly realized that he did love Beth. His memories twisted into a whirlpool of emotional slush, and he leaned heavily on the arm of the couch.
DAVE: “Huh? Sorry, I was just thinking.”
Beth lowered her face and looked at him with a pensive, hopeful expression. She squeezed his hand encouragingly. Her soft gray eyes were like storm clouds reflecting off the surface of a lake. She bit her lip in trepidation. Dave could not bear to see her spirit crushed. He thought of the courage it must have taken for her to admit her feelings. Beth waited before him, frail and beautiful; a being of purity and light. At loss for words, he leaned over and embraced her tightly. Jimmy James nodded as though he expected as much. Overcome with emotion, he rushed from the office.
BETH: “Michelle, it’s not working. Who wrote this, anyway?”
She gestured to the paper in front of her and looked at the woman standing beside Dave on the other side of the soundproof window. Beth removed the bulky headphones and smoothed her hair with a hand. She took a pen from her coat pocket and began crossing out lines on the script, frowning with concentration as she worked.
MICHELLE: “Hey, wait a minute- you can’t do that!”
BETH: “If we lose this line… and change the wording here… it will sound much better.”
After scratching out a few more words, Beth clicked the pen shut. A heated discussion was taking place on the other side of the glass. The audio coordinator gesticulated wildly at Dave. The intercom was off, so Beth couldn’t hear what was being said. She clamped the headphones over her ears and tapped the microphone for attention. The woman glared at Beth and switched the sound back on.
BETH: “Are we ready to go again?”
MICHELLE: “…Fine. Statewide Transportation, take fifteen.”
BETH: “When you hear people on commercials and stuff say, Do it for the environment or Help save the environment, do you have any idea what that really means? I mean, are we talking about the whole darn planet here? By recycling my aluminum cans, am I going to save a river in South America? No, probably not.”
Michelle dropped her clipboard on the floor. Beth was turning the tightly-worded environmental spot on end. She spoke as though she were improvising, rather than reading a pre-rehearsed script. And instead of speaking in NPR-appropriate monotone, Beth came off in her usual chatty, expressive manner.
BETH: “So, today, I’m going to talk about the environment in a little more defined way. For you, the people of Washington, environment means the Spokane River, the air over Seattle, the orchards of Yakima, the lake of Moses Lake. That’s your environment. That’s the stuff that you can help protect by producing less carbon monoxide emissions, by producing less traffic, in other words, by not driving alone in your car everyday, duh.”
The redhead gestured animatedly while she spoke, one hand akimbo on her hip, the other waving around like she was conducting an invisible symphony. Then she moved both hands, as if trying to emphasize a point. Dave quickly realized what the marketing coordinator failed to see: pure audio magic. It was obvious that Michelle had not heard Beth’s radio spot from the previous day. She was just another supervisor sent to personally oversee the recording process.
BETH: “The choices are out there: ride, or drive with someone else. Ride the bus, work from home, and more. Try any of them just one day a week and you’ll be doing something good for your, yes your… environment. Relax. There’s more than one way to get there.”
MICHELLE: “And… cut.”
DAVE: “Well, what do you think?”
MICHELLE: “I think…”
Beth folded her hands together, index fingers on the tip of her nose. Dave crossed his arms. Michelle pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. Then, remarkably, she smiled!
BETH: “Welcome to the wonderful world of Beth.”
She turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open. Dave Nelson followed his secretary into the small apartment. He shrugged out of his overcoat and stepped into the living room. He immediately noted the lack of furniture. The space housed a threadbare, if somewhat overstuffed couch, a battered coffee table, and a large oval throw rug. The illusion of emptiness was heightened by the drab, sparsely decorated walls. The floor was littered with pillows, magazines, and board games. Beth shut the door behind her and moved off toward the kitchenette.
BETH: “Make yourself at home!”
DAVE: “I may have to consider giving you a raise.”
Dave felt incredibly awkward for some reason. Granted, he had worked with Beth on a daily basis for the past five years, but he never imagined that he would pay a visit to her home. He wandered carefully through the living room. Against one wall stood a small table with a blue-green lava lamp on it. Dave smiled as he noticed the white shade that adorned the top of it. Then he spotted a short, thick-bladed sword mounted on the wall. Beth spoke over her shoulder as she rummaged around in the kitchen.
BETH: “You can relax, Dave. I won't bite you, I promise.”
Beth returned with a bottle of champagne, two empty glasses, and a coffee filter full of Goldfish crackers. She moved into the room and set the glasses on the table. Dave superficially examined the sword and some posters on the wall. He was actually studying Beth, noting how close she was standing. It made him very nervous. She passed the bottle of champagne to him. Beth gestured with the makeshift bowl and spoke through a mouthful of crackers.
BETH: “Mm- they save dishes and they're a lot cheaper than paper plates.”
DAVE: “That's it, I'm giving you a five-dollar raise starting next week.”
BETH: “Really? Oh, thank you, Dave!”
She hopped up and down like a happy child. Several Goldfish crackers tumbled over the edge of the bowl. Dave motioned to the sword.
DAVE: “What is that?”
BETH: “It's a matter of national pride.”
She turned away evasively and wandered back toward the kitchen. Dave looked at the heavy sword once more. He shook his head and trailed after her. Beth switched on the powerful radio and the opening bars of The Cranberries’ Animal Instinct filled the room with startling clarity. She took the bottle from Dave and went back to the living room. Dave stopped at the kitchen table and examined a jumbled pile of thin wooden blocks that threatened to spill onto the floor.
BETH: “Well, she's a little old for Puppy Racers.”
DAVE: “I gather.”
Dave's attention was drawn from the mess as the music became louder. He crouched in front of the radio and studied its dark gray housing. Dave placed his hand in front of the vent on the right side speaker, feeling the cool air issuing from it. Beth opened the wine and neatly filled the glasses to the top. She smiled at the sight of him checking out the radio like an enthusiastic kid. This confirmed her suspicion that men never outgrew their fascination with toys. He nodded at the state-of-the-art sound system and stood up again.
DAVE: “Hey, cool! How did you afford a Bose?”
BETH: “I ripped off a record club and they settled out of court for a thousand dollars. The radio cost about half of that. I spent the rest on CD's and food.”
DAVE: “Well, at least you have your priorities straight.”
Beth walked over and offered him a glass of champagne. He accepted it with a tentative smile. They clinked glasses and toasted.
DAVE: “Here’s to radio.”
She giggled at how predictable Dave was. Everything was work-oriented with him. He smiled and took a sip from his glass, then watched as Beth tossed her head back and drained hers in one shot. Dave hastened to bring his glass up, but Beth stopped him. She took both drinks and set them on the counter, then reached sideways and turned off the radio. An overwhelming silence filled the apartment. Beth turned back and draped her arms around his neck, smiling mischievously. When she spoke, the words rolled from her throat like fine gravel.
BETH: “I love you. What do you think about that, boss?”
DAVE: “I think it suits me just fine.”
Beth smiled that lovely smile where she wrinkled her nose up. Dave warmed at her expression because of how delightful it was. He slipped his arms around her and gazed into her sparkling gray eyes. She blinked shyly at him. Something about the gesture hinted that Beth was more fragile than she made herself appear. She closed her eyes as Dave leaned forward. He kissed her slowly, tentatively at first. Beth inhaled sharply at the contact. She pressed against him and he could feel her rapid heartbeat. He threaded his fingers through her hair and up the back of her head, savoring the feeling of her warm, soft mouth. Beth suddenly kissed him more urgently, and her breath came faster. Dave moved his hands down her sides and settled on the flare of her hips. Then the telephone rang.
They both opened their eyes at the unexpected sound. Beth dug her fingernails into his back in irritation. She stormed away to get the phone, accidentally kicking the edge of the coffee table in her haste. She uttered a string of mild profanities as she made her way to the kitchen. Dave could still feel her kiss on his lips as his dizziness subsided. He listened as Beth argued quickly with the person on the phone. It was clear that she didn’t appreciate being disturbed. She spoke for a few more seconds and hung up. Beth walked back to him, looking sort of stunned. Her dark red hair was a tumbleweed of madness. Dave tried to smooth out his jacket.
DAVE: “Talk about getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar.”
BETH: “You like cookies?”
DAVE: “Do I ever.”
BETH: “We need to get back to the office.”
DAVE: “The office?”
BETH: “Don’t worry. I’ll save a cookie for you, Dave.”
No sooner than they crossed the threshold to WNYX, Dave and Beth were separated. Mr. James pulled Beth into the break room while Lisa peppered Dave with questions. Dave maintained that they had been held over at the recording studio for multiple takes and script changes, which was essentially the truth. During the drive back, Beth had explained to him the fact that this was to be kept strictly confidential from the rest of the staff. There would be no humiliating scenes like when the staff found out about Dave and Lisa’s secret relationship.
MR. JAMES: “Beth, you know that you’ve always been my favorite, right?”
This was a fact. Beth nodded happily.
MR. JAMES: “Remember what you told me yesterday?”
She nodded more hesitantly this time, suddenly feeling very guilty. Did Mr. James know about the trip to her apartment, what almost happened with Dave? She didn’t want to lose her job over this, but it was impossible for her to stop behaving like a woman. Beth panicked, realizing that she couldn’t hide anything from him.
BETH: “I’m sorry we were late! I couldn’t help myself!”
MR. JAMES: “What?”
BETH: “I just wanted to show Dave a good time! You can garnish my wages, but my passion will not be denied!!!”
MR. JAMES: “No, no Bethie… I have a present for you.”
BETH: “A present?”
MR. JAMES: “What would you say if I told you that you could have your prom all over again, with the perfect date?”
BETH: “This isn’t one of those hidden camera shows, is it?”
She looked around the break room suspiciously. Jimmy waved his hand, trying to dispel her misplaced theory. Beth glanced warily at the refrigerator, then apprehensively at the microwave on the counter. She whipped her chair around to face the cabinets on the wall behind her, certain that one of them hid a video camera. Mr. James placed a hand on her shoulder in an attempt to calm her.
MR. JAMES: “Much as I enjoy watching someone throw away their dignity on national television for prize money, which is a complete crock, I can assure you that this is not the case.”
BETH: “Then you’re not mad at me?”
MR. JAMES: “Of course not, sweetie. I’m about to make your dream come true. Tonight, I have reserved the historic Villard Ballroom at the Palace Hotel for your dance. I’ve hired the finest caterers, orchestra, guests, the whole nine yards. All you have to do is show up.”
Beth swooned and flopped onto the couch, feeling like she had just won the lottery. It was overwhelming. She knew that Mr. James favored her over everyone else at office, but she wasn’t that good. She covered her face with her hands. Her mind reeled as she tried to think.
BETH: “What am I going to wear? I- I don’t have anything even remotely tasteful-”
MR. JAMES: “That’s the best part. The finest tailors in the city are at your disposal. They’ll design anything your precious little heart desires.”
BETH: “What about Dave? What’s he going to wear?”
MR. JAMES: “A suit, just like the one he wears everyday. What, do you think I’m made of money or something?”
BETH: “Well yeah, I mean…”
He gave her a serious look.
MR. JAMES: “Actually, I am made of money.”
BETH: “I don’t know what to say, Mister James. It’s just too-”
MR. JAMES: “No, it’s not. Whatever you have to say can wait for the limo, because we have to leave. Where do you want to start?”
BETH: “It’s your money, I don’t care where I spend it.”
MR. JAMES: “Sounds good to me, let’s go.”
TRACY: “How much did it cost?!?!”
Beth cradled the portable phone with her shoulder while she opened the box and carefully unfolded the lavish gown across her bed. Several other parcels were stacked on her dresser, each one tied with gold string. Beth still had the tailor’s measuring tape slung around her neck. She had insisted on keeping it as a souvenir. The tailor objected until she saw the bill of sale and realized that Jimmy was spending money like water.
BETH: “It’s obscene. Probably enough to feed a small third-world country into the next millennium.”
She winced as a needle pricked her finger. Beth carefully pulled the pin out and discarded it in her bedside trashcan. She sighed and ran her hand down the back of her neck in frustration as she studied the elaborate evening gown lying on the bed.
BETH: “I think I’m going to need your help getting into this thing.”
TRACY: “I’m there.”
Beth tossed the phone into the clothes hamper against the wall. It was almost 7:00. She had a little over an hour and a half to get ready. Beth kicked off her shoes and pulled her dress over her head. She discarded the garment like it was a cleaning rag. She made her way to the bathroom and ran the shower, stripping away her undergarments while she waited for the water to heat up. Beth closed her eyes and dug her toes into the soft carpet as the steam surrounded her. She stepped into the shower and slid the curtain shut. Beth turned in a circle, letting the hot water cover her body. It felt great! She tilted her head backward into the spray and soaked her hair. Self-consciously, she reached up and removed the elastic scrunchy band from her hair and tossed it over the curtain. Stupid. Beth frowned in irritation. A princess would never make such a mistake, she thought.
Beth marveled at the turn that her life had taken. She still found it difficult to believe that she had gone from administrative assistant to prom night princess in the span of one week. It was the sort of thing that only happened in movies or in dreams. Her heart soared as she was overcome with joy. As she washed, Beth remembered a song from her childhood that had always made her feel happy. She was surprised at how quickly the words came back to her. When she sang, her voice echoed clearly in the small room. She belted out the song with all of her heart and soul, and the minutes flew by like seconds.
BETH: “Just call me angel, of the morning, angel… just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby…”
TRACY: “Hey, angel-”
Beth screamed. She tore open the curtain and glared at her best friend with murderous rage. Her heart pounded rapidly, accompanied by a sudden rush of adrenaline. She grabbed a towel and covered herself. Tracy dashed away before Beth could retaliate. She stepped out of the shower and turned the water off, listening to Tracy laugh uproariously in the next room.
TRACY: “When you’re finished singing, you have a prom to get ready for.”
BETH: “I’m going to kick your ass! You scared the hell out of me!”
TRACY: “At least I didn’t scare the red out of you.”
Beth felt her face turn hot with embarrassment. She stormed out of the bathroom.
BETH: “Don’t push your luck.”
TRACY: “Hey, I’m envious. I admit it.”
BETH: “Okay, I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
Beth moved over to the stack of boxes. She sorted through them as though she were looking for one in particular. Tracyne took each box as Beth passed them to her. The redhead turned over one small box with a mischievous smile. She pulled the string off and opened the lid. Inside were the matching lingerie accessories to be worn beneath the dress. Beth pointed to the other boxes. Tracy untied the gold string from each parcel. Meanwhile, Beth went into the other room to change. She could hear Tracy gasp in wonder at the beauty of the dress and accessories. Beth returned with a towel wrapped around her body.
BETH: “Okay, where do you want to begin?”
TRACY: “We need something for you to stand on, like an elevation.”
Beth went into the adjoining closet and returned with a metal folding stool. They gathered up the assortment of boxes and marched down the hall. Beth cleared away the debris in the middle of the floor and set up the stool. They returned to the bedroom and made their way back, carrying the elaborate dress. Tracyne opened every box and carefully placed the contents across the couch, where the gown was draped. There were matching high-heeled shoes, delicate gloves, hair ribbons, and silver jewelry. When she was satisfied that everything was ready, she turned back to her friend. Beth stood atop the ladder, wrapped in a towel, but looking distractedly at the ceiling. Tracyne clapped her hands sharply and Beth snapped to attention. Still damp from the shower, her hair stuck together in limp, stringy clumps.
TRACY: “First we need to fix your crown, because it’s going to draw the most attention.”
Beth closed her eyes and tried to remain still while her friend stood face-to-face with her on the ladder. Tracy worked for nearly ten minutes, carefully grooming Beth’s dark red mane. Finally, she dismounted the stool and moved around to the back. She held Beth’s hair gently as she brushed it, admiring the naturally crimson tresses. A wistful sigh escaped her lips.
TRACY: “It’s hard to believe that something this beautiful is a naturally-occurring substance.”
BETH: “You didn’t have to grow up with it.”
TRACY: “Well, it’s still a wonder.”
BETH: “Yeah, like I wonder when you’ll stop playing with my hair and help me get dressed. I have a dance to go to.”
TRACY: “Okay, strip.”
TRACY: “Lose the towel. Let’s go.”
Beth loosened the towel and let it drop to the floor. Wearing only dark green pantyhose and a bra, she waited self-consciously while her friend went to the couch and brought her the dress. They managed to get it halfway on when an idea suddenly occurred to Beth. Her muffled voice came through the deluge of shimmering green material.
BETH: “Give me the phone.”
She retrieved the phone from Beth’s room and brought it to her. The dress now resembled some kind of Venus flytrap that threatened to devour the red-haired woman struggling within. Tracy hovered around it, trying to determine the best way to give the phone to Beth. Then a hand emerged from the neck of the dress and seized the phone. Tracyne hurried to finish helping Beth into the dress.
BETH: “Tianne? It’s Beth. Can I talk to Missy for a second? Thanks.”
Beth worked her arms and head out of the dress while the other woman laced up the corset. Beth switched hands with the phone as Tracy slipped her gloves on. Missy came on the line a moment later.
BETH: “Hey, it’s me honey. Do you want to go to a special party with me tonight? It’s going to be a big celebration, and I don’t want to go without you.”
Tracyne smiled as she listened to Beth speak in her soft, enthusiastic voice. There was something about the quality of their friendship, that special place in Beth’s heart that was reserved only for Missy, that she found moving. It was simple, yet delightful. She felt happy for Beth because of what she was doing with her life. Her friendship with Missy was proof that miracles did happen, and that there was still good in the world.
BETH: “Great! Make yourself pretty. I’m coming to get you. See you in awhile. Bye!”
Beth rang off and tossed the phone away. She sat on the couch and slipped the sterling silver bracelets over her hands. Tracyne crouched in front of her and guided her feet into the high heels.
TRACY: “That’s really sweet, what you’re doing for her.”
BETH: “I want to show her that life is still good. Sometimes people forget that, and they need reminding from time to time.”
Beth put the finishing touches on her makeup five minutes later. Her eyelids were frosted with pink shadow, and her lips painted a medium red. The effect was both simple and elegant. She studied her reflection in the mirror as she applied a light mist of evergreen-scented perfume. Beth sprayed a bit on her fingertips and slicked her eyebrows back with it. Finally, she removed the tissue paper from the silver tiara and placed it on her head. She stood up and curtsied to the reflection in the mirror.
TRACY: “Not so fast.”
Tracy held Beth at arms-length for inspection. She tugged the shoulders of the dress, hid a bra strap, and adjusted the tiara on her friend's head. Beth grinned sheepishly and gave her a quick hug. Tracy pushed the car keys into her hand.
TRACY: “Break a leg, princess. Just make sure you have it back before it turns into a pumpkin.”
Dusk had settled over the land when Beth pulled into the Harbor Hill Road estate. She put the car in park and let the engine idle before getting out. Beth raced up the stone walkway, her heels clicking sharply while her dress whisked a path through the first leaves of the season. A dog barked somewhere in the distance. The yellow porch light glowed feebly in the darkness as Beth mounted the steps. She knocked rapidly at the door, which opened immediately. Melissa jumped toward her with a delighted hug, and Beth returned the embrace warmly, despite the fact that they were running late. Such moments made life worth living. Missy let go of her and called back into the house.
MISSY: “Mom! Beth’s here!”
Tianne stepped outside and the two women shook hands. The girl’s mother praised Beth for helping her daughter at school. Beth explained about the special event that was being held in her honor, and that she couldn’t afford to keep her host waiting. Tianne remarked on Beth’s gorgeous dress, and instructed her daughter to be on her best behavior. Then she kissed her on the forehead. Beth promised to have her back within two hours. She took Missy by the hand and they made their way to the car. Missy was singing and bopping as she fastened her seatbelt.
MISSY: “Bay-be you can drive my car, and bay-be you can be a star…”
Beth eyed her for a minute and pulled her own door shut.
BETH: “Have you been eating chocolate again?”
It was quarter past nine when they arrived at 455 Madison Avenue. The massive aluminum-and-glass tower climbed into the darkness behind the Palace Hotel. Beth shut off the ignition, realizing they were just down the street from the Criterion building. Missy was about to open the door when Beth seized her arm, holding it firmly.
BETH: “Crawl over here and get out on my side. I don’t want to have to explain to your mother how I let you step into traffic.”
She opened her door and helped Missy out after her. She turned, using her heel to shut the door. Missy giggled, finding this method somehow humorous. Beth patted the girl’s head with a smile. She gathered up her dress and sprinted across the stone courtyard as a cool breeze suddenly swept through it. The younger woman took in the appearance of the hotel as they approached the building.
MISSY: “It’s a castle!”
BETH: “Actually, it’s more like a palace.”
The pair burst into the lobby and stumbled to a halt. The doormen jumped out of the way in surprise. Beth was thunderstruck by the panorama of gold and glowing crystal. For a moment, she forgot why she was there. Glistening white pillars towered skyward, reaching toward a miraculous blue dome. Missy stared up in wonder. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out. Beth reached down and grasped her hand without taking her eyes from the ceiling. She walked slowly, almost reverently, as her feet sank into the plush carpeting. Beth placed a gloved hand over the elegant, polished wood rails that enclosed the main walkway. Her eyes followed the second-floor balcony, which terminated in a pair of twin staircases that descended to the first floor at either side of the entrance. She marveled at the design of the massive archways that stood sentinel high above the floor at the back of the room. But it was the vastness of the place, as well as the stunning architecture, that awed Beth. Who knew that a world so pristine and heavenly could exist right down the street from WNYX?
DOORMAN: “May I help you?”
BETH: “Yes. We’re here for the Jimmy James affair.”
DOORMAN: “Certainly, Miss Beth. Mister James is expecting you in the Villard Ballroom. Please follow me.”
The doorman bowed politely and started off. Beth followed, pulling Missy behind her. They made their way along curving stairway to the left, which brought them to the second floor. The hallways were surprisingly wide, and the walls paneled ornately. Beth was experiencing sensory overload. She couldn’t imagine how much a place like this cost. Even more unbelievable was the fact that, for one night, it was all hers. She knew that Mr. James was a multi-billionaire, but it never fully dawned on her what it meant until she was able to see it with her own eyes. Prior to this, Jimmy’s financial status was just another fact, the same way she knew that WNYX was a radio station.
DOORMAN: “If I may say so, Mister James must care about you very much.”
As they made their way down the hall, Beth wondered what he meant. Ahead, she spotted two well-dressed men guarding a pair of double doors. They pulled the doors open as Beth approached. One of them frowned at the orange-haired girl trailing beside her, apparently not expecting a child to be in attendance. Missy didn’t fail to notice the guard’s look, however, and regarded him with a scowl. Beth smiled thinly and gave Missy’s hand a squeeze of approval. Their guide stopped short and motioned for them to enter the ballroom. Beth closed her eyes briefly, made a wish, and stepped through the doorway. Missy let out a gasp of delight. Beth’s eyes fluttered open and she did a double take.
The ballroom was stunning. Its shape resembled the elliptical circuit of a racetrack, with rounded edges. Massive crystal chandeliers were suspended at either end of the room, bathing the place in an aura of gold. Encircling them were smaller rings of lights, set into the ceiling. Crème-colored wall panels with gold trim wrapped around the room, broken by a set of doors at each turn. The crimson-and-gold patterned carpet followed the path of the walls, while the floor within was made of honey-colored wood, polished to a warm luster. The tables had been moved to one end of the room, while a full orchestra occupied the opposite end.
MR. JAMES: “Is that my little radio princess, I see?”
BETH: “Mister James!”
MR. JAMES: “Look at you! All dressed-up and pretty!”
Bubbling with excitement, she ran over to Jimmy and gave him a hug. He patted her on the back fondly. Jimmy was dressed to the hilt in a top hat and tails. Beth pulled away and took in the room again. She couldn’t believe it. Everything was so magnificent and perfect. Beth pinched herself to make sure that she was really awake. Dave gravitated away from the orchestra the moment that he realized she was there. He crossed the room slowly, as if seeing her for the first time.
Beth looked stunning, ethereal. She wore an elegant Victorian-style, dark green dress with matching heels. The gown was accented with elbow-length green lace gloves and sterling silver bracelets. Beth’s hair was pulled back and held in place with a silver clasp. Her deep red tresses fell neatly down her back, stopping just below her shoulders. Dave noted that she also sported a tiara on her forehead. The woman before him, he decided, scarcely resembled his personal assistant. If not for her face, he wouldn’t have recognized her. He took Beth’s hand and kissed it gently, then pointed to the musicians.
DAVE: “That’s the London Symphony Orchestra! They performed the scores for all of the Star Wars films!”
BETH: “Really? Mister James, did you fly them in for this?”
MR. JAMES: “Well, I had to make Dave happy, too.”
DAVE: “Thank you, sir. This is all truly amazing. How much did it cost?”
MR. JAMES: “Never mix business with pleasure, Dave. That’s secret of management number four-hundred eighty-three.”
BETH: “Who are all these other people?”
Missy cleared her throat for attention. Beth covered her mouth and tried not to smile. Jimmy turned at the sound, noticing her for the first time. Missy stepped forward and curtsied. He lit up at the sight of the ginger-haired girl wearing a powder blue Sunday dress. Mr. James pinched her cheek and babbled to her in a cutesy voice, acting the part of an overindulgent parent.
MR. JAMES: “Look at this precious little doll! Can you say Uncle Jimmy? I’m just your old Uncle Jimmy!”
BETH: “Um- please don't do that, sir. She's had enough abuse for one week.”
DAVE: “Would you like to dance?”
Beth nudged Missy with her foot. The girl stepped forward and grabbed Dave by the hand, trying to pull him to the dance floor. Beth stifled a giggle. Mr. James cued the conductor and the orchestra struck up a short rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Dave shrugged helplessly while Melissa tugged insistently at his arm. He saw Beth and Jimmy nodding encouragement, and knew that he wasn’t getting out of this one. Dave looked down and smiled at Beth’s juvenile counterpart. Missy took his hands and began swaying in time with the music. Embarrassed, he hunched over and followed her example. The pair moved around the floor as several onlookers chuckled in amusement. The dance was awkward because of their height difference, and Dave was forced to dance on his knees. The sight proved to be too much for Beth, who started laughing hysterically. Dave blushed as Mr. James shared in her amusement. Missy looked at the adults and giggled too, although she wasn’t quite sure what was so funny.
The conductor brought the number to a close, and Dave lost no time getting to his feet. His dance partner curtsied politely, and he bowed in acknowledgement. They made their way back to the sidelines. Missy beamed proudly. She could now say that she had been to a real dance. Beth exchanged a silent thank-you with Dave, and gave Missy a hug. They wandered over to the buffet table on the other side of the room. At Jimmy’s command, the attendants poured them glasses of champagne. They accepted the drinks, and Missy reached over the table for a glass of her own. Beth slapped her hand gently.
BETH: “You wouldn’t like this. It tastes yucky. Maybe when you’re a little older.”
MR. JAMES: “Bartender! A soda for the lady, please?”
Jimmy motioned to the bartender, who signaled another attendant. He whispered an order and the other man left the room quickly. Dave and Beth chatted quietly as they watched the other couples dance by on the floor. Mr. James moved across the room to speak with the conductor. Missy clasped her hands together and shuffled her feet restlessly. The room was very pretty, but not that exciting. But at least she got to dance. She couldn’t wait to get home and tell her mom.
Then she saw the waiter coming toward her with a glass. Missy accepted the drink and turned back to Beth, who was still talking to Dave. She couldn’t hear what they were saying over the noise in the room, so she quietly sipped from her drink and watched them. She had never seen Beth smile like that before. Her eyes sparkled as she laughed quietly with Dave. She must be really happy because she was dressed like a princess, thought Missy. Then she saw Jimmy coming back to them. Missy set her drink on the table and sprinted over to see what was happening. She stood at Beth's side and grasped her hand.
MR. JAMES: “Okay folks, time for the big number. You kids hit the floor, and let the dream master work his magic.”
BETH: “Missy, I need to dance with Dave now, okay? You stay right here with Mister James and be good.”
Missy looked at her with large, somber eyes. Beth took Dave’s hand and guided him to the middle of the dance floor. They found their spot and waited. She placed her arms around him. Dave held one hand against her back and took her other hand in his. Mr. James lifted a finger and the lights dimmed. Beth’s heart pounded in her chest and she thought she might faint. She breathed quickly as the tension mounted. Dave gave her a reassuring squeeze. They began to sway in place as the orchestra launched passionately into an instrumental version of Stand By Me. The hairs on Beth's arms stood up. It only took an instant for her to place the song, for it marked one of the saddest moments of her life. She closed her eyes tightly and stifled a cry of emotion. It was her prom song.
She laid her head against Dave’s chest as they danced. She felt him squeeze her hand. Beth returned the gesture to let him know that she was okay. The orchestra swelled to crescendo, and her heart broke all over again. Tears came to her eyes and her body trembled with sobs. Dave held her tighter, closer. Comforting. Beth tried to whisper something, but her voice came out thick and unintelligible. She could only weep into Dave’s jacket. The music coursed through her, and her heart twisted in sadness and anguish. She tried to fight it. The past was gone and could never be relived. Beth opened her eyes and looked at Dave. He smiled sadly at her, understanding. In that moment, her tears became tears of happiness. The pain left her heart and she knew what love truly was.
Beth looked radiant in the spinning light that cascaded over the darkened floor. Missy looked on by Jimmy’s side. She watched her babysitter dance slowly in circles with Dave. Then Jimmy burst into tears. Missy looked quickly back and forth between him and the couple on the dance floor. What was wrong? The little girl took his hand to comfort him, but this only seemed to make things worse, because he cried even louder. She quickly snatched her hand away, not certain what she had done wrong. Missy focused intently on the adults. Beth looked sad, but she couldn’t be sure. As the music softened, she could hear Beth crying, much to her concern. The fifth grader dashed across the floor and hugged her friend tightly around the waist. The receptionist looked down in surprise. She bit her lip, visibly moved by the girl’s affection. Beth crouched down and embraced Missy as laughter broke through her tears. Mr. James made his way over to them, still howling with emotion.
BETH: “I had no idea how much this meant to you.”
MR. JAMES: “Well… it’s n-not just this.”
MISSY: “Then what’s wrong?”
MR. JAMES: “I’m missing the fight of the century right now, and Max has my wallet!”
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