"City Limits"
by Dale Dassel

Rated R for mature sexual themes & assorted mayhem.
Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5

“For life lays out before us, like a sparrow in the dawn
When winter snows approach, we move on”

-Kate Price
'The Journey On'

“In Manhattan, both lanes of traffic are backed up on Park Avenue between East Ninety-eighth Street and Third, due to road construction near the One-hundred Third Street intersection. The eastbound Belt Parkway in Brooklyn has an accident at Exit Thirteen, and there is a massive pile-up in Queens on the Grand Central Parkway, eastbound at Hoyt Avenue to the Triborough Bridge. Authorities warn motorists to avoid this area until further notice. This is Lisa Miller with the New York Metropolitan area drive time report. WNYX news time: three forty-five. Please stay tuned for-”

Tracyne Adams wheeled the knob and switched off the radio as she craned her neck for a better view. Third Avenue stretched away to the northeast, hemmed in by massive skyscrapers on both sides, and thick with afternoon traffic. The ocean of blue sky above was the only evidence that it was daytime. The sun was obscured by tall buildings that transformed the street into a cold, shadowy canyon, reverberating with the noise of life below. Cars were practically bumper-to-bumper as far as the eye could see, and the flow of traffic nonexistent.

She had moved roughly eight feet in the past fifteen minutes, and her ankle was sore from alternating between pedals. Tracy pressed her left foot to the brake and brought her other leg up, across her lap. Now she was sitting half Indian-style in the seat. She rotated her foot to encourage blood circulation, and the feeling gradually returned to her leg. Tracy sighed restlessly. She had spent the greater part of an hour negotiating mid-town traffic as she tried to reach the Criterion Building. She picked up her soda from the console and then set it back down in disgust. The cup was empty, save for a fusion of melting ice cubes in the bottom. Tracy closed her eyes, feeling the blood pound in her temples. The cacophony of blaring horns, idling motors, and squealing axle noise melded into a gritty drone that threatened to drive her mad. Then the car in front of her moved ahead several feet and she let off the brake.

TRACY: “This is damned ridiculous. Even if I could- HEY!

She stomped on the brake as a battered yellow taxi suddenly moved in from the left, nearly hitting the side of her car. The cab driver turned in his seat and scowled at her from behind a five o’clock shadow. He removed the cigar from his mouth and flicked it through the open window. It tumbled across the hood of her car, spitting flecks of glowing ash where it struck the metal. The stogie rolled to a stop, the end smoldering bright orange against the white paint. The cabbie slapped the steering wheel with a meaty palm, and laughed. The car in front of Tracy pulled forward some more, and the taxi quickly moved into the empty space. The driver honked twice and flipped her off through the back window. She vaguely noted the ‘HOW’S MY DRIVING?’ sticker on the bumper of the car.

As she unbuckled her seatbelt, Tracy realized that getting to the station might take longer than usual. She put the car into neutral, feeling her blood pressure rise. She took a few deep, measured breaths to calm herself. Then she pressed her fingertips together and flexed her hands like a bow, cracking her knuckles. She opened the door and stepped out of the car, flicking the cigar stub from the hood as she passed by. The taxi driver had already forgotten about the bimbo that he’d cut off, and was no longer paying attention to her. He didn’t see her walk calmly down the lane of traffic and stop beside his door. There, she assumed a kickboxer stance and tapped the glass with a finger. Her other hand simultaneously curled into a tight fist. The cabbie turned at the sound and gaped in astonishment. Tracy pulled her arm back and struck the window with controlled precision. Her fist went through the glass and connected solidly with the man’s face as the window spiderwebbed into a mosaic of jagged white lines. Tracy straightened her fingers and smoothly withdrew her arm. She examined her hand briefly, and smiled. Not a scratch.

TRACY: “Your driving sucks.”

6:24 p.m.

Dave Nelson rested his forehead on the desk in anguish. This was the worst day of his life. Within the span of a few hours he’d lost his entire staff, and he had never felt more miserable. Beth and Lisa, Joe and Max… all of them were gone. How could he be the news director of a radio station without people to run it? He'd spent the past five years keeping WNYX operating as efficiently as possible, given the people he had to work with. He worked hard to earn the respect of his employees, and he strived to be an honest and fair supervisor, one who had enough humility to admit when he was wrong. In his years as news director, Dave had guided the station through situations that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man. His strong work ethic and commitment to excellence had earned WNYX the distinction of being the second best A.M. news station in New York City. But never in his wildest dreams (or perhaps nightmares) could he have envisioned such a day as the culmination to his career: one in which every member of his news team simultaneously decided to leave. Right now they were on their way to New Hampshire with Mr. James, who didn’t even own the station anymore. Everything, it seemed, was falling apart.

He raised his head and squinted in the brightness of the room. The first thing he noticed when his vision cleared was the shiny ceramic mug sitting on the desk in front of him. The cup had been a last-minute present from everyone before they left. Dave picked it up and examined the photo scanned onto the enamel. The image depicted the staff of WNYX posing in front of the broadcasting booth. Everyone smiled happily at the camera. Mr. James was in the middle of the group, looking as rich and unflappable as ever. Lisa Miller stood nearby, hands clasped together unassumingly while Joe Garrelli sat on the table behind her with his fists raised in triumph. To the right was Max Louis, bare from the waist up, with a Hawaiian shirt wrapped around his head like a turban. Finally, Dave settled on the image of Beth, kneeling in front of everyone. The flame-haired receptionist beamed cheerfully with an exaggerated smile, looking candidly at the viewer. Her carefree, optimistic expression seemed to brighten the world, and Dave smiled in spite of himself. A spark of happiness coursed through him. No matter how bad things seemed to be, the sight of Beth’s energetic features always lifted his spirit. In that moment, he felt motivated enough to get up.

He placed the coffee mug back on the desk and walked to the door of his office. Dave paused, straining to hear the noise of hurried footsteps, telephones ringing, and keyboards clicking industriously- the familiar sounds of work. Instead, his ears were met with stark silence. The place was a vacuum, devoid of the warmth and light of humanity. He strolled to the middle of the room and stopped beside the coffee maker, letting his gaze wander the office. Every desk was bare. Only the telephones and computers remained. Everybody had cleaned out and left. They had taken their personal effects with them, leaving no trace of evidence or the slightest indication as to whom the occupants might have been. The office was lifeless; cold, impersonal, and utterly alien.

Then he looked over to Matthew’s desk, which had been quickly redecorated after everyone else had left. The front of the desk was once again covered with bright stickers, comic strips, and drawings of mystical creatures. The familiar array of prescription drug containers and medicine bottles dotted the surface of the work area beside the computer. Dave had sent Matthew home pretty much immediately after receiving the promised cup of coffee with ‘little things floating on it.’ He was feeling bad enough as it was, and Matthew was the last person he wanted to deal with.

Dave regarded the silver coffee maker on the table behind him. It sat nestled within a clutter of paper plates, plastic utensils, and boxes of half-eaten pastries. The rest of the table was a glassy lake of water and coffee grounds, and a flurry of paper towels littered the floor. The snack area would never be in this condition if Beth were here.

He peered into the wastebasket beside the table. Lying in a shallow pool of coffee was his WNYX mug and a small box of rat poison, which explained why Beth reacted the way she had earlier. She had attempted to kill him after overhearing his conversation with Mr. James. The redhead had been eavesdropping on them, and thought that Dave was willing to giver her up as long as it meant keeping Lisa at the station. The whole incident was just a misunderstanding on her part. Beth knew that she had been wrong after he explained everything. Her voice came back to him, echoing softly in his memory with hopeful disbelief: Really? That was the moment when Beth realized that, despite her livid accusations, Dave still cared for her. Even now, he could see the sorrowful expression on her face as the light of apology shined in her delicate gray eyes, pleading forgiveness. His heart ached with sorrow as he suddenly realized how much he missed her.

The turning point had been at the dance two weeks ago. His perspective had changed the moment Beth entered the ballroom, looking like a princess. She was no longer just a secretary. Dave recognized that she was an intelligent and sophisticated, if somewhat misguided woman. Although she had always expressed herself through unique phrases, quirky mannerisms, and an unusual sense of fashion, Beth was perfect in her own delightfully off-kilter way. She fascinated him. Dave had taken her presence for granted because she had always been there. But now she was gone. He couldn’t believe how easily he’d let her slip away.

Dave walked over to his secretary’s desk and settled into her chair. The wall behind it was empty. It had served as Beth’s personal bulletin board during her time at WNYX, displaying her collection of letters, work memos, and magazine clippings. The odd Post-it note could even be found on occasions when she wasn’t using her hand to take messages on. Dave touched the wall with his fingertips, feeling very depressed. He looked at the shiny blue iMac on the left side of the desk. The computer had been delivered earlier in the year, and had scarcely been touched by the redhead. Beth found the machine more useful for sticking photographs on. Most of the pictures were Polaroid snapshots of Missy, a ten year-old girl who she was incredibly fond of. Beth looked after the russet-haired child whenever possible, and thought the world of her. Dave was convinced that she cared about Missy more than anything else. He began to notice startling changes in his secretary after she started babysitting. She dressed more conservatively and displayed less skin than she used to, and while her personality remained unchanged, Beth seemed to possess a more selfless quality. Dave concluded that becoming a mentor had made her a better person.

The past two weeks had been among the best of his life, as he and Beth kept their new relationship hidden from the rest of the staff. They continued to play the role of news director and secretary, while harboring the thrill of a quickly blossoming romance. Like lovesick teenagers, they took every opportunity for moments of intimacy when they could. Beth actually started finding work to do around the office, and suddenly there seemed to be no shortage of documents that required her supervisor’s signature before they could be processed. She made frequent, unquestioned visits to Dave’s office, and seemed happy to be doing so. Behind closed doors, the ersatz paperwork was forgotten as Beth sought comfort in the arms of her new love. They found themselves living a perfect dream that they never wanted to end. But ever professional-minded, Dave convinced himself that his place was here at the station, and it had prevented him from going to New Hampshire with the rest of the staff. Beth had joined them in a flight of fancy, and now she was gone. The horrible realization brought him back to the present, where he sat before her empty desk. Dave closed his eyes and reached out with his mind, trying to sense her presence.

DAVE: “Beth. Hear me…”

The white minivan coasted north on Interstate 95 as the day drew to a close. The vehicle’s passengers rode in weary silence, trying their best to endure what was turning out to be a very uncomfortable trip. The former staff of WNYX had expended most of their energy arguing away the first three hours of the journey. Hastily packed suitcases and overnight bags crowded the floor and the vehicle’s storage area, limiting movement. Beth sat beside the window on the left side of the van. A bundle of unsharpened pencils were tied to a lanyard around her neck. She tried to count the road stripes as they passed, but only succeeded in making herself dizzy. Beth quickly turned her attention from the window and focused on the pattern of the leather grain on the driver’s seat, determined not to be sick. She blinked hard to dispel a sudden wave of nausea, then gradually became aware of her fingers touching the cardboard box in her lap. She spent a few minutes examining the contents of her box, grateful for the distraction. There was an electric pencil sharpener, her phone message book, a box of paperclips, assorted writing instruments, a folder of magazine clippings; the battered paperback novel she was currently reading, several photographs, and her small, leafy desk plant. She’d wanted badly to take the halogen desk lamp with her, but Jimmy explained that it was an asset of WNYX, and had to be left behind. Beth sadly realized that her entire professional life was contained in the box. She was a secretary, and that was probably all she would ever amount to.

She turned and looked at the woman snuggled against her. Lisa had been asleep for the past hour, using Beth’s shoulder for a pillow. She studied the reporter’s mane of dark hair and listened to her breathing softly. Beth smiled, thinking that there were certainly worse places to be. She moved her head slowly, as not to disturb her friend, and looked over her shoulder. News anchor Max Louis occupied the back seat. He was stretched out with a magazine lying open across his chest, snoring loudly. He clutched a small plastic figurine in one hand. Beth looked at Joe Garrelli, sitting in the front passenger seat. He appeared tense and alert. Joe’s hands gripped a sawed-off shotgun, ready to bring it up at a moment’s notice. The electrician bit his lip nervously. He was dealing with his life-long phobia of alien abductions, and seemed to be taking it well so far. Mr. James was in the opposite seat. The billionaire had taken personal command of the vehicle transporting his favorite workers. He drove casually with one hand on the wheel, using his free hand to dig inside of a Happy Meal for fries. Max had claimed the toy before turning the bag over to him. Jimmy had threatened to garnish his wages if he didn’t return the prize. Max had said that he would think about it.

Beth let out a deep sigh and pressed her head to the window again. She was suddenly overcome with a feeling of acute awareness, like someone was talking to her. She looked around quickly to see if anyone else in the van had heard it. Everything was the same, yet she had the distinct impression that someone had called out to her. Beth tried to focus on the voice, listening intently. The redhead stared forward, unblinking. After a moment it came again, faintly. She knew immediately who it was. Beth spoke quietly, almost to herself, then louder as she was overcome with conviction.

BETH: “Dave… We’ve got to go back.”
JOE: “What?”
BETH: “I know where Dave is.”
MR. JAMES: “So do I. He’s back at the office, kicking himself in the ass for turning down the opportunity of a lifetime.”

TRACY: “Is this WNYX?”

Dave turned around in the chair, startled from his reverie. He looked up to see a beautiful woman striding toward him. She was a petite lady, just over five feet, wearing a form-fitting black tank top, gray sweatpants, and white athletic shoes. Her blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail and tied back with an elastic band. Her bare, lightly muscular arms hinted that she was an athletic person, and the way she carried herself indicated she was used to giving orders. Her face was perky and animated. The news director’s first impression was that she was a take-charge kind of girl, though she appeared indifferent at the moment. Her amber-colored eyes flicked curiously around the office. She checked her watch with a slightly bewildered smile. It was obvious that she had never been here before, and was probably wondering where everyone was. Dave stood abruptly and offered her a hand.

DAVE: “Yes it is. I’m the news director, how can I help you?”
TRACY: “Is Beth here?”
DAVE: “No. You mean she didn’t tell you?”
TRACY: “Tell me what?”
DAVE: “Beth went to New Hampshire with Mister James.”
DAVE: “They left a few hours ago. He took everyone.”
TRACY: “How could you let her go like that, Dave?”
DAVE: “Tell me about it. I tried to stop them, but-- do I know you?”
TRACY: “I’m Tracy Adams, her best friend.”

The room seemed to spin around him. Dave stumbled to the conference table and slumped into a chair, his body trembling uncontrollably. It had been hours since his last cup of coffee, and the symptoms were not unfamiliar. He was weakening due to the lack of caffeine in his system. Tracy tilted her head like a confused animal. The man leaning over the table looked to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Then she realized what was wrong. Beth had mentioned that her boss was a coffee addict. He needed energy, and fast. She looked around for the coffee maker, and quickly located it. Tracyne hurried over to the machine and turned it on while searching for the coffee can. It was nowhere in sight. The irony of the situation was not lost on her. She was doing her best friend’s job. If Beth were here, the coffee would already be brewing. She turned quickly to Dave, her expression pleading the unspoken question.

DAVE: “Break room, on the shelf above the sink, and all the way to the left, beside the three year-old jar of peanut butter that Matthew still uses.”
TRACY: “You realize that you’re going through withdrawal, don’t you?”

The news director made a feeble attempt to acknowledge her, but had only enough energy for a dismissive snort. Tracy rushed to the kitchenette and returned with the coffee grounds. She scooped several teaspoons into a filter and loaded the machine. The water was already percolating, and the coffee would be ready in a few minutes. While she waited for it to brew, she used a handful of paper towels to soak up the water on the table. Dave remained hunched over with his face buried in his arms, cowering like a wounded animal. Tracy couldn’t tell if his condition was a sign of anticipation or weakness. In any case, she needed to set him straight. Just then, the light on the coffee maker winked out, indicating that the brew cycle was complete. She removed a Styrofoam cup from a nearby stack and carefully filled it to the brim. Then she whisked the horrid stuff over to the table and placed it before him. Dave sat up like a mummy rising from the dead, and reached for the cup with shaking hands. Tracy made a silent wager that he would snort the drink through a straw if it were possible.

TRACY: “I don’t see how you can drink that stuff. Coffee has no nutritional value whatsoever.”
DAVE: “But he who drinks it shall have eternal life!”
TRACY: “Okay, I think you’ve had enough for right now.”

She made a move to take the cup from him, but Dave sprung away with astonishing speed. He flew to the coffee maker with single-minded determination. Tracy watched in amazement as the news director topped off the cup with a flourish. Then he took another cup from the stack and filled it up, followed by another after that, and then another. He worked feverishly, making four cups of coffee in rapid succession. She was at his side instantly, seizing his wrists and pinning his hands behind his back.

TRACY: “Stop it. You’re obviously upset about a lot of things, but drowning your sorrows in that muck isn’t going to help. Do you want me to break your wrists, or would you prefer an alternative form of punishment?”
DAVE: “I’d rather take an ass beating.”
TRACY: “That’s exactly what you’re going to get if you don’t help me find Beth.”
DAVE: “Are you serious?”
TRACY: “Quite. Beth told me that she loves you, and I believe her.”
DAVE: “She said that?”
TRACY: “Yes. I’m going to let you go now. You may have one more cup of coffee. If you reach for another, I will break you. Do you understand?”
DAVE: “Are you trying to kill me?”
TRACY: “If I wanted to kill you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Tracyne released him. Dave rubbed his wrists and eyed the woman with a sullen expression, then cautiously reached for another cup of adrenal rush. The blonde gave a curt nod, but maintained eye contact with him. Dave could tell from her expression that she would make good on her promise if he defied her orders. He picked up the Styrofoam cup that appeared fullest. The coffee went down smoothly, warming his chest like a furnace. He sipped thoughtfully for a time, trying to gather his wits.

TRACY: “Tell me what happened today. Start from the beginning.”
DAVE: “We were sitting here having the staff meeting this morning. Then Mister James comes strolling through the door like he still owns the place, spends the next five minutes talking about how much he loves New Hampshire, then takes me aside and tells me that he’s lonely. It turns out that he bought a small radio station and wants me to run it for him. I told him no, then he asked for someone else from the staff. I told him that I needed everybody here, and then-”
TRACY: “Then everyone just decided to spring for New Hampshire?”
DAVE: “I’m still not exactly sure how that happened.”
TRACY: “Did he buy them or something?”
DAVE: “No, but he did offer to pay for their apartments.”
TRACY: “Okay, we have to take charge of this situation.”
DAVE: “How did I know you were going to say that?”
TRACY: “Because I’m a take-charge kind of girl.”
DAVE: “You don’t say.”
TRACY: “Listen, Dave. Beth was the best thing that ever happened to you. I don’t know how you let her leave so easily, but you’d better get serious real fast. My best friend deserves the best, and while I doubt your qualifications, Beth seems to be happy with you. So, what are you going to do about it?”

Preoccupied in thought, Dave absently reached for another cup of coffee. He suddenly recalled her warning and pulled his hand away quickly, offering her a forced smile. Tracy was not amused. Dave knew that she was right. Beth was a rare gem; slightly flawed maybe, but precious nonetheless. He had to get her back somehow. A sharp snap from Tracy’s fingers brought Dave out of his reverie, and he focused on the blonde again. She crossed her arms, and he noticed how muscular they were. For some reason he found her oddly intimidating. She arched an eyebrow, waiting to hear what he was going to say.

DAVE: “I’m going after her.”
TRACY: “Congratulations, you get to live.”

It suddenly occurred to Dave that he didn’t have Mr. James’ address, and consequently had no idea where to find them. Beth would have the information filed away somewhere, but that didn’t do him any good since she wasn’t here to show him where it was. He felt a sudden pang of regret. Dave had never realized how dependent he was on his personal assistant. She made him coffee everyday, just the way he liked it, brought him files and news stories that he requested, and even delivered his mail. The fact of the matter was the same, no matter how he looked at it. He couldn’t live without Beth.

DAVE: “I have to make a call.”
TRACY: “To who?”
DAVE: “Mister James’ lawyer. He’s the only person who would have his new address.”

He went into his office and flipped through the Rolodex on the desk. After a minute, he located the number. Dave picked up the phone and dialed. The call was answered immediately. The man on the other end of the line answered in a direct, somewhat amused tone. Somehow Dave knew the lawyer had a wry smile on his face, even though he couldn’t see him.

DAVE: “Roger, this is Dave Nelson at WNYX.”
ROGER: “I don’t know who you are, Mister Nelson, but according to my caller I.D. your name is Dave Nelson. Is there any truth to this?”
DAVE: “I need some answers, Roger.”
ROGER: “Right away, sir.”

Literally two seconds later, Roger stepped into Dave’s office with a cell phone, followed by a stunned Tracyne. She had never seen anything like it in her life. It seemed as if the man had just materialized out of thin air. Roger was dressed in a dark blue suit with a red tie, and his hair was combed to perfection. Dave’s suspicion was confirmed as he noticed the lawyer smiling at some private joke that only he knew the punch line to. For some reason, Roger always appeared as though he were on live television, aware that he had only one chance to get his lines right, or risk blowing the skit. Dave returned the phone to his desk, idly wondering how the man perceived himself.

DAVE: “Okay, how did you do that?”
TRACY: “Do you walk through walls or something?”
ROGER: “Please, please… one question at a time. First, Jimmy loaned me this book a few years ago, and secondly- yes I can.”
TRACY: “What kind of book teaches you how to do that?”
ROGER: “Walk through walls?”
TRACY: “No, the other thing.”
ROGER: “That would be Old Green Beret Tricks.”
DAVE: “Tracy, this is Mister James’ lawyer.”

Roger clasped her hand without missing a beat.

ROGER: “I’m Roger Edwards, Jimmy’s legal attorney. Have we met?”
TRACY: “Tracy Adams, self-employed fitness instructor, pleased to meet you, and no.”
DAVE: “I thought you only did that appearing thing for Mister James?”
ROGER: “Also for anyone else he tells me to, but that’s not why I’m here.”
DAVE: “Right. I have a question for you.”
TRACY: “Where does Mister James live in New Hampshire?”
DAVE: “Tracy, I can handle this. We need his address to find Beth.”
ROGER: “I’m sorry Mister Nelson, I can’t do that.”
DAVE: “Why not?”

Roger placed his briefcase on the desk and thumbed the latches open. Dave waited expectantly while the attorney flipped through a sheaf of paperwork. Behind him, Tracy flopped onto the couch in a manner oddly similar to Beth’s. She waved her arms in exasperation and mocked the lawyer to his back, then propped her feet up on the small table in front of the couch. Presently, Roger found what he was looking for. But instead of reading from it, he simply held the paper behind his back and recited by rote.

ROGER: “The Right of Privacy Act prevents the unauthorized release of an individual’s name, address, or other personal information for non-business related purposes. It also gives the aforementioned individual exclusive right to prohibit the release of such records for general or public access. By the way, I saw that, Miss Adams.”
TRACY: “You lie.”
DAVE: “This is business-related.”
ROGER: “Mister James has exercised this option. As his legal representative, I’m required by law to duly uphold his wishes according to the guidelines established by the corporation.”
TRACY: “What if I kill you?”
ROGER: “If that were the case, I would still have to uphold his wishes according to the guidelines established by the corporation. But legally, I could have dinner with you, followed by a night of wild sex, and not necessarily in that order.”
DAVE: “Why don’t you call Mister James and ask him yourself?”
ROGER: “I’m only allowed to contact him in the event of a legal emergency.”

Roger smiled at his own cleverness. Tracyne was becoming tired of the man’s know-it-all attitude. She kicked the table forward, knocking the lawyer’s feet out from under him. He fell backward in a snowstorm of paperwork. Tracy caught him before he struck the floor, and quickly placed him in a headlock.

TRACY: “What about a medical emergency?”

Dave turned his chair to face the wall. He didn’t want to be a witness when she hurt him. Roger grinned enthusiastically, despite his position.

ROGER: “Hey, a woman who likes it rough! Where have you been all my life?”
TRACY: “You want me to spend the rest of your life with you? No problem. It’ll take about sixty more seconds of my time.”
ROGER: “O- okay, you win! It’s 583 Frontier Road, Haverhill, New Hampshire! The zip code is-”

Dave spun his chair back and scribbled the address on a notepad. He tore the sheet off and stuffed it in his pocket. Tracy pulled the lawyer to his feet with one arm, her smooth muscles bulging tightly. Roger’s ever-present smile grew larger. He was clearly enjoying this.

DAVE: “Sorry it had to work out this way, Mister Edwards.”

Tracy followed the news director out of the office. Roger called after her:

ROGER: “Are you single, by any chance?”

Tracy turned in mid-step and went back into the office. Dave kept moving. He wanted nothing to do with it. Judging by the noise, he imagined that Tracy dropped the lawyer with a kick to the groin, picked him up by the aforementioned area, and kicked him again. Dave waited for her by the WNYX sign. She rejoined him a moment later, and they headed for the elevator together. Behind them, Roger crawled through the doorway to Dave’s office. He managed to get one squeaky sentence out before the elevator closed.

ROGER: “I’ll call you sometime!”

TRACY: “Okay, here it is.”

They were standing in the living room of Beth’s studio flat on the sixth floor of the Tanna Hill Apartment complex. Despite its close proximity to the Midtown business district, the fourteen-story building was on a relatively quiet street. Dave had visited the apartment only once before. Tracy pressed PLAY on the answering machine and the message began: “Hi, Beth. I just called to see if you were available this weekend. I know I told you that I had the time off, but there’s been a scheduling conflict at work. I also wanted to remind you about Missy’s birthday party next week. Give me a call when you get home, I have a few ideas to discuss. Thanks.”

The tape ran out and clicked to a stop. Tracy exchanged a look with Dave. He now had two reasons to go after Beth. The sanity of one person, and the happiness of another both depended on her, and she didn’t even realize it. Dave checked his watch. It was almost 7:30. He walked to the window and drew the blinds open. Daylight was fading quickly. The last rays of sunlight burned the upper tips of the highest buildings and mirrored back shades of white, blue, and orange. Dave listened to the sounds of the city below, feeling helpless. He tucked his hands into his pockets and leaned against the window frame, watching the lengthening shadows crawl up the skyscrapers. He felt Tracy move beside him and rest her head on his shoulder, comforting him.

TRACY: “Try not to worry about it. Everything will be fine.”
DAVE: “I hope so.”
TRACY: “It will. Trust me.”
DAVE: “I had no idea that I’d miss her so much.”
TRACY: “I know. There’s something special about her. It’s one of those things you can’t see… like an aura. Don’t give up on her, Dave.”
DAVE: “I won’t.”
TRACY: “Come on, I’ll make us dinner. Why don’t you get a shower and try to relax? We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

The bathroom was small and shadowy; pleasantly cluttered, and scented with the orangey fragrance of citrus shampoo. The floor was a patchwork of rugs and towels that covered every inch of space. Apparently Beth didn't like getting her feet wet, and preferred soft padding to protect her toes against the cold, unforgiving tile. The small wastebasket in the corner was filled with crumpled tissues, Q-tips, and strands of dental floss, while the counter space around the sink contained an assortment of makeup and feminine hygiene products. Dave felt uneasy in the bathroom, as if he were somehow violating Beth's privacy. He wished she were there to comfort him, but as things currently stood, he didn't even know if she liked him. As he prepared to shower, Dave tried to ignore the strands of dark red hair in the bathtub, the sink, and twisted around the bristles of Beth’s hairbrush.

Tracy, meanwhile, was making the most from the grocery supply. She finally realized how Beth managed to keep such a trim figure without a rigorous exercise program- she barely had any food in the apartment! Tracy was able to scrape together a box of shell pasta and a pot of water to make noodles with. A further search of the kitchen rewarded her with a partial loaf of bread, one can of green peas, and a box of salted crackers. Despite the mediocre selection, she worked without complaint.

Dave returned twenty minutes later in a much better disposition after the long shower. He cleared the table of crayons and coloring books, and they sat down to a simple meal. Dave turned on the radio and they dined to hits of the 40's and 50's while they worked out the details of the trip. The conversation inevitably turned to Beth, and the news director became melancholy. Tracy tried to cheer him up with a few humorous anecdotes about their college years, and Beth’s freshman attire in particular, but it did little to improve his bittersweet mood. Then she surprised Dave by asking him to dance with her. As they swayed around the room in time with Patti Page’s rendition of Tennessee Waltz, Dave imagined that he was dancing with Beth. Midway through the song, he realized how she must have felt at the dance two weeks ago.

In his sleep, Dave was swept into a nightmarish landscape. He found himself in a dark parody of Manhattan, in which the city lay in ruin beneath a rolling gray sky. Sheets of rain wept through broken concrete and twisting, corroded metal. He shivered in a gale of howling wind as he looked around the forsaken landscape. Before he had time to contemplate the situation, he found himself in a room within the crumbling shell of a broken building. Someone was hiding in the darkness, pressed against the wall in fear. Dave hesitantly stepped forward to help them. The person turned at the sound of his footsteps, and when she moved, her shoulder came into the light, followed by a swirl of blood colored hair. It was Beth! Her face beamed with happiness when she saw Dave.

Then she was in his arms, and they embraced in the darkness. Red hair spilled around her shoulders as they kissed, and her body trembled while she cried into his shoulder. Dave held Beth as though his very existence depended on it. Suddenly, his arms closed over thin air as she disappeared, and Dave found himself alone in the dark room. He turned, groping blindly in the nothingness. His pulse quickened and his stomach churned in panic. She was gone… Then he was running again, racing through dark streets. The noise of his flight echoed in the hollow air. He ran without exhaustion, fueled by a driving force. He had to find her, save her. The image of her beautiful face, flaming hair, and pure white skin danced like a transparent veil before his eyes. Beth's ghostly visage powered his flight through the miserable gray world, until she was back in his arms where she belonged, where she was safest. It was a powerful motivation that urged him on, despite a rising, inexplicable dread that filled him with emptiness, told him that it was hopeless. Nothing else mattered except her. Nothing. And so it went, over and over. Searching… finding… disappearing again. The dream repeated itself in a mad, endless cycle.

TRACY: “Get up!”

She whacked him on the head with a pillow. Dave held up his arms in defense and irritably questioned her mental state. He squinted his eyes open, expecting to see Tracy brandishing a fist. Instead, she placed a steaming mug of coffee on the table in front of him. Despite the rude awakening, he felt surprisingly good. His heart soared at the thought of Beth. His dream had been so vivid that Dave felt as if she were still there, and he patted the space on the couch beside him with fondness. He lifted the mug of hot coffee and drank deeply, noting that Tracy’s hair was damp. She had apparently showered and changed. From what he could tell, she must have borrowed some of Beth’s clothes. Unlike his personal assistant, Tracy managed to combine them tastefully. She wore a medium gray, short-sleeved tee, black jeans, and her own athletic shoes. Dave realized that he would have to stop by his apartment to pick up fresh clothes and pack a small overnight bag. Contrary to the way he’d felt the day before, he was actually looking forward to the journey.

Within one hour, they were heading north on I-95 in Tracy’s white Nissan 240SX. The temperature was mild, so Dave put the top down. He dressed leisurely in a dark shirt, jeans, work boots, and a pair of Aviator shades to fend off the morning sun. Tracy sat in the front passenger seat, resting her arm on the edge of the door, the map folded open in her lap. The breeze whipped her golden hair in the sunlight, and she smiled contentedly behind a pair of snazzy Ray-Bans. Any observer would have identified the man and woman as a happily married couple on vacation. Beside her, Dave commanded the small sports car with a single hand on the steering wheel. Although, technically, he was on station business, he preferred to think of it as a well-deserved vacation. The stress accumulated over the past two days melted away with each mile. Feeling good about himself, Dave tapped his hand on the mirror and sang along with the radio until Tracy silenced him with a disapproving look.

TRACY: “That’s it, hand it over.”

Dave scowled at her and pulled to the shoulder of the road. They executed a Chinese fire drill. Tracy fastened her seatbelt and stepped on the gas. The car merged with the flow of Interstate traffic and zipped into the left lane as if drawn by a magnet. She reached into the console and pulled out a compact disc. Tracy needed music that suited her better. In seconds, they were listening to The Great Beyond, by R.E.M. She floored the pedal and the car accelerated rapidly. Dave tightened his seatbelt and sat rigid and unmoving. The woman beside him gave a carefree laugh and tossed her head back as the needle on the speedometer arced past 140. The news director was terrified to suddenly find himself strapped into a careening death machine, rocketing into oblivion with a demented blonde at his side. In some dark corner of his mind, he reasoned that the title of the song on the radio was oddly appropriate.

TRACY: “Yeah, it runs real smooth doing eighty miles an hour!”

Dave shouted to be heard over the rushing wind.

DAVE: “Does Beth drive this fast?”
TRACY: “She used to! One time we stayed up all night playing F-Zero, and she went out for pizza the next day and got a hundred dollar speeding ticket!”
DAVE: “What was she doing?”
TRACY: “About eighty-five!”
DAVE: “Eighty-five!?!
TRACY: “It’s hard to be Captain Falcon when you drive a 76’ Pacer, but she was trying her damnedest!”
DAVE: “And she doesn’t speed anymore?”
TRACY: “No! Starving had a profound effect on her driving skills!”

They traveled further northwest as the day went on, making infrequent stops for gasoline and food. Dave was more than happy to play the enthusiastic tourist, but Tracy would have no part of it. Only after a considerable argument did he finally convince her to stop at a small roadside store in Vermont so that he could pick up a bottle of maple syrup as a gift for Mr. James. He also needed the opportunity to rest, as they had been driving for nearly three hours. Inside the restaurant, he brought two chocolate milkshakes to the table and set one before Tracy. She had been poring over a map of New Hampshire for the better part of ten minutes, and was grateful for a break. Dave was relieved to discover that vegetarians were allowed milkshakes. Everything seemed to be going according to plan, with one exception. They were having trouble locating Haverhill, New Hampshire. Dave rotated the map around so that he could read it. He studied the alphabetical index of cities and towns and found the graph coordinates for Haverhill. Then he flipped the map over again, placed an index finger on each of the two separate points, and brought them together.

The town of Haverhill, as it turned out, was a mere speck on the map. It was represented by a tiny dot in the northwestern part of the state, located in a small area between two counties; not the large city they had imagined it to be. Moreover, it seemed incredible that a multibillionaire would pick such an obscure place to retire. The more Dave pondered this, the more certain he became that Mr. James had an ulterior motive. There must be, he decided, some kind of distinct advantage to the town, some untapped potential that nobody else realized. Perhaps Jimmy James Industries had conducted a survey that revealed an enormous oil deposit in the area. Or maybe Jimmy was planning to buy the town, posing as just another middle-aged retiree in order to avoid suspicion. That was the best scenario Dave could come up with as he finished his drink. Milkshake theories notwithstanding, he didn’t want to waste anymore time. He paid the tab for the desserts, topped off the tank, and they headed north again.

Another hour saw them across the New Hampshire state line. Tracyne drove while Dave relaxed and took in the scenery. A panorama of deep green surrounded the road designated NH-10 on the map. As they traveled farther north, the highway wove through gently undulating hills and the terrain became increasingly mountainous. The land was a heavily forested carpet of deciduous trees. Maple, elm, pine, fir, and oak seemed to flow past in liquid tranquility. Sunlight filtered through the branches, painting the forest floor in hues of gold, and the day seemed to possess a timeless quality. The sky above was a deep blue, the air cool and dry. Dave was beginning to see why Mr. James was so enchanted with the place. It was breathtaking and serene. He rested peacefully in the seat, and became drowsy in the warm sunlight. Tracy nudged him.

TRACY: “The way I figure it, we have two days to convince her to come back with us. If she doesn’t go willingly, then we take her by force.”
DAVE: “More mercenary tactics from your militant mind?”
TRACY: “No, just seems like the logical thing to do.”
DAVE: “So I’m supposed to play on her heartstrings, and if she doesn’t cooperate, we knock her out, tie her up in the back seat, and take her back to New York?”
TRACY: “Can’t think of a reason not to. But I prefer to think of it as kidnapping.”
DAVE: “No, if this were a kidnapping we would have taken Matthew.”
TRACY: “Well, do you have a better idea?”
DAVE: “I do.”
TRACY: “Want to share it?”
DAVE: “Not on your life.”
TRACY: “Are all Canadians as stubborn as you?”
DAVE: “Only when it comes to planning atrocities.”

They entered Collins County nearly six hours after leaving Manhattan. The odometer indicated that they had journeyed across nearly two hundred and ninety miles of pristine wilderness. The evergreens fell away to the left and to the right, and the quaint settlement stretched out below them.

Haverhill, New Hampshire was worlds away from the glass-and-steel concrete jungle of Manhattan. As far as Dave was concerned, it was paradise. As they cruised into town, they might have traveled back in time without knowing it. Dave noted that the main street was red cobblestone, worn smooth with age. Most of the buildings were easily half a century old, and many still retained traces of original hand-painted murals advertising everything from Burma Shave and Coca Cola to dry goods at the Mercantile Store. The signposts were made of wrought iron painted medium green, and storefronts featured metal numbers and hand-cut cornerstones displaying the year each building was erected. Dave thrilled to the idea that he was in the mid-1920’s, that another war was a mere shadow on the distant horizon of the future, and that life was still simple. So caught up in enchantment was the news director, that he almost failed to notice a street sign that read: ‘Radio Station Rd.’

DAVE: “Stop the car!”
TRACY: “I see it.”
DAVE: “Follow it. This town can’t have more than one radio station.”

Dave turned on the radio as she cut the wheel to make the turn. He twisted the dial, searching across the band. The speaker blurred through classic, light rock, and contemporary music, all from major cities. Dave blinked in confusion. Was he missing something? It had to be here. They hadn’t spent a whole day traveling to the end of the earth, only to discover that the town of Haverhill didn’t have a radio station. Tracy watched the buildings thin out, giving way to small residential houses. Much as she hated to admit it, she was beginning to worry. Dave looked forward expectantly. Ahead, the lane curved uphill to the right and disappeared around a bend, thick with evergreens. Tracy suddenly snapped her fingers and pressed the A.M. button on the dashboard. The radio crackled to life with a familiar voice:

“-logistics company completed its capital increase by issuing six-point-two million shares. The financial resources resulting from the capital increase will give Pangaeascape the means to continue the development, construction, and sales of its logistics services and to prepare for the capital measure planned for next year. This is Lisa Miller, reporting for WNHX, New Hampshire’s number one news station. Please stay tuned for more after a short commercial break.”

TRACY: “Rock and roll.”

She floored the accelerator and raced the lane around the base of a forested slope. Dave craned his neck for a better view. The signal was strong and clear. The station had to be somewhere in the vicinity. As they followed the road, he could see a tall broadcast tower rising high above the trees. Radio Station Road terminated in the parking lot of a rustic-looking wooden building at the top of the broad hill. A grove of tall fir trees served as the backdrop for the station. The latticework steel tower reached into the sky from somewhere behind the trees. It looked out of place there, bristling with antennae and topped by a large satellite dish.

They pulled into an empty space and turned the engine off. The only noise to be heard was the breeze gently rustling through the trees, and the echo of birds in the forest. They could just make out the sound of the radio tower humming in the distance. Overall, it was a remarkably tranquil scene. The pair stepped from the car and made their way to the station, a low, single-story building that resembled a log cabin. The front of the building featured wide, horizontal windows, and the roof was covered in thick wooden shingles. A large, rectangular sign emblazoned with orange figures read: ‘WNHX 105.3 A.M.’ This was the station that Jimmy James owned.

As they neared the entrance, Dave noted that the doors were of glass and steel construction; surprisingly modern, contrary to the rest of the structure. In fact, they looked as if they were a recent addition to the building. Dave pushed through the doors, followed by Tracyne. The news director jumped back in fright, stumbling into her. Standing guard just inside the door was a life-sized grizzly bear, stuffed and mounted on a wooden display pedestal. The animal had been dressed in a green forest ranger uniform, complete with hat. Somebody had placed a microphone in one of the bear’s paws, and glued a ridiculous-looking fake beard to its lower jaw. Adorning the uniform was a not-so-official-looking badge that read: ‘Big Ass Bear welcomes you to WNHX.’ The words, Dave realized, had obviously been inspired by Mr. James, while Beth had evidently carried out the handwriting. The result was almost comical, but Dave was not amused. The sight of the taxidermy mascot nearly scared the hell out of him.

TRACY: “Cute.”

She poked the creature on the nose. Dave gave her a withering look and continued walking. He found himself standing in a spacious lobby with a tiled floor. The walls, not surprisingly, were paneled in wood. The receptionist desk occupied the center of the room. It was a low, circular workstation with a small gate at the backside. The desk was constructed from solid maple, topped with a white veneer, and the receptionist’s chair sat unoccupied behind it. The section of desk in front of the chair was built at a diagonal angle, much like a painter’s easel. To the left sat a new computer, and to the right was a telephone. The red light blinked, indicating new, unanswered messages on the machine. Nearby sat Beth’s small green plant and a battered paperback novel. The remainder of the desk was covered with cardboard boxes full of paperwork and supplies. Dave strode past the desk and moved further into the building.

The door behind the reception area led into a short hallway. Tracy followed at Dave’s heels, wary at how silent the place was. The station must operate with a minimal amount of staff, she realized. Doors lined both sides of the hall as they walked. They came to a junction, where the passage was bisected by another hall. This one was wider, however. A dozen feet ahead, their hallway ended. Dave turned in a full circle, disoriented. From what he could tell, the building was rather wide, but not very deep. He went left and continued walking. This hallway seemed to be a mirror duplicate of the first one. Dave came to an open door to the right. On the wall beside it stood a few vending machines. He peered inside. The room was large and rectangular in shape, but was painted white, rather than covered in drab wood paneling. It contained several long, collapsible tables and nearly two-dozen metal folding chairs. The far end of the room looked like a kitchen, complete with cabinets, a sink, and a refrigerator. Dave surmised that they had found the break room. The news director winced. There was no coffee maker.

TRACY: “Want a soda?”
DAVE: “No, thanks. What?”

He turned. Tracy was no longer standing beside him. Dave stepped back into the hallway to see her feeding change into one of the machines. She pressed a button and a drink rattled into the dispenser tray. She crouched down and plucked out a bottle of mineral water. Dave frowned. Where was everybody? One of the first things he'd noticed about the place was the silence. He had not heard a single noise since entering the building. It defied the stereotypical image of a radio station. Then he realized the obvious. He wasn’t in New York. Everything here was scaled-down, smaller. In fact, this station could probably be operated with a minimal staff of three people. He needed to find the broadcast room.

Dave backtracked to the junction in the hallway, only this time he went right. The alternate passage was smooth and featureless, without doors. Behind him, Dave could hear Tracy hurrying to catch up. They came to a wall that seemed to mark the end. Dave turned left, then right, following the contours of a large room. He spotted a glowing red sign above a closed door that read: ON AIR. He pushed through the door without breaking stride.

Inside, they found Lisa Miller at work within a large, soundproof broadcast booth similar to the one at WNYX. She wore an expensive-looking pair of headphones, and had one hand cupped over her ear to keep the headset in place as she spoke. Dave motioned for Tracy to be silent as he moved to the control board and flipped a switch so they could hear the broadcast. Lisa’s humorless voice filled the room:

“-one hand on wheel, one hand on nonfat double decaf cappuccino, cradling a cell phone, brick on accelerator, gun in lap: Los Angeles. Number two: One hand on wheel, one hand on hunting rifle, alternating between both feet being on the accelerator and both feet on the brake, throwing McDonald’s bag out the window: Texas. And the number one way to tell where a driver is from: Knee against steering wheel, one hand on Tim Horton’s coffee cup, cell phone in ear, accelerator on floor, applying makeup / doing crossword puzzle / reading morning Free Press / knocking down orange barrels and changing lanes without turn signals: Michigan. This has been the WNHX Top Five at Five. Please stay tuned for your local weather report with Max Louis after these messages.”

Lisa switched off the live feed and put a tape into the console. The radio journalist removed her earphones and rolled her head, trying to relieve muscle strain. Dave knocked on the soundproof glass with a smile. Both reporters turned at the sound. Lisa beamed with surprise and ran out of the booth. Max was halfway out of his seat when he suddenly remembered that he had to be on the air soon. Lisa embraced him, delighted by the unexpected visit.

LISA: “Dave! I knew you were too smart to stay in New York!”
DAVE: “Ah… I’m not exactly here to stay, but-”
LISA: “Who’s your friend?”

Dave quickly introduced the striking blonde before Lisa could draw her own conclusion about the significance of the woman’s presence. The reporter stepped forward and accepted Tracy's hand, sizing her up at the same time.

DAVE: “This is Beth’s friend, Tracy Adams. We need to talk to Mister James.”
TRACY: “Hi, Lisa, glad to meet you.”
LISA: “Same here.”
TRACY: “Do you know where Jimmy is?”
LISA: “He’s out buying a golf course. He should be back anytime.”
DAVE: “You mean he hasn’t bought the state yet?”
TRACY: “Where’s Beth?”
LISA: “I think she’s at the ranch.”
DAVE: “Then who’s making coffee?”
TRACY: “What ranch?”
LISA: “Jimmy’s place. He owns the single largest private estate in New Hampshire.”
DAVE: “How do we get there?”
LISA: “What’s the hurry?”
DAVE: “It’s a long story.”
TRACY: “And we’re sort of on a time limit.”
LISA: “What’s going on?”
DAVE: “Sorry, Lisa, but it’s really none of your business.”

Tracyne backhanded him.

DAVE: “What was that for?”
TRACY: “Being rude.”
LISA: “Stop acting like children!”
DAVE: “She started it!”
TRACY: “Men…”
LISA: “Tell me about it.”
DAVE: “Okay, that’s it.”

He pushed by Lisa and stormed out of the room. He hadn’t driven all the way to New Hampshire for this. Dave was only here for one reason: to find Beth. He moved through the labyrinthine hallways at a determined pace. Up ahead, he could hear voices and the clatter of people moving around. Then, as he neared the source, a heavy thud shook the floor as something was dropped. The cacophony sounded like an army squad practicing combat maneuvers in a gymnasium. Dave wondered what the hell was going on. He hurried to the junction in the hallway and was surprised to find a dozen workmen in brown jumpsuits struggling to move a giant wooden crate through the narrow passage. The box could barely fit in the confined area, and they were having a difficult time with it. Dave tapped the nearest man on the shoulder.

DAVE: “Excuse me. Do you know where Mister James is?”
WORKER: “Break room.”

Dave stepped around the edge of the crate and turned the corner. He jogged down the hall expectantly, hoping to find Beth. His spirit soared as he drew closer to the room, and his skin prickled at the thought that the redhead would soon be in his arms. Dave rushed past the line of vending machines and into the break room, where he found Mr. James crouching in front of the microwave. The man seemed to be enraptured with a bag of popcorn that was heating on the rotating glass tray inside. Dave felt an acute sense of disappointment. Beth was nowhere in sight. Furthermore, the retired billionaire had not heard him come into the room over the staccato of popping kernels. Dave wanted to break something in frustration. This is what Mr. James had moved to New Hampshire for- to microwave popcorn?

DAVE: “Mister James!”

Jimmy James turned in surprise and dropped the large yellow bowl that he was holding. The plastic vessel clattered to the floor and spun in concentric circles until it rolled to a stop. The wealthy Floridian sported a pair of cheap 3-D glasses with red and blue lenses. He grinned and waved happily to the news director. Dave looked at the man as though he were out of his mind. He was about to walk over when Mr. James commanded him to stay put.

The billionaire held out both hands, and wiggled his fingers dramatically. He began walking toward Dave, feeling his way blindly, like a poorly-trained mime wearing an expensive suit. Mr. James grinned idiotically as he groped at invisible, misperceived objects. He made his way across the room in exaggerated steps, like an overgrown infant learning how to walk. Then he stumbled against a chair. Irritated, he made a grab for it and missed by a foot, nearly losing his balance in the process. He widened his stance and took another swipe at it. Now he didn’t resemble the owner of a multibillion-dollar corporation so much as he did a nearsighted bear trying to catch a hummingbird.

Dave stifled a laugh. At last Jimmy found the chair. He lifted it above his head in theatrical triumph and hurled it away. Dave ducked as the projectile narrowly missed him, striking a nearby wall and bounced across the floor. Mr. James finally located him through the world of azure and magenta, grasping the news director by the shoulders.

MR. JAMES: “Ah ha! I found you! Hot dog, are these things great!”
DAVE: “Sir, would you mind telling me what’s going on?”
MR. JAMES: “How do you like my virtual reality glasses, Dave?”
DAVE: “They’re very nice, sir. ”
MR. JAMES: “Well, they should be for five grand. Now I can see the world three-dimensionally!”
DAVE: “Sir, everything in the world is three-dimensional.”
MR. JAMES: “You don’t- you don’t say.”
DAVE: “Please tell me you didn’t pay five thousand dollars for those.”
MR. JAMES: “Yeah, I did. Why?”
DAVE: “Because you can get 3-D glasses in cereal boxes and comic books for free.”
MR. JAMES: “…Damn!
DAVE: “Sir, I thought you were buying a golf course.”
MR. JAMES: “That’s what I did this morning.”
DAVE: “I’m almost afraid to ask, sir, but what are you doing now?”

Mr. James ventured an uncertain smile from behind the red-and-blue glasses.

MR. JAMES: “Popping corn in 3-D?”
DAVE: “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were insane.”
MR. JAMES: “What makes you say that?”
DAVE: “Well, because you retired for no practical reason to move up here. As if that weren’t bad enough, you come back and take my entire staff away. Not to mention the fact that I haven’t had a drop of coffee in over four hours, and then I had to endure hell on wheels to get here.”
MR. JAMES: “Dave, there is a reason for everything that has transpired, an underlying pattern to this seemingly random chain of events.”
DAVE: “…and?”
MR. JAMES: “That’s all I have right now. You can work out the rest yourself.”
DAVE: “Excuse me?”
MR. JAMES: “That’s your game, son. Reconciling logical paradoxes. You figure out the secrets of the universe, I’ll just run it.”

Dave was about to say something further, but one of the workers stuck his head in the door.

WORKER: “Sir, it’s finished.”
MR. JAMES: “Thanks. Follow me, Dave. I have something that will to make all your suffering worthwhile. Care for a Jamesmont soda?”

The news director waved a declining hand. In spite being on a first name basis with the creator of the tart beverage, Dave didn't have the heart to tell him that his best-selling product tasted like a cross between cow piss and floor polish. In fact, he wouldn't be surprised if the drink met the same fate as Jimmy James Industries' disastrously marketed line of Breakdancing Detergent.

He followed Mr. James into the hallway, flabbergasted by the man’s relaxed attitude, as if none of Dave’s problems even mattered. If anything, the billionaire was acting more laconic than ever. They stopped in the midst of Jimmy’s crew, who was busy hauling off pieces of the disassembled crate. Mr. James stood proudly before a bright, sparkling new vending machine. Dave reached over and plucked the ridiculous glasses from his face.

MR. JAMES: “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful in your whole life, Dave?”

An image of Beth flashed through his mind, but he kept it to himself. Instead of answering Jimmy’s hypothetical question, he circled the machine, slowly taking in its appearance. It stood about six feet tall, and was constructed of dark metal. The front of the automatic vendor featured a large backlit panel depicting a steaming thermos of coffee, emblazoned with the Mister Jitters logo. Set into the middle of the panel was the dispenser tray, where one was required to place a cup to be filled. To the upper, right was the menu selection pad, with a complete listing of available beverages, and corresponding buttons for each. The structure towered majestically over the other machines, humming with energy. Dave had to admit that it was truly impressive. It must have cost the station a fortune.

MR. JAMES: “This thing cost me a fortune, Dave.”
DAVE: “It’s a coffee machine.”
MR. JAMES: “No, it’s not just a coffee machine. This is the deluxe VL-3500 Brewmaster, imported from England- the finest machine money can buy! It’s the stuff dreams are made of!”
DAVE: “With all due respect, sir, I thought it’s the stuff coffee was made of.”
MR. JAMES: “No, you’re thinking about coffee beans. Just pay attention.”

The portly station owner raised an index finger to forestall further comment. He stood in front of the glowing machine like a magician about to perform a trick. Dave had only to mentally add a black top hat, coat, and white gloves to complete the illusion. He smiled briefly as the image appeared in his mind. Jimmy cleared his throat and started ticking off each feature on his fingers as he spoke.

MR. JAMES: “This thing has a stainless steel mixing deck, state-of-the-art computerized menu, the capacity to serve three hundred and fifty cups, and one big-ass selection of beverages!”
DAVE: “Can I try it, sir?”
TRACY: “Don't even think about it.”

Both men turned at the voice. Tracyne Adams was striding toward them like a commando, with Lisa close behind. Dave took one look at the reporter’s face and realized that the cat was out of the bag. Lisa shot him a mildly accusing look as she approached, and his worst fear was confirmed. Tracy had told her everything. She clearly knew the truth of the matter, but she probably wanted to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth. Before Lisa could act, however, Tracy stepped between them. That didn’t seem to deter the brainy Bostonian.

LISA: “Dave, can I have a word with you?”
MR. JAMES: “Damn, you’re butch!”
TRACY: “I work out.”
LISA: “Better not let Joe see her.”
DAVE: “Which reminds me, where is Lieutenant Ripley’s second-in-command?”
LISA: “Dave.”
MR. JAMES: “Garelli’s at the ranch.”
LISA: “Joe’s last name is Garelli?”
MR. JAMES: “I guess.”
TRACY: “Where is Beth?”
MR. JAMES: “She’s away on official station business.”
DAVE: “We really need to talk to her, sir.”
MR. JAMES: “What’s so important? Did she win the lottery?”
LISA: “Dave-
MR. JAMES: “I think you have some work to do, Lisa.”
LISA: “But, sir!”
MR. JAMES: “Step on it, college. I’m paying your salary.”
DAVE: “This is an affair of the heart, sir.”
MR. JAMES: “Say no more. Let’s go.”

They followed Mr. James outside, where a stretch limousine awaited. As they stepped inside, Dave noticed that a seven-foot pair of steer horns decorated the hood of the car. Within moments, they were motoring away from the station, and deeper into the wilderness. Seated within the lavish interior of the vehicle, the New Yorkers were treated to chilled margaritas and potato chips, two of Jimmy’s favorite delicacies. Dave watched the scenery through the tinted glass, and wondered where they were going.

When he broached the subject, Jimmy explained that his retirement home was built in a secret location, in order to avoid detection by certain political groups. He was hardly surprised when the billionaire mentioned Watergate. Tracy seemed to take it all in stride. Dave was too preoccupied with thoughts of Beth to consider Jimmy’s hazy political affiliations. Would she welcome him with open arms, or deny that their relationship ever existed? The latter possibility was so unlikely that he dismissed it almost immediately. There was something between them. He couldn’t deny the fact that he felt a bond with his personal assistant, and he was positive that she felt the same.

Dave braced himself as the limousine swerved through a bend. Gravity released its grip on the occupants of the vehicle as the road straightened out again. Ahead, the lane seemed to terminate in a dense stand of maple trees. Dave was surprised when the car passed through the hardwood grove with only feet to spare. Beyond the vegetation, a breathtaking expanse of valley and pasture stretched before them. They pressed against the glass for a better view. Mr. James activated several buttons, and the sunroof retracted above their heads, followed by the passenger windows. The billionaire’s guests jostled for a better view. Dave leaned out the window and Tracy stood up in her seat and surveyed the panorama through the sunroof.

MR. JAMES: “Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

The horned limousine plowed toward an immense gate set into an enormous fence. As they neared the portal, the doors opened automatically beneath a crudely painted wooden sign that read: ‘Fort Awesome 2.’ As the car passed beneath the gate, Dave was amazed to see the perimeter fence towering forty feet above them. The barrier was constructed of thick wooden posts threaded with taut barbed wire, and topped with twisted, razor sharp coils of tensile concertina wire. Tracy’s mouth fell open in astonishment.

Once inside, the gate closed automatically, harboring them from the outside world. Dave joined Beth’s friend, standing through the opening in the sunroof. Around them sprawled one hundred and twenty acres of pristine New England wilderness: a virtual Eden of grassy knolls, gently sloping valleys, and forests of oak, hemlock, and willows, threaded with a softly babbling brook. It was breathtaking. The earthly paradise was enclosed within the security fence, stretching like a lethal steel spring over miles of hillsides and ravines.

Herds of cattle dotted the grassland like so many flowers, grazing peacefully on the lush. One or two animals raised their heads, staring dully at the passing automobile moving along the quarter-mile driveway. Dave felt an overwhelming sense of tranquility as the car rumbled over the gravel in the late afternoon sunlight. Despite the fact that he had spent his post-high school years struggling to escape rural Wisconsin, he was still drawn to the laconic quality of nature. He could see why Mr. James had decided to retire here.

Tracy, while enchanted with the beauty of the place, found it grossly distasteful that so much natural wonder should be enjoyed by so few. How anybody had allowed Jimmy to buy such a vast amount of land and hoard it behind an impenetrable barrier for his own personal enjoyment was beyond her. She would have to ask him about it later. In the meantime, however, she was going to enjoy her time at the New Hampshire hideaway. Tracy leaned far back and looked into the heavens above. She reached upward, wanting to embrace the sky and swim in the fathomless blue ocean. Her eyes closed, and she felt the cool wind on her face.

DAVE: “Look at that…”

He nudged her shoulder. In the distance, they could see an immense ranch house. Tracy leaned forward for a better view. Like the radio station, it was built to resemble a log cabin, though on a nearly incomprehensible scale. To say that the house was gigantic would have been a gross understatement. Measuring a width of nearly three football fields, the building spreading before them was an architectural nightmare; a sprawling monstrosity of glass and wood. The residence of millionaire Jimmy James stood nearly sixty feet tall, constructed of solid oak. Faced almost entirely in glass, the center part of the house arched skyward in the shape of an inverted ‘V’. It featured an enormous gable balcony at the second level.

The rest of the two-story lodge stretched away to both sides, bordering the crystal wedge like a pair of bookends. The front of the house was a panoramic mirror of windows that reflected the sloping vistas beyond, and the length of which was hedged by an endless wooden deck. Half a dozen rocking chairs were set up along the porch, undoubtedly one for each day of the week. Along the roof, Tracy counted no less than eight chimneys of solid brick. The overall impression was that of a rustic convention center. But despite all of her admiration, she couldn’t shake the feeling that the house seemed to be cobbled together; a hodgepodge of smaller pieces. Dave confirmed her suspicions by saying as much, and the illusion of fine craftsmanship was betrayed in its construction. Still, it was a sight to behold.

Dave was flabbergasted at the size of the mansion. He had known what to expect because Lisa had shown him a photo of the house a few weeks earlier, but he’d barely given the picture a glance. As the limo neared the final stretch, the two sightseers noticed something remarkable about the house. There seemed to be a large hole in the front of the building, just off-center to the right. Upon closer inspection, they were amazed to find that it was actually a tunnel. In a unique and unconventional design twist, the driveway went through the house, bisecting the lower level at an angle.

The awestruck travelers had little time to consider the odd feature as the dusty gravel road became concrete and the sedan approached the mouth of the passage. Tracy quickly dropped from sight, and Dave followed a moment later. Jimmy James beamed at his guests, pleased with their astonished reactions. They were suddenly plunged into twilight as the limousine entered the house.

MR. JAMES: “What do you think, kids? Seven acres of heaven!”
DAVE: “Sir, this damn place is scary.”
TRACY: “What have you done, Uncle Jimmy?”

Dave whirled in his seat, thunderstruck.

DAVE: “Uncle Jimmy!
MR. JAMES: “Now, Dave-”
DAVE: “Sir, I hope she’s a whore.”

Tracy struck Dave with a blow that rocked him to his foundations.

MR. JAMES: “Thank you, sweetie.”
TRACY: “Sorry about that. I was going to tell you, Dave. I really was.”
DAVE: “What the hell is going on here?!”
TRACY: “I’m Jimmy's niece.”
DAVE: “Well, Roger just lost his job.”
MR. JAMES: “What’s he talking about?”
TRACY: “Roger’s fired.”
MR. JAMES: “Okay.”
DAVE: “Sir, is there something you'd like to tell me?”
MR. JAMES: “It’s not impossible, Dave. You know I have ass-loads of weird nephews. There isn’t a law that says I can’t have nieces, too.”
TRACY: “Please don’t tell Beth.”
DAVE: “Why not?”
TRACY: “Because I think she’d take it better if I broke the news.”
DAVE: “Fine, but you’d better tell her soon.”
TRACY: “Thank you. I will. And you, Uncle Jimmy-”
MR. JAMES: “Please don’t tell Mildred about the house! I promise to invite her up for Christmas, okay?”
TRACY: “Silence has a price. I’ll need some money.”
MR. JAMES: “Okay, but just don’t tell her.”

The limousine rolled to a stop, and the passengers disembarked. No sooner did they shut the door then the car took off again, disappearing around the corner. They found themselves on a tiled landing, reminiscent of a subway platform. The drop-off area was integrated with the living room. Mr. James beckoned them to follow him into the house.

The layout of the main room was unbelievable. It was a spacious ponderosa cavern with an enormous fireplace at one end. The air was pleasantly scented with the essence of the wood. The room had an overwhelmingly southwestern motif, executed in beiges and earth tones. It was populated with a stand of trees, countersunk into the floor. Other flora included samplings of desert plant life, such as cactus, yucca, and tumbleweed. The rest of the floor was a sandstone rock garden, complete with park benches and a meandering sidewalk. They were startled by a sudden rattling sound, and turned around to see a large Holstein ambling through the limousine tunnel. A battered tin bell hung from the cow’s neck.

MR. JAMES: “I have a hell of a time keeping them out of the house.”
DAVE: “Sir, why don’t you just put up a fence?”
MR. JAMES: “Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?”

Tracy gasped at the sight of an elaborate marble fountain in the center of the room, spraying water toward the ceiling high above. The magnificent, sparkling geyser spewed into the air, falling like rain into the basin below. The outer edge of the pond accommodated a circle of leafy ferns, maintained by a self-watering system. Looking into the bubbling pool, they could see a deep grotto, illuminated with powerful quartz lights. A myriad of bright tropical fish darted through a section of coral reef. Jimmy was explaining that he’d paid a hefty sum to have a small portion of reef imported from the Virgin Islands. Tracy dug in her pocket for a quarter. She was about to toss it into the fountain when Jimmy grabbed her arm, stopping her.

MR. JAMES: “The sharks don’t like when you do that.”
TRACY: “Oh.”
MR. JAMES: “If you want to make a wish, find a well. Besides, divers are expensive.”
DAVE: “Sir, you have sharks in the house?”
MR. JAMES: “Oh, sure. They swim through pipes under the floor.”
TRACY: “You’re kidding.”
MR. JAMES: “Hell, no! Best security system in the world! There’s a shark pond in front of every window. In fact, I got the idea from-”
DAVE: “From who?”
MR. JAMES: “Never mind. I’ve said too much already.”
TRACY: “Dave, why don’t you go find Beth? I have to talk privately with Uncle Jimmy.”
MR. JAMES: “Sure thing, sweetie. Dave, she’s right out back, just around the corner from the silo. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”
DAVE: “Thank you, sir.”

Jimmy’s niece headed the opposite direction, with the billionaire in tow. Dave pushed through the door that Mr. James had indicated. He was anxious to see Beth again, desperate to tell her the way he felt. Behind the house, he crossed the driveway. A towering metal silo stood thirty feet away. Dave jogged beneath the shadow of the looming structure. His heart pounded with hope, but his stomach fluttered in uncertainty. He couldn’t recall ever being this nervous about any woman before. A glare of shimmering light somewhere nearby caught his eye. He slowed to locate the source.

A hundred yards to his right, just beyond the shadow of a large tree, a battered wooden dock extended into a wide blue lake. Like Jimmy’s house, the landscaping around the body of water was unusual. The most notable feature was the presence of a curving bank of stadium bleachers on either side of the lake. Standing thirty feet high, the metal stands glowed in the waning daylight. Near the shoreline, a large industrial crane stood waiting. Several dozen signs were posted on the fence surrounding the water, but they were too far away to read. Dave felt uneasy at the sight.

Suddenly the news director heard yelling. It took only a second to realize that it was Beth. He raced past the silo, and the rest of the scenery became a blur. Dave skidded to a halt when he saw the source of the commotion. In front of him was a large corral, surrounded by a wooden fence. Nearby was a giant barn, filled with marshmallow-shaped hay bales. A small convoy of round-up vehicles was positioned on the other side of the barn. At the far end of the corral, the gates had been opened to admit a large cattle trailer, and a wide ramp led into the waiting truck. Connected to the transport was a four-wheel-drive Jeep Wrangler, commanded by Joe Garrelli. The former WNYX electrician sat on the vehicle’s spare tire, armed with a tranquilizer gun. Dave rushed over to see what was happening. No sooner did he reach the Jeep, the sound of a woman’s cry split the air. Joe motioned to him.

JOE: “You have to see this!”

Dave walked to the fence and looked into the enclosure, where his secretary was cavorting around with a cow. Even more amazing was the fact that she had abandoned her urban digs for western attire. Indeed, the auburn-haired woman now sported a Stetson hat, cowboy boots, and faded blue jeans with a white button-down shirt. Her sleeves were rolled up to the elbows, and her jeans were covered in dust. Slung around her hips, and completing the look, was a thick leather belt with an oversized buckle. Beth circled the animal, gripping a bullwhip tightly in her hand. She regarded the beast of burden as if it were a snarling lion, rather than a domesticated ruminant.

BETH: “Yaa, cow!!!”

The Holstein chewed grass, ignoring the crazy redhead. Dave thought the animal looked harassed. Beth ran to the other side of the cow, the whip trailing behind her in the dust. She yelled again, and whirled the lash awkwardly in the air. It was obvious that she didn’t know how to use the thing. The grazing animal slowly raised its head and blinked at her with an uncomprehending bovine gaze. When the cow refused to move, Beth decided to try something else. She raced over to a nearby hay bale and ripped a tuft from it, then ran to the cattle hauler and tossed the straw on the ramp, trying to coax the animal inside. She looked back at the cow, still feeding quietly in the middle of the corral. She would never get anywhere this way. She had to prove to Mr. James that she was capable of doing her job, no matter what it required. It was time for more drastic measures.

Beth gathered her confidence and slowly approached the animal. She had never seen a cow in real life before today. They were much more frightening in person than they appeared on TV. And it was so big! The herbivore continued to chew peacefully, unaware of the quaking redhead. Beth’s heart pounded with fear. She had never been so scared in all her life. Her adrenaline raced as she neared the cow, standing only ten feet away. Overcome with terror, she made a mock sprint at the beast and swung the whip, accidentally striking it on the flank. The animal snorted in surprise and bounded away in the wrong direction. Beth dropped the whip and ran for the trailer in blind panic. She threw herself inside and slammed the doors closed. Joe was laughing so hard that he nearly fell off the Jeep. The Holstein wandered over to the bale of hay and began feasting. Dave looked from the trailer to the cow, then back again. Joe hopped from the vehicle and rapped his knuckles on the side of the cattle hauler.

JOE: “It’s safe to come out now!”

The door squeaked open and Beth poked her head out. When she realized the coast was clear, she carefully emerged from the trailer and jumped to the ground. Pieces of hay were stuck in her hair, and her jeans were stained with mud. The receptionist looked around with a sheepish expression. She narrowed her eyes at the sight of the cow. The animal was chewing hay noisily, and seemed to be ignoring her. Joe laughed and clapped his hands, applauding her efforts. Beth regarded him with a frown, then suddenly noticed Dave standing nearby. She almost tripped over herself at the sight of him. Only yesterday he’d refused to go to New Hampshire with them, and now he was here!

Beth was overjoyed, but knew better than to show it. If Dave wanted her affection, he would have to earn it. Besides, she had always liked playing hard-to-get. Instead of throwing herself into his arms like her instinct screamed at her to do, Beth forced herself to turn away. She walked across the field to retrieve her bullwhip, keeping a wary eye on the cow. She bent over slowly to give him a preview of the goods. Beth coiled the thick lash and fastened it to her belt, then swaggered back to the fence.

Dave tried to control his thundering heart. The redhead was absolutely breathtaking as she sauntered toward him. He traced the woman’s curves with his eyes. Beth’s dusty jeans clung to her petite form, the denim tight around her hips and thighs. She wore her shirt unbuttoned at the top. The chest was stained with sweat and the sleeves were rolled up, revealing her alabaster skin and delicate freckles. Her silver belt buckle was scratched, and the leather bullwhip swung at her side, squeaking in the belt carrier. Her boots were scuffed with dirt and wear. Yes, even her boots were sexy. She looked so tough.

Beth smiled and pushed the dusty cowboy hat back on her head. Her deep red locks swayed beneath the wide brim as she moved. Dave watched in astonishment as Beth smoothly climbed the fence and straddled it like a horse, sitting behind one of the posts. The woman was Venus in blue jeans; a lovely, dusty angel.

BETH: “Your mouth’s open.”

He gawked at the sight of his receptionist, sitting atop the wooden fence and looking as tough as nails. Dave snapped back to the present. There were so many things that he’d planned to say at this moment, but he could only draw a blank. The voice in his head urged him to tell her the truth, to confess that he loved her and couldn’t live without her. Then instinct prevailed before he knew what he was doing. Beth was about to speak up when he reached beneath her arms and plucked her from the fence. The Stetson fell from her head as he lowered her to the ground and kissed her deeply. He cupped the back of her head in his hands and laced his fingers through her hair as they rolled over in the dust. Beth was too startled to protest. Instead, she pulled him closer. The moment was worth every mile Dave had traveled to get there.

After what seemed like an eternity of bliss, they came up for air. Beth smiled warmly in approval. Her eyes silently praised her suitor. At that moment, Joe did fall off the Jeep. The pair turned as Tracy and Mr. James ran toward them. Dave helped Beth to her feet, and they brushed themselves off. Tracy laughed at the sight of her best friend, covered in dirt and blushing with embarrassment. Dave wrapped an arm around Beth’s waist, standing proudly before the unexpected audience. Joe picked himself up from the ground and gravitated toward them. The electrician gaped at Tracy’s flawlessly tanned body. Her shoulder muscles rippled beneath her flimsy gray tee shirt, and her denim jeans rode firmly against her legs. He was instantly drawn to her. Tracy stood with arms akimbo, studying him with honey-colored eyes. This one seemed dedicated to fitness, she surmised. His physique wasn’t bad either, but he seemed a bit overconfident. She would have to do something about that. Joe stared at her, dumbfounded.

TRACY: “Can I help you?”
JOE: “…My name is Joe.”
TRACY: “What?”
DAVE: “Joe, I think I should warn you-”
TRACY: “Dave-
JOE: “Warn me of what- how fine this chick is? Dude, I noticed.”
BETH: “Tracy, what are you doing here?”
TRACY: “Dave needed a little motivation to get here. You can thank me later.”
MR. JAMES: “Hey, Beth, what's the word?”
BETH: “Centrifuge, sir.”
MR. JAMES: “That's my girl! Now let’s get back to the house. The kitchen staff is preparing a banquet for star-crossed lovers, and everyone’s invited.”

They left the corral and walked back to the mansion. Beth scurried ahead to speak to Tracy, who shoved Joe away. The two behaved like a pair of quarreling kids. Dave’s eyes were glued to Beth’s form as she walked. He noticed the way her hips moved and how her long hair glowed like burnished copper in the sunlight. Dave glanced over to the lake as they passed it. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was looking at something that shouldn’t be there, even if he couldn’t see it. He tapped Mr. James on the shoulder when he could no longer contain his curiosity.

DAVE: “Sir, I’m almost afraid to ask, but what are the grandstands by the lake for?”
MR. JAMES: “To watch the sea serpent.”
DAVE: “The what?”
MR. JAMES: “I’m not going to lie to you, Dave. I couldn’t afford a genetically engineered sea serpent, so I hired a team of bounty hunters to pull one out of Lake Champlain. Don’t tell anyone, though.”
DAVE: “You captured Champ?”

Beth overheard part of their exchange, and fell back to join them while Tracy continued to fend off Joe, who had recently made it his mission in life to hit on her with all of his skill.

BETH: “Who’s Champ?”
MR. JAMES: “I thought it was Nessie?”
DAVE: “Sir, that’s the one in Scotland. Champ is the creature in Lake Champlain.”
MR. JAMES: “I suppose I’ll have to call mine Jessie, then.”
BETH: “Oh, you mean sort of like the Loch Ness monster?”
MR. JAMES: “Exactly.”
DAVE: “Sir, isn't the capture of protected animals a federal crime?”
MR. JAMES: “Only if they catch you.”

TRACY: “On the Fourth of July, Bethany, here, got toasted. I mean toasted.”
LISA: “What happened?”
BETH: “Ah, somehow or another the Anheuser-Busch company, uh, corrupted me.”

The anecdote brought a round of good-natured laughter to the table. The entire staff was gathered in the dining room, which turned out to be a fully staffed restaurant. Lisa and Max had arrived while the rest of them were at the corral. They continued to chat pleasantly while dinner was being prepared. Soon, a dozen waiters emerged from the kitchen bearing fresh, steaming platters of Mexican cuisine. The servers were greeted with applause when they produced cold margaritas for everyone. It seemed like just another happy hour at Chico’s, the Mexican bar they frequented after work in New York.

Dave and Beth chatted quietly together while Joe harassed Tracy on the other side of the table. He was bragging about all of the custom-built vehicles that he was designing for Jimmy’s round-up efforts. Mr. James, meanwhile, was busy negotiating with Lisa, who was lobbying to cover the New Hampshire Primaries. He paid no attention to the couples dining nearby. Max was too preoccupied with his food to enter the debate, and could have cared less.

The food was delicious, the glasses never went empty, and the hour drew late. Beth was deep in conversation with Dave. His heart fluttered every time she smiled, and skipped a beat when she laughed. That easy expression seemed as much a part of the woman as her flaming red hair. Dave Nelson was practically eating from the palm of her hand, and Beth was enjoying every minute of it.

Across the table, Tracy looked tired as Joe enthusiastically described another alien cover-up theory. She checked her watch and tried to suppress a yawn. Dinner had started off well enough, until Joe began hitting on her with all his might. She flashed him an irritated look when he nudged her arm for attention. The guy might be attractive, she conceded, but he could be so annoying sometimes!

Tracy poked Beth’s leg under the table and tapped her wristwatch, indicating that it was time to go. Beth exchanged a brief kiss with Dave and said goodnight. Tracy stood, arched her back, and stretched while Joe gave a whistle of appreciation. She made it a point to slap him across the face before excusing herself.

Beth led the way upstairs to their sleeping quarters. Tracy followed closely, fearing that she would get hopelessly lost if she let Beth out of her sight. On the second floor of the James residence, the main hall spanned the entire length of the building as far as the eye could see. Tracy immediately recognized that the architectural influence was like that of an enormous motel. Every door was numbered in gold, and vending machines were located at twenty-foot intervals along the passage, complete with coolers and ice buckets. A healthy assortment of fake plants dotted the hallway.

Tracy was embarrassed to find herself tiptoeing quietly, so as not to disturb the other guests, when she knew perfectly well that nearly every room was empty. Finally, Beth stopped at a door that was indistinguishable from every other they had passed. She removed a card key from her pocket and let them in. Beth's room, while larger than both of their apartments combined, was plainly furnished. She required nothing more than a soft, queen-size bed, a wooden dresser, and a walk-in bathroom. Tracy discovered her travel bag sitting on the bed. She didn't even raise an eyebrow. Nothing surprised her anymore where her uncle was concerned. Beth settled on the edge of the bed and pulled off her cowboy boots, using one of them to gesture at Tracy’s bag.

BETH: “Do you have your cards?”
TRACY: “I kind of figured you wanted a reading.”
BETH: “You don’t mind, do you?”
TRACY: “Of course not. Anything to get away from that grease monkey.”
BETH: “I saw how you were looking at him!”
TRACY: “Don’t be ridiculous.”
BETH: “You looooove him!”

Beth cavorted around in her socks, laughing and teasing, and bouncing up and down like some kind of maniacal pogo stick. Tracy put her hands out and held the quirky redhead firmly in place.

TRACY: “When I was a kid, I ripped the head off a Raggedy Ann doll. Please don’t make me do it again.”

Beth stopped jumping. Her mouth fell open and eyes became large and solemn. She scurried to the dresser and found her pajamas, then headed to the bathroom and closed the door without a sound. Tracy shook her head and rummaged in her duffel bag for her pack of tarot cards. They had been a gift from her mother, passed down to her only child. The carnival skill of palm reading and tarot cards was a family specialty. When Tracy was just a girl, her mother had explained that she had gypsy blood in her. She had no idea what that meant, but spent many hours learning how to play the strange card game. Many years later, a teenaged Tracy Adams gained popularity by giving free readings to her friends. She was a natural fortune-teller, and rightfully proud of her mother's legacy.

When she’d first met Beth in college, Tracy kept mum about her skills. Only after they had become good friends, did she reveal her talent one Halloween. She was initially delighted by the redhead’s enthusiastic response, but later discovered that Beth revered anyone who could perform magic tricks or any other form of illusionary art. After college, Tracy did tarot readings for money. She normally gave Beth a free reading on her birthday, but charged her the rest of the year. After all, she had to make a living.

By the time Beth emerged from the shower, Tracy had changed into her pajamas and was sitting on the carpet. Beth, now dressed in a large pullover gown, sat on the bed and toweled her hair dry. Her creamy white skin glowed with a clean freshness. Her eyes lit at the sight of the cards. Beth wrapped the towel around her head and pounced to the floor, bubbling with excitement like a girl about to open her Christmas presents.

Tracy closed her eyes and held her hands out, palms down. She cleared her mind, encouraging herself to trust her instincts. Beth watched her shuffle the mystical deck of cardboard, thrilling to know the secrets of her future. Caught up in the moment, she urgently thrust her hands forward. Tracy laughed. It never failed. Every time she did a reading for Beth, the receptionist seemed to forget that she was talking to her best friend. Tracy decided to play along. She spread the cards left to right in a neat crescent on the floor in front of her, and took Beth’s hands in her own. Beth closed her eyes and tilted her face upward, seeking the divine wisdom that was certain to be floating around the room.

TRACY: “You are blessed with a kind heart and a pure spirit. Ask me a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, and your fortune will be told.”
BETH: “What are you, a magic 8-ball?”
TRACY: “Just ask me a question.”
BETH: “Okay. Will Dave have sex with me?”
TRACY: “Reply hazy, try again.”
BETH: “Come on, get to the good part!”
TRACY: “Very well. Pick three cards, but don't look at them.”

Beth hesitated. She wiggled her fingers above the row of cards, fraught with uncertainty. This always happened. Beth could never seem to make up her mind, fearing that one wrong choice might drastically affect her life. Tracy politely reminded her that she didn’t have all night, and Beth quickly selected three cards and handed them over. Tracy closed her eyes and briefly touched the cards to her forehead with a gesture that she’d picked up from Johnny Carson. Then she returned them to the fold, reshuffled the deck, and spread them face down on the carpet in a smooth arc. Beth crossed her fingers as her psychic friend turned over the first card.

TRACY: “Interesting.”
BETH: “What? Am I going to die this year, or something?”
TRACY: “No. You have the Queen of Wands, which concerns that which is hidden, and shrouded in mystery.”
BETH: “Like… my secret desires?”
TRACY: “No, like how you manage to live on your salary.”
BETH: “Chuck you, Farley.”
TRACY: “Shut up. You have hidden fears that you don’t yet realize. You are afraid to let go, but you will have to. In time, they will be revealed.”
BETH: “Whatever. Now tell me something I don’t know.”

It was obvious that Beth had other things on her mind, and wasn't taking her seriously. Tracy made a face and swiped a random card from the deck. She slapped it to her forehead and rolled her eyes in a mockery of her tarot skills, then replied by saying the first thing that came to mind.

TRACY: “After centuries of speculation, it is discovered that the Great Sphinx is, in fact, the world’s oldest PEZ dispenser.”
BETH: “You are so evil.”
TRACY: “I am not.”
BETH: “Except on the second week of each month!”

Beth laughed hysterically and cuffed her friend playfully on the shoulder. Tracy shared her humor for a moment, but her expression quickly became serious. She busied herself gathering up her tarot deck, while avoiding Beth’s eyes. After a prolonged awkward silence, she quit shuffling the cards and looked up, trembling as though she were carrying an unspeakable burden. The secretary then realized that something was really troubling her. Beth instinctively took her hand for support, encouraging Tracy to share her problem. That's what best friends were for.

BETH: “What is it?”
TRACY: “I can tell you a lot of things that you don’t know. But I’m afraid to.”
BETH: “What are you talking about?”
TRACY: “Did you ever think that you knew somebody really well, and then you discovered something about them you didn’t know?”
BETH: “…You’re pregnant?”
TRACY: “No!”
BETH: “Sorry.”
TRACY: “I have a confession. But first you have to promise that you won’t treat me any differently, because I’m still the same person.”
BETH: “Come on; you’re my best friend.”
TRACY: “Exactly. But I've been keeping a secret from you.”
BETH: “Okay…”
TRACY: “You've known my uncle for years, but he never told you about me.”
BETH: “I don’t think so. What, is he Darth Vader, or something?”
TRACY: “Even better. He’s Jimmy James, and I’m his niece.”
BETH: “No, you’re not!”
TRACY: “Yes, Beth, I am.”
BETH: “That’s totally ridiculous, I knew you before-”
TRACY: “Before you worked at WNYX, I know.”
BETH: “Then--?”

Tracy sighed with frustration, and the words came pouring out of her.

TRACY: “You didn’t earn your job. You barely qualified for it. I put in a good word for you with Uncle Jimmy. Please don’t be mad at me. I promise that you won’t get fired.”

Beth was filled with disbelief as a range of emotions played over her face. She looked critical, skeptical, and finally tentative as Tracy’s steadfast expression removed all traces of doubt. Beth was forced to accept the truth. Her mouth fell open uselessly but no words came out, for no amount could express the confusion and turmoil that was blossoming inside of her. Tracy pulled her into a tight embrace as Beth fumbled to work out the personal ramifications of the news. The entire history of their friendship flashed through her mind. She thought about the years they had spent together, the days when they had pooled their money just to be able to eat, and the times in college when Tracy had let her cheat from her paper.

Beth felt like a fragile little helpless doll. She pulled back and looked into the other woman's eyes. They silently measured each other, and for one long, sickening moment, the integrity of their friendship hovered in the realm of uncertainty. When she could keep silent no longer, Beth confessed that she felt a little betrayed. Tracy remarked that Woodward and Bernstein used to say the same thing to her uncle, and her friend laughed, overcome with relief. She realized that everything was going to be okay. But she wasn’t about to let the matter go without having the most important question answered.

BETH: “Is that why you drove a Ferrari in college?”

8:00 a.m.

MR. JAMES: “Ain’t that a pisser!”

Sunlight streamed through the windows of WNHX, illuminating the guardian of the newly appropriated station. Jimmy James marveled at the giant brown bear that protected the entrance to his radio empire. He adjusted the animal’s wide-brimmed hat and patted it on the shoulder. Mr. James was clearly proud of the mascot, which had formerly occupied his mid-town office back in Manhattan. The crowning touch was the addition of his own personal uniform that he’d worn in his park ranger days. Beth and Tracy stood nearby, deciding how to rate the abomination of nature on a scale of ridiculousness. Finally, the redhead spoke up.

BETH: “Um, I don’t think bears can grow beards in real life, sir.”
TRACY: “It’s a safe bet they don’t wear ranger uniforms, either.”
MR. JAMES: “So, how is my little assistant this morning?”
BETH: “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

Beth forced a smile for the benefit of keeping her job, and the three headed into the station. She trudged wearily along, battling a combination of fatigue, betrayal, and lovesickness after the whirlwind events of yesterday. As if that weren’t enough, she had to get everything organized for the first official WNHX staff meeting, which meant serving up a fresh pot of coffee for everyone. Beth found it cruelly ironic that she’d relocated nearly three states to perform exactly the same job as she had in New York. Basically, she was not a happy camper today as she walked down the hall, focusing on the swaying ponytail of her rich friend. While Beth had accepted the truth of Tracy’s revelation, she couldn’t decide how to feel about it. At the moment, she didn’t really care. She just wanted to go back to sleep and forget about the curveball that fate had pitched her this week.

Tracy fell into step beside her and observed that she wasn’t dressing ‘office inappropriate’ today. Beth replied that she had her reasons. The fact of the matter was that she felt less constrained about appearances here than she did in Manhattan. Nobody gave a damn what you looked like in rural New Hampshire. Beth felt infinitely more comfortable now than she ever had before. She decided that it was time to shed her bizarre wardrobe for more practical, worldly clothes. In some instances, change was good. Other things, it seemed, would always remain the same. But she found a twisted sense of comfort in the fact that no matter what happened, she would always have one redeeming value: she was blessed with the ability to make coffee, an indispensable talent in and of itself.

The trio rounded the corner and came to the break room, where Beth was confronted with a terrifying spectacle. Before her stood the one thing that every under-trained receptionist dreaded: the automated vending machine. It was the single worst invention in recorded history, and it spelled the end of demand for traditionally brewed coffee. The scene was like a nightmare. Beth watched in disbelief as the small group of employees clamored around the machine and enthusiastically filled their shiny plastic Mister Jitters cups. She was floored when Tracy and Mr. James pushed their way forward, eager for a taste of the commercialized brew. She went cold with the realization that her livelihood had been rendered obsolete in the span of seconds. But rather than fall apart in despair, Beth made a grim resolution: the coffee machine had to die. It was her mission, and she would not rest until it had been fulfilled. No sooner than she'd made the vow, Beth was confronted with a nuisance that she was completely at a loss to deal with.

MAX: “Beth, have you tried this coffee? Simply mah-velous!

Beth pushed him out of the way. She stalked into the break room and furiously sorted Lisa’s paperwork for the meeting, convinced that Mister Jitters was going to put her out of a job. Lisa came in a moment later. The female news director was in a sickeningly upbeat mood, rattling on about how fresh the coffee tasted. With a cheerful smile, she offered Beth a cup of the automated beverage. It took all of the redhead’s self-control to politely refuse the drink. Lisa gave her a suit-yourself look and sat down for the morning meeting. She discovered a rifle laying on the conference table. It appeared to be a British Enfield, most likely something that Mr. James had picked up at a local pawnshop. She demanded to know how it had gotten there, and Beth merely shrugged. Lisa told her to get rid of it before going back to her coffee and checking her notes.

The secretary laid a hand on the gun with a devious expression. She watched the station owner and his niece come into the room, each carrying one of the infernal green cups. Tracy pulled up a chair beside her and regarded the firearm with a frown, while Mr. James took a seat next to Lisa. Only after he’d stirred a packet of sugar into his coffee did he finally noticed his prized possession.

MR. JAMES: “So that’s where I left that thing! Bethie, would you put that in my office, please?”
BETH: “Right away, sir.”

Beth quickly scooped up the weapon, feigning happy compliance. Lisa tapped her folder on the edge of the table for attention, and stated that she planned to cover the New Hampshire Primaries. The redhead accidentally kicked the steel trashcan beside the door on her way out. Lisa gave her a disapproving look, to which Beth responded with an apologetic smile before leaving the room. The distraction had served to cover the noise while she chambered a round. A moment later they heard Beth sneeze loudly, followed by the deafening roar of the shotgun discharging. Everyone practically upended the table in a rush to see what had happened. They poured from the break room to find Beth standing in the middle of the hallway, clutching a tissue in one hand and cradling the smoking rifle in her arm.

Nearby, the coffee machine was a shattered wreck of twisted metal and plastic. Electrical smoke poured from a ragged, gaping hole where the control panel had once been. The floor around the wasted machine was littered with pieces of broken circuit boards and wires, while other fragments were embedded in the walls. Joe Garrelli assured the group that he was on it, but Jimmy stated that it was no use beating a dead moose. Dave suggested that he meant to say 'horse', but Mr. James conceded that it was much more difficult to beat a dead moose, due to their size. Lisa stared at the mess in shock. Beth dabbed her nose with the tissue and smiled weakly.

BETH: “I guess I’m allergic to instant coffee.”

A few minutes later, Beth stood before her superiors in the office down the hall. Lisa’s personal space was cluttered with paperwork because she was in the middle of organizing the first issue of The Daily Jimmy. The newspaper's founder sat behind the desk, turning a coffee cup in his hands while Lisa stood nearby. Beth waited calmly across the table from them, playing with a stack of money that she had found. She wished that Tracy were with her, but Mr. James had instructed his niece to wait outside.

Things were quickly progressing from bad to worse. Joe threatened to quit, while Max had taken it upon himself to start a one-man petition proclaiming Beth's innocence. Dave wondered what could have compelled the redhead to destroy ten thousand dollars worth of machinery. He was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, as nobody had actually witnessed the incident. Lisa, on the other hand, was certain to invoke the death penalty. Dave knew that she had an abiding sense of justice, and would not rest until the situation had been dealt with to her satisfaction. Beth, for her part, managed not to look guilty as Lisa paced the floor, moments from making a verdict on the matter.

The telephone rang, and the reporter quickly answered it. After a moment she passed it to Dave, who stepped outside to take the call. Beth innocently shuffled the stack of bills in her hand.

BETH: “Anyone got dibs on this cash?”
MR. JAMES: “Yes.”
BETH: “Damn!”
LISA: “Look, I have to be in Manchester next week, and I can’t afford to leave the station with an unpredictable staff member.”
MR. JAMES: “Okay, hold on a minute. I’m sure Beth has a perfectly good explanation for what happened.”
LISA: “Why did you shoot the coffee machine?”
BETH: “Because it was after my job! Everyone likes the new coffee better than mine! If you don’t need me anymore, just say it.”
MR. JAMES: “Sweetie, I bought that machine to make your job easier.”
BETH: “Look, I can’t change what happened, but I can assure you that peace is at hand.”
MR. JAMES: “Yeah, that’s what Kissinger used to say.”
LISA: “What?”
MR. JAMES: “Forget I said that.”
LISA: “I just don’t know what to do, sir. I really don’t.”
MR. JAMES: “See, that's why I need Dave here. He always knows to handle situations like this.”
LISA: “What are you saying, that you think Dave should have my job?”
BETH: “I'm willing to settle for that.”
LISA: “Shut up, Beth.”
MR. JAMES: “Lisa, please…”

Jimmy James rubbed his eyes. It was too early for this. Just then, Dave stepped back in. The tension in the office was like a physical barrier. Lisa, who was normally cool under fire, raked her fingers through her brown hair, obviously at a loss for how to deal with the situation. Beth glared at Jimmy’s green coffee cup with undisguised animosity. Dave knew that it was time to get her out of there, and since he didn't work for Mr. James anymore, he had nothing to lose by lobbying in her favor. He reasoned that Beth probably felt stressed by the move to New Hampshire, and that it had resulted in a momentary error of judgment on her part. Dave suggested that some rest might be good for her. On that note, he asked for permission to take her back to the ranch.

Everything in the room was quiet for a beat. Lisa nodded quickly and Mr. James made a dismissive gesture. Dave took Beth’s hand and whisked her away before they changed their mind.

Rather than head for the main house, they took a detour across the field into the hills above the property. Beth didn’t mind. She leaned back and looked at the sky, thinking about everything she wanted to say to Dave. He had to know a few things if he truly wanted to have a relationship with her. Only after she was positive that he would accept her, could she feel comfortable with him.

They parked in the shade of a large tree at the edge of the forest. Beth hopped from the vehicle and stretched her arms, then shouldered her backpack. It felt so good to be out of the drab radio station and out in the wide-open prairie. Dave moved around the car and put his arm around her. Beth smiled and leaned her head against his shoulder. They stood quietly for a time, enjoying the cool breeze flowing uphill. Then, without a word, they joined hands and strolled into the forest.

The sun pierced the tree canopy and laced the ground with strands of misty light. They wandered through groves of conifers, rich with the aroma of sap. Birds flitted and chirped in the shadowy woods as they hiked. Beth’s heart soared at how wonderful the day was. The menial tasks of her job were forgotten as they ventured deeper into the deciduous valley. Dave pointed ahead to a shallow brook dividing the land. They made their way to the edge of the water and settled to rest on a carpet of green moss. Beth kicked away her shoes and curled her toes into the cool, spongy ground.

BETH: “So, is Wisconsin like this?”
DAVE: “Plus six feet of snow.”
BETH: “…I could so live here.”
DAVE: “Really?”
BETH: “Of course!”
DAVE: “Do you think you'd be happy?”
BETH: “I don’t know. It depends.”
DAVE: “On what?”
BETH: “A lot of things… mostly who I had to share it with.”
DAVE: “Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m here with you.”

She smiled warmly and took his hand. He traced circles on her palm with his thumb and looked into her eyes longingly. Beth trembled at the touch and moved closer to Dave, feeling the need for intimacy. He was captivated by the woman's porcelain white skin and flowing red locks. Beth possessed a rare, if unconventional, kind of beauty that precious few could appreciate. She looked so ethereal in the shadowy half-light that, for a moment, he wasn’t certain she even existed. The redhead could have been a pale spectre from a long-forgotten era in medieval history. Dave panicked and squeezed her hand to make sure that she was real. She looked at him curiously.

BETH: “What is it?”
DAVE: “Nothing. You just… seem like a completely different person.”
BETH: “I have a confession to make.”

Before he could reply, Beth unzipped her backpack and fished out her pocketbook. She finally had the opportunity to tell him what she’d intended to for the past three weeks, but could never bring herself to do. Beth carefully removed a small, but well-worn photograph, and held it to her chest so that he couldn’t see it. She looked at Dave with the most solemn expression that she could manage, and he found that he was too intimidated to look away. She bit her lip with uncertainty, and handed him the picture.

He took the old photograph from her fingers and brought it into focus. Looking back at him was a seventeen year-old Beth. Unlike the woman before him, the girl in the picture was a homely specimen. She wore black wire-rimmed glasses over a thin, angular face, while her orange hair was pulled back tightly and secured into a short ponytail. Her pale, oily forehead bore a rash of acne. But despite the awkward effects of puberty, the gawky-looking teenager had a studious air about her. What arrested Dave’s attention the most was her enigmatic smile, which bespoke a quiet, dignified intelligence. No matter how she appeared on the surface, her expression positively radiated confidence. This was a person sure of themselves and their abilities.

BETH: “That’s what I used to look like. I worked in the library, I was on the student council… everything. After high school was over, I reinvented myself.”
DAVE: “What happened to your glasses?”
BETH: “I got contact lenses. I'm near-sighted, in case you were wondering.”
DAVE: “Are you smarter than Lisa?”
BETH: “Maybe, but I’m also modest enough not to brag about it.”
DAVE: “This is just…”
BETH: “I had to tell you the truth, otherwise we couldn't be together. This is who I am, everything or nothing. You can't take any pieces out of the package. Are you sure this is what you really want? I’m never going to be a respected journalist, like Lisa.”
DAVE: “I don't need a journalist; I want to be with you.”
BETH: “I really want to be with you, too.”
DAVE: “Then come back to New York with me.”
BETH: “You’re leaving?”

Dave explained that the phone call he’d received earlier was from WNYX. In his absence, the new station owner had started looking for new staff members to replace the crew that Jimmy had taken. As the news director, they needed him to interview prospective talent. Then he related the message from Tianne that had been left on the answering machine in her apartment.

When he finished, Beth was mortified that she’d forgotten all about Missy’s birthday. How could she be so stupid? It was only the most important event of the year, and it was three days away! Beth decided immediately that she would leave with him in the morning. At last, it seemed that her life was coming full circle. Despite her mother's bitter lies, she had found a man who loved her for who she was, and she also had a surrogate daughter to look after. Beth leaped up to go, but Dave held on firmly to her arm.

BETH: “What are you doing?”
DAVE: “I’d be crazy if I left without kissing you.”

A devious smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Dave touched her fingers, circled his hands around her wrists and up her arms, pushing back the sleeves of her shirt to reveal soft, pale shoulders that were flecked like a jaguar. He felt the texture of the freckles on her skin. Beth closed her eyes in anticipation that seemed to pass like an eternity. A warm thrill coursed through her body, and when their lips touched, time itself seemed to stand still. Dave kissed her tenderly. Beth’s heart soared, and she pulled him close, knowing that she had truly found the love of her life. The knowledge that he had accepted her was more fulfilling than any form of physical affection could ever be.

Then something tickled her ear. She looked up to see a bright orange leave swirl to the ground. Suddenly the autumn wind howled through the trees, bearing a cascade of dry foliage that washed over them like Technicolor snow. Beth laughed in delight and made a grab for one. Dave Nelson grinned like a boy and joined her. Together, they ran through the woods like a couple of schoolchildren, chasing leaves and laughing at the absurdity of it all. Good times

Dave tossed his bag into the trunk with his free hand. The other, not surprisingly, gripped the handle of a coffee cup. Nearby, his redheaded secretary passed her suitcase to him. The pair stood beside Tracy's white convertible on the platform in the living room of the lodge. Dave Nelson checked his watch. It was nearly 8:30 in the morning. They were still waiting for Tracy to finish packing her bags. Beth dutifully arranged the contents of the trunk. It was all for show, of course, now that she was Dave’s equal. There were certain advantages to being romantically involved with the boss. As his love interest, Beth wielded considerably more influence over Dave than she had as his personal secretary. Besides, as a woman it was her job to keep his ego in check, and to make sure he didn’t do anything stupid.

Beth turned to see her friend coming down the stairs toward them, followed by Joe. She couldn’t hold back the knowing smirk that came to her face. The show of amusement earned her a dirty look from the other woman. Tracy lobbed her duffel into the car with an easy motion, and the handyman followed her example with a laugh. He looked pleased to be there. If the electrician and her friend were not already lovers, they soon would be. Dave regarded Joe curiously over the rim of his coffee mug. Nobody had said anything about him going back to New York with the group.

DAVE: “Joe, what are you doing?”
TRACY: “He’s coming back with me.”
DAVE: “Why?”
JOE: “This place sucks. I’ve been here three days, and I haven’t seen alien one. Not a cow mutilation or crop circle to be had. I’m going back.”
MR. JAMES: “Wait up, kids!”

He rushed toward them in his pajamas, carrying a large, cloth-shrouded package. Lisa and Max followed a moment behind, yawning as though they had just been awakened. Dave’s mouth fell open at the sight of the reporter in her snug-fitting nightgown, remembering similar mornings when they had still been lovers. His eyes traced the contours of her pantylines with open interest. Lisa, however, was too sleepy to notice that she was being ogled. Beth reached over and turned his face so that he could better see her scowl of disapproval. Apparently, she had yet to teach him that he could only play with one toy at a time. Boys will be boys, she realized.

Mr. James placed the box on the ground beside the car and asked her if he could speak to Dave for a minute. Beth obliged with a smile, noting the fact that Jimmy had asked her for permission to speak with Dave, rather than asking the man himself. The implication confirmed her suspicion that the woman was in charge of the relationship, a matter that she’d never been clear about, as her mother had never discussed it with her. She moved away to question Tracy, while Jimmy took the news director aside.

MR. JAMES: “Dave, do you have any idea what’s going to happen without Beth here to help us?”
DAVE: “Staff morale will go to hell, and the entire operation will fold within a month?”
MR. JAMES: “No, I’m not worried about that; I’m worried about you. Beth’s always been a firecracker, Dave. I just don’t want you to get burned.”
BETH: “Mister James, why don't you want us to be together?”
MR. JAMES: “It's not that I don't want you to be together, Bethie. I just want to make sure you've thought about this carefully.”
DAVE: “We have, sir.”
BETH: “We definitely have.”
MR. JAMES: “See, in my experience, falling in love is like playing cowboys and Indians. Sure, everything’s great when you’re running around pretending to shoot horrible savages, and having a good old time doing it. Now step back and take a look at the bigger picture. What do you think would happen if you shot an Indian in real life?”
DAVE: “I’d probably get arrested and go to prison?”
MR. JAMES: “Hell, no! You ever tried to shoot an Indian with a cap gun? It doesn’t work, son! You just look stupid, the Indian gets pissed-off, and next thing you know, you’re being interrogated by a council of tribal elders for playing a game that seemed like a lot of laughs when you were a kid! Doesn’t seem like so much fun anymore, does it?”
DAVE: “Sir, is this another story about Nixon?”
MR. JAMES: “No, but that does remind me of a joke.”
TRACY: “I’ve got one. What does a redhead and McDonald’s have in common?”
BETH: “Don’t go there, Trace.”
MR. JAMES: “Do me a favor and give this to Matthew when you get back.”

Mr. James picked up the box on the floor. He whipped away the cover to reveal a metal cage with a small, furry creature inside. The animal had a long, slender body, a bushy tail, and a cat-like head. Two beady black eyes gleamed behind a pointy snout filled with sharp, narrow teeth. It darted around frantically, startled by the light. Everyone gathered around the cage like kids at a petting zoo. On closer inspection, it looked like a squirrel with a rat’s face. Max stroked the bars of the cage like a harp, and the creature panicked, careening noisily off the bars, trying to escape. Dave took a step closer while Beth recoiled in disgust.

BETH: “What is that?
MR. JAMES: “This is an authentic New Hampshire mountain cat. I found him digging in my garbage can yesterday.”
TRACY: “Is that a wild animal?”
MR. JAMES: “Oh, sure. But they make the best kind of pets; absolutely fearless. It’s an incentive to get Matthew to come work for me.”
DAVE: “Sir, that’s a horrible idea.”
MR. JAMES: “No, it isn’t! Matthew will love it! Be sure to tell him there’s more where that came from.”

Jimmy pushed the cage into Joe’s arms, and Tracy rushed over to help him. Together, they carried it to the car and set it on the backseat. Beth picked up her box of supplies and placed it in the trunk. Then everyone exchanged farewells. Lisa said goodbye to Dave with a hug and a kiss, wishing him the best of luck. Beth watched to make sure there wasn’t any more physical contact than was necessary. He broke the embrace and quickly shook hands with Max Louis, eager to be rid of the egomaniacal reporter. Max mistook Dave’s hearty handshake for professional accolades.

Beth held her breath in trepidation as Lisa stepped over to speak with her. She flinched at the lecture that was certainly coming, for she had stolen the heart of the reporter’s ex-lover. Lisa must have seen how uneasy she felt, and quickly reassured her that there were no hard feelings between them. On the contrary, she hoped things worked out for them, and to keep in contact. Beth couldn’t have been more surprised when Lisa gave her a sisterly hug and patted her on the back affectionately.

Meanwhile, Tracy bid her uncle goodbye with a brief kiss on the cheek and a whispered exchange. Joe Garrelli stood nearby, perplexed and still completely unaware of the familial bond between his girlfriend and Mr. James who, to the best of his knowledge, had only recently been introduced. He was even more baffled when the billionaire gave her a thick stack of bills. He followed her to the car, where Beth waited as Dave said goodbye to Mr. James, and thanked him for being such a good employer. Jimmy watched them pile into the car and drive away, back to a place he should have never taken them from.

Dave didn’t like the idea of transporting a wild animal, but if it meant getting rid of Matthew, he was willing to risk it. The drive back seemed to take less time than before. Throughout the duration of the journey, the animal hissed and scratched at the walls of its wire prison. When they could no longer tolerate the creature's wicked temper, Dave pulled over and locked the cage in the trunk of the car. The remainder of the trip went without incident.

The weather turned progressively worse as they traveled south, and when they finally approached Manhattan Island, a dark storm was brewing over the city. Thick fog hovered low on the water and enveloped the tops of buildings, while a perpetual downpour soaked the streets. Rain pelted the windshield of the small Nissan as they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. A fierce wind howled through the suspension rigging, while gunmetal clouds boiled and churned in the darkening sky. Beth shivered at the sight beyond the flicking wiper blades, for it seemed oddly familiar. She reached under the front seat and pulled out her jacket.

BETH: “You know, this kind of reminds me of that scene in Godzilla.”
DAVE: “I love that movie.”
JOE: “So do I.”
TRACY: “Me, too.”

They pulled into a gas station when they reached the other side. Everyone dashed into the convenience store while Dave filled the car. A short time later, he looked up to see the trio returning from their trip. Joe and Tracy sported yellow raincoats and sipped large fountain drinks. They ducked into the car and shut the door to get out of the rain. Beth lagged behind, carrying a large soda while digging through her bag for something. Misty sheets of rain whipped the pavement like a sandstorm. Beth shielded her eyes from the tempest and unfolded a green plastic rain hat. She tugged the brim down and squinted at the dismal sky over New York.

As she traced the city skyline with her eyes, Beth thought about Missy, about the future. She looked at the towers of the World Trade Center, rising majestically above the metropolis and vanishing into the fog. Her heart warmed at the sight of the familiar sentinels. She hadn’t realized how much she would miss them until she had spent a week far away from home. Beth shivered as a sudden gust of wind tossed her auburn hair about. She clamped her hand down to keep her hat from blowing away. Dave replaced the fuel pump and twisted the gas cap into place. He noticed Beth looking at the city, deep in thought. She looked so cute standing in the rain, bundled in her heavy green jacket and nylon hat.

DAVE: “Looking for mutant lizards?”
BETH: “No. But if the city were attacked by a giant iguana, there’s no one I’d rather be with than you.”

She reached over and hugged him tightly. Dave slipped his hands around her waist and pulled her closer. The rain suddenly intensified, and they kissed, oblivious to the fury of the storm. Tracy leaned on the horn, urging them to get back in. They kissed passionately in elemental turmoil until they were both soaking wet, and finally sought shelter in the car. Joe told them to get a room and then suggested to Tracy that they do the same, for which she slapped him. Dave reminded her that they had to get back to work, and she drove them directly to WNYX.

When they arrived at the Criterion Building, Beth helped Dave with the cage. They lugged it from the parking garage into the building, then across the lobby to the elevator. Several people waiting nearby backed away at the sight of the animal. The bell chimed as the lift arrived at the ground floor. They stepped inside with the cage after the previous riders disembarked. The other people waiting made no move to get on. Dave invited them with a welcome gesture, but they shook their heads, declining to ride with the animal. The news director shrugged at them before the doors closed.

DAVE: “What’s their problem?”
BETH: “Maybe it’s the cat.”
DAVE: “You know, something’s been bothering me about that thing.”
BETH: “What are you talking about? It’s cute.”
DAVE: “Yeah, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a New Hampshire mountain cat.”
BETH: “Maybe you missed a 4-H meeting.”
DAVE: “Very funny, Beth.”

Beth leaned against the wall and crossed her arms contentedly. The feisty animal rattled around the cage on the floor between them. Dave exchanged a look of amusement with his assistant. She removed her hat and dropped it on the cage, sending the cat into an uproar. Beth giggled, then kneeled down and babbled to the creature the way one would talk to a puppy. It leaped forward and struck the bars with a snarl. Beth quickly stood up with an indignant look. She gave the cage a sharp kick, and smiled at the ensuing cacophony of hissing and spitting. The bell sounded at the fourteenth floor, and the doors parted. Together, Beth and Dave hauled the cage from the elevator. They took three steps and let go of it in unison, too stunned to care about the animal’s wild protest.

The place was a madhouse of activity that hit Beth like a ton of bricks. Now she was able to witness firsthand the repercussions of what happened when they all decided to jump ship for New Hampshire. Dave had known what to expect, so he wasn’t as surprised. The air hummed with voices as scores of people filled the hallway outside WNYX. They were armed with resumes and credentials, each vying for the opportunity to sell their talents to the station. Most of them had come prepared, while others filled out their paperwork on the walls or floor while waiting for an interview. Beth reassured her boss that he didn't need to worry about hiring a secretary now that she was back.

DAVE: “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

From out of the doors glided a woman on Rollerblades, carrying a bowl of lollipops. The girl cheerfully went about her work, handing out candy treats to everyone, oblivious to their questioning looks. Her short blonde hair was cut in a style made popular by women in the 20’s, and her pixie-sized frame displayed an argyle-patterned bodysuit with dark bicycle shorts. As if her outfit wasn’t bizarre enough, she also wore a brown leather bomber jacket and sported a pink flying cap on her head.

Dave could barely restrain his curiosity as he followed his personal secretary to meet the new girl. He had the feeling that there might be some professional rivalry involved, and perhaps a bit of animosity as well. Beth wondered aloud whether it was a little early for Halloween. The girl rotated her thin neck and peered at them from behind an oversized pair of aviator goggles. The woman’s headwear, combined with her thin face and sharp nose, gave her an owlish appearance. She narrowed her eyes and chirped at them in annoyance. Both of them blinked in surprise at her English accent.

ODD GIRL: “Who the deuce are you?”
DAVE: “Uh- I’m Dave Nelson, the news director.”
ODD GIRL: “Dave! (she pronounced it Daive). We tried to contact you sooner, but the flid in the office didn’t ‘ave the numbah.”
BETH: “What?”
ODD GIRL: “Divvy of me to forget myself! Terrain Lindgate, formerly of Middlesex, but you can just call me Moxy.”
DAVE: “Pleased to meet you, uh, Moxy. How long have you been here?”
MOXY: “Started just yesterday, actually. Recommended by Miss Catherine Duke, herself.”
DAVE: “Oh, fantastic! How is Catherine?”
MOXY: “Aces. She speaks very highly of you; said NYX was the business.”
BETH: “What are you doing here?”
MOXY: “I’m a secret’ry, but what’s that got to do with the price of eggs?”
BETH: “What are your qualifications?”
MOXY: “I’m bloody well qualified, I can tell you that. I can tax documents, write demos, and I’m fluent in sign language.”
BETH: “What does that have to do with radio?”
MOXY: “I can work with deaf blighters, and that’s the kind of audience a radio station should try to reach, don’t you think?”

She produced a harmonica from her pocket and sounded five notes, perfectly demonstrating the corresponding hand signals from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The musical riff didn’t agree with the imprisoned animal nearby, which banged around its cage in a furious uproar. Dave beckoned for his assistant to give him a hand. Together, they hauled the cage through the crowded station, eager to be rid of the cat once and for all.

They pushed their way toward Matthew and lifted the box onto his desk with a great thump. The reporter lied about doing research for a story about computer solitaire. Dave presented the animal, explaining that it was a gift from Mr. James. Matthew was ecstatic. He zipped his fingers over the bars like a xylophone while the cat raced around in circles, chattering noisily. This proved to be too much for the terminally juvenile reporter, whose mind went into sensory overload. He slapped each side of the cage, driving the skittish animal back and forth. Several applicants gathered around to witness the spectacle while Matthew laughed in delight. The new cat would make a perfect friend for Choo-Choo and Mitt-Mitt!

MATTHEW: “This is GREAT! Thank you so much, David!”
DAVE: “Don’t thank me, thank Mister James-- preferably in person.”
BETH: “For your 4-1-1, pets aren’t allowed in the office.”
DAVE: “Yeah, so take it home. I’m giving you the rest of the day off.”
MATTHEW: “Yay!!!”

He picked up the cage and raced through the crowd, knocking people aside in haste.

BETH: “Boy, Matthew sure seemed excited, didn’t he?”
DAVE: “Matthew gets excited about Cracker Jack prizes. Could you get me some coffee, please?”
MOXY: “Right-o cheerio, boss!”

The Englishwoman zipped past them on wheels, a flash of argyle and leather.

DAVE: “Oh… Lord, I’ve traded the Cat in the Hat for the British invasion.”

Dave headed for his office to relieve the manager’s labor representative. In his absence, the room had been transformed into the center of operations for the hiring committee. After the man gratefully relinquished his chair, Dave Nelson settled behind a mountain of resumes to continue screening applicants.

The hours crawled into evening as the news director conducted hit-and-miss interviews with radio professionals of every description, ranging from audio technicians to character actors. As much as he wanted to, Dave couldn’t afford to hire the first person that met the minimal qualifications, because his choices would ultimately reflect how well the station operated in the future. By the end of the day, he had narrowed the list of prospective candidates to one definite and three maybes.

Meanwhile, Beth made herself useful by allowing only one person at a time into his office, so as not to overwhelm Dave. She also barred Moxy from entering with his afternoon coffee, preferring to deliver it herself. Rather than being miffed, however, the Englander stuck close to Beth for the remainder of the day, observing the work pattern in the station. Any initial resentment that Beth had felt for the temp vanished as quickly as it had appeared. The redhead showed her the ropes, finding tremendous satisfaction in the concept of distributing the workload between a willing pupil and herself. Furthermore, she found Lindgate to be a dependable and quick-witted, if somewhat weird assistant. In short, they made a great team. Together, they compiled, sorted, and filed every application within the hour. Beth was so happy to fall back into her old routine that she didn’t even complain about making an extra pot of coffee.

The storm rumbled ominously above as the secretary came into Dave’s office with a fresh cup of coffee. The news director had finished the last interview about ten minutes ago, and was putting the resumes into a folder. He accepted the drink with appreciation, but held onto her wrist and refused to let go. He pulled her hand close and kissed the inside of her palm. Beth wondered how many times Dave and Lisa had made love in the room, thinking that she’d like to even up the score. She pulled Dave’s tie up and drew him to his feet with a smile. They kissed slowly as the rain hammered against the window outside. In the back of her mind, Beth had the feeling that she was forgetting something. But couldn’t quite pin it down. She realized with amazement that she’d awakened in New Hampshire that morning, traveled three states, and put in a six-hour workday at the office- all because of Dave. No wonder she couldn’t think clearly. He whispered around their kiss.

DAVE: “Did you call Tianne?”
BETH: “Oh my God! I almost forgot!”

Beth shoved him out of the way and snatched the phone off the desk, quickly punching in the number. She wandered over to the couch and hoped that her call would go through in the storm. A flash of lightning illuminated the office, as if in response to her worries. Tianne picked up the line, and Beth apologized for getting back to her so late, explaining that she had been out of town on business. Beth suddenly cupped a hand over the receiver.

BETH: “Don’t tell Matthew that we’re going to a birthday party.”

Dave put his arm around Beth's shoulder as he joined her on the couch. He kissed his girlfriend on the forehead while she discussed the upcoming celebration with Tianne. Outside, the gale-force wind howled past the window. Beth snuggled closer to Dave. Then without warning, Moxy cruised into the office on her infernal pink roller skates and knocked over the garbage can with a bang. The British intern furrowed her brow in suspicion at the sight of the pair cuddling on the couch. A wicked smile of understanding came to her face, and she made a scraping gesture with her fingers, silently shaming them.

DAVE: “Yes, Beth and I are dating. How can I help you?”

Beth stuck out her tongue in defiance. In response, Moxy switched on the radio behind the desk; the one Dave kept tuned to WNYX in the event that he needed to monitor broadcasts of a questionable nature, and there had been plenty of those in his time at the station. The reporter was in the middle of the evening news, reviewing the top stories of the day. Beth scowled at her British helper and waved for her to lower the volume while she was on the phone. Dave was about to order Moxy likewise when he suddenly heard a familiar name in the broadcast. Beth was too busy negotiating with Tianne to notice.

“--inmate Johnny Johnson escaped from Federal prison yesterday, and is currently at large in the mid-state area. Eyewitness reports state that he knocked over a liquor store immediately after making his escape from a nearby maximum-security penitentiary. Investigators believe he may be planning another heist, similar to the one he staged at a respected Manhattan jewelry store in July. Federal officials warn that Johnson is an unstable individual and should be considered armed and dangerous. More on this story as it develops. WNYX news time, seven fifty-five.”

BETH: “Um, actually I don’t think that’s such a good idea… No really, she’s a little old for a clown and-- oh, fine. Everything’s okay until he breaks out the balloons, and then you have a group of kids with suicidal tendencies armed with bags of small, ingestible toys. I don’t think I have to spell out the rest.”

She continued to argue her point for a few more seconds before finally giving up. Beth knew that she wasn’t going to win this one, no matter how strongly she stated her case. She relented only because she didn’t want to alienate Missy’s mother and risk being excluded from the girl’s birthday party. Beth quickly apologized to Tianne and hung up the phone, looking incredibly uneasy. Moxy kicked her skates across the desk and scoffed at Beth with a lilting English laugh. Apparently the intern found something amusing about the other woman’s predicament.

DAVE: “What’s wrong?”
BETH: “Have you ever been to a party where you’re the only person with red hair?”
DAVE: “Can’t say that I have.”
MOXY: “Share with us!”
BETH: “It’s not fun! There were kids running around with balloons and pinwheels, everyone was laughing at me… and then I had to serve them cake and ice cream!”
DAVE: “You were the chaperone, weren’t you?”
MOXY: “Are you hacked-off, ginger?”
BETH: “I’m really tired. I’d like to go home now.”
DAVE: “Hey, I thought we were going to have dinner at my place?”
BETH: “What, so you can take advantage of me? I don't think so. Let's go to my apartment, instead.”
DAVE: “Then you'll take advantage of me, and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable in that situation.”
BETH: “Right.”
DAVE: “Fine, I have a better idea. We'll stay here tonight.”
BETH: “At the office?”
DAVE: “Sure. We can talk things out, and everything will be considered work-related.”
BETH: “Do you think we might… discuss the promos?”
DAVE: “Something like that.”
MOXY: “Promos?
BETH: “I’d rather discuss the promos at my apartment.”
DAVE: “Why?”
BETH: “Because I have a bed and a shower.”
DAVE: “Okay, you talked me into it.”
MOXY: “Any port in a storm, eh?
DAVE: “I think you can go home now, Moxy. We’ll take it from here.”
MOXY: “I don’t have the frequent flyer miles for that!”
DAVE: “Not back to England, I meant back to your apartment. You know, the place where you live in this country.”
MOXY: “Oh! Well that certainly clears up a few things!”
BETH: “You're such a flake.”

Moxy skated from the office and Beth kicked the door closed behind her. She rejoined Dave on the couch and snuggled warmly with him. They rested quietly in each other's arms and listened to the sound of traffic passing below, each lost in their own thoughts. It was one of the more simple pleasures that Beth could think of. Maybe that was the downfall to Dave and Lisa’s relationship- too much physical intimacy and not enough quiet time.

She immediately realized the advantage of the situation: there was nobody to hide their affair from; not even a whole staff yet, so to speak. She draped her arms around Dave’s neck and teased him with her eyes, weaving a seductive spell that he was powerless to resist. The news director kissed her tenderly, and Beth returned the favor with equal passion. Not that physical intimacy is a bad thing… The next thing she knew, they were no longer sitting up.

BETH: “You know, this could be considered very inappropriate office behavior.”
DAVE: “I won’t tell if you won’t.”
BETH: “Sounds good to me.”

9:15 a.m.

Where could she be? Beth consulted her watch again. She was leaning against the wall beside the elevator, where she had been waiting for nearly thirty minutes. Tianne had promised to drop off her daughter on the way to work this morning. Beth gave a sudden start when the bell chimed, only to be disappointed as another group of job seekers emerged and joined the growing employment line. Beth sighed and pressed her shoulders to the wall in anticipation of another long wait. The doors were about to close when two figures stepped into her peripheral vision. She was about to ignore them, but suddenly realized that it was her friend Tracy, with Missy in tow. Her old college pal was dressed exactly as Beth had last seen her, with the exception of a tee shirt that proclaimed: I WHIPPED JOE’S ASS. The girl beside her wore a picture shirt with blue jeans, and a denim jacket. She also carried a vinyl backpack with the Lost World logo, and a fierce-looking dinosaur pictured on it.

BETH: “Where have you two been?”
TRACY: “I found Strawberry Shortcake downstairs. She’s all yours.”
MISSY: “You're not funny.”
TRACY: “Tianne wanted me to remind you about the P.T.A. meeting on Wednesday, the Neighborhood Watch cookout Thursday, and the science fair on Friday.”
BETH: “Oh, is that all? Because I’d be happy to cover her OB/GYN appointment if she’s too busy.”
MISSY: “O B what?
BETH: “Nevermind. Let’s see your report card.”

Missy pulled the requested document from the side pocket of her backpack and handed it over. Beth unfolded the paper and took a few steps away, while the freckle-faced girl scuffed her shoes against the carpet, nervously awaiting the verdict. Tracy rolled her eyes in disbelief, thinking that sometimes her friend took her childcare duties much too seriously. Now Beth was acting like she was the girl’s mother! She would have to straighten her out later. Meanwhile, Beth paced the hall while she reviewed Missy’s grades, making some absentminded small talk without looking up from the report card. Missy was about to follow, but Tracy put a hand on her shoulder, indicating for her to stay put and let Beth wander foolishly on her own.

BETH: “Did you have a good week?”
MISSY: “I’m working on a science project! What about you?”
BETH: “I had a very sexy week…”
MISSY: “Sexy?”

Tracy cleared her throat loudly, and Beth snapped up from the document. The redhead offered a cheerful smile and quickly changed the subject.

BETH: “So, your mom tells me that Miss Edlund gave you five gold stars in class. Congratulations! Good job! You look so cute today!”

Missy blushed at the unexpected flurry of praise.

TRACY: “Don’t be flattered, she thinks getting the hiccups is cute.”
BETH: “Shut up. Come on, Missy, we have a lot of work to do.”

Missy followed her babysitter into the hectic world of radio broadcasting. If WNYX had simply been crowded the day before, it was utterly chaotic now. The main thoroughfare looked like the red carpet of a Hollywood film premiere, minus the celebrities. Beth expected to see a frenzied Englishwoman dashing around madly, but her foreign counterpart was nowhere to be seen. Instead, her attention was drawn to a plume of dark smoke that wafted toward the ceiling in the vicinity of the copy machine. Although Beth could not actually see it, she assumed that Joe was taking care of the problem. If he wasn’t, the station was in big trouble. She didn’t want to alarm Missy with the knowledge that every fire sprinkler on the ceiling was a fire sprinkler in name only. Dave had confessed to her once that they weren’t actually hooked up to anything because Mister James had bribed a city official. Beth tightened her grip on Missy’s hand and grimly pressed into the crowd.

When they came to Matthew’s desk, the reporter was once again playing computer solitaire as if his life depended on it. Beth introduced her little companion, first name and last. Matthew looked revolted and said that she had an ugly last name, just like Lisa did. The fifth grader’s expression of pride vanished at the distasteful remark. She kicked the front of his desk, and Beth quickly put a restraining hand on her shoulder. Matthew suddenly brightened, saying he had something that might cheer her up. He brought out the animal cage and set it on the desk in front of them. Missy watched the hyperactive cat ricochet wildly off the bars for about three quarters of a second before she unleashed a bloodcurdling scream that turned every head on the floor. Beth hastily pulled her away from the desk and turned her around so that she couldn’t see the animal. Dave burst from his office and knifed through the crowd like a magnet drawn to steel.

DAVE: “What the hell is going on?!?”
BETH: “Sorry, Dave! I forgot she’s afraid of cats.”
DAVE: “Look, this is not ‘bring your kid to work week.’ Take her home right now; and Matthew, if that animal’s not out of this office in ten minutes, you’re fired.”
MATTHEW: “But--”
DAVE: “Where’s Moxy? I sent her for coffee an hour ago.”
BETH: “Don’t worry, I’ll get it for you.”

The news director sighed in exasperation. He possessed a haggard appearance, as though he’d worked two double-shifts in a row. Beth noted that his tie was loosened and his suit was rumpled. She suddenly regretted making out with him so much last night. Apparently he'd not had enough sleep. Dave took a small plastic card from his pocket and clutched it between his fingers as he struggled to focus his deteriorating channel of thought. Beth stood calmly with her hands on Missy’s shoulders, like a stoic protector. Dave looked at her in defeat. He was already sorry that he’d snapped at her for bringing Missy along.

While he respected her decision to be a mentor, they still had an office to run. He told Beth to find something to work on, and to look busy just in case the new station owner stopped by for a visit. He maintained that no matter how bad things seemed, they absolutely could not get any worse. Just then, a reporter in the broadcast booth went live with a late-breaking story that drove the final nail into the coffin, effectively putting and end to his flagging optimism.

“This just in: Fugitive Johnny Johnson was apprehended today, after leading state and federal authorities on a manhunt across five states. Based on eyewitness reports, police were able to track him from New York to Chicago, where he was arrested this morning. A former inmate at Edgecomb Correctional Facility, Johnson made headlines earlier this week after robbing a troop of Girl Scouts and making off with several boxes of mint cookies. The crime was compounded when he hijacked a passing ice cream truck to make his getaway. In his haste, Johnson mowed down a street mime and a blind man, whose seeing eye dog narrowly avoided his master's fate. Witnesses say that he appeared drunk and disoriented. These claims were verified when authorities found a bottle of Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor at the scene. Johnson was taken into custody, and is currently being transported back to New York City to stand trial. WNYX news time, nine thirty-two.”

DAVE: “If I get any important messages, just let Matthew take care of them. I’ll be in my office.”
BETH: “What’s that in your hand?”
DAVE: “Huh? Oh, it’s a Stress Test card that Lisa gave to me.”
BETH: “Cool! Can I see it?”

Dave handed her the card and trudged back to his office. Missy relinquished her double-fisted hold on her guardian’s waist. Beth studied the card for a minute before she could make sense out of it. In the middle was an oval-shaped mark, where a person was required to place their thumb. The plastic, designed to react according to blood pressure, responded by changing color to indicate the level of stress that a person was feeling. Beth explained to Missy that blue meant Calm, green represented Normal, red equaled Stressed, and black stood for Tense. The secretary blinked in confusion, shook her head. Missy tugged insistently on her arm, wanting to what was so special about the thing. Beth handed it to her and walked away. Missy looked at the fingerprint and scratched her head.

MISSY: “What does white mean?”

The redheaded receptionist hammered on the break room door, which was locked from the inside. Missy rejoined Beth a second later, and helpfully pounded on the door beside her.

BETH: “Open up!”
MOXY: “What’s the password?”
BETH: “Missy, what’s a good secret password?”
MISSY: “Zip, snap, and buckle.”

Beth repeated the combination and the door was instantly torn open. She was greeted by her reflection in the glass viewport of a welding mask. Clouds of steam ghosted around the slight figure in the doorway. Moxy Lindgate thumbed open the faceplate and peered at them incredulously. A thermometer was clenched between her teeth like a cigarette. Beth’s accomplice stifled a laugh. Apparently, the British girl was on a crusade to the boundaries of insanity. She had exchanged her leather cap and skates for a pink swimsuit and combat boots, over which she wore a white lab coat. She carried with her a clipboard, and a pencil was stuck behind her ear. It had to be the most outlandish ensemble that Beth had ever seen, but the Englishwoman wore it as naturally as a person might wear a pair of sunglasses.

MOXY: “How in bloody hell did you know the password?”
MISSY: “We read your book, you magnificent-”
BETH: “That’s enough, Missy!”
MISSY: “Sorry.”
BETH: “What are you doing in here?”
MOXY: “I’m working on a top-secret experiment, and I’m about to vindicate my rhinoceros.”
BETH: “Don’t you mean 'hypothesis'?”

The two redheads pushed into the break room. Missy tossed her backpack on the table and began to rifle through the cabinets for a snack. Moxy gestured proudly to her experiment, as if she were making a presentation to the Nobel Prize Committee. She had stolen the glass pot from the coffee maker in the office and placed it on a stove burner. Meanwhile, two desk lamps were positioned at either side to focus light on the vessel, which had been completely filled with water. Several thermometers lay in a row nearby, while the cabinets were plastered with crudely drawn diagrams and columns of data. Closer inspection revealed that these were organized into categories of hours, minutes, seconds, and temperature. Moxy carefully scrutinized the pot with a large magnifying glass, hoping to denote a change. Beth immediately realized that the experiment was hardly Nobel Prize-worthy.

BETH: “You are in so much trouble.”
MOXY: “Bollocks! I’m doing a fantastic job!”
BETH: “Yeah, if you’re trying to get fired. Dave wanted coffee two hours ago.”
MOXY: “I’m such a divvy!”

Moxy ripped the plug from the socket and hauled the coffee maker out of the room. Beth kicked the door closed behind her, and noticed that Missy was still playing in the cabinet. She instructed the girl to sit down while she made a snack. On the table, Missy found a couple of entertainment magazines and a brown paper lunch bag with ‘MOXY’ scrawled on it in crayon. Beth plundered the refrigerator for the ingredients that she needed, including a half-gallon box of ice cream and a can of soda. She frowned with disapproval when she couldn't find the most crucial item. She did a quick head check to make sure Missy wasn’t looking, then dropped to the floor and started going through the cabinets exactly as her protégé had done. It was in this undignified position that Tracy discovered her friend when she came into the room.

She watched the secretary's shapely rear end move as she pawed around under the sink. Tracy pulled the ice cream scoop from the nearest drawer and slapped it on the counter, startling the redhead, who backed out of the cabinet in surprise. Missy whirled in time to see the blonde playfully hit her palm against Beth's forehead, advising her to check the silverware drawer next time. Beth objected loudly. Then, from the office, Joe exclaimed that he needed help with the copier. Tracy executed an about-face that would have made a Marine instructor proud, and marched away to help.

Beth stood and began spooning vanilla ice cream into a tall glass. She noticed the magazine lying on the table, open to a picture of Harrison Ford. She stopped long enough to point at the image.

BETH: “That’s what a real man looks like.”

Missy looked back to the page to see for herself. Beth stuck a straw into the drink and placed it before the girl with a look of triumph. Missy sipped the Dr. Pepper float and blinked in surprise. It was delicious! Beth pulled up a chair nearby for a woman-to-woman talk. The incident with the cat had been embarrassing, and she wasn’t anxious to repeat it. She couldn't allow Missy to grow up being afraid of everything. The receptionist struggled for words to make her point, but failed to come up with an articulate way to express her concern. Then she noticed the girl's backpack lying on the table. She picked up the bag and pointed to the image of the dinosaur emblazoned on the vinyl.

BETH: “You’ve seen The Lost World, right?”
MISSY: “Uh huh!”
BETH: “Everybody knows that a redhead can bring down a T-Rex. Now, are you going to let a wimpy little cat scare you?”
MISSY: “No!”
BETH: “Great. I've got some work to do, so don't leave the office, and try to stay out of trouble, okay? We'll have lunch in an hour.”

Missy followed Beth out of the break room, promising that she wouldn’t let cats frighten her anymore. Outside, she found herself lost in a throng of people. There were men in fancy business suits and ladies dressed in calf-length skirts and blazers. The air seemed to vibrate with chatter and the noise of papers being shuffled. Everybody, it seemed, carried cell phones and briefcases. They checked their watches often, and their pagers even more frequently. It was just like that Wall Street place that they always showed on the news. Missy suddenly realized that Beth was gone. She jumped in place, but she wasn’t tall enough to see over the crowd. She needed something to stand on.

Matthew Brock crawled under his desk, searching frantically for his new cat. A few minutes ago it had been resting peacefully in its cage, but now it was gone. When Dave had yelled at him earlier, he’d put the cage on the floor and pretended to work, hoping the boss would forget about it. But he became so preoccupied with playing computer solitaire that he’d forgotten about it himself. He shook the cage upside-down to make sure it wasn’t hiding in the wood shavings at the bottom. That was when he noticed a three-inch hole in the corner. The wire was scratched silver where the animal had gnawed through. His new pet was loose in the office! Matthew shoved the cage under his desk and went back to work. Maybe if he looked busy, nobody would notice that the cat was gone.

The deliveryman came to a dead stop at the threshold of WNYX. It would be impossible to make his way through the legion of broadcasters crowding the radio station. He checked his clipboard and announced that he had a delivery for Dave Nelson. Nearby, Missy looked at the parcel, wrapped like a birthday present and secured with silver bow. She rushed forward to confront the surprised courier, and informed him that she knew Dave. The man smiled with amusement, thinking that her mom probably worked somewhere on the floor. Although children weren't authorized to sign for official parcels, he was willing to make an exception. It was almost lunchtime, and he wasn’t looking forward to fighting the crowd. He'd let the kid handle it, instead. He showed her where to sign, and the girl scrawled her name on the invoice. The postman dumped the package into her arms and Missy staggered away, reeling under the weight of it.

The box rattled with each step. Judging by the sound of it, whatever was inside must have been broken. It was also very heavy, and Missy couldn't carry it much longer. She decided to stash it somewhere until she could find Dave. She veered toward the nearest door, which happened to be the break room. It would probably be safe there, she thought. When she came into the room, she froze, nearly dropping the box in horror. The long, furry cat was perched on the table, halfway inside of the bag that held Moxy’s lunch. Missy covered her mouth to keep from screaming. She remembered Beth’s advice about confronting her fear, which was easier than it sounded. The girl tiptoed inside and quietly set the package on the counter, never taking her eyes from the animal. She watched the cat’s tail swish back and forth, and suddenly had an idea. She remembered seeing a pack of mousetraps under the sink earlier.

Missy knelt down and patted around in the cabinet until she found the box. Within moments, she had a trap set. She rose from her crouch and sidled forward until she could almost touch the snuffling animal. It was much scarier up close. She held her breath and gently set the mousetrap on the table behind the furry cat. Once the device was in place, Missy quietly backtracked to the door. She was nearly out of the room when Moxy bumped into her on the way in to pick up her lunch. Missy whirled around in fright. The British intern was about to beg apologies when she noticed the creature burrowing through her lunch on the table. She let out a piercing scream and burst into tears.

Startled by the noise, the weasel hastily scrambled backwards, trying to extract itself from the bag. Its tail flipped across the mousetrap, setting it off with a loud bang. It leaped into the air with a snarl of outrage, and Missy came unglued. She screamed bloody murder and ran over Moxy in blind terror as the weasel raced from the kitchen at her heels, dragging the mousetrap on its broken tail. Missy seemed to defy gravity as her shoes found purchase on thin air. She clambered up the nearest desk as the animal flashed by, and Moxy practically walked up the wall to get out of the way. The crowd reacted as if sharks had swum into the room. Everyone stampeded for the hallway as the mustelid bounded toward its owner. Driven by natural instinct, it knew that the safest place was up. Instead of jumping into his arms, the weasel flew up the leg of his pants the way it would seek refuge inside of a hollow tree. Matthew screamed like a girl as the animal scrambled toward his groin.

Beth was about to refill Dave’s coffee when she heard Missy scream. She dropped the boiling pitcher in his lap and flew to the rescue on wings of Mercury, ignoring the news director’s cry of pain. The cacophony was joined by Matthew's yell of terror. Dave quickly hobbled after his receptionist to discover a scene of unbelievable chaos. He saw Missy cowering from the top of a desk, screaming at the top of her lungs, while Moxy bawled from behind the coat rack near the door. In the middle of the office, Matthew danced around like a marionette controlled by a puppeteer on crack as the weasel tore through his pants like a chainsaw. Joe Garrelli vaulted over the smoking printer as the reporter frantically worked to unbuckle his belt. Beth returned with a fire extinguisher and shoved the nozzle down the front of his pants, hoping to blow the weasel out. She pulled the trigger and a jet of chemical smoke billowed through his trousers like a windsock in a hurricane. When that didn’t work, the redhead started beating at his legs with the heavy device while the animal continued its journey of destruction.

MOXY: “Have some of that!”

Moxy appeared with a set of barbecue tongs and proceeded to take revenge on the creature that destroyed her lunch. She furiously jabbed the sharp utensil between Matthew’s legs at the rampaging carnivore. His cries of terror escalated in pitch while Missy howled with laughter. Tracy executed a spinning roundhouse kick as the weasel made a dash for the reporter’s groin. The animal seemed to anticipate the attack and shredded down his other leg to freedom while her foot connected to the place it had recently vacated. Matthew collapsed in a smoking, unconscious heap. Tracy lashed out with lightning-fast reflexes, grabbing the weasel and hurling it across the room. The snarling woodland creature flew into the kitchenette like a furry rocket. Missy jumped from the desk and threw herself against the door, slamming it shut. Beth hugged her with relief.

BETH: “I’m here, sweetheart. Everything’s okay now.”
MISSY: “That was cool!”
TRACY: “Can I have a word with you, Beth?”

Tracy grabbed Beth’s arm and pulled her into the hallway for a reality check. She had to understand that she couldn’t keep treating Missy like a daughter because it was unhealthy to develop an emotional attachment that she might not be able to keep. As a psychology major in college, Tracy had learned that children typically hold a mixture of positive and negative feelings about their parents, unless some circumstances intervene to disrupt the balance. Her best friend was that circumstance. Beth and Missy were almost inseparable, and Beth strived to show her a good time whenever they were together. Tracy realized that her friend was only acting out of love, but she wasn’t about to let her undermine Tianne’s position as a mother. Everything came down to the fact that Missy could suffer deep emotional scars if Beth continued to play up their friendship, and then had to leave due to forces beyond her control. Tracy couldn’t let that happen.

BETH: “What’s wrong with you?”
TRACY: “Stop it. You’re overprotecting her.”
BETH: “I’m not overprotecting her; I’m encouraging her. Positive experiences help build self-esteem.”
TRACY: “You call a rabid animal attack a positive experience?!?”
BETH: “No, but it’s a great lesson in teamwork.”
TRACY: “That little girl in there thinks you’re a hero, because that’s what you’ve led her to believe.”
BETH: “I’m just being a role model!”
TRACY: “Yeah, but someday she’s going to realize that you’re not always going to be there, and it’s going to break her heart. I don’t want to see that happen.”
BETH: “You took notes in psychology, didn’t you?”
TRACY: “This isn’t a joke. You have to stop babying her all the time and let her grow up.”
DAVE: “Thanks, Beth. I’ve never enjoyed coffee that way before.”

The news director emerged from the station, holding a bunch of paper towels against the front of his pants. Moxy followed, carrying the rest of the roll. Joe and Missy followed behind, snickering at the line of paper towel between them.

BETH: “Dave! What happened?”
DAVE: “I just fired Matthew. Now I’m going to the bathroom to salvage what’s left of my manhood.”
BETH: “Matthew isn’t the one who spent two hours trying to prove that a watched pot never boils. By the way, Moxy, it helps to turn the stove on.”
MOXY: “Bollocks!”
DAVE: “Can we talk about this later?”

He ambled across the hall with an uneasy step and disappeared into the men’s restroom. Joe put an arm around Tracy and kissed her on the neck. She muttered something about going out for lunch, and the pair walked off together. Beth realized that WNYX was practically empty now. Dave wasn’t in any condition to work, nor was Matthew, for that matter. With everyone down for the count, it looked like they had the rest of the day off. Besides, reasoned Beth, heroic effort in the face of chaos deserved to be rewarded. She took Missy by the hand and led her to the elevator. Moxy loudly berated them for leaving her alone in the office while a crazy rat was trapped in the kitchen. Beth told her to call an exterminator and, if she had time, an ambulance for Matthew. Then she pulled Missy inside and waved cheerfully as the elevator doors closed.

MISSY: “Oh no! I forgot the package!”
BETH: “What are you talking about?”
MISSY: “Dave’s package! I left it in the kitchen!”
BETH: “I have a bad feeling about this.”

It is a well-known fact that weasels possess an unbridled sense of curiosity, and are always eager to explore and discover new things. Following an unexpected journey, the little brown weasel found itself trapped in the WNYX break room, a fascinating place full of interesting shapes and textures. After gnawing the painful wooden square from its tail, the animal set out to explore this new world. Its eyes sparkled with interest as it moved around the kitchen in quick bursts of speed, examining many strange things. Suddenly it stopped, for a glimmer had captured its attention. With a quick jump, the weasel scurried up the branch sticking out of the big flat rock with leaves all over it.

On the shelf nearby was something unlike anything it had ever seen. It raised up on its hind legs to get a better view of the square object with flat sides. The thing was remarkable in its uniformity. Such precise shapes were never found in the forest. This was interesting, but the real prize appeared to be a silver flower growing on top of the box. The mammal observed the plant’s wide, curvy petals with delight. Its tiny black nose twitched in curiosity, for it had never seen such a thing before. The discovery prompted many important questions. What might a shiny flower taste like? Where could more be found? The weasel bristled with caution. There didn't seem to be anything dangerous about the strange, pretty flower. Another beat passed, and finally the agony of discovery took its toll. The weasel pounced forward to investigate.

Beth paced the confines of the descending elevator in trepidation. Something had been troubling her for awhile, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember what it was. Or maybe she was trying to forget. Beth searched her consciousness for what bothered her so, but it always seemed just out of reach, a perpetual ghost of a memory. She reviewed it again. Missy said that she had left a package for Dave in the kitchen upstairs. Why did that knowledge feel so ominous all of a sudden? Beth looked at the digital readout, watching the numbers decrease as they neared the ground floor. Suddenly the lights in the elevator flickered and the car shook as a muffled explosion rocked the building to its foundations. Beth lowered her head in a moment of respect. Missy followed suit. The New Hampshire mountain cat had passed into the next world.

“Today, police arrested Andrea Lattimore, a woman suspected of starting a flash fire in a mid-town apartment building last year. The blaze claimed the life of her boyfriend, and three pets. A recent investigation and fire analysis turned up several clues that pointed to her involvement in the unsolved arson case. Lattimore is an efficiency specialist who most recently worked as a consultant for the noted industrial firm of Jimmy James Incorporated. She pleaded innocent to charges of First Degree Arson, and is currently being detained at Bayview Correctional Facility, pending- ”

Beth fed a disc into the dashboard and cranked up Rockell’s In a Dream, one of her favorite driving tunes. Outside, the wind buffeted the small automobile as it moved through mid-town traffic, neatly slicing between rows of gleaming monoliths. The rhythm of the music pulsated through her body like the very heartbeat of the city itself, energizing her. As they coasted along, she mentally reviewed the details of the upcoming birthday party while Missy thumbed the controls of a portable video game. The girl had been delighted to find her prized possession in the back seat of the car, where she had left it over a week ago. Spanning her head was a pair of sleek earphones that had probably cost more than the game system itself. Beth smiled at the way Missy stuck her tongue out in concentration. She reminded her that staying awake playing Tetris all night was not considered an effective method of doing homework. When she received no acknowledgement from her passenger, Beth did a head check to confirm that the girl was completely immersed in the game.

BETH: “I’m giving you a million dollars for your birthday, and we’re going shopping in London for a week. How does that sound?”

Missy remained focused on the small device. As far as she was concerned, the car might as well have been on autopilot. The only thing that existed was the tumbling array of electric blocks that she maneuvered down the playing screen. It was very challenging. Beth decided to try another approach.

BETH: “What if I told you that you were the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life, and I want to keep you as my daughter?”

The girl hammered the control pad intently, paying no attention to her. Beth gave one desperate last-ditch attempt.

BETH: “Look, it’s Elvis and the Spice Girls bungee jumping naked off the Flatiron Building!”

Nothing. Beth tapped her on the shoulder, and Missy jumped with a start. She removed her headphones and looked at her babysitter in surprise.

MISSY: “What?”
BETH: “I said you were the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I also promised you a million dollars, but that offer was only valid while supplies last, so you’ll just have to settle for twenty.”
MISSY: “I get twenty dollars for being cute?”
BETH: “Sure. Does that make sense?”
MISSY: “I guess.”
BETH: “Don’t guess, be positive.”
MISSY: “Not really?”
BETH: “You’re right.”
MISSY: “Do I still get the money?”

Beth studied her hopeful expression for a fraction of a second before caving in. She dug a twenty-dollar bill out of her purse and handed it over with a self-despising look.

BETH: “If you don’t stop being so cute, you’re going to break me.”
MISSY: “Thanks.”
BETH: “Don’t mention it.”
MISSY: “Can we go to Toys R’ Us?”
BETH: “No way. Every time we go there, you end up happy and I end up broke. We’re looking for school supplies, remember?”
MISSY: “Bo-ring.”
BETH: “I know, but I promised your mother we’d get the stuff for your project today.”
MISSY: “Mom said we could buy toys.”
BETH: “That’s a lie.”
MISSY: “It is?”
BETH: “Yes, and you should never lie unless you can sound convincing.”
MISSY: “Can you teach me?”
BETH: “Maybe some other day.”
MISSY: “Cool!”
BETH: “Your mom is going to kill me.”

Beth jogged to keep up as the girl raced the shopping basket down the aisle. Her little protégé was just as high-strung as ever. It had been almost a month since they were last together, and it seemed as if she were burning extra energy to make up for the lost time. They dashed through the store until they came to the stationery section, jam-packed with kids and parents consulting school project lists. Missy abandoned the cart and made a run for the group. Beth perused the list of supplies, which included a large display board, a set of paints, and several foam balls of varying sizes. She recalled Tianne mentioning that Missy had chosen to make a model of the solar system for her science project. Beth looked up from the paper as the girl handed her another foam ball. She dropped it in the cart with a feeling of pride, imagining that she was helping her very own daughter shop for school. If anybody had asked her about it, the redhead likely would have claimed that she were put on earth just for the purpose of looking after her.

In a short time, they had amassed a small collection of microcosmic foam spheres that would form a miniature replica of the galaxy. They had most of the planets now, but still needed the backing board and a ball of sufficient size to represent the sun. While the receptionist gloried in her blissful self-indulgence, a blonde haired girl joined Missy in her search, and the two began conversing about the upcoming science fair. With a nod of approval, Beth wandered off to find the triple-fold project board. She pushed the shopping cart down the aisle, marveling at how profoundly Missy’s life had changed since that day on the playground. Following “the incident” as it had become popularly known at WNYX, Beth and Tianne had encouraged her to make more friends at school in the hope that she wouldn’t feel so left out. With a little help from her teachers, Missy had established friendships with many of the kids in her class. This, reasoned Beth, was a sign of proper guidance on her part. She was positive that Missy would reap the benefits of a more socially active school life. It was a textbook example of mentoring at its best.

“It’s MINE!

Tianne’s daughter cried out in surprise. Beth turned just in time to see the blonde push her away and grab the largest foam ball, claiming it for herself. Missy stumbled backward a few steps, blushing with outrage. Then, almost in mockery of the laws of physics, she moved forward twice as fast and seized the other girl by the waistline of her pants. Missy hauled back, sending the brat sprawling across the floor on her can. This, in turn, sent the coveted sphere bouncing down the aisle, where it quickly became the target of an impromptu free-for-all soccer match. A frenetic mob of kids rioted across the lane with a flurry of kicks and stomps, reducing the foam ball to powder in a matter of seconds. Melissa Miller crossed her arms in triumph while the offender cowered in her shadow. Nobody pushed her around! A short distance away, the girl’s mother dropped her purse in disbelief.

MISSY: “Have you ever been bitch-slapped?”

Beth had to give her points for emphasis, but her inflection was all wrong. Missy’s tone betrayed the fact that she wasn't accustomed to using the expression that she had picked up from the staff of WNYX.

The enraged woman forced her way through the crowd. Seeing this, Beth switched into maternal protection mode and immediately moved to block Missy. She put out a restraining arm and ordered the girl to stay behind her. The other woman pulled her kid to her feet and railed at Beth with livid accusation, chastising her for raising such a foul-mouthed girl. A tight grin creased the secretary’s features. Missy caught the implication as well, and had to bite her lip to keep from smiling. Beth decided to play the scene for all it was worth. She narrowed her eyes and advanced. The other woman backpedaled and flinched as if the redhead were about to strike her, but regained her confidence when she realized that a lot of people were watching them. She assumed that Beth wouldn’t create a scene in front of the kids, but was sadly mistaken.

BETH: “I can raise my girl any way I see fit, so shove it.”
MISSY: “Yeah, shove it!”

Beth maintained her scowl of determination and tried not to laugh at the way Missy copied her, but one side of her mouth twitched in amusement nonetheless. The other woman regarded her with a mixture of shock and humiliation, as if her audacity were unfathomable. Then she pulled up her sleeves to confront the petite firebrand who seemed to be spoiling for a fight.

LADY: “How, by teaching her to be a bitch, just like you?”
BETH: “Watch what you say about my daughter.”
LADY: “You call that pasty faced little--”

She never finished. Beth lashed out like a whip, striking twice in rapid succession before the woman realized what hit her. The crowd of bystanders recoiled in surprise while the lady staggered back. Her face bore the angry mark of the redhead’s nails. Missy gaped in astonishment. The attack had been so fast! Beth tensed for action, her diminutive body primed with adrenaline. If that snotty bitch wanted trouble, she had it. Nobody spoke to Missy like that while she was around. Beth glowered at the other woman, daring her to retaliate.

The blonde girl suddenly sprung toward Missy to exact revenge for her mother, but was horribly unprepared for what happened next. The little firetop met her head-on, barreling forward with her shoulder like a linebacker. The impact sent the girl whirling out of control. Her arms flailed out and hit a kid standing nearby, causing him to stumble into another boy. Push came to shove, and they quickly went at it with fists. Both of their fathers ran forward to separate them, but in the confusion misinterpreted each other’s frantic pace for a challenge. One guy took a swing at the other, and all hell broke loose. Kids and adults threw themselves into the fray, and the stationery aisle erupted into a knock down, drag out brawl. Good times, good times

Beth collected their basket and wheeled it off the aisle with Missy at her side. The store loudspeaker crackled to life overhead with an urgent voice calling security to the stationery department. Moments later, a pair of employees and one police officer charged past them to break up the melee. The air was pierced by the shrill cry of a police whistle, mixed with yelling and the sounds of fists hitting flesh. Beth and Missy and laughed at the uproar and kept walking. They couldn’t be bothered with such trivial matters when there was still more shopping to do.

BETH: “What happened back there?”
MISSY: “Sarah said I should dye my hair.”

Beth stiffened.

BETH: “And if Sarah told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that, too?”
MISSY: “No.”
BETH: “Then who gives a damn what Sarah says?”
MISSY: “Not me!”
BETH: “Exactly. Besides, you saw that episode of Rugrats where Chuckie dyed his hair. Nobody noticed him, and he got really, really sad. Remember that?”
MISSY: “Uh huh.”
BETH: “You can't waste your life posturing to make everyone else happy, so don't even try. You're too smart for that.”
MISSY: “She also said that red hair people live under rocks in the forest.”

Beth stopped pushing the shopping cart and regarded her with skepticism. The matter-of-fact expression on the girl’s face put all of her doubts to rest. She kneeled face to face with her, the tips of their noses touching.

BETH: “Please tell me you set the record straight.”
MISSY: “I called her a cheese nip head!”
BETH: “Okay, we really need to work on your vocabulary.”

Their next stop was in the seafood department, where Beth casually examined the day’s offerings. For some reason, shopping like this really made her feel like a parent. Missy followed close behind, peering at the fresh specimens on ice and making noncommittal grunts, just as her babysitter was doing. Despite a concerted effort to please Beth by copying her actions, she couldn’t perceive any kind of motivation for their current activity. Her enthusiasm quickly faded, and she wandered off. She didn’t have much patience when it came to looking at dead fish under glass in the cold part of the store. The sterile fixtures and frigid climate sapped her energy and taxed her sense of adventure. It was just plain boring.

Beth gave a derisive snort at the price of shrimp, and then blinked in confusion. For the second time that day, she was plagued by the sense that she was forgetting something. She turned and surveyed the area, trying to locate the source of her unease. Fifteen feet away, an unsupervised Missy stood on tiptoes, her right arm elbow-deep in the lobster aquarium. Beth was about to flip out until she remembered that the claws of fresh lobsters were always banded for safety. The bemused redhead leaned against the counter and watched the girl plunge her arm into the cold, bubbling water in attempt to grab one of the sea creatures. The feat was made more difficult because of the reflective properties of the brine. Like the broken image of a straw in a glass of water, the lobsters were not actually where they appeared. The youth hopped up and down for leverage, and Beth had to cover her mouth to keep from laughing.

After a few more attempts, Missy finally claimed her prize. Beth titled her head sideways, waiting to see what she would do with it. The girl brought the lobster to eye-level and addressed it quietly, then made it answer her back. Beth would have given anything for a video camera. A tape of the moment would have been priceless. She giggled as Missy seized another lobster and made both of them dance crazily on the water. Within seconds, the floor around the tank was soaking wet. Thankfully, there was nobody around to see the precocious orange-haired child torturing the aquatic wildlife. Cute as it was, however, Beth had to put an end to it before they were kicked out of the store. They had already escaped justifiable prosecution once that day, but she wasn’t about to try her luck twice. She quietly tiptoed over and quickly put her hands on Missy’s shoulders. The girl nearly jumped out of her socks in fright.

BETH: “Drop it.”

Missy complied with obedience, letting the pair of crustaceans fall into the water and drift down to the bottom of the aquarium. She regarded her babysitter with large, innocent eyes. Beth quickly lost her authoritative demeanor as a grin of amusement blossomed on her features. She couldn’t help it. Missy broke into a giggle and wrinkled her nose in almost a mirror image of Beth’s expression. She turned back and tapped on the glass, trying to coax the sluggish creatures into motion. Beth knelt beside her and clicked the tank with a painted fingernail. Nearby, an apron-clad seafood department employee gave them a frown of disapproval, but moved on without a word, shaking his head in pity. Missy watched the man depart with apprehension, then grabbed the receptionist by the arm and bounced up and down with sudden excitement. Beth wondered what had gotten into her.

MISSY: “Can I get a sea spider?”
BETH: “Lobster.”
MISSY: Yeah, one of those.”
BETH: “What do you want a lobster for? Are you hungry?”
MISSY: “People eat them?!”
BETH: “Of course, it’s a delicacy. Why did you think they sell them here?”
MISSY: “For pets?”
BETH: “Stop trying to be cute, it’s not going to work this time.”
MISSY: “Then can I buy a di-lec-satee?
BETH: “It’s called a lobster, and I said stop it.”
MISSY: “One of those.”
BETH: “I’ll think about it.”

The sky was mildly overcast when they emerged from the building. A cool breeze gusted over the blacktop, casting dry leaves in its wake. Beth paused to inhale a refreshing breath of winter air while she readjusted her armload of grocery bags and picked up the project board. Missy tottered alongside her, carrying a bucket of salt water containing the lobster. The redhead silently cursed herself for crumbling so easily. Behind them, a group of police cruisers lined up along the front of the store with lights blazing, reporting to the scene of a minor public disturbance, or so they had been told. Suddenly the storefront window exploded as a shopping cart was hurled through it from the inside. Police officers rushed in with nightsticks drawn while the chief radioed to headquarters that the situation had escalated from a 10-50 to a full-blown riot. They were going to need more back up.

When Beth reached her car, she fumbled with the keys while Missy wobbled precariously nearby. She quickly placed a steadying hand on her shoulder to keep her from toppling over. The girl held the bucket against her chest with both arms and batted her dewy gray eyes in appreciation while drapes of rusty hair swished around her freckled face. Missy was now in full waif mode, where she could be cute without apparently trying. It was a trait that Beth couldn’t quite decide whether to despise or adore. On one hand she was totally adorable, but on the other, she could charm her out of anything with not so much as a soulful-eyed gaze. Even more alarming was the fact that she didn’t seem to be aware of her persuasive powers. It was enough to drive a person bitchcakes.

After some clever balancing, Beth managed to get the trunk lid opened. She chuckled at the sight of Missy, struggling to keep her balance. The girl was so bent on impressing her that she often undertook chores that were nearly beyond her capability. Beth dropped one of the bags inside and relieved her of the burden, setting the lobster on top of the car. With her arms now empty, Missy was free to help out. She wrenched a grocery bag away from her babysitter and maneuvered it into the car with a growl of accomplishment. She was about to grab the other when she noticed something strange in the corner of the trunk.

Beth froze as Missy reached for it. The object resembled a long, orange snake. But it had a short handle with a round knob at one end, and it was curled into perfect circles. She was almost positive that snakes couldn’t do that. And it was heavy! Missy ran her fingers over the smooth, tightly braided lash, noticing the intricate pattern of lines overlapping the body. She had never seen anything like it before. After examining it to her satisfaction, she finally decided that it was a pretty thing.

MISSY: “What’s this?”
BETH: “That's my whip. I'm a cowgirl, and sometimes I have to beat cattle's asses with it.”
MISSY: “Cool!”

Beth had brought the whip back from New Hampshire as a souvenir of her vacation at the ranch. It was merely a curiosity, and nothing more. She watched as Melissa carefully placed it back where she’d found it and then scratch her head, mystified as to what such a thing could be used for. Apparently, she’d never seen an Indiana Jones film. Beth explained that whips were traditionally used in adventure movies to swing from place to place, and occasionally to disarm enemies. She often forgot that Missy had spent most of her life in the suburb, and had lived a somewhat sheltered existence. That minor fault could be overlooked because she found the girl’s naiveté simply adorable, and wouldn’t have her any other way.

Beth closed the lid of the trunk and they got in the car. She gave the key a sharp twist and simultaneously depressed the clutch pedal. The engine rumbled to life out of stark cold hibernation, just as it always had. She had trained her car well.

MISSY: “I’m hungry.”
BETH: “Okay, where do you want to have lunch?”
MISSY: “Petey’s!”

Beth winced. Petey’s was a pirate-themed children’s restaurant that served hot pizza and boasted an assortment of playrooms. It was also a popular venue for birthday parties. Naturally, it was one of Missy’s favorite haunts. While the place wasn’t particularly expensive, it always put a crimp in her purse. Regardless, Beth wanted to keep her girl happy. She put the car in reverse and backed out of the parking space. They suddenly heard a grating noise that seemed to rake across the convertible’s top. It was followed immediately by a flash of white as the bucket slid from the roof and bounced off the windshield. They watched helplessly as the forgotten lobster smashed into the pavement with a sickening crunch, bursting like an oatmeal-filled balloon. Missy’s jaw fell open in horror. Without a word, Beth reached into her purse and handed her a ten-dollar bill.

To her surprise, Missy began laughing hysterically, slapping her hands on the seat. Beth looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. Missy normally accepted money with bashful reluctance, never with glee. For a brief instant, she feared that the girl was becoming evil and manipulative, delighting in her newfound persona. Then she realized that her paranoid fantasy was just that. Ten year-old girls weren’t evil, or at least she didn’t think they were. Missy pointed at the vacant parking space, marked by a hollow ring of white meat and a puree of broken claws and plates where the ill-fated crustacean had met its maker. Beth’s initial shock gave way to laughter. It was kind of funny.

MISSY: “Look! They have video games, and a prize grabber, and- and a soccer table!”
BETH: “I think it’s called foosball.”
MISSY: “Why did they name it that? It looks like a soccer table, not a fooozze-”
BETH: “Cut the chatter, red two!”
MISSY: “Oh!”

Beth peered over the top of her menu with a teasing smile. Across from her, Melissa grinned happily from beneath a cardboard pirate hat, perched atop her brow at a rakish angle. They were seated at a small table near the front of the restaurant. A seemingly endless loop of ‘pirates’ issued from the kitchen bearing platters of hot, fresh pizza. Each swish of the door carried with it the tantalizing aroma of gooey mozzarella, spicy tomato sauce, and oven-baked goodness. Happy children scampered through the restaurant, screaming with delight.

On any given day, Petey’s played host to a birthday party or field trip, virtually insuring that a group of noisy, unsupervised kids would be running rampant while ignoring the futile control efforts of adults who’d parted with a considerable portion of their salary to insure that amusement was had by all. While Beth could appreciate the sentiment of the gesture, she found the financial end of the bargain to be excessively lacking in common sense. For that reason, she didn’t enjoy coming there.

Missy craned her neck, hoping to spot a few schoolmates. Finding none, she turned her attention to a rickety-looking stage that dominated one side of the mockup galleon. The featured entertainment was a group of costumed characters dancing to a cheesy song about pizza. It was made all the worse for being piped in through a badly deteriorating speaker system. The performers, wearing sensory-depriving animal head masks, couldn’t keep time with the music. This resulted in a rhythmical catastrophe that made the audiovisual synchronization of any Japanese martial arts movie of the seventies look professional by comparison.

Beth regarded the spectacle with a dubious expression. It looked like the product of a crossbreeding experiment between neurologically-challenged pirates and fluffy jungle creatures. The prospect of subjecting people to such humanistic degradation was the equivalent of intellectual masochism. She conceded that it might be entertaining to children between the ages of two and five, and possibly Alzheimer’s patients, but even that was a stretch. After observing the show for a time, Missy clapped her hands in approval. Beth looked at her with open disbelief.

BETH: “If you start dancing, I will beat you. Do you understand?”
MISSY: “Can we go to the playroom?”
BETH: “That disease-infested, money-leaching hell?”
MISSY: “Pleeeease?
BETH: “Maybe after lunch.”
WAITRESS: “Ahoy, mates.”

They both turned to see a self-conscious young woman dressed like a pirate standing beside their table. She was dressed in a red-and-white striped shirt over dark, loose-fitting trousers, and carried a shiny plastic cutlass in her waist sash. Her short brown hair was covered with a wide-brimmed buccaneer hat, and a fake eye patch adorned her forehead. As pirates went, the teenager wasn’t very convincing. She dutifully recited her monologue with about as much enthusiasm as a person delivering a eulogy.

WAITRESS: “Welcome to Petey the Pirate’s Fun Time Pizza Palace. Petey the Pirate has prepared a pizza for you in his pirate pizza parlor. Here are your drinks, no refills.”

She placed the food on the table, collected their menus, and trudged away to serve other hungry parties in search of the best pizza on the seven seas, just as her service pledge dictated. Beth warned Missy to be careful because her food might be too hot. Before the girl could respond, Beth fanned her pizza to cool it off. Any other independent youngster might have swatted away the offending hand, but not Missy. She picked up a napkin and began waving it over her caretaker’s plate in like manner.

Just then, another member of Petey’s entourage stopped at their table to praise Beth about how cute her daughter was. Beth glowed with pride. When the hostess had gone, she mentally logged the compliment, for it was the second time in a day that somebody had mistaken Missy for her child. Between the pizza and the floorshow, the girl was too preoccupied to have noticed. Beth reached across the table and stroked her hair fondly. Missy flicked her eyes at her babysitter with a smile and took a sip from her drink.

BETH: “I love you, quakersnot.”

Missy set her cup down with a scowl that barely masked the ghost of a smile. She knew that Beth’s jibe was a challenge, rather than an insult; a quirky invitation to a friendly name-calling contest they both enjoyed. The objective was to see who could come up with the strangest word. Any odd combination was fair game, and nobody’s feelings got hurt. Once a challenge had been initiated, names were hurled quickly and without pause until a participant conceded defeat. This usually happened when either person was rendered helpless with laughter, though Beth almost always championed her eager young opponent.

Missy narrowed her flinty gray eyes, trying to intimidate the other woman. They faced each other across the table, but nobody uttered a sound. Suddenly, the orange-topped youngster snapped off a single word, starting a lightning fast chain of insults.

MISSY: “Puppy biscuit.”
BETH: “Rootbeer barrels.”
MISSY: “Yeemie brain.”
BETH: “Pepper dragster.”
MISSY: “Rumblestrips.”
BETH: “Seattle taxi fare!”
MISSY: “Dynamite juice!”
BETH: “Waxy apple surface!”
MISSY: “Redhead!!!”
BETH: “Copycat!”

Beth swatted the pirate hat off the top of Missy’s head, and the ten year-old ran off with a shriek of delight. She tossed back the rest of her drink and gave chase, catching up in time to see her plunge into the net playroom. Beth dove headlong and tackled Missy, submerging her in the soft, colorful mass of plastic balls. Together, they caroused through the pool, jumping and laughing. A group of children gathered at a safe distance to watch the sight. It wasn’t everyday they saw two redheads cavorting through a playroom in a whirling frenzy of rubicund hair. Suddenly their waitress materialized from the depths with a doleful expression, and chided them with her plastic sword.

WAITRESS: “Ahoy, mates. Roughhousing in Petey’s playroom is punishable by a walk on the exit plank.”
BETH: “Does your job insurance cover medical conditions, like severe depression or attempted suicide?”
WAITRESS: “Shiver me timbers. Would you like to join Petey’s partnership of pillagers and pickpockets? If so, applications can be found next to the register at Petey the Pirate’s cargo checkout.”
BETH: “No, thanks.”
WAITRESS: “Would you like to join the Girl’s Guitar Club? Sign up today and get a fifty percent discount with the price of a one-year membership to Petey the Pirate’s Birthday Buccaneers Club.”
BETH: “Wow, that’s pretty sad.”
MISSY: “Yeah, that's sad.”
BETH: “Bye now!”

She grabbed both sides of the girl’s pirate hat and pulled it down over her eyes. Missy was already on the move. They burst through the net flap and took off running. Behind them, the pirate waitress yelled a warning for them to stop or she would call the police. The redheads ignored her. Beth stopped just long enough to collect her purse from their table and for Missy to grab a few slices of pizza. She dug the money out of her wallet and threw it down, minus the tip. Suddenly kids began shouting, and Missy tugged frantically at her arm. Beth looked up to see the animals jumping down from the stage. I should have stayed in bed today. She prodded her kid into action and they sprinted for the door. Missy screamed as a tattered gorilla lumbered toward them, spouting a stream of muffled obscenities. Beth knew they couldn’t make it out of the restaurant without being caught. Hence, desperate times called for desperate measures.

She picked up the nearest chair and swung it at the gorilla, which crumpled at the blow. One down. Missy leaped over the animal's unconscious form and kept running. Up ahead, a lion with a guitar blocked the door, arms outstretched to stop them. Beth ducked as the beast made a swipe at her, then came up with a knee to its fluffy groin. The king of the jungle dropped his instrument, and she lost no time beating him fast and hard with it. Missy laughed hysterically at the spectacle. Beth discarded the ruined guitar and allowed herself a grim smile as she faced off with her last adversary, a rhinoceros thick with stuffing. She let out a defiant growl and charged the bloated gray pillow, tackling it around the neck. Adults and children watched in horror as a table broke under their fall. Breadsticks flew as the redhead furiously pummeled the rhino with her fists. Her wrath was fueled as much by the animal’s musical performance as its attempt on her life. Missy shouted urgently. Beth landed a final swing to the head of the costume and fled after her.

The girl didn't look well as she sat adjacent from Beth in the Miata, staring forward and unblinking. Her hands were clenched into fists in a desperate attempt to keep still. Beth asked if she was okay, and Missy shook her head very slightly, breathing in short, measured breaths. She was trying very hard to keep it inside. The combined trauma of eating large amounts of pizza and being chased by rapacious jungle animals had taken its toll on her. Beth applied more pressure to the accelerator as Missy’s respirations became faster. She clutched the edges of her seat, bracing for the inevitable. Missy tried to reassure herself that everything was going to be fine, but knew that it really wasn’t. She tightened her grip, silently wishing for the car to ride smoothly. Then it happened. The front wheel bounced through a pothole in the street, and a greenish pallor drained through her face. The ten year-old squeezed her eyes closed and leaned forward with a sigh of resignation. The battle was over. Beth touched her shoulder in alarm.

BETH: “Oh no... oh no, oh no-- Missy, please don’t- AWWW!!!

In a single motion, she opened the door and emptied the contents of her stomach onto the pavement flashing below. Beth squeezed the steering wheel tightly and winced at the delicate retching sounds. She couldn’t bear to watch or else she would be sick, too. A few moments later, Missy pulled the door shut and collapsed back into her seat with a pitiful sigh. Her ordeal was over, but she felt bad about throwing up in front of her babysitter. Beth flipped the glove compartment open and rummaged inside for a bundle of napkins that she kept for emergencies. This definitely qualified in her book. She patted the girl’s forehead, blotting the perspiration away. I’m glad she’s so level headed. I wouldn’t have had the self-control to open the door first. Missy bit her lip to keep from crying. Beth offered a sympathetic smile to let her know that it was okay.

BETH: “We just had a little too much fun today, that’s all.”

Beth stepped off the elevator and made her way down the hall, carrying Missy in a light blanket. She walked carefully so as not to jar the child from her sleep. At her door, she arched her hip to distribute the girl’s weight and used her free hand to retrieve the keys from her pocket. Beth paused momentarily to brush back a curl of sunfire hair protruding from the makeshift shawl. Once inside of her apartment, she laid Missy on the couch and went to the kitchen to prepare a damp rag. Beth knew little, if nothing about caring for sick children. The only thing she could remember was that her mother had placed a washcloth on her forehead once when she had been ill. She reasoned that what worked then must work now. Hence, the remedy for treating an upset stomach was no different from that of a high fever.

Once she made sure that Missy was comfortable, she breathed a sigh of relief. It had been a long day, and Beth wanted nothing more than to relax. She retrieved her battered paperback from the kitchen table and stretched out beside the couch. For the past week, she had been laboring through Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain, which Dave had insisted was an excellent read. The novel of biological terror was quite a departure from the sleazy romantic fiction that she usually enjoyed. Once she started reading, however, it was hard to put down. Within minutes, she became totally immersed in the book and lost track of time. The afternoon sun had long since fallen from its zenith in the sky when Missy awoke with a loud sneeze. Beth reflexively handed her a tissue, still focused on halting the spread of the fictional virus from outer space. It really was a compelling story.

BETH: “Don't be a sneezy Celt, Missy.”

The young girl sat up in a daze. She didn’t know how long she had been asleep, nor when she’d arrived there. On the coffee table nearby she found a glass of water to wash the sour taste out of her mouth. Her guardian was resting with her back against the couch, holding a paperback book. Beth regarded Missy with obvious unease, for she still appeared sick. Her smooth, normally glowing mane was dull and kinked, her complexion sallow. Strangely, the child’s physical condition was overshadowed by the somber expression that clung to her like a pitiful aura. Missy looked helpless, lonely and resigned. Beth had never before seen that kind of sadness in a person’s eyes. She felt compelled to reach over and touch her hand in askance. The child peered back through red-rimmed eyes, looking as though she were about to start crying again.

BETH: “What’s wrong?”
MISSY: “My birthday.”
BETH: “Yes, tomorrow’s your birthday. Aren’t you excited?”
MISSY: “No.”
BETH: “Why not?”
MISSY: “Because daddy’s not gonna to be there.”

Beth closed her book. She knew this conversation was inevitable. While she had often wondered about the details of the breakup, and had imagined numerous theories to explain it, she never dared to broach the subject with Tianne or, more importantly, her daughter. But since Missy had brought up the topic, she decided that it was finally time for some answers. In the gentlest tone that she could manage, Beth questioned the girl about whether or not she missed her father. Missy shrugged and gave a conceding, halfhearted nod. It was clear that she had mixed emotions about the man who had helped bring her into the world, only to later abandon her. Beth knew the feeling exactly, and she sympathized with her. But Missy’s reaction had not answered the most important question, the one that had been on her mind since she first learned of the Miller’s predicament during her interview two years ago.

BETH: “Why did he leave?”
MISSY: “…He loves another lady.”

Beth nodded grimly as if she expected as much, then proceeded in a reverent whisper.

BETH: “Yeah… sometimes that happens.”
MISSY: “It's not s’posed to.”
BETH: “I know, sweetie, I know. Are you okay?”

The girl shrugged again, fidgeting with the washcloth in her hands. Beth suddenly felt sick. Her stomach twisted with bitterness because she had taken advantage of Missy’s emotional state in order to get the information that she wanted. It was horrible and wrong and she shouldn’t have done it. Now she could only put it behind them and move onto something else, because anything was better than dwelling in her own wretchedness. To that end, Beth announced that she had sodas in the refrigerator, as if that were any consolation for living each day in a broken home.

As she watched Missy trudge to the kitchen, Beth was filled with self-loathing. The telephone rang a second later, mercifully shattering the void of silence that suffused the place like a dark veil. Missy froze while reaching for a can of soda. Beth exchanged a look of apprehension with her as she came into the room. She was certain the call pertained to the rumble that had shaken the Criterion Building earlier that day. Melissa, on the other hand, hadn’t made the connection that her mentor was directly involved with the incident. Beth took a deep, calming breath and picked up the phone with trembling hands. It was Dave, of course, and he wasn’t happy.

DAVE: “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been trying to call you all day.”
BETH: “We just had some, uh… last minute shopping to do. Are you upset or something?”
DAVE: “A bomb went off in the building and half of the station was destroyed.”
BETH: “That’s terrible! I wonder who could have done such a thing?”

Her eyes widened at her little houseguest in mock astonishment. She quickly brought out a pair of tall drinking glasses and instructed Missy to fill them with soda. Meanwhile, she walked around the corner to speak privately with Dave.

BETH: “Is anybody dead?”
DAVE: “No, but I would be if I hadn’t been in the men’s room at the time.”
BETH: “Wow… who ever imagined that a pot of boiling coffee could save a life?”
DAVE: “Beth.”
BETH: “Sorry. How’s Matthew? I think I saw him on the floor just before we left.”
DAVE: “He’s in stable condition at NYU Medical Center, visiting the land of Hobbits and gnomes. The doctors think he may be in a coma, but they’re not positive yet.”
BETH: “Serves him right.”
DAVE: “What?”
BETH: “I just meant that he could use the rest.”
DAVE: “Don’t you think that’s a little harsh?”
BETH: “Dave, I refuse to show pity for a man who cried for a week straight because his Tamagatchi died.”
DAVE: “Well, you have a point, but-”
BETH: “What about the new girl? Did our English muffin get cooked?”
DAVE: “No, Moxy was farthest from the epicenter. We found her on the roof with our microwave and three rolls of aluminum foil.”
BETH: “Doing what?”
DAVE: “I don’t know, apparently trying to make contact with the mothership.”
BETH: “I knew she wasn’t right.”
DAVE: “Anyway, the police are convinced that she’s a terrorist, so they took her downtown for questioning. The blast damaged our transmitter, and we’re off the air.”
BETH: “Yes! That Employee of the Month award has my name on it!”
DAVE: “I don’t believe this. We’re in the middle of open office week, and WNYX is out of business.”
BETH: “Great! So, are you free to come to Missy’s birthday party tomorrow?”
DAVE: “Beth, did you hear anything that I just said?”
BETH: “Don’t worry, I’ll come back to work and finish my job. And before you say anything, that was not a euphemism for, ‘I’m going to murder you with a weed eater.’”
DAVE: “Are you calling from an asylum?”
BETH: “No, we’re at my place. I was just-”

She was interrupted by the sound of glass breaking, followed by a scream. Beth dropped the phone like a hot coal and raced into the kitchen to find Missy pressed against the wall in fright. Pieces of curved glass radiated across the floor in a circle all around her. Nearby was a crumpled, but unexploded soft drink can. Apparently she’d been trying to pour the soda when she let go of the glass. Beth moved forward without hesitation. Missy was bewildered by the sudden attention as the woman touched her arms and legs, checking for any sign of injury. She had never seen her act this way before. It took a moment before she realized that Beth was concerned about her safety. She was about to apologize when Beth gasped in shock. Her mouth fell open as if she’d seen something scary. Missy turned her palms face-up and blinked in surprise at the sight of her fingers, red with blood. It didn’t even hurt. She lowered her eyes to the clean white floor tiles, flecked with dark spots. Beth’s lip quivered with sorrow, as if everything were her fault.

MISSY: “Sorry.”
BETH: “It’s okay. You’re going to be fine, sweetie.”
MISSY: “Did I do something wrong?”

The girl’s apologetic inquiry steamrollered Beth, and she crumbled to the kitchen floor. Tracy’s words came back to her with full force: You’re overprotecting her. Beth covered her ears, trying to block out the voice. She didn’t want to hear it. You have to stop babying her all the time and let her grow up… let her grow up… Each warning echoed in her head like an ominous edict. Someday she’s going to realize that you’re not always going to be there… Her stomach turned sour, like ice at the bottom of a diluted soda. It wasn’t fair. She didn’t deserve to be punished like this. Maybe fate was condemning her for investing too much love and emotion into a relationship that, deep down inside, she knew wouldn’t last forever. That had been her decision, and hers alone. Now she was earning it back in spades.

Missy looked on with concern. Beth wiped her eyes. She didn’t want to appear weak in front of the girl. It hurt just to look at her now, almost with a physical force. Beth grabbed her by the arm and pulled her over to the sink. Missy scratched her nose, wondering if she was in trouble. Beth fumbled the lid of her First Aid kit. Hampered by her tormented emotional state, her actions were clumsy. She turned on the faucet, held Missy’s finger under the water, and ordered her not to move. Then she opened a bottle of rubbing alcohol and soaked a cotton ball. Beth cleaned the cut, working hurriedly to be done with it. Missy couldn’t have looked more admiring if she tried. She beamed at the woman tending to her injury. The receptionist grew uncomfortable at the scrutiny. The heartache she felt was only intensified by her affected attitude of indifference. It was totally contrary to her nature, and went against everything she had spent years to establish.

MISSY: “Thanks, mom.”

Beth stiffened, and momentarily stopped working. She stared into the sink full of reddish water. One corner of mouth twitched in aggravation.

BETH: “Stop it. Please don’t call me that.”
MISSY: “Why not?”

It was the moment Beth secretly feared, but never wanted to believe would come to pass. She blinked rapidly, fighting back tears. She had to hold it together. She couldn’t afford to come unglued in front of the kid. Missy was too young to understand the depth of the situation and the extent of her emotional attachment; she was better off not knowing. Beth found that she could only focus on the girl’s hand. Her eyes frosted as she felt it within her grasp. The stark paleness of their skin seemed to blend together, and for the first time, she fully realized that they were of the same flesh. Her gaze followed the curve of Missy’s palm where it merged into the wrist. She turned it over and saw the layer of delicate orange hairs on her arm. She then looked at the effusion of fine dark red hair blazing across her own. Finally, she brought herself to look into her face.

Missy gazed back earnestly, offering a smile of friendship. Her granite-colored eyes sparkled below translucent eyebrows, and her face was peppered with tiny brown freckles that extended over the bridge of her nose and across her forehead. Like the sun above the earth, her head was crowned with fire, a cascading waterfall of shimmering orange hair. It was the most beautiful thing Beth had ever seen. She pulled Missy close and hugged her tight, wishing so badly to have the biological connection that Tianne had with her. But it was an impossible hope. Then she felt Missy’s bandaged finger against her back, and suddenly inspiration struck like a flash.

BETH: “We can be sisters!
MISSY: “We can!?!”

Beth explained that if they let their blood mix together, they would be part of each other forever. She reassured her by saying that it was a painless procedure since her finger was already cut. Missy considered it for a minute and then nodded in agreement. Beth kneeled and selected a thin piece of glass from the floor. She removed the cloth compress on Missy’s hand and gently squeezed her finger, forcing a dot of red to seep out. Then she pricked her own fingertip with the sliver, drawing blood from herself.

The girl watched as Beth demonstrated how to make an L-shape with her thumb and index finger. Missy copied her, and they pressed their palms together and interlocked fingers, joining their cuts for one moment in time. As the life pulsed between them, Beth told her about the significance of their ancestry, and how their blood linked them with all people of red hair. Missy was fascinated by the revelation, for it was truly earth-shaking news. But when she thought about it, everything made perfect sense. She had red hair because her mom had red hair, and Beth, who was her friend, also had red hair. It was perfect!

They bandaged their fingers and toasted their new sisterhood with a soda. Then Missy wandered off while Beth cleaned up the broken glass. When she had finished, Beth surveyed the kitchen, double checking her work. The redhead smiled as she felt the bandage around her fingertip. It was a reminder of her devotion. She realized that something had changed within her. It was an elusive kind of happiness, a feeling of security and warmth that filled her with delight. Just as Missy had gained a new appreciation for their friendship, so too, did Beth see things with a newfound clarity. In a way, she felt as if she had accomplished something important in her life, and the next horizon beckoned her to continue.

It was a moment before she noticed a faint buzzing nearby. She blinked away the peaceful reverie and looked around. Beth walked slowly around the corner to find the telephone lying on the carpet where she dropped it earlier. She returned with it to the kitchen, not remembering whom she had been talking to. A sharp knock on the door supplied the answer. Beth found Dave on the other side, dressed in a different suit than he’d been wearing that morning.

BETH: “I am so sorry about the phone call. We had a little accident here, and I completely forgot.”
DAVE: “What happened at the station?”
BETH: “It was the package.”
DAVE: “The one you warned me about last week?”
BETH: “That’s the one.”
DAVE: “What was in it?”
BETH: “A nail bomb. I told you not to open it!”
DAVE: “Beth, you destroyed the whole station.”
BETH: “What am I going to do?”
DAVE: “As I see it, you have several options.”
BETH: “Like what?”
DAVE: “Oh, I don’t know… San Quentin, Leavenworth, and Washington State, just for starters.”
BETH: “Dave!”
DAVE: “What were you thinking?”
BETH: “I’m sorry, it’s just that I was so mad at you. But we’re together now, and everything is going to be fine. Please believe me.”
DAVE: “I want to.”
BETH: “You have to, because I love you.”

Suddenly all of Dave’s troubles were forgotten as the redhead sought comfort in his arms. Beth searched his eyes for support, and his willpower disintegrated in the overwhelming presence of her spirit. Peering into the depths of her soul was enough to take his breath away. She was so fragile, so precious… Dave caressed her cheek, brushing away all of her worries. He wanted to be strong for her, protect her.

Beth closed her eyes as he began to nuzzle the underside of her jaw. She licked her lips briefly in preparation for what was certain to follow. He kissed her neck, lightly grazing his mouth along her chin, teasing her with his breath. Her senses tingled at the sensation, and Beth shuddered with pleasure. Dave cupped her face in his hands, delicately stroking the softness of her throat with his thumbs. She moved her mouth toward his urgently, begging him to take her. Beth sighed as he gently squeezed her lower lip and pulled her mouth open. Every moment he prolonged the inevitable was like an eternity. She could have been forceful, but wanted him to take charge instead.

He touched his mouth to her lips, but hesitated, feeling the coolness of her breath on his face. Beth moaned in desperation. Her vulnerability excited him, but he knew the importance of not rushing. It was better to move slowly and absorb as much pleasure as possible. The woman trembled with anticipation. She thought he was about to kiss her, but nothing happened. Why wouldn’t he just kiss her already? Her confusion was agony. Then he inhaled, gently sucking the breath out of her mouth and savoring her essence. His tongue flicked out and gently probed between her lips. Her body spasmed in response, and her fingers clenched at his back. Beth pushed against him, burning with desire. A wave of heat consumed her face, while her vision blurred. She opened her mouth and they united in sweet paradise. Dave tried to pin her down, but she wouldn’t have it. She retaliated by gently biting down with her teeth, holding his tongue in place. He opened his eyes to see Beth flinch him a nasty look of triumph. She bit harder, enjoying her victory. Now she was in control.

MISSY: “Get a room!”

Startled by the unexpected visitor, they jumped apart. Missy sat up on the couch where she’d been resting. Beth stammered incoherently, trying to explain the situation while Dave simply stood back in a state of horror. He had no idea that the kid was there. The news director figured that her mother had already picked her up, which was obviously not the case. Beth covered her face and peered through her fingers at Missy. In the heat of the moment, she’d completely forgotten about her. She must have been lying on the couch the whole time and she hadn’t even noticed!

As her brain whirled inside of her head, Beth wondered how much the girl had seen, and more importantly, if she would require juvenile therapy. God, she hoped not. Beth had never had ‘the talk’ with Missy because she was too young, and it wasn’t even her responsibility to do so. That was a chore best left to her biological mother. All things considered, this had to be the most humiliating thing to ever happen to her. Dave, on the other hand, couldn’t quite suppress the idiotic grin on his face. Beth glared at her boyfriend. She didn’t see what the hell was so amusing about any of it.

BETH: “You think this is funny?”
DAVE: “Well, yeah, I mean- in a way, it is.”
BETH: “Shut up. And you, Missy, where did you hear a thing like that?”
MISSY: “You told me.”
BETH: “Oh, right.”
MISSY: “Were you kissing because you’re in love?”
BETH: “Yes. Kissing is something that grown-ups do sometimes. There’s nothing bad about it.”
MISSY: “Were you going to do it?
BETH: “What!?!”

Just then, the doorbell rang. Dave quickly distanced himself from his receptionist as Missy skipped across the living room to let her mother in. Tianne stepped inside and handed Beth her mail. Then she kneeled to hug her daughter and ask about how her day had been. While this was transpiring, Beth shuffled through the stack of letters while turning five different shades of red. She dropped the mail in surprise when the other woman turned to pay her for the babysitting. Dave automatically stepped in to pick up the mess while Beth rubbed the side of her face in agitation.

Tianne seemed keenly aware of her frustration, and asked if anything was wrong. Missy piped up, eager to deliver a full report on what she’d witnessed, but her babysitter quickly cut her off before she could divulge anything. Beth launched into a rambling story about how hectic their day had been, minus the incidents at the station, the grocery store, and the restaurant. Fortunately, Missy seemed to take the hint. She tucked her bandaged finger into her palm and stood quietly, innocent as a puppy in a clover patch. Beth rewarded her with a friendly pat on the head for being so well-behaved.

She handed Missy a magazine from the pile of mail to keep her occupied while she attempted to wrap up the conversation. At this point, she just wanted everybody out of her apartment. She wished mother and daughter goodnight while steering Tianne toward the door, adding that she would bring the school supplies with her in the morning. Missy trailed behind them, paging through the issue in search of the article Beth had shown her at the office earlier. The secretary did a swift double take when she realized what the girl was looking for. She fumbled with the doorknob, trying to figure out which way it opened. The other woman politely offered her assistance, but Beth slapped her hand, insisting that it would only take a minute. She had to get rid of them before Missy tattled away her only source of income. Beth apologized as she tugged frantically at the chain lock, which had become stuck in the track.

Dave had no idea what Beth was getting so worked up about, but it was pretty damn funny. He chuckled in amusement as the redhead yanked on the door, struggling to get it open. Tianne took a few steps back in trepidation. Beth’s behavior made her wonder if it was wise to leave her daughter unsupervised with her in the future. The madness in the air must have been contagious, because Missy was getting pretty worked up as well. The ten year-old blazed through the magazine like a flipbook while her babysitter desperately wrenched on the door handle, making about as much progress with it as water flowing uphill. Then suddenly everything happened at once: Missy found what she had been looking for at exactly the same time as Beth ripped the door open. She wheeled around to see the girl jab a finger at the picture of Harrison Ford, eager to show her mother what she had learned.

MISSY: “That’s what a real man looks like!”

Tianne put an arm around her daughter and shot Beth a poignantly interested look.

TIANNE: “Did Beth teach you that, honey?”

Missy nodded enthusiastically, her orange bangs bobbing like rusty springs. Dave laughed openly while Beth flushed with embarrassment. Tianne leaned close to Missy and conceded to her statement with a naughty smile.

TIANNE: “Well, she’s right!”

Beth stormed through the living room and kicked the couch in anger, then grabbed one of the pillows and flung it across the apartment. Dave couldn’t understand what she was so upset about. Only moments ago the woman had been practically melting in his arms, and now she was tearing the place apart. It didn’t make sense. He set the pillow back on the couch in an attempt to restore some kind of order. Beth stared at him for a moment with a look of surprised outrage, then snatched it up and threw it even harder. The cushion pinwheeled through the air and struck the radio sitting on the kitchen counter. She raised her chin stubbornly, defying him to touch it again. Dave looked at her in disbelief. Beth turned on her heel to stomp away, but the news director seized her by the arm. He turned her around to face him, and demanded to know what she was so mad about. Beth gave him a withering look and replied that everything was his fault.

DAVE: “What did I do?!”
BETH: “You know exactly what you did- standing there and smirking like an idiot while I tried to cover for us. Just like I used to do when I was babysitting you and Lisa. It’s no different.”
DAVE: “Don’t bring her into this, Beth. That was a long time ago, and this is a completely different situation.”
BETH: “Oh, really, because I hadn’t noticed!”
DAVE: “Why are you being so damned stubborn?”
BETH: “I'm not being stubborn, I'm just being unreasonable, and you’d realize that if you knew anything about me.”
DAVE: “Stop it. Just calm down, this isn’t solving anything.”
BETH: “Don’t tell me to calm down! You’re in my house, and I’ll do anything I want.”
DAVE: “Now you’re just acting like a spoiled brat.”
BETH: “Well tough cookies!”

Beth shot him a sarcastic look of mock pity. Dave knew that she was trying his last nerve, hoping to drive him to anger so that she could beat him down with her own fury, but he stood firm. He wasn’t going to stoop to that level and give her the satisfaction of the result she desired so badly. Instead, he pushed back a strand of hair that had fallen across her face. Beth narrowed her eyes in defiance, but Dave thought he detected the shadow of a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. She was trying hard to stay mad, but he was determined to wear her down, or better yet just let her wear herself down. Beth couldn’t argue if she had nobody to argue with. Every moment longer he resisted was like another point against her. She wasn’t going to win this battle of wills if he had anything to say about it. Dave gently squeezed her shoulders and fixed her with an even look.

DAVE: “Is it all out of your system?”
BETH: “Shut up.”

Beth stood with arms akimbo, nostrils flaring. Dave studied her closely, noticing the smooth contour of her forehead, the way her nose tapered to a dainty point, and how the shape of her lips complimented her face. But the fury in her eyes belied the woman’s angelic features. Peering at the darkness within her stark gray irises, Dave glimpsed a storm of madness and chaos. He was simultaneously frightened and intrigued, for while Beth projected an aura of danger intended to ward off any possible advances, she radiated a nearly animalistic sexual magnetism that drew him closer. He suddenly realized that he wanted her, and the intensity of his desire terrified him even more than her anger. Dave leaned forward and planted a kiss on the tip of her nose, and Beth suddenly found herself at rope’s end. With nothing left to do, she vented her fury in the only way possible: she kissed him back. This wasn’t the delicate touch of a lover that Dave had experienced earlier, though. Instead, she kissed him hard and forcefully, a kiss of pure vengeance.

DAVE: “What was that for?”
BETH: “That was a good-bye kiss. I’ve had a rough day, and the last person I want to look at is you. Now get lost, I need to be alone for awhile.”
DAVE: “What are you going to do?”
BETH: “Maybe I’ll turn on the heater and sit naked in the bathroom for a couple hours with the lights off, think about my life. Do you have a problem with that?”
DAVE: “I thought we were going to discuss the promos.”
BETH: “Oh, screw the promos! What is it with you, anyway? Can’t you enjoy life a little?”
DAVE: “Did you hear what I said? I want to discuss the promos.”
BETH: “Then what are you waiting for?”

It was all the encouragement he needed. Dave pulled her close, feeling the shape of her small body against him. He nuzzled the side of her neck, moving up to suck on her earlobe, biting softly with his teeth, teasing with his tongue. That was her weak spot, and he seemed to know it. Beth staggered as her knees tried to give out, but Dave caught her before she fell. She breathed softly as he slipped his hands under her shirt and caressed the smooth, hot flesh of her back. He moved up the valley between her shoulder blades, then down the small of her back, where his fingers splayed open to hold the flare of her hips. Beth closed her eyes as chills of pleasure radiated across her body. Then she gasped in surprise when his hands slid into the waistline of her panties, eager to explore. Ecstasy flowed to her senses and she thrust her pelvis against him. Dave pushed back hard, feeding the magnetism burning inside of her. Beth returned the move with equal fervor, sliding easily into the natural motion. She whispered breathlessly as she felt him building against her.

BETH: “Don’t ever move-”

They were in rapture and could no longer hold back. Dave quickly withdrew his prying hands and reached for the front of her pants, but Beth grabbed his wrists and stopped him. He looked up to see her offer an enigmatic smile tainted with a flicker of sadness. Their eyes locked, sharing an unspoken promise. Then she nodded for him to continue. Dave kneeled in front of her and unfastened her top button with trembling fingers. Beth watched him fumble the zipper in haste. She slapped his hands away and unzipped herself. Dave slid her jeans down as she wiggled them over her hips, thrilling to the sight of her smooth, bare legs and clinging white panties. Beth pulled off her shoes and stepped out of her pants, flinging them away with her ankle. They worked feverishly, kissing and touching each other as their desire built with each discarded garment.

Dave walked her across the room until she felt her lower back pressed into the arm of the couch. He put a hand on her shoulder and pushed slowly, bending her backward inch by inch. Beth didn’t know what he was doing, but she liked it. Then she followed his gaze and looked down at herself. Her smooth belly was exposed as her shirt stretched tightly against her chest. Below that, her silk panties rode firmly against her body. The redhead gave him a naughty smile and lifted her hips as he observed how the flimsy material defined the contours of her sex. She knew he wanted it. Beth spread her legs and arched her back, giving him a better view. She pulled her hair back with both hands, securing it behind her ears. This emphasized her forehead, where Dave planted a kiss, followed by another between her eyebrows. He touched a finger there, slowly drawing it downward along the bridge of her nose, over her lips, down her chin and throat, between her breasts… Every inch was torturously slow.

Beth shuddered with ecstasy as he moved lower, softly grazing her abdomen like a feather. She held her breath, silently praying that he would stop, but begging for him to continue. Just when she thought he was about to go all the way, he doubled back in a curlicue and traced a slow circle around her navel while he flirted with her waistband. Beth tilted her face to the ceiling and closed her eyes, overcome with pleasure. Her jaw fell open slackly and his fingers quit their destination as Dave took her by the shoulders and kissed her tenderly. She let out a gentle sigh, fueling his desire. His tongue explored the inside of her mouth as he pushed insistently against the softness between her legs. Beth squirmed against him. It felt so good. She wanted it to happen, and she wanted it now. Her entire body screamed for fulfillment, but there was one more obstacle. She gathered her last shred of self control- just enough to push him back while she unfastened her bra and slipped off her panties.

The nearby lamp illuminated her naked form, bathing it in a soft light while horizontal bars of shadow from the moonlit window painted her with dark stripes. Dave was captivated, for the woman was utterly breathtaking in her natural state. Beth stood just over five feet tall, her petite body firm and compact. In the darkness of the room, her pale skin glowed like flawless white porcelain, dusted with legion of tiny freckles on her shoulders and arms. The cinnamon sprinkles continued along her hips and legs, all the way to her ankles. Her mane of long, red hair cascaded down her back like a fiery waterfall, standing out in shocking contrast to her spectral figure. Dave could only stare as Beth swayed her hips invitingly. She beckoned for him with her finger and a sly, tempting smile.

BETH: “Get over here.”

7:08 a.m.

She awoke when dawn’s first light warmed the eastern sky, gently welcoming the world to a new day. Beth lay still in bed, feeling the warmth of the body snuggled against her back. She reached over her shoulder and touched Dave’s arm, which was draped around her. He was fast asleep, no doubt exhausted from their hours of lovemaking the night before. She listened to the sound of his breathing, felt his heartbeat against her skin, and shuddered with pleasure. They ended up going to sleep after having sex on the couch, the living room floor, against the wall in the hallway (Beth’s personal favorite), the bedroom, and twice in the shower. He needs the rest.

Although Dave had enjoyed her with excessive abandon, Beth made sure to put him through the paces until she was fully satisfied. In fact, she repeatedly urged her lover to continue long after he’d worn himself out, proving that she could give as well as take. In the end, he said it was incredible for a woman to have such a powerful sex drive, but that it was not necessarily a bad thing. The observation pleased Beth, who was quite familiar with her intense desires. But more importantly, it convinced her that she’d found a man equal to the task, one that could keep her happy in every way, both emotionally and physically. Yes, Dave had definitely earned a good night’s sleep.

A few minutes later, Beth slipped quietly from the bed and made her way outside to the balcony of her sixth-floor apartment. From there, she watched a soft glow spread across the deep blue sky as the sun broke the horizon somewhere beyond the city. As she stood in blissful solitude, a cool river of wind flowed along the building, swirling over the ledge and washing her with delicate currents of air. Beth closed her eyes and raised her face skyward, offering thanks to the wind. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the sweet essence of morning. The tranquility stimulated her mind and freed her senses. Her thoughts turned to Missy, soon to be eleven. She realized that the celebration of the girl’s birthday was a milestone in her life as well; they had been friends for nearly three years.

Suddenly a pair of arms encircled her from behind. Beth smiled as Dave kissed the side of her neck. She folded her hands over his and turned sideways to return the favor. They stood together, silently embraced in arms while dawn painted the heavens with light. Beth imagined that the gold-warmed ocean of blue was a sign that destiny approved their union and, for just a moment, life was perfect. As Dave looked over her shoulder, he noticed that Beth’s hair glowed like bronze in the morning sunlight. He watched it dance in the breeze, felt the strands tickle his face and brush against his chest. The intimacy of the moment wasn’t lost on him. Dave stroked her belly with affection. He enjoyed touching her, feeling the softness of her skin, the warmth and shape of her body. Her physical closeness aroused him, and he gently caressed the spot between her legs. Beth curled her fingernails into his arm, forcing him to quit.

BETH: “Don’t…”
DAVE: “Why not? You liked it last night.”

She faced him with a wry smile, tilted her head in amusement. He had a point.

BETH: “Are we in a mood today?”
DAVE: “Mmm… I think so.”
BETH: “Well, save it. We have things to do.”
DAVE: “What?”
BETH: “I’m the boss here, Dave, and you have to do what I say now.”
DAVE: “Okay, name it.”
BETH: “Go make some coffee while I start the shower. If you do a good job, then maybe we can play later.”
DAVE: “Ah, I see where this is going. This is some kind of payback for all those years of secretary service, right?”
BETH: “I call it coffee retribution. Get used to it.”
DAVE: “Tell you what, let’s shower first, and then I’ll do the coffee.”
BETH: “Don’t think so, Dave. We go one at a time.”

The redhead stood by the door with elbows bent and hands on her hips, untouchable. Dave took a tentative step forward, hoping that she might change her mind. His eyes devoured her every detail, from her jaunty stance and unkempt hair, to the shape of her body, draped in a loose nightshirt that barely fell to her hips and revealed her smooth, bare legs. His imagination ran wild, for he knew that beneath she wore only a pair of silky, low-cut panties. The desire building inside of him flowed like a sweet poison through his body. It was a delicious, persistent yearning. Beth had no idea what he was thinking. She only noticed the intensity with which Dave was staring at her. It was a few seconds before she realized that he was checking her out.

BETH: “See anything you like?”

She hiked up the front of her shirt and flashed her panties at Dave, teasing him with a wicked smile. Beth was pleased to see the man cringe with torture. She knew it must be agonizing, but she was only playing with him. As a woman, she intended to wield her sexual powers to the fullest advantage, and if that meant spoiling his fun, then so be it. But that didn’t mean that she couldn’t have some fun in the process. Besides, if Dave had his way they would never get out of the bedroom. They really did need to leave as soon as possible. Letting her shirt fall, she commanded him to go. Dave moped away in despair. The instant his back was turned, a girlish grin came to her face. She carelessly stripped off her clothes and traipsed into the bathroom, eager for a hot shower. He might be disappointed now, she reasoned, but she vowed to make it up to him, and in the best way possible.

While he waited for the coffee to brew and his desire to subside, Dave perused the front page of the New York Times, which had been waiting on Beth’s doorstep in the hallway. His attention was immediately drawn to a headline in bold print across the top of the paper that declared: “Match Made In Prison.” The news director’s astonishment grew even more when he recognized the faces in the photograph that accompanied the story. He read on, eager to learn what had happened.

In an unprecedented event, two federal prisoners were married yesterday in a New York City prison. Inmates Johnny Johnson and Andrea Lattimore found love behind bars after meeting in the cohabitated detention facility where they were being incarcerated. Police guards tried to restrain the lusty lawbreakers when they attempted to make love on a cafeteria table during mealtime. Before they could be separated, however, each held the other hostage with plastic forks, demanding that they be allowed to exchange vows. The three-hour standoff ended after an ordained minister was brought in to settle the matter. The couple was finally married before a group of witnesses comprised of over five hundred prison officials and inmates.

According to the newlyweds, their love blossomed after a conversation in which they discovered that both had worked for Jimmy James Incorporated. A vindicated Andrea called the marriage, quote, “the perfect revenge” to get back at Lisa Miller, a former WNYX reporter that she once considered her best friend, and with whom Johnson had been romantically involved. She added, “See if that car-stealing bitch thinks I’m crazy now.” Then she was chained together with her new husband and escorted off to a private cell where they are to serve out the remainder of their sentence.

Dave looked up as Beth walked in a few minutes later, dressed in faded blue jeans and a gray pullover shirt. Her long hair was secured into a ponytail. It was both a neat and simple look, but at the same time wildly attractive. His previously neglected urge returned, threatening to derail his sexual tolerance like a runaway freight train. But rather than do something extreme, he simply poured her a cup of coffee. Dave was still unfulfilled, and the diversion gave him something else to think about other than sex. He slid the newspaper across the counter, indicating the story on the front page. Beth scanned the text without reaction, and finally shrugged as if the news was inconsequential. Nothing surprised her anymore, particularly where Andrea was concerned. She took a long, refreshing sip from the steaming mug, and closed her eyes with an expression of beatitude. It tasted twice as good when somebody else made it.

BETH: “They deserve each other.”
DAVE: “I feel kind of bad for Lisa, you know? She really thought it was going to work out between them.”
BETH: “Are you kidding? I feel sorry for Johnny.”

8:32 a.m.

BETH: “I wasnt speeding.”
DAVE: “Give me a break, Beth. Cops don't hand out tickets for good behavior.”

Bundled in a heavy overcoat, Beth nudged the car door closed with her hip. She carried a steaming plate of pastries that she’d picked up at a nearby convenience store. An exasperated Dave Nelson emerged from the passenger side of the vehicle with a pair of speeding tickets. He waved them in front of her, and encouraged her to explain where they might have come from if she had not, in fact, been going over the speed limit. Beth reiterated that they were not speeding, and rationalized her actions by saying that she wanted to get there before the snacks cooled. As the redhead spoke, her breath escaped in ghostly wisps that were visible in the frigid air. The news director tossed his arms up in defeat. He shoved the tickets into his pocket, and shut the car door.

The morning was cold and brisk as they walked up the driveway. A sharp wind howled through the bare tree branches, rattling them like dry bones. The residence at 2701 Harbor Hill Road seemed to grow taller as they approached, rising before them like a giant block of stone. Dave had known what to expect from Beth’s descriptions, but was nevertheless amazed. The two-story house was wrapped in a base of checkered cobblestone, while the upper portion was sheathed in gray siding. Its roof was a dark shell of glossy stone tiles that protected the mansion. The windows were trimmed in pale blue framing, while the ledges held flowerboxes that lent a more welcome tone to the imposing structure. While Dave wasn’t entirely clear on the Miller’s financial status, he concluded that it must be considerable. He was about to question Beth about it when she sprinted up the steps leading to the front porch and burst into the house, unannounced.

Dave hesitantly followed her inside, unsure whether or not he was trespassing. Seconds later, their host appeared. He recognized Missy’s mother from her visit to Beth’s apartment the day before, but had not realized how truly beautiful she was. Tianne Miller had a slim, natural build with curves in all the right places; the very epitome of a woman. Although she was blessed with the body of a figure skater, she was attired modestly in a white, calf-length dress with royal blue accents. Her loose copper hair fell to her shoulders. Her face was pretty and pleasant, with sharp, yet delicate features. She had crystal blue eyes that sparkled with kindness and understanding, and a smile that would win anyone's heart. For an instant, Dave had the absurd thought that she seemed almost too perfect. But try as he might, he couldn't find a single flaw.

BETH: “I brought snacks for Missy.”
TIANNE: “She’s still sleeping.”
BETH: “Don’t worry, I’ll get her up.”

She charged up the staircase, carrying the platter of freshly baked cinnamon twists. Dave was left alone with Tianne, who was a virtual stranger to him. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence between them, as he was at a loss for words. Then a glimmer on her lapel caught his eye. Closer scrutiny revealed it to be an enamel pin that featured a pair of snakes intertwined around a torch, which was flanked by a pair of golden wings. Dave recognized the caduceus denoting a representative of the medical profession. Tianne informed him that it was her Angel Nurse award, for work excellence. She went on to introduce herself as chief nurse at Montefiore Medical Center. Dave finally realized why the residence was so well appointed. He wished Beth had not dashed off before making introductions.

Missy’s world was a gentle, dreamy swirl of blue and white. In a simple but clever illusion, the pastel colors blended softly in a horizontal line at the middle of each wall, suggesting a point in the heavens where the sky met the clouds. Beth found the overall effect pleasing as she turned in the room. It was decorated in a fashion typical of Missy's gender and age, but with a few exceptions. As expected, there was an abundance of cute stuffed animals, including a fluffy blue-and-white bunny rabbit and a cuddly, floppy-eared dog with a brown spot around one eye. She wandered over to the dresser, the upright part of which featured a pair of tall, oval mirrors, each ringed with pictures of cats taken from a 365-day calendar. Covering the top of the bureau was a collection of things that could be found in the bedroom of any girl, including hairbrushes, bottles of glittery fingernail polish, various bracelets, necklaces and other cheap accessories. Perched on Missy’s jewelry box was the red-haired ‘Vicki’ doll, a souvenir of their very first outing.

The girlish influence was disrupted by a large widescreen television that dominated the wall in front of the window. She could tell that it was one of the better models, featuring a crystal-clear display screen, and high definition picture quality. On the nearby bookshelf was a DVD player and a generous selection of movies, each one hand picked by Tianne. None of the titles rated higher than a PG-13, she noted with significance. For every video she could see, Beth counted at least three to four books. Judging by the well-worn condition of some titles, it was obvious Missy spent as much time indulging in the written world as she did in the cinematic. In addition, her domain was furnished with a nice stereo system that included a pair of detachable speakers, placed at opposite ends of the bookcase. A library of albums was stacked in haphazard piles on the shelves and floor.

The walls held a small gallery of posters. The one above Missy’s bed featured the computer-generated image of a paranoid squirrel sitting on a large acorn. The rodent flinched warily at some unseen danger. Another depicted a large alien head with glassy black eyes. Below the extraterrestrial, a step-sided pyramid sprouted from the lush jungle landscape while a pair of silver saucers illuminated the ruin with beams of light. The word ‘visitors’ was printed in large red letters across the bottom. That one, Beth remembered, had been a present from Joe. Suddenly it dawned on her what an impact she had on Missy’s life. The room around her contained mementos from an adoring radio station crew. Proudly framed on the desk was a certificate proclaiming Missy Miller as Rockin’ Ranger #25208. On her bookshelf, the girl’s personal library included a copy of Macho Business Donkey Wrestler, signed by Mister James. Somehow, Beth doubted that she’d actually read the literary catastrophe.

MISSY: “Good morning.”

Beth whipped around in surprise to see Missy awake, propped up on her elbows in bed.

BETH: “Happy birthday!”
MISSY: “Thanks. Did you and Dave have fun last night?”

Beth frowned. That wasn’t funny.

BETH: “I’m going to wash your mind out with soap.”
MISSY: “Just kidding!”

With a playful wink, Beth offered her a pastry from the snack tray. Then she set about rifling through the closet in search of the Miller’s camcorder. After digging around for awhile, she found it buried under a pile of clothes heaped on the floor. Beth chided Missy for not keeping her room clean in a voice that reminded the girl of her mother. This was being said as she unwrapped a brand new 8mm cassette tape and loaded the camera. Missy climbed out of bed and brushed her hair in the mirror while her babysitter double-checked the battery charge. The secretary turned on the video camera and panned it slowly around the room, narrating as she filmed. It had been awhile since Beth had operated one, and her camerawork was a little jittery. She cited the occasion, and gave the date and time along with some offhanded comments about the decor. Inspiration struck when she looked at Missy’s reflection in the mirror, and Beth repeated one of the Star Wars lines that Dave was always quoting.

BETH: “So, you have a twin sister…”

They were both laughing when the doorbell rang. Beth told her to get dressed while she checked to see who had arrived. Then, with camera in hand, the redheaded cinematographer bolted from the bedroom and flew downstairs, taking them two at a time. She raced by Dave in the foyer, intent on reaching the door first. He caught up with her a second later to find Tracy and Joe standing together outside in the cold. Beth focused her camera on the large, plainly-wrapped box they carried. She eyed it with suspicion.

BETH: “That better not be another supply of Kashi cereal. I told you, she's not a vegetarian.”
DAVE: “Hi, Joe, Tracy.”
TRACY: “Yeah, guess I was just preaching to the choir on that one.”
JOE: “Hey, Dave. What’s up?”
TRACY: “Guess what? Joe believes in psychics now.”
BETH: “Gee, I wonder how that happened?”
JOE: “I’ll tell you how it happened! It started last night when we rocked the bedposts!”
BETH: “Joe… Let’s keep it PG. There are going to be kids here, today.”
DAVE: “You slept with Mister James' niece?”
TRACY: “Hardly.”
JOE: “Whaaat?

Tracy shoved the box into his arms with a triumphant smile, enjoying the stupefied look on the electrician’s face. Joe stared, awestruck, at the woman he’d been dating, as if seeing her for the very first time. When he finally came to his senses, he asked her the burning question, his litmus test for compatibility. It was the one that he judged the worth of all women by.

JOE: “Do you believe in aliens?”
TRACY: “Please. Is America the largest experimental society in the world?”
JOE: “Definitely. Why do you think Big Brother is hiding the truth from us?”
TRACY: “Because our self-destructive tendencies would endanger the very existence of the human race as we know it.”
JOE: “Man… I am so in love with you.”
TRACY: “You’re an idiot.”

Tianne invited the new arrivals to the main room, where they were setting up for the party. Joe followed Tracy, marveling that he’d found the perfect woman, a feat that he promised his buddies he would accomplish someday. But while his head was in the clouds, his eyes were glued to her firm backside. Then, with uncanny psychic intuition that didn’t even require a look back, Tracy issued him a warning.

TRACY: “Touch my ass, and I’ll kill you.”

Beth shook her head sadly, and watched them go.

BETH: “He has no idea what he’s in for.”
DAVE: “Neither does she.”
BETH: “Tracy’s a big girl, she can take care of herself.”
DAVE: “Who’s going to take care of you?”
BETH: “You, duh.”

He detected the hint of a naughty smile on her face. Then he was sure of it as Beth trailed her fingers along his neck, sparking a thrill that raced through his body from head to toe. Her eyes narrowed in a way that made her look both sexy and mean at the same time. Dave suddenly had the feeling that she was after more than just a kiss. It was hardly the time or place, but who was he to argue? He briefly wondered what had brought about her lusty behavior, but his concern was quickly forgotten as he succumbed to Beth's tender lips. Her touch was warm and soft, sweet and intoxicating. She was like a drug that he couldn’t resist, and he craved her with a dangerous addiction. Their kiss was so intense that they almost didn’t hear the persistent voice call out from the top of the stairs. It was Missy, proving once again that all good things must come to an end.

MISSY: “Come on, save it for the honeymoon!”

They pulled back with embarrassment. Beth quickly pretended to adjust the focus on the camcorder while Dave inspected a nearby painting with sudden interest. Neither of them wanted to acknowledge that getting caught by Missy was becoming somewhat of a habit, and an annoying one at that. Cheerfully oblivious to their discomfort, the birthday girl ran down the staircase wearing a blue shirt, jeans, and orange canvas sneakers. Beth noticed that her hair was tied up in ponytails, a look that she’d never seen before.

BETH: “Your mom wants to see you in the living room. I think she has a surprise, or something.”
MISSY: “Thanks.”
BETH: “Oh, and if you ever do that again, I will torture you.”

Missy ran off, laughing.

DAVE: “Does her mom really have a present in there?”
BETH: “No, I just said that to get rid of her. Now, about that kiss…”

But before they could resume their endeavor, somebody rapped loudly on the front door. It was probably kids arriving for the party, they figured. Beth checked her watch with a grimace. They were awfully early. She told Dave to go help the others while she welcomed the first guests. The news director sighed with hastiness, and disappeared. Beth switched on the video camera and opened the door with a smile, only to find the birthday clown smoking on the front porch. He readjusted his crotch with a hand, took a drag on the cigarette, and blew a cloud of smoke in her face. Beth silently cursed Tianne, who had hired the clown in spite of her protests. Now she was left holding the bag.

Copro the Clown (according to the patch on his chest) weaved as if he’d just rolled out of a bar. Beth thought he looked like a bum in a sorry clown costume. His outfit consisted of a blue jumpsuit that could have doubled as a prison uniform, oversized rubber shoes with mirrors taped on the toes, and a ratty green wig that looked like it had been fished out of a garbage compactor. The man’s badly unshaven face was painted with clown makeup that ran down his neck in streaks where he’d been sweating. For some reason, he wore hastily smudged lipstick and eyeliner that bore an uncanny resemblance to shoe polish. The cosmetic massacre was a weak attempt at disguising his vapid, bloodshot eyes. In the center of his forehead, Beth noticed an Anarchy tattoo. Wonderful. She would’ve bet anybody fifty bucks that he had a flask on him, as well. The crowning jewel of Copro’s ensemble was a pitifully sagging, half-inflated clutch of balloons emblazoned with vulgar profanities.

Beth shuddered visibly. She’d hated clowns all of her life, and wanted absolutely nothing to do with them. Confronted now by a particularly depraved specimen, she was on full alert. But before she could inquire about his less than professional condition, Copro took out a bicycle horn and squeezed off a series of honks that sounded more like a goose being hammered with a golf club. The disheveled clown peered over her shoulder, expecting a group of eager kids to come running at the sound. Probably some kind of child molester, Beth thought as she blocked his vision with a threatening glare. Somewhere beneath the red nose and flaking white face paint, the redhead conceded, was a human being who had irretrievably lost his dignity.

In an effort to politely be rid of him, she lied, explaining that they had mistakenly booked another clown in advance. She made it clear that they had no use for his services. With a drunken sneer, the clown insulted her in a gritty voice that belonged to a truck driver more than a children’s entertainer.

COPRO: “Bite me, red. I have ten more gigs after this one, so gimme’ my paycheck and we’ll call it square. Otherwise, I can do this all day long.”

He pushed the horn in her face and honked five notes in rapid succession. Out of sheer mercy, Beth gave the disrespectful clown an ultimatum before she went bitchcakes on him.

BETH: “You’ve got five seconds to get your ass off my lawn, or I’m going to be all over you like white on rice on a paper plate in a snowstorm.”

Copro responded with a hand gesture not normally associated with clowns. It was his last mistake. Without flinching, Beth kicked him in the groin and shoved him roughly off the porch. She watched the demented circus performer honk and jingle as he tumbled down the concrete steps, and fancied that she heard a bone snap. The helium-filled balloons, now freed from his grip, drifted into the sky and disappeared with perversion. Beth followed him to make sure he got the message. The outraged redhead jammed the horn down the back of his pants and kicked him in the ass, producing a warbling, off-key sound. The clown jumped as the instrument shattered under the impact. He slipped on a patch of dry leaves, and went down on shards of broken plastic. Copro came back to his feet instantly, howling in pain. He hobbled to his JOY UNLIMITED van and crawled inside. The vehicle roared to life and sped out of the driveway, with Copro the Clown spouting obscenities all the way.

Back inside, the fledgling crew of WNYX had worked overtime in Beth’s absence. Throughout the house, balloons and colored streamers danced over doorways and floated along the ceiling. Dave was helping Missy select the party music while Joe and Tracy strung a ‘Happy Birthday!’ banner across the far wall of the living room. The birthday girl emphatically held up two CDs, contrary to the news director’s protests that a single Spice Girls album would suffice. Dave finally conceded when Tianne informed him that he was fighting a losing battle. Seeing how it was Missy’s birthday, and they were her favorite group, she intended to have it her way. The secretary took up her camcorder and resumed filming. Beth documented the birthday preparations until something in the next room caught her eye. She moved on to investigate.

With leaves fully extended, the dinner table had been transformed into a sprawling buffet. A white linen cloth served as the backdrop for a mouthwatering assortment of food. Beth saw plates piled high with sandwiches, bags of potato chips, and six different brands of soda with cups of ice at the ready. The punch bowl, a longtime staple of social gatherings, had been multiplied threefold for the big day. Beverages included strawberry fruit punch, tea, and lime green Kool-Aid. A number of empty pizza pans awaited their purpose. The cake was positioned prominently in the center of the table. Beth could see that it was chocolate marble with white frosting. Green, yellow, and blue ribbons of confectionary paste were swirled in lavish patterns around the edges. As if the sugary masterpiece wasn’t a work of art unto itself, the top had been airbrushed with a portrait of Missy, in edible dye. Zooming in with the camcorder, Beth was amazed by the likeness.

TIANNE: “What do you think of it?”
BETH: “It’s beautiful.”
TIANNE: “It should be. It’s a Sylvia Weinstock original. Weighs about fifteen pounds, too.”

She consulted her wristwatch.

TIANNE: “Where is that clown? He should have been here by now.”
BETH: “Oh, I almost forgot. He called earlier to say he couldn’t make it.”
TIANNE: “Why not?”
BETH: “Groin pull.”
TIANNE: “That bad?”
BETH: “Clowning is dangerous business.”
TIANNE: “Well, I’m sure Missy will understand.”
BETH: “Trust me, she’ll thank you later.”
TIANNE: “For what?”
BETH: “Uh, nevermind. On the plus side, you won’t have to pay him.”

Guests began arriving within the hour, and by noon the place was in full swing. The partygoers dispelled in an unconscious, but preferential hierarchy. The parents congregated in the kitchen and front den, while their kids gathered in the living room to be near the music and food. Beth estimated there were six to eight girls present, each about Missy’s age. They huddled around Missy on the far side of the room, chatting like they probably did at school recess everyday. Once in awhile they would sneak a quick glance in her direction, and then break into giddy laughter as if they knew some big secret. Dave found the attention cute, but annoying, while Beth had the uneasy feeling that her love life was being discussed. She imagined Missy giving her friends a vivid, tell-all description of what she'd witnessed the day before. The group erupted into another fit laughter, driving her to seek the protective sanctity of the dining room.

Following her, Dave looked on as Beth hastily rearranged the plastic forks and spoons into neat piles on the table. The redhead was clearly upset. She insinuated that Missy’s friends knew about their love affair, and that’s why they were laughing at her. She grew quiet when a sweet-looking blonde-haired girl joined them at the table. The teen waved briefly, and proceeded to make a plate of chips. Her glasses slipped down the bridge of her nose when she leaned over, and she pushed them back up with a finger. Beth coughed with impatience, earning a disapproving scowl from her boyfriend. Dave handed the girl a napkin from the other side of the table, and she thanked him before leaving. When they resumed their conversation, Beth protested being a subject of ridicule for a bunch of kids. Dave pointed out that the girl had barely noticed them, and reminded her that they were at a party. Beth frowned as he helped himself to a slice of cake. She slammed a box of straws forcefully on the table, and stalked away.

Dave shrugged. He wasn’t going to let her bad mood ruin the day. With plate in hand, he moved away from the table and found a quiet place in the corner to enjoy his cake. As he began to eat, he suddenly had the feeling that somebody was watching him. Dave scanned the room until he noticed one of Missy’s friends looking at him intently. She was a pretty girl, with full, dark brown hair that fell below her shoulders. Although she couldn’t have been much older than twelve, she bore an eerie resemblance to Lisa. The teenage girl dressed like a punk rocker, wearing a Kids In The Hall shirt and ratty green cargo pants, black canvas sneakers, and a ton of bracelets on each arm. Dave preoccupied himself with his cake, trying to ignore her openly inquisitive stare. Maybe Beth was right, he thought. Maybe they did know something. It was an unsettling notion. He was about to leave when the girl strode toward him with single-minded purpose. Dave’s heart pounded with dread as she approached. Then, unexpectedly, she offered him a bag of candy marked Frooties.

TONI: “Try one, they’re really good.”

Dave set his plate down with reluctance. He accepted a few candies from her, mainly out of politeness. Extending a hand in friendship, Toni introduced herself. The news director blinked in momentary confusion. The girl’s arrival had taken him by such surprise that he’d nearly forgotten how to respond. As they shook hands, Dave thought it strange to accord this teenager the same degree of respect normally reserved for Mr. James. But it made perfect sense, he reasoned. She was just being nice, so there was no reason to treat her otherwise. He tried to let go but she held on for a few more seconds, finally relinquishing her grip with a squeeze of affection. Toni smiled coyly. Her deep brown eyes glittered with sultry naïveté. Dave was stunned to realize that the teenage girl seemed to be attracted to him.

TONI: “You’re kind of cute, you know that? I also like your eyes. They say a lot about you.”
DAVE: “Uh, thank you… I think.”
TONI: “Can I give you some advice? Don’t spend so much time on your career that you forget how to enjoy life.”
DAVE: “Excuse me?”
TONI: “You really need to relax, Dave.”
DAVE: “How do you know my name?”
TONI: “I just know, and that should be enough for you.”

She drifted away before he could say anything, disappearing into the crowd as though she had never existed. Dave shivered. The encounter disturbed him at a level too deep for words. At once, he was struck by the peculiar feeling that he had encountered an omniscient being. The girl seemed to possess uncharacteristic patience and a demeanor of passive certainty, as if she knew the secrets of the universe itself, but just didn’t care to share them at the moment. Who knows? Maybe it was too much trouble. Strangely, Dave liked her. He was glad they had met.

Moments later, Beth returned with her best friend, and Joe. They had been in the kitchen making pizza for lunch when the two got into an argument. Dave looked at the empty pizza box that Tracy carried, and wondered what was going on. She waved it as she spoke, explaining that she’d had a pet theory for the past couple of years. Joe was the cause of the problem, she said, because he disagreed with her, and Beth was no help because she couldn’t make up her mind one way or the other. They needed an unbiased outsider’s opinion to settle the debate which, according to her, was one of aesthetics over context. Seeking validation, she thrust forward the pizza box that depicted a mustachioed aviator in a red scarf.

TRACY: “Doesn’t the Red Baron look like Tom Selleck?”

Joe crossed his arms, and shook his head with firm denial. The two women looked on expectantly, waiting for the news director's assessment. Dave marveled at the stupidity of the notion. If he hadn’t heard it from Tracy with his own ears, he would have sworn the idea had come from Matthew. Thus, Dave answered accordingly.

DAVE: “Ever been bitch-slapped?”

Tianne interrupted the discussion to say that they were needed for the party. The group followed their hostess to find that everybody had gathered in the living room. In the middle of the floor was an accumulation of birthday presents, all stacked neatly in a pile. Tianne started by thanking everybody for coming, and then announced that they were opening the gifts early because some people had to leave soon. Several of the parents checked their timepieces, nodding with agreement. Then she led the group in a rendition of Happy Birthday that was endured with a grain of salt by a blushing Missy, who knew that she was too old for such nonsense but appreciative just the same.

When the song had concluded, Beth dutifully raised the camcorder as Tracy handed out the first present, a large box wrapped in plain brown paper. Moments later, the crowd erupted into cheers when the red-haired birthday girl uncovered a JamesTech personal notebook computer. Missy was truly staggered by the extravagant prize. She never expected to receive something so cool and, more obviously, expensive. Tracy clarified that it was a gift from both her and Mr. James, who had founded a computer division of Jimmy James Incorporated before retiring and moving to New Hampshire. Missy threw her arms around the female bodybuilder with joy, and then went on to hug Dave, Joe, and Tianne while all of her school friends applauded with delight.

Beth watched these events through the camera lens, feeling like a distant observer. There was laughter and cheering, people clapping. But she heard none of it. For her, there was an overwhelming silence, as if some omnipotent force had suddenly muted all sound in the world. She was only vaguely aware of Missy, standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by friends and family who loved her. Beth lowered the video camera and stared into space, unconsciously filming the carpet. In deep introspection, she looked at the wall, through the wall, without really seeing it. Then something changed inside of her. It was the sudden realization of a longing that she never knew existed: Dave. His love and support was more real to her than anything she had ever known. She knew that she would do anything to have it, even if it meant leaving the very person whom she loved most. Beth sighed with startling acceptance. She knew that her time with Missy was finished. Now it was time to focus on her own life, her own happiness.

Beth found him sitting on the front porch at the bottom of the steps, and wondered how long he’d been there. Dave moved over as she came and sat down beside him. They were silent for a long time, both lost in their own thoughts. The shadows in the yard grew dark and cold as night approached. The trees were like inky black roots that snaked into the pale sky, desperate for the warmth of the sun. All was quiet around them, save for the muted sound of traffic on the highway somewhere in the distance. The young woman dared a glance at the man beside her. Their eyes met for an instant before quickly averting from each other’s gaze. It was ridiculous, she thought. They had known each other for years, fallen completely and hopelessly in love, had even shared a bed together, and yet they were acting like a pair of nervous teenagers on their first date. She finally decided to break the ice.

BETH: “It was a nice party.”
DAVE: “Yes, it was.”

They grew quiet again. Beth shivered with apprehension, wondering if he felt the same way as she. Dave noticed her shaking, and suspected that her condition wasn’t entirely due to the falling temperature. She was nervous, and he could feel it, too. He wanted to tell Beth how much he loved her, that he wanted to keep her, and that nothing was more important in the whole world than being with her. All of these things he wanted to say at once, but the words just stuck in his throat. He couldn’t get them out; didn’t know how to say them. Instead, the news director took off his coat and draped it over her shoulders to keep her warm. Beth smiled with gratitude, and pulled the coat around her. As she did, a piece of paper fell from the pocket and landed face down at her feet. She leaned over to pick it up, but a sharp gust of wind carried it off. The paper skipped across the lawn, tumbling over the blanket of dry leaves.

Beth jumped to her feet and gave chase. Dave steeled himself as he watched the woman’s flight. This was it. He stood, seemingly frozen in time, as the world moved on in slow motion. The overcoat swirled behind her like a cape as Beth’s long red hair danced like electrical sparks in the dusky twilight. Her arms sliced cleanly through the air, and her legs flexed with each stride, smoothly propelling her toward her destiny. Dave’s heart leaped as she finally pinned the paper to the ground with her foot. Beth crouched in the middle of the yard to retrieve the note. She unfolded it as she rose up again, and was surprised to find a blank WNYX memo sheet. No. She looked again. There was something on it, she realized. Beth lifted the paper to the waning sunlight, squinting as she tried to make out the printed message. It was nearly unreadable in the encroaching darkness. Her heart skipped a beat when she read the words upon it: ‘WILL YOU MARRY ME?’

As Beth turned to look back at Dave, who stood alone at the bottom of the steps, the very last rays of daylight illuminated her head like a fiery halo. The moment was fleeting, and then the sun was gone. It melted into the horizon, leaving a wash of orange and crimson in its wake. The warm aura faded, and bled into delicate blue, purple, and finally blackness as the sky curved away from the earth. One by one the stars began to appear, tentatively at first, then brightening with intensity and exploding into infinite points of luminescent fire as night blanketed the landscape. Beth found that she could only nod with emotion as tears of happiness flowed from her eyes like rivers of pearl. She ran to Dave and hugged him tightly as the windborne leaves flew around them.

BETH: “Oh, Dave. My whole life, until now, was merely prelude to this wonderful moment…”
DAVE: “I love you.”
BETH: “I know. I love you, too.”

She looked into his eyes.

BETH: “I had a long talk with my mom this morning… I told her I met the man that I was going to spend the rest of my life with.”
DAVE: “You did?”
BETH: “Yes, and do you know what she said?”
DAVE: “What?”
BETH: “She told me that he’s going to marry a beautiful girl named Beth Randall.”
DAVE: “She sounds perfect.”
BETH: “Well, she’s not. But she’ll try to be, for as long as you’ll have her.”

Dave replied with a single word, the one Beth had been waiting a lifetime to hear.

DAVE: “Forever.”

They kissed passionately. Above them, a star fell from its place in the heavens and flashed across the night sky, vanishing into eternity. Beth pulled back from him and tilted her head in question.

BETH: “What does the Workplace Ethics Manual say about office dating?”
DAVE: “I don’t know… I tore that page out a long time ago.”

When they came back inside, Beth learned that Missy had fallen asleep, exhausted from her eventful day. She stood for a moment in the bedroom doorway upstairs, watching the girl sleep soundly in her bed. The screen glow of the notebook computer illuminated her freckled young face. Beth moved into the room and stood by the bed, gazing at Missy with affection as she remembered all of the good times they had shared. She reached over and pulled the covers up so the girl would be warm throughout the night. Beth froze as Missy reached her arm out from under the sheets and brushed a strand of curly orange hair away from her nose. Then she rolled over on her side and continued to sleep. The receptionist kissed her on the forehead and whispered goodbye. She walked over to the desk and shut the computer screen with a soft click, then removed a note from her pocket and set it nearby. Beth quietly left the room and closed the door behind her.


Beth and Dave were married the following month in Dallas, Texas. They pledged their vows in front of their friends from New Hampshire, who had flown in to attend the ceremony. Tracy and Lisa both served as bridesmaids at Beth's wedding, with Joe Garrelli as Dave’s best man, and Max Louis as the ring-bearer. Jimmy James cried for three straight hours that day.

With financial support from Mr. James, Dave started his own a.m. radio station in Granbury, while Beth returned to school and became a teacher. A year and half later, she gave birth to their first child, a little girl with flaming red hair like her mother’s. Beth named her daughter Mystic, but called her ‘Missy’ for short. The girl was the greatest joy she and her husband had ever known.


Special thanks to Toni, for being such a great friend and for helping me over the bump with Jimmy’s 3-D glasses; Michelle Mills, for putting up with my incessant NewsRadio quotes and writing while I was on the time clock. Thanks for not reporting me, boss! Kudos to Garland Roberts, for coining the term 'full waif mode', an irresistible descriptor; Meg, who supported the Dave/Beth relationship on the Message Board. Thank you for believing in me. My sincerest appreciation goes to the writers and actors of NewsRadio, for giving us the most brilliantly hilarious and perfect TV show ever made, and the many hours of delight we find in watching it. Finally, I would like to thank my dedicated readers for their encouragement and good wishes. I hope you’ve enjoyed the story as much as I have.

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Written by: Dale Dassel / 2003
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