When you think everything’s okay and everything’s going right
And life has a funny way of helping you out when
You think everything’s gone wrong and everything blows up in your face
Ironic — Alanis Morissette
New York City
The rain-soaked blacktop glowed like a dark mirror, reflecting the shadows of nearly eight million people. Its surface bred an acrid mix of steam and smoke that haunted the streets like a poisonous ghost, while taxicabs ribboned the depths of great labyrinth in yellow. Their headlamps blistered the wet ground with straps of light that illuminated the urban landscape. But the dismal twilight could not shroud the furious race of mortality taking place upon it, people thriving on carelessness as they hurried from one day to the next without considering what they were doing in the first place. It was remarkable in a society of such multitude, that so few possessed the foresight to look beyond the horizon. They found it easier to stick to personal routines and not worry about their fate. Maybe they didn’t care, but maybe they didn’t want to.
Lisa Miller dashed through the rain along with the rest of them, but for a very different reason: she was being followed. She managed to hold onto the small box tucked beneath her arm without losing it. Her behavior wasn’t out of place in the frenetic pool of energy that seemed to drive the city, and nobody stopped to help her. They didn’t know that a stranger had relentlessly shadowed her for three blocks in the rain, despite her best efforts to lose them. So far she had managed to stay ahead of her pursuer, but Lisa wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep it up. She was cold, tired, and wet. Eventually she would have to stop running, and when she did, he would catch her.
As Lisa negotiated the crammed sidewalks, an irrational part of her mind reviewed how she had come into such a state of solitary desperation. At 40, she had realized most of her career goals, but her days of work in radio journalism had become a monotonous sludge of existence, the months and years pooling together in a dismal soup. With each passing day, she could almost feel the hands of time wheeling their endless path around the clock of eternity, and with every continual week of rain her outlook darkened along with the weather.
In the late 90’s, Lisa was at the top of her game. She was the supervising producer of WNYX, and one of the most respected radio news anchors in New York City. But that was before Jimmy James sold the station and retired. She jumped at the chance to manage his media empire in rural New Hampshire, a move that allowed her to realize her longtime goal of becoming a news director. Of course that involved ripping up the roots she had established in New York, but Lisa was a careerwoman first and foremost, and she always acted in her own best interest. Her intuition was usually reliable, but she had paid the price for her impulsiveness before. Her marriage was a good example.
Things were good for awhile, but she couldn’t hold everything together herself, and Lord knows she’d tried. Between running Jimmy’s newspaper and managing the station, Lisa made regular trips back to New York to visit her husband in prison. After a year or so, it was apparent that Johnny didn’t care if he ever got out. The problem was that he was so damned optimistic about everything, particularly being a model prisoner. Much like the corporate vice president he’d played in the heyday of his career, Johnny Johnson was happiest when he was on top of the world, even an incarcerated one. He seemed content to spend his days making license plates, convinced that he was playing a vital role in the community.
With each visit, Lisa watched her once-adored husband grow more and more detached from her, like some crazy, license plate-making Boy Scout, until her presence in his life diminished beyond hope. When that happened, she told him goodbye and filed for an annulment. It was the only sensible thing to do. Ever irrepressible, Johnny had been fine with her decision, saying that she had to do whatever made her happy. Lisa was crushed by how lightly he seemed to take the news, especially when it had been one of the hardest decisions of her life. But she was glad when it was all over. She would have turned to Dave for support, but she hadn’t spoken to him since Beth’s wedding, and she understood why. He never forgave her for marrying Johnny, and she couldn’t blame him. But that had been her decision, and she had to suffer the consequences.
Six years later found Lisa back in New York, much wiser than the misguided reporter who had married a drunken wino, and followed an eccentric billionaire and his band of radio misfits to New Hampshire. Those days were far behind her, and only returned to haunt her when she slipped into lapses of sentimental reverie. But Lisa didn’t like to dwell on it anymore. The pain of lost friendships and love faded with each passing year, only to be replaced by a different kind of sadness, one that withered her with remorse. At night, the guilt settled over her like a dark veil, and plagued her dreams with doubt. In spite of all of her potential, Lisa had wasted her chance to make a mark on the world, and now it was too late. Then there were the headaches, a physical side-effect of her grief. She hadn’t been able to find a cure for that one yet.
Suddenly an arm shot out in front of her, and Lisa dropped her package with a startled yell, thinking she had been caught. She twisted her body to bolt away when she realized that the sidewalk had ended. The crossing sign above glowed DON’T WALK in crimson defiance. Another few steps would have put her in the flow of traffic. She retrieved the fallen parcel and thanked the lady who stopped her, a woman with auburn hair that made her think of Beth. The woman frowned in disapproval but Lisa just turned away, listening as the rain tapped a plastic rhythm on the forest of umbrellas and passing taxicabs. The gentle shower was short-lived, though. Within seconds, the soft drizzle became a rumbling staccato that hammered the pavement with a fusillade of wet bullets. Lisa turned up the collar of her leather jacket and cursed the Atlantic hurricane season as the storm soaked her long brown hair.
As she stood wet and shivering on the corner of Third Avenue, the world began to vanish in a misty white haze. Lisa removed her glasses and wiped the lenses on the inside of her sleeve, wanting nothing more than to be at home in bed, sleeping a deep and dreamless sleep while the weather tortured the world outside. Then the hairs on her neck prickled with apprehension as she felt the presence of the watcher nearby. Lisa quickly replaced her eyewear and peered across the avenue, where a dozen people waited in the relentless downpour. She scanned the crowd with growing unease. The rain made it difficult to see, and her glasses began to fog up again. Lisa’s heart fluttered weakly, and she thought she might faint.
A long, agonizing moment passed. Lisa blinked uncertainly when nothing happened. The rain continued to fall steadily, and the people around her huddled under their umbrellas, afraid of nothing more than getting wet. Lisa allowed herself to relax. She felt foolish and embarrassed. Here she was, a fully grown woman, running from shadows like she was in some kind of a paranoid fantasy. Nobody was after her, she told herself. Then an arm went up on the other side of the street, and the blood shot through Lisa’s veins like cold lightning. He was right there.
The stranger was of medium height, bundled in a long overcoat with a thick scarf wrapped around the lower half of their face, and a pair of earmuffs protecting them from the dismal conditions. The clothing effectively hid the person’s identity, but she didn’t have long to think about it. The light changed, and the pedestrian masses flowed together in the street like ocean swells. As Lisa was pulled along like a piece of driftwood, she tried to convince herself that it was all in her imagination. They were probably hailing a taxicab, or waving at somebody else. But she didn’t really believe it. Deep down inside, she knew they were after her.
Directly ahead, Lisa could see the mysterious figure striding toward her with such singleminded purpose that it removed all doubts. She slowed with trepidation, her shoes dragging like blocks of lead as each one propelled her toward the inevitable encounter. As they drew closer, Lisa noticed a wave of long, silky walnut hair billowing around the person’s shoulders, and she realized with relief that it was a woman. She was hypnotized by the sparkle of life in her soft gray irises. They radiated kindness, yet projected a strange mix of sadness and respect that stopped Lisa cold in her tracks. She was frozen by wariness and expectation as the woman loosened her scarf with an elegant hand. Then the world around her went unfocused, the swarm of passing bodies evaporated into insignificance as the knitted wrap fell away to reveal the face of an angel.
“Lisa Miller, I presume?”
“Yes?” said Lisa, shivering in the rain.
“Cutest reporter in New York?”
Lisa winced. “Once upon a time, yes.”
“My name is Jaimee Patterson. I’m a journalism student at Boston University, and I’d like to interview you for a project if that’s okay. Can we go somewhere and talk?”
The girl hugged herself in the downpouring rain and twisted her body from side to side, nervously awaiting Lisa’s answer. She had a complexion of soft pearl, with a touch of rose on her cheeks, and fine, dark eyebrows that accentuated the intensity of her granite eyes. Lisa squinted at the younger woman, as if trying to locate a flaw in a work of art. She wasn’t a deranged stalker or psychopath, she realized, just a hopeful young student with aspirations for a career in broadcasting. For some reason Lisa felt oddly disappointed.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for this.” she finally declared, and sidestepped the girl.
“Please wait!” begged Jaimee with a note of desperation in her voice. “It wasn’t exactly easy for me to come see you today.”
Lisa turned back. “Why?”
“I have a condition known as gephydrophobia.”
Lisa tried to remember the meaning of the term, but came up hopelessly blank. For the first time in her life, her education failed her. “What does that mean?” she relented, hating herself for having to ask.
“I can’t cross bridges.”
“And you came here to see me all the way from Boston?”
“That’s a long way to go for a school project.”
“It’s very important,” the girl added as drivers blared their horns impatiently.
“We’d better cross,” advised Lisa.
The pair quickly moved out of the street as the light went green, and found themselves in front of a fancy men’s shoe store where they ducked beneath the awning to get out of the rain. Lisa leaned forward and tried to brush some of the water from her hair with her free hand as Jaimee looked on awkwardly.
“Don’t you have an umbrella?” she asked, pretending to look at the shoes in the warmly lit window.
“I left it at home,” Lisa confessed. “I didn’t think it was going to rain this hard today.”
“I’m sorry if I frightened you, but you ran away so fast that I had trouble catching up. I should have called first to arrange a meeting, but I was kind of in a hurry,” explained the student.
That would have saved me a lot of trouble, Lisa thought, but said, “Don’t worry about it. There’s no harm done that can’t be fixed with a blow dryer and a towel.”
The girl sighed with visible relief. She didn’t want to alienate her prospective interview subject.
“I’ll give you one thing,” added Lisa, returning to their first conversation. “You have persistence, and that’s one of the most important qualities for a journalist to have.”
“Thank you,” she said, with true gratitude.
Lisa turned her head as a bell chimed nearby, and a couple abruptly exited the store. Jaimee deftly tried to sidestep them, but was not quick enough. She accidentally clipped the man with her elbow, causing him to swear irritably. He called her a dirty name, and told her to watch where she was going. The woman gave the flustered coed a nasty smirk in support of her boyfriend’s rudeness. Lisa scowled after them. “Bastard.” she muttered under her breath.
“Don’t worry, sometimes that happens in Boston, too.” Jaimee reasoned.
Lisa blushed. “Sorry, I guess that was louder than I thought. Are you hungry?”
“Me, too. Let’s get something to eat.” said Lisa, pointing to a nearby cafe.
Seated at a window booth in Epiphany’s Edge, they enjoyed the cozy atmosphere while the storm pelted the outside glass with cold rain. Jaimee finally had the opportunity to take in Lisa’s appearance, and it wasn’t anything like she had expected. In the journalistic papers, Lisa Miller always dressed with professionalism, but the woman across the table looked like she might have been on her way to the gas station for cigarettes. She wore faded jeans and a black leather jacket with a distinctly lived-in look. Under it was a light gray shirt emblazoned with a pirate flag that featured a skull and crossed swords beside a clutch of dark palm trees, and the word Rum Runners in ragged lettering. Lisa’s feet were laced into a slick pair of black leather Converse Hi-tops that most women her age wouldn’t dream of wearing. On her face Lisa sported a pair of dark, thick-rimmed eyeglasses in contrast to the tastefully minimalist wire-frames pictured in her resumé profile. This current style of dress undermined her integrity as a newswoman, Jaimee thought. But Lisa Miller was the subject of her paper, regardless of how she presented herself.
Both women looked up as the waiter arrived at their table with a pair of menus, which he placed before them along with bundles of wrapped silverware. “Good evening, ladies. Can I offer you something to drink before you order?” the man asked pleasantly.
“I’ll have tea,” said Jaimee, taking a menu.
“Coffee, black without sugar.” Lisa answered before he could repeat the question.
“Very good,” he said, and hurried away. When he was out of sight, Lisa unrolled the cloth napkin from her dinner utensils and began to dry her hair with it.
“I like your shirt,” Jaimee pointed out, not knowing what else to say as she watched the award-winning journalist tend to herself like a homeless person.
“Thank you. It’s my favorite,” admitted Lisa, compressing the linen to the back of her head. “So, are you just in town for the week?”
Jaimee nodded. “I’m staying at the Skyline Hotel.”
“Too bad the weather couldn’t be nicer.”
“Hurricane season. It’s just this time of year,” the girl said with a dismissive wave.
“Which one are we on?” asked Lisa.
“Irene. It’s currently 75 miles southeast of here.” Then she smiled self-consciously. “Now I probably sound more like a meteorologist than a journalist.”
“Listen, I have to tell you something before we continue,” Lisa said, but the waiter returned before she could finish.
They quickly skimmed the menu as their drinks were placed on the table. Lisa ordered steak with a baked potato, hot buttered rolls, and peas with baby onions. Jaimee selected a large bowl of tomato soup for herself, and a dinner salad with ranch dressing and croutons. After their host departed, Lisa continued. “I’m not in radio anymore. I’m a courier for a global shipping company called Pangaeascape,” she said, patting the damp box on the seat beside her.
The student’s face registered a note of surprise, but she quickly recovered. “That will make an interesting footnote for my paper.”
“What is it about, anyway?” Lisa pressed.
“The decline of the radio broadcast industry in today’s digital world,” she recited. The subject alone was a mouthful.
“And why do you want to be a reporter?”
Jaimee’s eyes lit with excitement. “The media is so biased these days, and it’s not a secret. Most people aren’t aware that information presented as the truth is tainted. Facts are distorted to serve the credibility of the news agency, and the public is constantly being misled. I believe that one honest journalist can make a difference, and that’s why I’m here.”
“Which brings me to my next question.” Lisa said.
“I learned about you through Professor Walker,” Jaimee anticipated. “He said that you were one of his best students.”
“Really?“ Lisa said, appearing more than a little surprised.
“When I proposed the idea for my term paper, Professor Walker recommended you for an interview, and told me how to find you.”
Lisa nodded as everything started to make sense. In college, her favorite instructor had seen more than just the bright young overachiever on the surface. In Lisa Miller, the professor found an idealistic student who wasn’t afraid to challenge journalistic trends. She fervently believed that reporters could never go too far in their search for the truth, and that unflinching honesty was the highest ideal to which they should hold themselves.
But Walker opened her eyes to the sad truth, that while most reporters were driven by the goal to succeed, they weren’t opposed to bending the facts to their advantage—exactly the same thing Jaimee was talking about now. The bottom line was that news reporters who failed to deliver were overlooked for more reliable sources, which motivated them to do anything to succeed. If this young woman aspired to walk the same line that collegiate Lisa had chosen to follow, then she would do whatever was necessary to help.
“I also heard about the lemon drop incident,” Jaimee added with a smile.
Lisa raised an eyebrow at the mention of the infamous stunt. She threaded her fingers together and looked straight at Jaimee, her lips forming the slightest hint of amusement. “Yeah, well I was feeling a little spiteful that day,” she reminisced.
Lisa went on to relate the story of how she had switched the bowl of lemon drops on the professor’s desk for a batch of Atomic Warheads candies in retaliation for what she considered to be an unfairly graded exam. In doing so, she inadvertently started what later became a tradition at Boston U, executed at least once a year by freshmen displeased with Walker’s strict grading system. The prank didn’t improve her marks on the test, but the instructor was more reticent to use the red pen on future assignments.
When Lisa had finished her tale, Jaimee was covering her mouth with both hands to keep from laughing out loud. “Oh my God, I can’t believe you did that!”
“It made me very famous for awhile,” Lisa concluded, eager to move on with things. “But why interview me? I’m sure there are other people who have a better perspective on the industry than I do.”
“You are the only person from WNYX who will to talk to me,” the student replied, taking a microcassette recorder from her purse. “Everybody else that I contacted seemed to be too busy.” She looked up with sudden guilt. “Do you mind? It makes transcribing easier.”
“Not at all.”
“Good. My hand will thank me later,” Jaimee grinned as she pulled a one-subject notebook out of her bag and flipped it open. Lisa could see her list of questions written in precise handwriting down the page. She admired the girl’s professionalism. “I’d like to start with your background, if that’s okay.”
“That’s fine,” Lisa said in approval. “Fire away.”
They passed the next hour over dinner talking about everything from high school, to what led her into radio journalism. When asked what other career considerations she had before deciding on her chosen profession, Jaimee was more than a little surprised to find that Lisa had considered studying medicine in Chicago, and becoming a nurse or doctor. She called it an impulsive decision, and remarked that she had learned not to trust those too much anymore.
At the beginning of her tenure at WNYX, Lisa admitted to putting in 12-hour days, nights, and weekends in a bid for promotional advancement, but it backfired when the station owner picked a fresh-faced kid from Wisconsin to be the news director, the job that rightfully should have been hers. It would be another five years before she would realize her goal, and by then it was too late.
After that, Jaimee had to know what caused her to abandon such a successful career. Lisa explained that after she came back from New Hampshire, things were not the same. The station was under different management, she didn’t know anybody, and she couldn’t work there anymore.
When the check finally arrived, it caught them both by surprise. “Ooh, I didn’t realize how late it is!” marveled Jaimee, looking at her watch. It was a quarter past nine.
“That’s okay,” said Lisa, pulling some cash out of her wallet.
“I can get that!” the girl protested, reaching for her own purse.
“No, it’s my treat. Really,” Lisa insisted, placing the money into the receipt fold. “It’s been very interesting. We’ll have to do this again sometime.” Then she had a better idea. “Would you like to ride with me tomorrow?”
“On your deliveries? That would be great!” Jaimee smiled enthusiastically.
“I’ll pick you up at the hotel in the morning. How is nine o’clock?” Lisa stood and grabbed the box that she had been carrying.
“What’s your number? I can give you a call before I leave.”
“Oh, my cell phone doesn’t work here,” Jaimee said quickly. “It’s a local Boston service, and I think I’m definitely out-of-range right now.”
“You’re at the Skyline?” asked Lisa, pulling on her jacket.
“Yes. I’ll meet you downstairs.”
“Okay. Just look for the white pickup truck with numbers on the hood.”
“Thank you, Miss Miller.” said Jaimee with an appreciative handshake.
“Please call me Lisa. I’m not a teacher; I won’t fail you for being informal.”
They exited the cafe and parted ways in the night, heading down the street in opposite directions.
An hour later, Lisa settled into a hot bath of vanilla-scented water and relaxed for the first time in a week. She closed her eyes and focused on the delicious physical sensations of her much-deserved soak: the lustrous bath oil glazing her skin, the fluid envelope that encapsulated her naked body, and the blissfully complete silence that permeated the room. Pale clouds of steam rose from the tub in a fog that soothed the weary courier, and she forgot about all of her troubles.
“I hope your day was easier than mine,” she muttered, pressing the nasal strip firmly over the bridge of her nose with dampened fingers.
Daisy’s left ear pricked up at the sound of the voice as the brown-and-white beagle regarded Lisa curiously from its bed of twisted blankets on the floor nearby. The dog tilted its head at the peculiar white strip on her master’s face before returning to its comfortable curl when nothing more seemed forthcoming. A final sigh of relief escaped from Lisa’s slightly parted lips, and the world faded away into nothingness.
She drove casually, following the lazy curve of the road as it descended toward a two-lane bridge that spanned a small river. The steady hum of the tires against the blacktop was making her drowsy. She tapped the brake as another car came into view up ahead. Lisa was drawn to the shadow of the car, slanting briefly to the east in the late afternoon sun. The flickering pattern of the wheels turning on the glittering firmament was hypnotic, and she watched it cycle for a time. Then without warning, the day was plunged into blackness as the sun went out.
Lisa’s heart almost exploded in fright when she found herself suddenly driving in the dark. Her vision flared with the abrupt change of light. The wheels dropped off the right side of the pavement, and the car bounced roughly on the gravelly shoulder. Lisa wrenched the headlight switch on and struggled to bring it under control. Then everything happened quickly. An unseen force slammed the vehicle hard from behind. There was a loud rubbery pop as the front tires hit an invisible obstacle, and a bone-wrenching jar that smacked her head against the window, followed by a sharp drop as the car pitched over the side and fell into the river.
She was drowning. Lisa bolted awake chin-deep in water, her nose and mouth just barely above the surface. She sputtered in panic and gripped the edges of the porcelain concavity, hauling herself out of the cool water. Her left foot slid forward on the bare tile, and she grabbed the towel bar for balance, gasping in surprise. But not from the close call. She reached up to gingerly touch the side of her head, and gasped in pain. Beneath her wet hair, it felt like she had been struck with a baseball bat. Great, she thought, another sweet migraine. Just what I need tonight. She retrieved a bottle of triple strength aspirin from the cabinet with a trembling hand, nearly spilling the contents on the floor as she shook two pills out. They wouldn’t help much, but it was better than nothing.
Lisa fumbled stiffly for the heater switch on the wall. Her arms and legs trembled as the austral blast erupted from the ceiling vent and warmed her skin. She unfolded a towel and dried thoroughly, pulling on her silk pajamas and a pair of thick ankle socks. Her bedroom light was out a moment later as she snuggled under the blankets and closed her eyes. Outside, she could still hear the rain persistently tickling the window. As a cocoon of warmth built around her, Lisa wondered when the storm would end. She lingered on the edge of consciousness, trying to ignore the pain. Then she remembered Jaimee’s face: impossibly beautiful and serene. She took in every detail, every soft curve and line. The last thing that she envisaged was the girl’s gentle, hazel-colored eyes, and then she fell to sleep; that most perfect state of human existence.
niche: The particular area within a habitat occupied by an organism.
Lisa scribbled furiously, the tip of her pen moving in a choppy blur against the paper. She flicked a cascade of dark hair away from her face in annoyance. A glow of light perspiration glazed her brow, and her slender wrist burned with the continuous effort, but she refused to stop. With a precise movement, she snapped her head to the left and quickly scanned the text written across the large chalkboard on the wall of the classroom. Symbiosis. That was the last one. Her brain repeated the word and its meaning for the benefit of her hand, which scratched it onto the last two lines of the page. Behind her, Lisa heard a pencil scribbling away with methodical fury, mocking her effort with every derisive scratch. She pushed herself to write faster, determined to win this time.
symbiosis: A close, prolonged association between two or more different organisms of different species that may, but does not necessarily, benefit each member.
A minute later, Lisa dropped the pen and turned to the person sitting behind her. “I beat you, Snuckey Girl,” she said with lofty satisfaction.
“In your dreams,” her friend replied.
“You did not!”
“Read it and weep, Miller.” she said, twisting her notebook around for her classmate to see.
As she turned the handwritten pages of terms—all 25 of them—Lisa was floored. In all her months of trying, she had never once finished copying the definitions off the board quicker than Jaimee Ellis, and it grew more frustrating each time she tried. How did she write so fast?
“Maybe, but at least I’m not getting paranoid about it.”
“I can’t help it,” admitted Lisa, turning back to her own paper as a cloud of defeat brewed above her head.
From an early age, Lisa had been cursed with the need to prove herself in everything she did, no matter how trivial. Her competitive nature, fueled by insecurity, had tainted her with a somewhat neurotic outlook. In light of that, her response was completely reasonable, she thought.
“Look around, and then complain if you’re still not happy,” Jaimee reassured her with a light punch on the back for taking it so seriously.
Lisa swiveled her gaze across the classroom of bowed heads, pencils scratching busily on paper. Sure enough, they had both finished ahead of everyone else. Again. That was an accomplishment, she conceded with a nod of satisfaction. Feeling better, she allowed herself a moment of lightness. “So, have you sold any pecan-filled snow globes lately?” she teased with a wry smirk.
Jaimee scrunched her face in annoyance. “And where do you work, again?” she challenged.
“Um, nowhere.” Lisa said reluctantly.
“Thank you!” came the smug reply. “Besides, I like my job.”
“Well, that’s good. I wish I had one.”
“Someday you might, if you’d stop trying to be so perfect at everything.”
They girls enjoyed a brief laugh until Miss Gibbs trundled back into the classroom and settled into the chair behind her desk to consult the syllabus. The science teacher was an overweight, bespectacled woman in her mid-forties, with graying hair and a long ponytail. She was kind and soft-spoken, with a pleasant demeanor towards all of her students. Lisa thought she looked like Benjamin Franklin, but she would never admit it to anyone because she didn’t want to offend Miss Gibbs, who had openly prided Lisa as being one of her very best students.
“Tomorrow we will be taking a field trip off-campus,” the teacher informed, “So be sure to get here early and have all of your definitions copied before we leave.”
The announcement was met with exclamations of approval from the whole class. Lisa was quietly looking forward to it. She pulled out her Environmental Science book and opened it to the appropriate chapter as directed. The only way things could get any better, she thought, was if she could beat Jaimee to the end of the board tomorrow. Then she might have something to brag about while they were outside enjoying the nice weather. That would make for a truly perfect day.
Take my arms that I might reach you.”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence.
The Sound of Silence — Simon & Garfunkel
The cold engine growled to life at the turn of the key. Lisa watched the gas needle begin its slow arc to the right, and the temperature gauge spiked in sequel. She steadied her clipboard against the steering wheel, being careful not to press down on the horn. First she recorded the date, truck number, and current mileage, then checked off the boxes for headlights, tail lights, brake lights, tire pressure and engine fluid levels. When the sheet was finished, Lisa compared the delivery manifest to the number of packages in her custody and shifted the truck into gear for the start of another work day in New York.
Fifteen minutes later she pulled up alongside the front pavilion of the Skyline Hotel, under a sky several shades grayer than the day before. A well-dressed parking attendant eyed the nondescript utility truck from his post at the gate. His distaste made it apparent that the hotel did not usually receive private deliveries. He was ready to protest when Jaimee Patterson swished through the front door and came down the steps with an elegance that belied her youth. Lisa rolled the Ford Ranger around the corner and threw open the passenger door.
“Welcome to my office,” she joked as the student climbed into the truck beside her.
“Good morning. Where are we going first?”
Lisa consulted her list. “Simon’s Books, on West 25th Street.”
“Oh, I love bookstores! Maybe we can look for awhile?”
“Sorry, but I really have to stick to my schedule today. I’m already in trouble for going off my shift early last night.”
Jaimee apologized. “Do you ever speed when you’re late?”
“A driver is only as fast as her vehicle,” Lisa replied philosophically.
“Is that company policy?”
“No, it’s mine. How about some music?” she asked, reaching for the radio knob.
Jaimee quickly grabbed her wrist. “Please, not in the rain.” she begged. Her expression was cold solemn.
“Because sixty-six percent of drivers who play the radio are distracted, and bad weather only increases the risk of an accident. I never listen to the radio when I drive.”
“Okay,” Lisa said, respecting her concern. “I’d rather listen to the rain anyway.”
“Thank you, Lisa.” said Jaimee, smoothing the collar of her fawn overcoat.
“Ah, my copy of Personae has arrived at last,” said the book dealer. “I’ve been expecting it.”
“Yes, and insured for no less than a thousand dollars,” replied Lisa, visibly impressed by the four-figure shipping total on the invoice.
“But very much worth it, I can assure you.”
“Sign here, please.” she directed, passing the clipboard and offering a pen to write with.
“I have my own, thank you.” The old man reached into his coat and withdrew an elegant wood-grain ballpoint with gold accents. You prick, Lisa thought as he signed the invoice with an indignant flourish.
She handed over the parcel carefully, reclaimed her paperwork, and opened the door to leave. The ancient book keeper raised his hand in farewell, adding mysteriously, “Please give my regards to Phil.”
Lisa paused, thinking. Phil. That must be his regular deliveryman. “I will, sir,” she promised, and bid him a nice day instead of telling him to go screw himself, like he deserved.
Outside, she found Jaimee standing in front of the shop window, looking at the collection of old books on display. Lisa came over to read the title she was examining: Leaving Eden. The gold lettering was flaking against the leather cover, which was brittle and cracked with age. The author’s name, embossed below in smaller text, was worn to the point of being almost unreadable. She could see that it said Terri, but the surname was lost to time.
“This book is very rare. Only three copies are known to exist.” Jaimee said, more to herself than her companion. “Such a wonderful story...”
“We have to go now,” said Lisa, zipping her jacket in the misty rain.
The student shoved her hands into her pockets and trailed the courier back to her truck parked at the curb. Lisa started to open the door, but stopped when she caught sight of her reflection in the window. For the first time, she noticed a strand of silver in her dark mane. Not the woman I used to be, she thought, and wondered where all of the years had gone. Beyond the glass, Jaimee clicked on her seatbelt and gathered up her journalistic effects, avoiding her gaze. Lisa suddenly wondered if there was more to this assignment than the girl was telling her.
“Should I classify Jaimee as living or non-living?” joked Lisa, with her ink pen poised over the list that she was making along with the rest of her science class.
It was the fourth week of spring, and the air was filled with pollen, and the lazy drone of bees, while the flowers secreted their delicious aromas. A pair of bluebirds flitted overhead, carrying twigs and straw to build a nest with. The junior high students added them to the tally of living and non-living organisms that they found in the neighborhood around the school. They took their science trip with a grain of salt. Everyone’s paper was identical, since they all saw the same things at once. It was so laughable that they amused themselves by cataloging an increasingly absurd range of subjects, from cars and fire hydrants to road signs and rocks. Even the studious Lisa was caught up in the juvenile zeal of the occasion, and played along with the rest.
“I am definitely living!” Jaimee Ellison said, her dark, shoulder-length hair swirling across her face as she laughed.
“Miss Gibbs, can I classify a bird feather, since it comes from a living organism?” another student posed with complete seriousness.
“Are you on crack?” his classmate asked. This was followed by a wave of laughter from the group, and even elicited a smile from their frumpy teacher.
“Yeah, that’s what happens when you smoke the wrong kind of cigarettes!” another kid joked, to continued applause.
In spite of the unorthodox question, Lisa stopped to consider it as the group rounded the corner onto Pearl Street. She finally jotted it down with a question mark, and hurried to catch up with the rest of her class. Her springtime elation was not hampered by another defeat suffered at Jaimee’s mercurial hand, but it didn’t matter. Lisa would beat her tomorrow, or some other day. It was inevitable, she thought, noting a ladybug crawling on a leafy branch overhanging the street. Nobody else seemed to have noticed its presence, and it was all hers. The insect’s antennae twitched as if to say Bonus points! Yes, victory might be hard-earned, but it would be all the more sweeter in the end.
Jaimee sidled over to Lisa to compare notes. “Oh, good. You saw that ladybug, too.”
“I sure did,” Lisa replied casually, rolling her eyes.
“Great, then let’s get out of here.”
“What!?” she balked. “Are you serious?”
“Don’t tell me that you’ve never skipped before.”
Lisa feigned indignity. “Of course not. I have perfect attendance,” she boasted with pride.
“Why don’t you stop trying to be class valedictorian for a day, and just live a little?” Jaimee stopped walking, crossed her arms in challenge. The gauntlet was thrown down, and she was waiting to see if Lisa would accept it.
Lisa Miller, widely known as a cold, overachieving loner; the victim of her own academic ambition, was floored. She was being offered the chance to hang out with Jaimee Ellis—the only other girl in the school who could hold a candle to her GPA without breaking a sweat. Her classmate was both a dedicated student and the coolest person that she knew. Moreover, Lisa had never once seen her in a bad mood. Jaimee was always nice, and had an easy smile for everybody she met. Odd that a person might envy such selfless qualities, but Lisa did. Her choice was not a difficult one. She turned her back on the retreating class and followed Jaimee.
The white Ford coasted smoothly into the restaurant drive-thru lane and stopped at the gaudy neon menu sign glowing dully beneath the midday sun. The driver unrolled her window as the speaker welcomed them to Lucky Burger. Jaimee rifled frantically through her purse, looking more than a bit flustered. “Tell them I’ll have a Lucky Garden salad and a Diet Coke,” she said without looking up.
Lisa relayed the order, and requested a Lucky Double cheeseburger with ketchup, and a Dr. Pepper. The speaker box crackled their choices back to her, along with the total. She pulled the truck through and stopped alongside the pick-up window as Jaimee finally located her elusive wallet. She handed Lisa a ten-dollar bill, saying that it was the smallest thing she had on her person. Their cash was traded for a bag of steaming hot food, two drinks, and a boxed salad with a packet of dressing taped to the lid.
“Have a Lucky day!” bid the attendant, a clean-cut young man with brown hair whose name tag identified him as Dale. He winked at Lisa just before she pulled away.
“He was kind of cute,” Jaimee remarked, opening her salad carton.
“Could you unwrap my hamburger?” said Lisa, changing the subject.
“What’s wrong, you don’t want to get Lucky Burger hands?” she laughed.
Lisa rolled her eyes at the joke. “It wouldn’t be the first time. I used to work here.. briefly.”
“No way!” the girl exclaimed while she unfolded the wrapper and tucked it neatly around the burger.
“It was an undercover exposé on restaurant health violations that never aired.”
Jaimee handed Lisa the hot sandwich. “Why not?!”
Lisa cleared her throat uncomfortably. “Because I got fired before I could finish it, and I prefer not to say anymore.”
“What do you think is the most pervasive media tactic in today’s society?” she asked, seamlessly shifting the topic while Jaimee seasoned her salad with the dressing.
“Product placement,” the driver said without hesitation. “Are we getting back to the interview?”
“Yes. But there is difference between product placement and ad sales,” the teen said, giving Lisa her full attention.
“It’s a fine line,” Lisa pointed out.
“Could you elaborate, please?”
“Ad sales are just commercials. They occupy a prescheduled timeframe within a block of programming. Product placement is actually used IN the program. Both are targeted at audiences, but most people consider the former less offensive.”
Spoken like a true reporter, Jaimee thought approvingly with a nod.
“But it mainly applies to the visual mediums, as opposed to radio.”
“And that is exactly my point,” the girl stated, crossing her arms.
“The power of suggestion. You may not have seen the billboard for Lucky Burger that we passed four blocks ago, but your mind acknowledged it, and then you acted on a craving that you weren’t even aware of.”
Lisa was astonished. She had actually manifested a fast food craving without really seeing the ad. “That’s a pretty neat trick. Can you read my mind?”
“No, but it would be interesting,” Jaimee admitted with a mysterious smile.
In between deliveries, the young scholar posed an impressive line of questioning, from the state of media technology to Lisa’s theological beliefs. The personal inquiries seemed to crop up more often than those relating to the topic of Jaimee’s paper. Lisa answered as many as possible with honesty, but deflected some of the more intimate ones with a vague answer, or changed the subject entirely. Sometimes she directed Jaimee’s questions back at her to see how accommodating she was. The girl seemed to enjoy this tactic, and indulged Lisa with some elaborative responses.
By the time they returned to the hotel, she discovered that Jaimee, like herself, had been an accomplished student in high school. The teenager was involved with numerous clubs and volunteer programs, and spent much of her spare time in the library, enriching herself in history and literature. She graduated at the top of her class, valedictorian with honors, and had been accepted by a number of colleges even before finishing her senior year. Lisa was so impressed that she invited her over for dinner at her apartment to continue the discussion. But first Jaimee wanted to freshen up, and Lisa had to drop off her truck at work. They agreed to meet at 7 o’clock.
“This is my favorite place. I come here to be alone sometimes.”
“It’s beautiful.” Lisa whispered, placing her palms atop the railing of the bridge that spanned the Kime River.
The overpass wasn’t very attractive as bridges went, but it would certainly hold its own in a flood. The framework consisted of stout wooden poles, like those used for telephone lines, driven deep into the riverbed to form the main supports for the roadway. Crossing in the middle, the pillars appeared like a pair of X’s standing side-by-side. The road was hemmed by twin steel guard rails bolted to thick rectangular posts connected to the superstructure below. Glaring down from the cloudless blue sky, the afternoon sun baked the newly-timbered span, releasing the acrid smell of pitch whose sharp, sweet odor stung their nostrils and induced a mild sense of dizziness that would become a headache the longer they breathed the tainted air.
Although the trip had taken more than an hour, the scenery made up for it, Lisa thought as she gazed down at the forested slopes that hemmed the wide river. The spot was one of the few remote areas within short walking range of Abington distant enough that the sounds of civilization did not reach them. As the two girls walked along the faded blacktop, Lisa reached into her pocket for the pack of cigarettes that she bought using her fake ID at the filling station outside of town. She felt free to be herself now that she was away from school.
They stopped midway across the bridge, at a cool, dark spot where the lush canopy of a giant maple overshadowed the griddle-hot road. Jaimee leaned against a wooden support and watched her partner light up and take a long, sensuous drag from her cigarette. Leaning her head back, Lisa closed her eyes with an almost orgasmic bliss and exhaled with deep satisfaction. She indulged her vice with a kind of relish that took Jaimee by surprise, because Lisa Miller never struck her as the bad girl type. Still, she was pleased to find that her friend wasn’t as stuck-up as she behaved most of the time.
“Now that we’re here, I have to ask you... what’s your obsession with being Miss Perfect all the time?”
“I am hardly perfect. I just want to be the best student that I can.”
“Why?” Jaimee shot back quickly, wanting to keep Lisa on her toes.
Lisa shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not something a perfect student would say,” she interjected.
“Stop saying that. I am NOT perfect!”
“ I know that. I just wanted to hear you say it.”
“What’s your point?!” Lisa flicked her cigarette over the side with irritation, watched the glowing ashes trickle into the dark water and vanish.
“You shouldn’t try to be somebody that you’re not, and if you’re really that good, then you don’t have to prove yourself.”
“Sorry, that’s my hang-up. I told you, I can’t help it.”
“Then why did you come with me, instead of staying with the class?” Jaimee challenged.
“Because I don’t give a damn.” Lisa turned, waving her cigarette for emphasis. “Look, I don’t have a lot of friends, and I just want to be accepted by someone, no matter what.”
“Well that’s flattering. But why me, and not someone else?”
Lisa took another drag. “Because I admire you, and I want to win your approval, even though it frustrates the hell out of me sometimes.”
The other girl nodded, finally understanding. “Tell me something. What do you want to do with your life?” Jaimee asked suddenly, posing the question in a manner well beyond her years.
“I don’t know,” Lisa confessed, “I haven’t really thought about it that much.”
“Well, an honest answer is better than lying.”
“I’m not a liar,” she asserted with a bit too much emphasis to be convincing.
“Right, and you never smoke, either.” she grinned mischievously.
“You are SO—” Lisa struggled to find the words.
“Yes, exactly.” She paced off, then stopped abruptly and turned back again to confront her classmate. “How did you notice that ladybug on the tree, anyway?” She had to know if Jaimee was really that good, or merely lucky.
“Easy, I just looked at your paper and pretended like I did.” Jaimee’s dark eyebrows lifted in triumph, but Lisa couldn’t quite read the other girl’s enigmatic smile.
“What is it?”
“I never had a best friend before. It’s kind of nice.”
The muted glow of daylight was just a memory in the sky when Lisa drove truck #6150 up the winding drive, and backed into her designated parking spot at Pangaeascape Logistics Ltd. The delivery company was situated in a shady, single-story brick industrial office complex known as The Park, on East End Avenue. Tucked within the small, but orderly landscaped forest of trees and shrubbery were a cluster of small computer and communication firms with names like ITT Industries, L3 Communications, Intergraph, and Alpha Data. The other buildings were empty, awaiting the arrival of similar high-tech clients.
While most people would be grateful to be given a free job without so much as an interview—and she was—Lisa Miller absolutely hated her boss. Robertson Reynolds was the district supervisor of Pangaeascape. A hard-nosed businessman, he was praised by his superiors, respected by his colleagues, and feared by his employees, who shied away when he came into the room. Most of all, Reynolds was known for his temper, which he unleashed freely on anyone unlucky enough to upset him. And he had resented Lisa from day one.
Robertson collared Lisa the minute she walked in the door. “Don’t go anywhere, we have a staff meeting in ten minutes.”
Lisa couldn’t believe it. “You have got to be hosing me.”
“Do we have to stay?” asked a co-worker with a dinner appointment.
“If you want to keep your job,” he threatened.
“Look, I’m tired, and I just want to go home.” Lisa hung her keys up on the wall and filed her trip sheet. “Somebody can fill me in tomorrow.”
“You’re not going anywhere until we’re finished. I need to see your invoice sheet for yesterday after that stunt you pulled. Where is it?”
“In hell, along with the rest of your stuff,” she snapped irritably.
She had long ago discovered the source of his scorn. It was all political. Robertson Reynolds did everything by the book. When an applicant was considered, they had to go through an interview; if they were hired, there was a ream of paperwork that needed to be filled out. It was just standard business procedure. Then Lisa had come to work for Pangaeascape out of nowhere, with a directive to be hired from the company president himself. Rumor had it that she was a personal friend of Jimmy James, the former owner, and a frequent golf buddy of CEO Mike Rowan. The shrewd brunette was taken on without any due process or training, and given her choice of salary and position. To Reynolds, Lisa was a freeloader that he was forbidden to get rid of, whether he liked it or not.
“Miller, your ass is already on the line, so don’t push it.” he warned.
“I have some news for you, Robert. You don’t make enough money to be such an asshole.” Lisa said, and walked out the door without looking back. Another day in paradise, she thought sarcastically.
Jaimee arrived at Lisa Miller’s Carnegie Hill brownstone dressed as if she were attending a royal coronation. The sophomore wore a stylish dark green satin blouse with a calf-length black dress, and a pair of chic leather ankle boots. Her eyelids were kissed with frosted lilac, her fingernails painted a modest sanguine for a perfect touch of feminine sophistication. A weathered ivy leaf broach completed her ensemble.
“Please come in,” Lisa said pleasantly, closing the door behind her. Daisy trotted across the room to greet the new arrival.
“Hello, there! What’s your name?”
“I named her after Daisy Buchanan, from The Great Gatsby.”
Jaimee patted the dog affectionately. “Daisy. That’s pretty.” The beagle wagged her tail as if she were greeting a long-lost friend.
“I think she likes you,” Lisa observed with surprise. She’d never seen Daisy bond with a complete stranger so quickly before.
She began the evening by giving Jaimee a tour of her home, which had been renovated five years earlier along with the rest of the Oxbridge complex. With its single bedroom, kitchenette, living room, and bathroom, the fully-furnished midtown apartment was the perfect size for one person, yet cozy enough for several guests. Somewhat of a perfectionist, Lisa maintained her place in pristine condition, an easy task considering that she never entertained company. Although contractually forbidden from painting the stark white walls, that didn’t stop her from adding her own personal touch, a Pirates of the Caribbean movie poster displayed prominently above the couch. The sight of it reminded Jaimee of the shirt Lisa had worn the day before, and she finally put it together.
“Do you have a thing for Johnny Depp?”
A devious smile crossed her face. “Well, let’s just say that I wouldn’t kick him out of bed,” she responded. And, given the chance, Lisa definitely wouldn’t.
“Really?” the girl asked with unconcealed amusement.
“Would you?” she pressed.
Jaimee managed a neutral head shake, and tried not to turn too red. She stepped over to a multi-tiered shelf in one corner of the room, where a Jack Sparrow figure stood jauntily, holding a flintlock pistol and cutlass. The shelf below it housed a strange copper statue with a bull’s head and upright arms. Its design was both ancient and futuristic, and she thought that it looked vaguely Minoan. The lower levels were neatly stacked with books, most of them classic literature titles. The rest of the apartment, from what she could see, was devoid of personality. It was clear to her that Lisa Miller obviously wasn’t a materialistic person.
“I hope you like macaroni and cheese, because I’m really not much of a cook.”
“No, that’s perfect. I wouldn’t have anything else,” Jaimee reassured Lisa, following her into the tiny kitchen.
Lisa was definitely not the Suzie Homemaker type, but she knew the importance of being prepared. She had been cooking for nearly an hour before her guest arrived, and the table was already set for dinner by the time they sat down. Feeling distinctly out of her element playing hostess, she dished the cheesy mixture onto their plates with a good-natured smile, along with a generous helping of Stovetop stuffing. Meanwhile, the student busied herself in preparation for their next interview session.
“Can we talk first, off-the-record?”
“Okay.” Jaimee pushed her things aside to give Lisa her full attention.
“Thank you. Let me start off by saying how impressed I am by your dedication. Not to sound self-congratulatory, but you remind me of myself in college.”
Jaimee’s eyes were wide, hanging on every word.
“Wow... thank you. I mean, I’m honored. You’ve been somewhat of a role model for me over the years, and—okay, I’m rambling now, so I’ll stop.”
Lisa offered a benign smile. “No, it’s okay. This is very refreshing for me. I always thought I’d put the radio thing to bed, but now that you’re here, I’m glad it’s not over yet. Well, I mean professionally, at least.”
“What was it like when you worked at WNYX?” Leaning forward on the table, she folded her hands in appeal, eager to hear more about the ex-reporter’s life.
“It was fun... satisfying, and very stressful. Looking back on it now, I kind of wish things had been different.” Jaimee looked puzzled, and Lisa could read the question on her face. “I could have made better choices, and I burned a few bridges that I probably shouldn’t have.”
Bridges... She stared away distantly, at nothing in particular.
“Are you okay?”
Lisa came back to the moment. “Yeah. I was just thinking, that’s all.” She cleared her throat in a businesslike fashion. “Let’s eat now, before it gets cold.”
Dining in privacy, they enjoyed a quality of conversation that could not be found in a downtown cafe, or driving around the city in a delivery truck. Jaimee’s questions were focused on the subject of her treatise, and Lisa provided clear, informative answers that she could use when composing it. Now she could really appreciate the little tape recorder that the undergraduate employed. It allowed them to have a regular discourse without pausing to write, and soon they forgot that it was there altogether.
“What advantage do you think the Internet has over traditional media outlets?” Jaimee read verbatim from her notes.
“It’s instantaneous. There’s no waiting for news that happened after the print run on the day before.”
“Okay. Now, as a reporter, were you ever alarmed by the rise of the digital news industry?”
“Not at all. In fact, it made my job easier.”
“We could receive breaking news much faster than before, and it allowed for a more efficient production schedule.”
“Were you ever tempted to go into digital journalism?”
“Briefly. I was the editor-in-chief of a small newspaper in New Hampshire, and we used computers to produce it.”
“According to my research, you also wrote for your high school paper.”
Lisa raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I did.” she affirmed, wondering how Jaimee had uncovered that obscure bit of information. The depth of her research was impressive, and Lisa had to give the student more credit than before.
“How would you compare the production of that versus modern digital methods?”
“Much more time-consuming, no question about it. We used an optical printer to compose layouts in those days. I’m not saying the process is any easier today, but everything comes together more smoothly now.”
Jaimee had exhausted her list of questions by the time dinner was over, and had more than enough information to complete her term project. Lisa cleared the table, and made coffee while they indulged in some welcome small talk.
“So, do you have any hobbies, other than school?”
“I’ve always liked astronomy. You know, discovering other worlds.”
“Yes, I find it very humbling to consider our place in the universe, and how really insignificant we are in the bigger picture.” As they spoke, Lisa couldn’t help noticing how Jaimee’s eyes shone with enthusiasm.
“Well in the case, I have a treat for you. Grab your coat and follow me.”
Their footsteps echoed in the narrow hallway as they ascended a flight of metal stairs. The air was thin and dusty. Jaimee kept one hand fast on the railing for guidance, and the other on the cold stone wall to her left. She wrinkled her nose in distaste when her fingers encountered a layer of old cobwebs. A few steps ahead, she could see that Lisa had stopped in front of a heavy steel door, judging by the effort needed to push it open. Then she stepped through it and was gone. The student quickly followed, and emerged onto the roof.
“I come up here when the weather is nice, especially during the summer.”
The top of the building was a flatscape of blackened gravel and metal flashing, punctuated by air conditioning units and smoke vents. The periphery of the rooftop was lost in darkness after half a dozen yards or so. A single light mounted on a metal post near the access door exit provided a faint-reaching sphere of illumination by which to see. Far above, the moon rode high in the evening sky, a smiling white crescent on the tapestry of blues that faded to the earth’s horizon. The storm had passed for the time being.
“It’s beautiful...” Jaimee marveled, her gaze drawn to the heavens. She pointed up, shielding her eyes. “There’s Andromeda... and over there is Cassiopeia.” She turned in place, seeking another constellation. “And over there is Pisces, the fishes.”
“You mean fish.” Lisa corrected automatically, but her voice was lost in the buffeting wind. Jaimee wandered in a circle as she looked at the stars, but never strayed far.
“Do you think Mister James has something to hide?” she asked suddenly, turning to face Lisa.
“Why do you ask?”
“Because when I told him about my paper, he actually hung up on me.”
Lisa gave a curt nod. “That sounds about right.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’d have better luck folding a road map in the dark, than getting Jimmy James to talk about something when he doesn’t want to.”
One corner of Jaimee’s mouth quirked up in amusement. Lisa walked a few steps away.
“Things started going bad for him the year that he moved to New Hampshire. In fact, it was the reason for his retirement.” The girl trotted after her quickly.
“Are we off-the-record again?” she asked, joining Lisa at the edge of the building.
“Yes. Jimmy started making a lot of bad business decisions in the late nineties, spending millions on what he called ‘surefire’ business deals. But things really went under after he invested a quarter of his money in a project that he said would make him an instant fortune.”
“And what project was that?” Jaimee asked, leaning closer in the darkness.
“An online dating service that matched couples based on which Spice Girl they most preferred to have sex with.”
“You’re kidding!” she gawked with disbelief.
“I wish I was. Anyway, his company never recovered, and Mr. James decided to retire. But I didn’t find out the truth until years later.”
“My only mistake was going with him,” Lisa muttered to the wind. Jaimee was about to say something else, but saw from her introspective look that Lisa wasn’t finished yet. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes... Another one was letting Dave go.”
“Yes, he was my news director at WNYX. Now he’s married to his former secretary.”
“How did that happen?”
“It’s a long story.”
As Lisa gazed up at the night sky glittering with diamond starlight, Jaimee noticed the way she stood, with one foot propped up on the edge of the roof, one hand resting comfortably atop her knee. She giggled at the pose.
The leather jacket squeaked when Lisa turned back to her. “What’s funny?”
“Got a little Captain in you?” Jaimee quipped, citing the recent series of Pirate-themed TV commercials.
Lisa smiled in the dark. “No, but that’s not a bad idea. Let’s go inside and warm up.”
“I thought you were only kidding about the rum,” Jaimee laughed uneasily, watching Lisa uncap the bottle of Tahitian Noni with a deft twist. A strict teetotaler, the girl had never drank alcohol before in her life, and she was surprised to find that Lisa Miller, the award-winning radio journalist, enjoyed a good buzz every once in awhile. But given the ex-reporter’s present life of solitude, the glory days of her career far behind her, Jaimee could see that this wasn’t the same disciplined newswoman that she had been in the 1990’s.
“Could you get me some ice, please?”
“Sure.” She delved into the freezer, eager to help despite her trepidation at breaking her lifelong vow of sobriety to impress her role-model. The cooler was well-stocked, and it took her a moment before Jaimee located the ice cube trays. They were stacked off to one side, tightly wedged between boxes of frozen pizza and microwave dinners, bags of French fries, and a few loaves of bread. To complicate things, the trays were fused together with ice, making her task all the more difficult.
Meanwhile Lisa, reaching for a thick drinking glass with a diamond pattern, gasped in panic when she slid the cup from the shelf and it came apart cleanly at the middle, dropping. She was stunned to realize that they were actually two short glasses, double stacked. The lower one hit the edge of the counter with an explosive pop. The pieces went shattering across the floor around Jaimee’s feet. The girl continued to struggle with the ice tray, which snapped free with a final tug of effort.
She closed the freezer and turned back to Lisa with the ice, only to be confused by her look of incomprehensible shock. “...What is it?”
Lisa stood unmoving beside the cabinet door hanging ajar, staring at her thunderstruck, as if the sky had fallen in. There was a gap in the row of double-stacked glasses on the upper shelf. Her hand gripped the top of an inverted glass, but the one below it was gone. Concerned, Jaimee took a step toward Lisa and felt something crunch underfoot. She looked down with a cry of surprise, and her hands flew to her mouth when she saw the aftermath of the silent disaster: A million crystals of broken glass glittered on the counter and spread across the kitchen floor. Jaimee raised her guilt-filled eyes when she realized that Lisa finally knew the truth.
I guess that was louder than I thought...
My cell phone doesn’t work here. I’ll meet you downstairs...
I never listen to the radio when I drive...
“The tape recorder... so you could watch me speak?”
“It was the only way!” Jaimee lamented.
“But why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because...” she searched for the words, a way to explain herself. “I didn’t want you to know me like this.”
Lisa touched her arm with compassion, and everything came out in a rush. Jaimee was deaf at birth. She honed her speech to perfection from a very young age with help from a dialect coach, and could read lips as long as she faced the person that was talking. In time, she had even learned a few tricks to get around this, like using reflective surfaces to view people in. Jaimee could also watch movies and television without subtitles. She confessed that prior to their meeting, she only knew Lisa through magazine interviews and radio transcripts obtained from broadcasts that she recorded, but still she was inspired by her.
It was staggering to realize that she had never known the sounds of a living world, and couldn’t appreciate the noise of crashing surf on the beach, nor enjoy the rich layers of music in a symphony orchestra. Jaimee couldn’t even imagine the sound of her own voice, which Lisa said was lovely. But Jaimee told Lisa not to feel sorry for her, because she could not envy something she had no experience of. More importantly, she was adamant that her friend not treat her any differently. She only wanted to be respected as an intelligent, aspiring student of journalism. Lisa promised that she would never have done so, even if she had known the truth about her, and their friendship was sealed from that moment on.
Letting go never felt so good, Lisa thought as the growing warmth mellowed her into dull awareness. It had been a long, strange day, and she wanted to forget about Robert, and Jaimee, and her job, and just make it all go away. The second shot of rum went down smoother than its predecessor, but she wanted more. Lisa reached for the bottle with slow deliberation when a faint noise made her stop. She tilted her head like a curious puppy, straining to hear it again. The apartment was completely quiet. But why is the rum gone!? demanded Jack Sparrow from the amber haze of her psyche. He needed his rum, and Lisa would get it for him. She gripped the neck of the bottle with a deft snatch, and let go as if she’d palmed a burning coal.
Lisa came to instant sobriety when she heard the sound clearly—a person weeping nearby. It had a strange, hollow quality that filled her with fear. There was a telephone in her bedroom, but first she had to get there to call out for help. She rose from the table and forced herself to move, one very slow step at a time, sidling along the wall as dread crept with her. She took a deep breath, and peeked around the corner into the darkness of the living room. A figure sat motionless in the recliner; a thin, dark-haired girl leaning forward with her head bowed. Her hands were clasped together as if she was waiting or praying. Probably strung-out, Lisa thought. She could handle the scrawny waif, even with a rum-induced buzz.
“What the hell are you doing in my apartment?” she exclaimed, stepping into view.
But something was terribly wrong. When the girl raised her head in acknowledgement, the edges of her gauzy form blurred out of focus, like watercolors on a piece of paper. Lisa gasped in shock as her bangs fell aside to reveal a face that didn’t exist anymore, should not exist. It was impossible. Tears of liquid obsidian ran down her anguished face and evaporated into thin air. Lisa’s blood shot with icy terror. She tried to run, but the room spun out of control as the floor turned into rubber beneath her. She pitched sideways into the doorframe, and went down hard as blackness greedily swallowed her up. Then there was nothing more to be afraid of.
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again
Fire and Rain — James Taylor
The pale globe of the moon floated in the blueness of the eastern sky when Lisa woke up and realized that she was in bed, still fully dressed. She rolled over in the dim light and found herself looking at Jaimee, sleeping peacefully beside her. Lisa remained still as she admired the girl’s face, a mask of serenity. Her long brown hair curved around her jaw, and over her bare shoulder to spill onto the pillow she was resting on. She reached over and lightly touched her cheek, feeling the warmth. Then, satisfied that she was not an alcoholic mirage, Lisa rose from the bed and carefully pulled the sheets back up.
Her glasses were neatly folded on the bedstand, and Lisa scooped them up on her way to the bathroom. She closed the door behind her and stripped off her clothes, eager for the caress of a hot shower. Lisa didn’t have to work today, and she didn’t care how long she took. In spite of everything, she still didn’t know exactly what to make of Jaimee. On the one hand, she was a bright, optimistic, and intelligent girl, and yet insecure enough to hide her handicap as if she were ashamed of it. That was what troubled her the most. There were a million questions that Lisa wanted to ask, but refused to out of respect. How could she interrogate a person who held her in such admiration, even defying a lifelong phobia to meet her?
When her shower was done, Lisa cupped her palms under the sink and splashed her face with cool water to come fully awake. The shock therapy had been part of her routine since she was a teenager, and Lisa could not start the day without it. She dried her face with a towel, and slipped her glasses on before finally opening her eyes. The room was pitch black because she always showered in the dark every morning, so as to gradually acclimate herself to daylight. The bathroom door was customarily left open a couple of inches for this purpose.
As Lisa brushed her hair, she could see the familiar slice of bedroom in the mirror’s reflection. This view included the foot of her bed, the dresser in the corner, and the door of the closet. A moment later Jaimee stumbled past the dresser, and stopped beside it.
“I’m in here. Um.. could you leave the room for just a minute? I’m not wearing any clothes.”
The girl remained still by the dresser, uncomprehending. Damn it, Lisa cursed, remembering that Jaimee couldn’t hear. She dropped the brush into the sink and wrapped a towel around herself. But when she came out of the bathroom, the girl was in bed, sound asleep. It looked as if she hadn’t moved at all. Lisa went to her dresser and pulled on her undergarments, blue jeans, and a medium gray tee that said ‘Pretty damn sweet.’ She closed the drawer and noticed that her jewelry box on top of the dresser was open. The dark cherry lid was flipped back, revealing the tiny mirror set into it.
She felt a wave of anger. It was one thing for a guest to sleep in her bed without permission, but a complete violation of trust to go through her stuff while she was asleep. Lisa pawed through it for a couple of seconds to make sure that nothing was missing. She was about to close the box when a particular bracelet caught her eye. It had a clasped sterling silver chain with a crescent moon pendant hanging from it. She couldn’t quite recall where she had gotten the bracelet, but something felt significant about it. In any case, Lisa decided to wear it for the day. She draped the chain about her wrist and clicked it with a nod of satisfaction. It fit perfectly.
“Here, I want you to have this.” Jaimee opend the tiny red velvet box on the table between them.
Lisa peered inside curiously. “What is it?”
“Friendship bracelets. You get one half, and I’ll keep the other,” she replied, fitting a pair of silver crescents together. Lisa watched the tips dovetail to form a circular moon.
She accepted one of the charms from her raven-haired friend. “Thank you.”
“They’re a sign of our friendship, so please don’t lose it.”
“I won’t,” she vowed, securing the chain around her left wrist. She was touched by the gesture.
“Good.” Jaimee clicked on her bracelet and smoothed her dark blue apron. “Okay, break time is over, let’s get back to work.”
“Do I really have to wear this?” complained the brunette, fingering the hem of her own apron. It was a size too large, and Lisa felt ridiculous wearing it.
“Hey, you’re the one who wanted a real, hands-on work experience, and the outfit comes with the job.”
“Yeah, I know.” Lisa muttered without enthusiasm, dragging a French fry through her ketchup. Maintaining a restaurant/convenience store wasn’t her idea of a dream job, no matter how badly she wanted to work.
“Let’s clean up in here first, and then I’ll show you how to use the register.” Jaimee suggested.
“Okay.” Lisa quickly rescued her cup of soda from the plastic serving tray as Jaimee whisked it from the table.
They girls rose from the yellow-and-red window booth in the front corner of the Stuckey’s on Interstate 93, and went back to the supply room. After weeks of pestering, Lisa had finally convinced Jaimee to let her hang out at work and keep her company during the late shift, which was turning out to be less fun that it sounded. It was nearly six o’clock on Friday night, and the restaurant was deserted. There hadn’t been any customers in almost an hour, but the novelty of working a real job had worn off long before that.
Stuck at Stuckey’s, Lisa thought. Perfect. She couldn’t decide which was worse, the silly uniform that she had to wear, or the mountain of chores that she was required to help Jaimee with during her visit. So far they had straightened merchandise, dusted off shelves, emptied the garbage cans, restocked the ice machine, and mopped the floors in the restaurant before taking a break for dinner. But Lisa considered the grueling workload a small price to pay for the opportunity to nurture the social life which had eluded her for so long. She now considered Jaimee her best friend, and the unexpected gift of the bracelet was confirmation that she had truly been accepted as such.
On the wall behind the serving counter, she noticed the Stuckey’s Smiles! bulletin board. The pockmarked cork held a collection of awards, news clippings, and photos dedicated to the store and its employees. The picture in the middle showed Jaimee in her work uniform, hands behind her back, standing proudly beside a neatly-arranged shelf of pecan-flavored candies.
Jaimee poked her head out of the supply closet. “That was taken a few months ago, when I set up my first display.”
“A real milestone, I’m sure.” Lisa said sarcastically.
Her friend walked over carrying two rolls of paper towels and a bottle of disinfectant for each of them. “At least I’m being paid for it, which is more than I can say for you. Here,” she said, pressing the supplies into Lisa’s arms. “We pride ourselves on having the cleanest stores in the country. It’s our trademark, actually. Now help me uphold tradition and start cleaning those booths.”
Lisa aimed the spray bottle at Jaimee, covering the trigger with her finger. “What if I don’t want to?” she challenged.
“Well I am your supervisor, even though you don’t actually work here. How embarrassing would it be to get fired from a job that you don’t even have? I bet that would impress your folks.”
“You would not!” scoffed Lisa in astonishment.
Jaimee pursed her lips, trying hard to resist the smile that was creeping to the surface. “One way to find out. Try me.”
Lisa studied the sparkle of affectionate mischief in the other girl’s eyes, too vague to determine. “Oh my God, you’re serious! I can’t believe this!”
The radiant smile finally broke through. “Hey, that’s what friends are for, right?”
Lisa playfully sprayed two puffs at her classmate’s apron. “Some friend!”
Laughing now, Jaimee sent a cloud of mist back at Lisa. “Get busy!”
There were only a half-dozen tables in the restaurant, most of them already polished to a bright gleam, and Lisa realized that her task wouldn’t take very long. Jaimee, meanwhile, began to wipe down the counter with a damp washcloth. Lisa worked her way around the diner, starting with the table they had used earlier, and quickly discovered a kind of methodical satisfaction in the process. The girls maintained a light banter, and pretty soon Lisa forgot that she was actually working.
It didn’t matter if Jaimee was a faster writer, reflected Lisa, or that she had prettier handwriting, or a better grade point average. Just the mere fact that she would cheerfully humble herself by cleaning the sales counter in a tiny roadside diner spoke more about her character than any paltry academic standard ever could. For that and a thousand other things, Lisa held her in quiet admiration.
“Can I smoke in here?” she asked when she’d finished the last table.
“I’d prefer if you didn’t. This is a non-smoking establishment.”
“Come on, save it for the customers.” The brunette lit a fresh cigarette.
“Fine,” Jaimee frowned, and resumed polishing the bar.
Lisa noticed her disturbed expression. “What?”
“You look like a twelve year-old convict with that thing in your mouth.”
Lisa stuck out her tongue in a childish manner, and blew a defiant puff of smoke in Jaimee’s direction. At seventeen, the baby fat still refused to leave her face. By her estimation, her features wouldn’t conform to maturity for another six years. It was so depressing, Lisa thought as she wandered over to the back wall of the store, brimming with candy and souvenirs. She browsed shelves full of pecan treats, a rack of travel blankets, and other products emblazoned with the store logo, and finally picked up a Stuckey’s ashtray when Jaimee wasn’t looking.
“Look, it’s a shelf full of Snuckey’s crap.” she observed.
“Hey, that ‘crap’ earns me two paychecks a month, so don’t knock it.”
“Kidding!” Lisa tossed her hands up in mock surrender. “Did you order your yearbook yet?”
“Yeah. Twenty dollars, what a rip-off.”
“Tell me about it.”
“How is the latest issue of Happenings going?”
“Better than the last,” she admitted. “I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes it’s hard to dig up news when there’s so much going on, you know?”
“Why don’t you write a story about me sometime?”
“Because you haven’t done anything newsworthy.”
“Don’t worry, I will.” Jaimee assured.
“Good. When you do, I’ll write about it.”
“An exclusive interview, I promise.” Lisa scanned the vacant store. “I can’t believe you’re here all by yourself tonight.”
“No, just until Stacy comes in at nine.” she said, straightening a rack of T-shirts. “Hey, want to buy one of these?” Jaimee held up a dark blue Stuckey’s shirt. “Only $3.00.”
Lisa flicked her cigarette into the borrowed ashtray. “Thanks, but maybe some other time.”
“They’re really comfortable. I use mine for a night shirt.”
They both looked up suddenly as the door chimed, and a traveler came into the store. “Lisa, put it out!” hissed Jaimee. She made a grab for the cigarette but the other girl twisted away, evading her long enough to take another desperate drag before it was confiscated.
“Hold on a minute, I’m almost—Oww!” she yelped when Jaimee seized her by the wrist and pressed her fingers on a spot in the crook of Lisa’s elbow.
She plucked the cigarette from her mouth and snubbed it out in the ashtray, then quickly fanned the haze with both hands to disperse the smoke. “Sorry, but you really do need to quit anyway. It’s a bad habit.”
Lisa rubbed the sore spot, pulsing with electricity. “Okay, but you don’t have to be so rough. Next time just ask.”
“Don’t forget to act professional. You work here, too, remember?”
“Jeeze, not if you’re going to treat me like that.”
“Sorry!” Jaimee apologized again, moving behind the counter as the motorist made a beeline for the snack bar. He was a heavyset man in his mid-thirties, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, a Hawaiian shirt, and cut-off shorts with hemp sandals. From his clothing and mild case of sunburn, Lisa judged him to be from the south.
Putting on a bright smile, Jaimee adopted the mask of public service that was required of her job. “Hi, welcome to Stuckey’s! How may I serve you today?”
“I’d like a big-ass cup of sweet tea, darlin’! Think you can help me out?”
Lisa quickly rubbed her nose to cover her amusement.
“Yes, sir.” She headed to the soda fountain. “Where are you from?”
“I’m up here visiting from Florida. Go Gators!” he cheered while Lisa smiled at her deductive prowess.
Jaimee filled a large cup with tea while the customer leaned against the bar, nonchalantly surveying the store. His eyes bugged out when he spied the souvenirs on the mirrored back wall, its reflective surface multiplying the collection into a blazing cornucopia of color. Like a moth drawn to light, the traveler abandoned his thirst for the treasure trove of chintzy merchandise. Lisa watched in awe as the grown man picked through shot glasses, key chains, magnets and other trinkets with all the enthusiasm of a kid at Christmas. By the time his drink was ready, he staggered to the checkout with enough boxes of jumbo pecan logs to last for a nuclear winter, a tabletop ant farm, three paddle ball games, a toy alligator and a giant rubber snake draped around his neck. Between his teeth were clenched an assortment of postcards. Jaimee placed the cup of tea alongside the hoarded goods, and began to ring everything up.
“Boy, do I sure love these pecan bars!” the man delighted in a mild Ocala twang. “I didn’t know you could get ’em this far north!”
Lisa finally found the courage to speak up, saying, “They’re our specialty, sir,” with all the pride that she could manage on her first night as a representative of the franchise.
“You can call me Jimmy.”
“So, where are you headed, Jimmy?” she asked, playing the part of interested employee.
“I’m on my way to New York to see about buying a radio station, no big deal.”
The register chimed as Jaimee totaled the purchase. “Well, good luck with that. Your total today is $135.78.”
“Shucks, is that all?” Jimmy asked, pulling a thick roll of hundred-dollar bills from his breast pocket. The girls gawked because they had never seen so much money handled so casually before. “Ooh, can I get one of these, too?” Jimmy plucked an ‘I saw Elvis at Stuckey’s’ bumper sticker from a nearby rack, adding it to the pile. Lisa, fighting open mirth, gazed down and shaded her eyes to avoid laughing at the overzealous customer.
When the Floridian was gone, Jaimee bought them a Kit Kat bar to snack on while they chatted at the front counter. “Tomorrow I’m going into Boston with Steve and Jen. Wanna go?”
Lisa walked around to the front side of the checkout to examine a rack of miniature spoons, each one emblazoned with the seal of a different state. “No, I have to study for Mr. Beech’s economics test on Monday.” The reply elicited a disapproving sigh.
“I thought we already had this discussion. Life isn’t all about school. We’re graduating next year, so try to enjoy yourself.”
Lisa broke off one chocolate stick and took a joyless bite, too distracted to really taste it. “Yeah, I know. It’s just that I don’t want to be stuck in Abington the rest of my life,” she complained. “I can’t stand it here.”
Leaning forward on the counter, the other girl laced her fingers together, appraising her classmate earnestly. “Tell me what’s really wrong.”
Nibbling on the Kit Kat with one hand, Lisa unhooked the small plastic case containing the New York spoon from the spinning rack and studied the design on the glossy shield. “I want things to change, but I also want them to stay the same. I know it’s stupid, but that’s how I feel.”
“Things change all the time, Lisa. You don’t even wake up to the same world that you went to sleep in the night before.”
Lisa paused thoughtfully for a moment, because she had never quite pictured it that way before. “Yeah, but don’t you ever get bored around here? I mean, this place kinda sucks unless you happen to like living in the middle of nowhere. I want to go someplace new and exciting, where things are really happening, you know?”
Jaimee turned her palms up with a shrug. “Sure, sometimes. Then I look at the bigger picture. I live on a planet where the sky is my favorite color, I have my family and friends, and I’m happy. What more do I need?”
“I don’t know...” the brunette returned the New York spoon to its peg with a weary sigh, then offered the rest of the candy bar to her friend.
Jaimee set aside the Kit Kat without touching it. “Lisa, you need to get your head out of the books once in awhile and just have some fun.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re the only kid in school who listens to Paul Harvey for entertainment.”
“He’s interesting!” she exclaimed in defense.
“Which proves my point. You’re too up-tight. Really. If you don’t relax, you’re going to end up like—” She bit back the word, stopping herself.
Lisa gazed up sharply, brows knitting in perplexity. “Like what?”
Jaimee frowned at Lisa across the counter separating them, debating if she should admit the problem without hurting her feelings, and then finally made up her mind. “Look, I didn’t want to say it, but exactly like you are now. Neurotic. And you don’t want to be that way, believe me. Life’s too short to be miserable.”
The truth was a bitter pill to swallow, but Lisa appreciated her honesty. Moreover, she was surprised at how quickly she accepted it, and how much better she felt with the promising new outlook. She had always been too strict with herself, too disciplined and serious, and it was those qualities that alienated her from her peers. Nobody wanted to hang out with an over-achieving busybody, which is precisely what Lisa Miller had become. Although it wouldn’t be easy, she knew it was time to change. But she had to do it for herself, when she was ready; not because Jaimee told her to.
Lisa gazed at her friend in genuine admiration for being everything that she was. “Hey, would you mind putting some of that wisdom in my yearbook?” she asked.
Jaimee smiled back warmly, her dark eyes sparkling with satisfaction. “Delighted to. Right beside my name.”
From her seat in the tiny midtown bistro, Jaimee Patterson watched the veil of rain fall steadily against pavement that refused to be nurtured. The drops of water beaded on the leaves of the potted plant outside the window, and rolled slowly down the waxy tongues before falling to a ground that would not receive them. She felt equally as helpless on her last morning in New York City. Her work was complete, and she would be on a plane back to Boston within the hour. Jaimee should have been happy, but in fact, she was far from it.
“I’d love to read your paper when you finish it, so please send me a copy,” offered Lisa. Jaimee gave a vague nod of indifference, and Lisa could tell that something was troubling her. “Why are you so quiet?”
She took a long sip of orange juice before saying anything. “Do you like me?”
“Of course I do, and I don’t care about your.. problem.” Lisa winced at her choice of words, immediately regretting them.
“I thought we already had this discussion,” the teenager said coldly. The words sparked something deep in Lisa’s memory, an echo from the past.
“No, I’m really sorry, and I like you very much. In fact, I was hoping you could come back and visit again. There really is a lot more to experience in New York.”
Jaimee looked hopeful. “Like museums? I love going to museums.”
“Of course, and I’m sure I could arrange a tour of WNYX so you can get a firsthand look at the station.”
The student massaged her eyelids with the fingers of her left hand, feigning tiredness. She’s hiding something else, Lisa thought. Her body language said it all.
“Talk to me.” she ordered, keeping her voice neutral. Jaimee looked up from her plate, and Lisa felt like kicking herself. She mouthed the words again, only this time without speaking them because the girl couldn’t hear her anyway. She was stunned when Jaimee slapped her fork on the table and glared at her in anger.
“Please use your voice when you talk; It’s insulting to me when you don’t.” The ex-reporter swore in amazement at her perceptiveness.
“Yes, I really am deaf. Are you satisfied?”
“I’m sorry. Please tell me what’s—” Lisa’s cell phone went off before she could finish. She was tempted to ignore the call, knowing that Jaimee couldn’t hear it, but she answered it after the third persistent ring. “Excuse me.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Jaimee said, focusing on her pancakes with sudden interest. Lisa knew that she was giving her privacy.
“Yes?” she said into the phone, and then checked her watch. “Fine, I’ll be there in a few minutes. Bye.” She switched it off.
Jaimee looked up when she was finished.
“Sorry again. I need to stop by work before we head for the airport. My boss wants to see me.”
The library was Lisa Miller’s private sanctuary, a place where she could get away from her family, who constantly urged her to get out of the house and have a social life. As if there was time for that when she was so close to graduating. But Lisa wasn’t even thinking about that now. Instead, she was enjoying some recreational reading at a nice, secluded table in the corner of Non-fiction, having finished her homework already. Her selections ranged from A History of Ancient Egypt and Geometry for Enjoyment & Challenge, to The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. She was on the second verse of ‘The Raven’ when two girls from school came over to her table.
“Do you go to Abington High?” asked the ponytailed blonde in red plaid.
Lisa looked up. One side of her mouth twisted with irk. “Who doesn’t?”
“Then you know Jaimee Ellis, right?” inquired the girl’s red-haired companion.
Lisa brightened. “Yeah, we have science class together.” It felt good to be in Jaimee’s circle of friends.
“She died in a car crash last night.”
The words hit Lisa like a cold hammer, the warm glow of happiness turning to ice in her gut. It was impossible. They were talking about somebody else. They had to be. “...What? But I just saw her two days ago....”
“It was in the newspaper this morning. She was riding back from Boston with some friends, and this big truck—”
“S-stop it, stop it please,” Lisa ordered. The inside of her mouth suddenly tasted metallic, and she felt sick.
“Are you okay?” asked the redhead as Lisa stood, and gripped the nearest bookshelf for support.
Lisa shook her head quickly, hoping they would go away. She clumsily moved to grab her backpack and leave, but her legs buckled and she fell to her knees as the world came apart around her. Every single experience that she had shared with Jaimee flashed through her mind in a kaleidoscope of memory. Lisa tried to remember the last thing she had said to her, but all she could think of was her stupid little quip during the nature walk: “Should I classify Jaimee as living or non-living?” At that moment, she would have given anything to take back those words. But it was too late.
The next day she walked through the doors of her science class, and into a room without light. Jaimee Ellis was not writing in her notebook, or unwrapping a Kit Kat bar to share with her. Nobody spoke as Lisa took her seat in front of the vacant desk in the first row. The only thing more oppressive than the uneasy silence in the classroom was the guilt that she felt. As she leaned over to unzip her backpack, Lisa was all too aware of the patch of empty floor behind her desk where Jaimee’s familiar sneakers normally rested. She knew that if she turned around, her best friend wouldn’t be there. Not now, or ever again.
Lisa swallowed the lump in her throat, and opened her notebook to where she’d left off a week ago. Now it seemed like a lifetime had passed. The pen in her hand seemed to weigh a thousand pounds, yet felt like it was made out of air. Lisa flinched when it touched the paper, but she forced herself to copy the words on the blackboard.
Life cycle: The phases, changes or stages an organism passes through during its lifetime.
When she completed the first definition, a wave of regret rippled through her like a cold wind. Her amber-colored eyes misted over as she imagined the angry roar of metal that took her friend out of the world, and the words on the page blurred out of focus. Her nostrils burned as if someone had jammed screwdrivers into them. She didn’t want to win this way. It wasn’t fair. Lisa choked back a cry. She jumped up, scraping the legs of her desk noisily on the floor, and ran from the classroom. She took the stairs down two at a time, and locked herself in the corner stall of the bathroom until her tears were all gone. Everything afterward was a blur until the funeral.
The car drove steadily in line with the rest of the motorcade, flanked by police cruisers flashing silent red and blue lights. In the back seat, Lisa folded her black-gloved hands over the damp handkerchief in her lap. She kept her eyes down as the car turned into the cemetery drive. The automobile rocked her slightly to the left, then back again. She hated being in the procession of mourners as they were paraded through the city in front of strangers waiting on the side of the road. Those people didn’t know Jaimee, or how wonderful she was, and they did not deserve to see her friends and family in such a state. No matter what she did, Lisa couldn’t block out the old song in her head:
To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
When she looked up, Lisa could see the shiny black hearse that carried the body of her best friend to its final resting place. A mewling wail climbed up her throat, and she covered her face with a hand, gritting her teeth in anguish. She realized, for what seemed like the first time, that she would really never see Jaimee again. They would not share any more jokes in class, or race to see who could copy their notes down first, or have lunch in the shade of the big oak tree by the curb.
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
The car stopped, and Lisa raised her face from her silky gloves. She didn’t want to watch them unload the casket from the hearse, but she couldn’t look away. All that remained after a lifetime of happiness and joy was a metal box, Lisa thought bitterly. She felt like rushing to the casket and throwing the lid open for sunlight to shine on Jaimee’s body, to snatch her spirit from the cold hand of death and return it to the life she knew. Her friend had never asked for this, and certainly didn’t deserve it. But it wasn’t going to happen.
To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
All around was the freshness and vibrance of a living world, but Lisa felt hollow inside as she walked along the rows of marble slabs and granite statues covered with pollen in the drowsy afternoon. The overhead sun threw stunted shadows from the gravestones as they moved closer to the cloth canopy above the gravesite. Jaimee’s light blue casket was placed on a velvet-covered platform, and beside it lay a soft pile of overturned earth to fill in the hole, and block out the sky forever.
A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing
The masses of people crowded under and around the awning, most of them students and teachers from school. Lisa gave her mom a long hug, and drifted away to join her classmates, some of whom she barely knew at all. She hugged Cathy Kilgore, then Becky Turner, both friends of Jaimee. The girls joined hands as the minister approached the podium. He was an elderly man, garbed in a long black robe with gold accents, who clutched his bible with solemn purpose.
“Friends and family of our dearly departed sister, Jaimee Ann Ellis, let this not be a time of sadness, but rather one of fond remembrance for a kind and gentle woman; a woman who blessed everyone in her life with genuine love and happiness, friendship and joy.”
Lisa trembled convulsively as she wept. Cathy gave her hand a tight squeeze, letting her know that she was there, and that she loved Jaimee as much as they all did.
“As Matthew 5:3-4 assures us: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted...”
The rest of the sermon was a blur. No words, however comforting or true, could ever bring back her friend. Then, in a strangely detached thought, Lisa vowed then and there to quit smoking. It would make Jaimee happy to know that she wasn’t going to do it anymore. Lisa felt a brief twinge in the crook of her elbow—at exactly the same spot that Jaimee had paralyzed her. It was a reminder to keep her promise. For the first time in a week, she smiled.
“We now commit the body of our beloved sister to the grave, to rest in peace until the resurrection of the dead at our Savior’s return.”
When it was Lisa’s turn to pay her final respects, she reached out and touched the top of Jaimee’s casket, knowing that she would never be closer again. The silver moon pendant on her wrist clinked softly against the lid, a sweet reminder that her gift would unite them forever. Lisa bowed close and whispered goodbye, then kissed the casket and patted it gently before walking away. She would always remember her best friend.
“Reynolds wants to see you in his office,” Misty reported to Lisa the moment she stepped into the personnel office.
The courier went directly to the coffee maker and filled a Styrofoam cup to the brim, knowing that she would need a good shot of caffeine for the confrontation that was soon to come. “So I’ve heard,” Lisa replied with flat disinterest.
“Are you in trouble or something?” the secretary asked, curious.
“Or something,” Lisa repeated. “I hope not, but I could be wrong.”
The redhead gazed around in a conspiratorial manner, and then slid back the newspaper on her desk to reveal the green-and-white bars of a computer fax sheet. “This memo came in earlier today. I thought you might want to see it.”
Lisa walked her fingers over the paper and casually pulled it out. Most of the text concerned recent policy changes and other miscellanea, but the last note jumped out immediately:
Subject: Fourth quarter budget cutbacks. Due to increased fuel costs resulting from the current economic situation, we recommend that you terminate a minimum of three drivers by the end of the month. Please contact me if you have any further questions.
-Mike Rowan, CEO Pangaeascape Ltd.
Misty looked apologetic. “I hope it doesn’t mean anything bad for you.”
A bland smile crossed Lisa’s face, and she raised her coffee in a mock toast. “Ah, Robert. He warms my heart everyday... in a pot of boiling water.” She took a sip and headed down the hallway, hoping that she was in for nothing worse than another career development discussion.
In the beginning, she was a driver for Pangaeascape, and was promoted to Training and Safety Coordinator within six weeks. Later, she declined a management position in favor of being a courier. The choice had exasperated her boss because it prevented him from becoming a regional supervisor, and thus advancing in the chain of command. To date, the only repercussion had been a series of increasingly annoying meetings with Reynolds, who tried to convince her of the career benefits of the new position. But Lisa secretly enjoyed being stubborn because she knew how much it pissed him off.
“Robert,” she acknowledged, trying to appear relaxed, as if she had personal meetings with her despicable supervisor all the time.
She took another sip of coffee, but remained standing.
“Have it your way, then.”
“Does this have anything to do with—”
“No,” he cut in, “it pertains to your last drop yesterday. Union Square called me after it was three hours late.”
“I can explain, sir.” Lisa nearly cringed at having to address the man by the same term of endearment reserved for Mr. James.
He brushed her off with a dismissive wave, as if her offer was an annoying insect. “Don’t bother. Your performance is going to cost you twenty points on your next evaluation. You can count on that.”
“That’s not fair,” she said calmly.
“In fact,” he continued, opening her personal file, “I have a record of your offenses over the past year. Here are just a few: Failure to conform with dress code, use of a company vehicle for non business-related purposes, impersonating a U.S. Customs agent, encouraging unauthorized tipping from clients... and of course, disrespect for authority. Those have been excused, but I’m afraid I can’t forgive what you said to me last night. Now I want a full apology, or else.”
Lisa narrowed her eyes. “If you can’t handle the truth, then you obviously have a problem facing reality.”
Reynolds’ moustache dusted his icy frown. He cleared his throat. “Be that as it may, I think your behavior can be overlooked if you’re willing to... negotiate,” he finished with a hollow smile.
Lisa sipped her coffee with growing suspicion. Something wasn’t right, like being able to feel the presence of a wall in the dark even when you can’t see it. Her instincts told her to be cautious. “Sir?” She bit out the word as innocuously as possible. Reynolds strolled from behind his desk and closed the office door, locking it. Then he came over to her with a sudden eagerness.
“Come on, Miller, don’t be such a hard-ass.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, and let it slide down her arm. The touch sent a sick chill through her body. “I know this is a tough job, but I have just the thing to help you... relax.”
This is highly unprofessional workplace behavior, thought Lisa, and not the good kind she had enjoyed with Dave. Her heart pounded with fear. The cold thrill of adrenaline tickled her veins. She was on a rollercoaster poised at the arch of an enormous drop, just waiting to plunge over the edge. Lisa flinched as she felt his other hand move down her body and slide between her legs to cup her greedily. Then her fear gave way to outrage. She wasn’t going to be another victim.
Lisa shoved him back forcefully, balled her fist and drove a hard punch to the side of Roberts’ head that sent him staggering back into his desk. He collapsed to the floor in a daze, reeling from the hit. “Keep your hands to yourself, you miserable bastard. And you can have this job, too, because I don’t need this shit anymore. I quit!”
She tore open the door and stormed out of the office. The secretary craned her neck in concern when she saw Lisa striding down the hall, her face burning with scarlet outrage. She had obviously heard the commotion, but Lisa didn’t care. “What happened in there?”
Lisa forced herself to stop and take a deep breath. On the verge of tears, she placed her hands on the receptionist’s desk and calmly told her, “Misty, I think you should find a nicer man to work for.”
Then, continuing to the exit, she kicked the door open on her way out. Lisa went straight over to her delivery truck and glared at the driver’s side window, trembling as the years of resentment consumed her in a boiling rage. Drawing her hand into her jacket sleeve, she closed the hole with a fistful of leather. A moment later, the glass exploded in a brittle silver web. Lisa Miller released a deep sigh, blowing off all of her anger with the satisfaction of justice served. Her work here was truly finished, and it was time to move on to greener pastures.
The halls of Abington High School were quiet and barren on the last day of school. Shortly after three o’clock, Lisa Miller found herself standing in front of Jaimee’s locker, though by accident or by design she wasn’t sure. The lock had been cut off by a janitor the week after the accident, and Lisa couldn’t bear to leave without opening it one last time. She held the cold latch between her fingers, debating whether or not to do it. No, she had to. If not, she would spend the rest of her life wondering. But what did she expect to find? She lifted the handle and slowly pulled the door open, seeing the first light spill inside of the locker since she last stood there chatting with Jaimee between classes. The locker was empty as expected, but there were still a few scraps of paper in the bottom, amidst some crumpled gum and candy bar wrappers.
The first one was a signed and dated receipt for the yearbook Jaimee had purchased, but never got to see, Lisa thought sadly, remembering the promise she had elicited from her friend. When the books finally did come in, Jaimee’s parents collected her copy, and thanked Lisa for writing the memorial page dedicated to their only child. Lisa’s own yearbook went straight on her bookshelf without a single autograph. If Jaimee couldn’t sign it, then nobody would.
The other paper stood upright against the wall of the locker, trapped in the seam along the bottom. She pulled it free slowly, careful not to tear it. Her heart thundered as she ran her fingers over the folded sheet of looseleaf, which was deeply-creased and worn around the edges. She swallowed the lump in her throat, and opened it to find a brief note in Jaimee’s softly rounded handwriting, with the familiar little circles that she used to dot her lowercase I’s and J’s. According to the date, the letter was written the month before she died, but left undelivered for some reason. More than likely it had fallen out of her backpack, and been forgotten. Lisa blinked her misty eyes and read:
I come here alone, to dream into space,
I come here alone to my own quiet place.
My secrets I tell to the swift-moving river,
It carries them away to be hidden forever.
The sky is my heaven, high over the ridge,
And spanning the water of life is the bridge.
Upon it I stand, with Lisa my friend,
My sister forever, with love to the end.
Lisa heaved a ragged sigh, her heart aching with sorrow and regret. She wiped her eyes and gently refolded the letter, stuck it in her pocket and closed the locker softly. She turned and walked down the hall without looking back. Jaimee would have wanted her to be strong.
Fringes of white clouds lapped at the ocean of slate boiling above the city as they drove into the rain. The mood in the car was as somber as the sky above. Lisa Miller felt sick and hollow inside. Dark streaks of mascara striped her despondent features, a proof of suffering that was only worsened by her deep sorrow. Lisa suddenly felt like she had lost a sister, only closer, even though she hadn’t grieved for anybody since Bill McNeal had passed away. Her pain was full and present now, and she didn’t understand why.
“This is not a good idea,” Jaimee mumbled in the terse silence.
The aerodynamic shape of the Nissan 350 cut through the torrents of wind as they drew closer to the Newark Bay Bridge. “How did you cross it the last time?” asked Lisa.
“I came over on a bus. I locked myself in the bathroom and took some of these.” She held out a dark red plastic packet.
“Like I said before, it wasn’t easy.”
The car pulled to a stop and idled softly at the on-ramp as they waited for the light to change. The bridge rose before them like a giant skeletal spine, arching over the water. Jaimee rocked nervously back and forth in her seat. Her breaths were quick and deliberate, like she was trying to control herself.
“Why are you so afraid?”
“I don’t know, I always have been. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can’t.”
“That bridge is made of concrete and steel, it’s not going to fall.”
“I never said it was,” Jaimee said quickly.
“What would happen if I stopped in the middle?”
“Too high. I would have to get down.”
“Would you jump?” Jaimee nodded quickly, and began to unscrew the medicine bottle. Lisa snatched it away from her and threw it on the floor. “Stop it. You can’t spend the rest of your life like this.”
“I can’t help it.”
Lisa was growing frustrated. “Fine. We’re going to end this right now.”
“What? No!” Jaimee cried. A thousand cold needles of dread pierced her chest.
Grim and unsmiling, Lisa revved the turbo’s throttle. The car shook like a caged beast waiting to break free. “Please don’t do this…” Jaimee begged weakly.
The light turned green, and Lisa dropped the accelerator to the floor. The Nissan shot forward like a bullet. Energized by pure terror, Jaimee grabbed a fistful of shoulder harness and zipped her belt as tight as it would go. All of the color seemed to leach from her skin as the small car accelerated into the slanting rain, weaving recklessly around every vehicle in its path as it went faster and faster across the bridge. The teenager leaned her head back, and moaned pitifully, like she was going to be sick.
“Why are you crying? Stop it!”
Lisa clutched her swollen belly with both hands. “I made a promise, and I won’t let you ruin it!”
“She wasn’t my friend, she was yours.” Scott argued as they raced through the stormy night.
“It doesn’t matter, just drive!” she cried. Her labor pains were growing stronger.
“Besides, she’s dead, so she’ll never know anyway.”
“You motherfucker!” She punched him as hard as she could manage in the confines of the small car. Scott swore loudly just as they rounded the next curve in the road. Then the old bridge came into view. Pools of water glittered from its bumpy surface like snake eyes in their headlights. Lisa Miller cried out at the stab of a sharp contraction, and then they were upon it. A mournful howl rose from the wet pavement as they sped across, gaining in pitch. Then a deep groan seemed to come from everywhere, and the bridge shuddered beneath them.
The pregnant girl turned in time to see the semi truck that had been following them slam on brakes. The tires flattened like stomped marshmallows under the weight of the vehicle, then hopped and stuttered as the truck lumbered sideways. Scott cranked the steering wheel hard, putting Lisa on the far side of the impact. She watched the keys on the ignition swing out in a 45-degree angle and freeze in mid-air, suspended in place. A wall of riveted metal flew toward them. Lisa screamed, there was a flash of white thunder, and then nothing at all.
“Why are you doing this!?! I’m your daughter!!!” Jaimee wailed as the needle crossed 60.
Lisa stomped her brake pedal. The Nissan jerked hard, fishtailed into a sickening loop of rotations. Tires hissed across pavement that had suddenly become soft ice, and traffic around them scattered in a flurry of horns. She locked white-knuckled fists on the steering wheel as the panorama of gray iron scrolled in the rearview mirror like a tragic blur. Jaimee had a death-grip on her seatbelt. The vortex of terror ended with a small bump as the vehicle finally came to a halt in the right lane, rocking back and forth on its low suspension, two feet from the railing. The windshield wipers glided across the glass in matching arcs, neatly erasing the film of rain. Everything was quiet.
Dazed, Lisa looked at the girl as if she were a complete stranger who had suddenly climbed into the car beside her, someone she had never seen before. “...Jaimee?”
She tried to remember the last time she’d spoken that name, a long time ago in a much different world, and suddenly everything came back in a vivid rush of memory, like time on fast-forward. Lisa remembered her high school friend and their easygoing rivalry, playing hooky from the class field trip, the tragic accident that took Jaimee away, the promise Lisa made at her funeral, and the heartbreaking poem that she found in her empty locker. Then the years rushed on, skipping to her sophomore year of college: Her whirlwind affair with Scott Connor, the passionate weekend they spent at his house when his parents went away on vacation which resulted in the frantic race to the hospital nine months later on that rainy Fall night, the crash on the bridge...
And then what? Her memory went blank, hidden behind a curtain of darkness.
Her hand went reflexively to her abdomen, and Lisa lifted her shirt and touched what she always believed to be an appendix scar. They took the baby from me... She was consumed by a tide of emotion as she looked upon the face of her child, now a grown woman of 18. Now she could see the lines of her biology in the noble beauty that captivated her from the moment she first met Jaimee. Somehow she had sensed the connection, but now Lisa knew it for a fact. She had a beautiful daughter, her legacy to the world.
“Mom!” Jaimee threw her arms around Lisa, embracing her mother for the first time in her life. They wept for all of the years lost, with sorrow undiminished by the soothing novocaine of time.
“What happened? I remember the beginning, but...” she trailed off, leaving the rest unspoken.
“You were in a coma. I found out everything.” Jaimee unzipped her travel bag and brought out an archival scan of the Patriot Ledger, along with a copy of her birth certificate—both dated September 30, 1987. Lisa took the newspaper with trembling hands, almost afraid to know the truth.
The article told of an accident on a rain-soaked bridge in rural Massachusetts that claimed the life of one college student, and left the other in a coma. Scott Connor was killed instantly when a semi truck hydroplaned and smashed his car into the guardrail. His girlfriend, who was nine months pregnant and in the early stages of labor, received a severe concussion, and was unconscious when the paramedics arrived. They rushed her to Brockton hospital, where her baby was delivered via an emergency C-section, and in perfect health. Lisa Miller was in a coma for three weeks, and awoke with no memory of the accident, or her pregnancy.
Jaimee supplied the rest of the story, filling in the blanks which had been erased from Lisa’s memory by the crash. The girl was raised by Doug and Nancy Patterson, devoted foster parents who loved their surrogate daughter like their own. They were open and honest with Jaimee concerning the fact that she was adopted, and were understanding when she displayed a keen interest in the lives of her biological parents. When she turned 18, Jaimee was legally entitled to her birthrights, and set about finding them.
First she located her grandparents in Boston, a distinctly impersonal upper-class Hyde Park couple who provided Jaimee with Lisa’s contact information, but didn’t seem eager to help her any more than necessary. Over the course of an awkward and uncomfortable dinner, she learned that they did not approve of their daughter’s relationship, or subsequent pregnancy, and took steps to erase all evidence of Scott Connor from her life. By the time Lisa finally came home from the hospital, her bedroom was devoid of anything to indicate that she had ever had a boyfriend.
Believing that she would never emerge from her comatose state, Lisa’s grief-stricken parents withdrew her enrollment at Emerson College. After her recovery, it was found that she suffered from post-traumatic amnesia. The doctors advised that she might not be able to accept the truth about the crash, and the death of her boyfriend would be a severe psychological blow. So it was explained to Lisa that she had been driving alone that night, and misjudged a sharp turn in the dark of the storm. Lisa Miller was transferred to Boston University, where she later decided to pursue a degree in radio journalism.
When Jaimee asked the Millers why they had not raised her, she was told in no uncertain terms that Lisa did not need to worry about the burden of caring for a child in the prime of her life, how it was a shameful condition for a respectable girl of her standing. Basically, the Millers didn’t want the pregnancy to tarnish their good name in society. It sickened Jaimee that her grandparents, her own flesh and blood, could be so completely and utterly heartless. She got up in the middle of dinner and left without regret. The next day she headed to New York to find her mom. It was the most important step she would ever take in her life.
“Why didn’t you just tell me?” pleaded Lisa, dabbing her glistening eyes.
“I was afraid you might not believe me, and I wanted to find out what kind of person you were before I said anything,” she confessed, sobbing with emotion.
Lisa reached out and stroked her daughter’s face tenderly, then pulled Jaimee into a tight embrace, holding her with the purest bliss that she had ever known. “You’re my baby girl, and I will always love you.”
One week later
Leaden clouds, the last trace of the hurricane, reached for the pale warmth of the horizon. Orange and yellow leaves whipped like fire in the dying sunlight as the two women stood in a far corner of Mount Vernon cemetery. Their dark hair danced in the autumn breeze. The hands of the younger were folded in respect before the gravestone that bore her namesake. Her mother, who had not visited since the funeral, wept silently beside her. Lisa remembered her friend, and regretted losing her so quickly. In truth, she hadn’t known her that well, and yet the quietly confident girl had changed her life by merely accepting her. How could she ever repay her? Jaimee sniffed with sadness nearby, and Lisa realized that the answer was closer than her own heart. I kept my promise.
For just a moment Lisa thought she saw a dark shimmer in the glossy surface of the marker, like another figure joining them at the side of the grave. The wind suddenly picked up, cleansing her in its cool current. In that brief instant, she perceived a slighter form, with dark, shoulder-length hair. We had the time that we were supposed to have. Now let me go, urged a gentle voice inside of her. Then it was gone in a flash, replaced by the reflection of the trees gusting in the breeze behind them. Rays of sunlight knifed through the dismal sky and lit the graveyard with a golden ambience. The grayness melted away to reveal clouds ascending like a white mountain range in the distance. Lisa put an arm around her daughter, and they walked back to the car without a word. She knew that everything was better now: the bittersweet past finally reconciled, the future still ahead. Now, at least, she had someone to share it with.
Lisa shifted the car into gear and rumbled up the narrow gravel road, blowing up small clouds of dust as they turned onto the rural Massachusetts highway. They drove in silence for a few minutes until she noticed a sharp point breaking the green landscape a quarter of a mile ahead on the right. As they drew nearer, the notch became the dramatically angled roof of a small brick building on a spread of rumpled asphalt. Nestled in a grove of trees, the whitewashed stone appeared gray in the late evening shadows; the pitched metal roof was stained a deep indigo. A broad rectangular sign on thick steel posts towered over the blue-roofed barn. Lisa stared in disbelief at the familiar red-on-yellow script. She hadn’t seen one of the stores in ages, didn’t think they still existed anymore. But there it was, a little patch of heaven sitting beside the dusky road, exactly as she remembered it all those years ago. Squinting at the glowing strip of panoramic windows, Lisa felt a lump in her throat, imagining that she could see her friend behind the front counter, waiting to chat with her after the long trip through life that finally brought her back to the diner. They had a lot to catch up on.
Conflict and yearning tickled her hands, rolling the steering wheel uncertainly as they approached the off-ramp. Lisa wanted to stop, and yet she didn’t because it would never be the same again. Still, the warmly-lit windows beckoned invitingly. Lisa wondered if it was an omen, but didn’t have long to find out.
Jaimee sat up in her seat, her attention suddenly piqued by the whimsical architecture that cast its magical spell on every road-weary traveler for over half a century. She turned to her mother, clutching Lisa’s arm with enthusiastic hope. “Hey, want to stop and get a souvenir shirt?”
A happy glow spread through Lisa Miller. She couldn’t refuse her friend’s offer this time. “I’d love to,” she said, and steered toward the exit.