Tonight was the night. Phoebe smoothed down her red and gold dress for the millionth time and checked her reflection in the mirror. Her short brown hair fell softly around her ears the way it always did. The small dabs of makeup on her face and the small golden hoops hanging from her ears were the only real enhancements to her general appearance. Why hadn’t she done more? You’d think she would have, especially for a night like tonight.
Finally, tonight it all came to fruition. All her hard work, everything she had fought for. Telling herself that was the only way she could summon up the courage to turn away from the mirror, leave the bathroom and reenter the ballroom.
The event was in full swing: guests in elegant attire were moving around the room, mingling and chatting aimlessly. Waiters with trays of champagne danced among them. In the corner, the band played soft, dry music that one only ever heard at these types of events. The resounding echoes and waves of stimuli that originated from this scene hit Phoebe’s senses hard and made her feel weak and anxious again. She wanted to dart back into the silence of the bathroom.
“Doctor Terese!” Phoebe turned in surprise, still not used to being addressed by her academic title. She smiled when she caught sight of the man who had addressed her.
“Doctor Tides! I’m so glad you could make it!” She gripped his hand in a friendly shake as they reached each other. Her nerves calmed somewhat. Talking with only one person was fine. It was just large crowds that scared her.
“Oh I couldn’t miss this!” Doctor Tides assured her, smoothing down the neck of his suit jacket and straightening his bowtie that was poking out from under his long beard. “No one in the scientific community would! This is quite the achievement!” Phoebe smiled, too flattered to reply. “Everyone here is just so astounded that this pulled through.” Doctor Tides continued. “We were sure that the property was going to be turned over to a developing company to be devastated forever.”
“Yes well, my research into mammalian biodiversity and ecosystem functions gave them some pretty undeniable results.” Phoebe admitted. She was still amazed she had even gotten that grant. A grant that was now about to be renewed due to her successful petitioning of the government to preserve the area she had studied as a national monument.
Tides waved a hand. “Don’t give all the credit to the research, Doctor Terese. Your efforts saved this pristine piece of wilderness. You were the one leading the fight. And now hundreds of species will have a place to call home.”
Phoebe couldn’t help blushing. “Thank you. But I can’t take all the credit, sir. I had a lot of help.”
Tides nodded but his gaze drifted to something over Phoebe’s shoulder. His eyes lit up in recognition at what he saw. “Isn’t that Keesha?” He whispered excitedly.
Phoebe didn’t even have to look. “Yes it is.” She told him with a grin. “She’s agreed to help with the publicity.”
“Keesha Franklin?” Tides said like a teenage boy meeting his celebrity crush. “I didn’t know she was so interested in science…”
Phoebe tried not to giggle. She wished she would get to see Keesha turning him down. “She is. She double majored acting and biology in college.” Phoebe informed the infatuated doctor. “She absolutely loves the scientific community.”
Tides stroked his beard. “Does she now…” He excused himself with a mumbled, half-hearted apology and rushed away to join the crowd milling around the movie star best known for her role as Harriet Tubman in The Underground Railroad and her fantastic narration of the BBC documentary about the ocean floor: World of Darkness. Phoebe didn’t mind. She was used to it. Just like always, she hung back while Keesha greeted the fans and made small talk with acquaintances she knew from this or that social or benefit. She knew Keesha would greet her when she could.
Phoebe made her way toward the bar to better survey the mayhem accompanying Keesha’s arrival. By this time, news of the star’s appearance had arrived and all the scientists in attendance (although many of them not even close to being astronomers) were flocking to catch a glimpse. As the crowd began to thicken, Phoebe caught only a few fleeting glances of the girl she had met in elementary school.
Her best friend looked nothing short of a princess: her light violet ball gown delicately scooped her neck, the effect complimented by a delicate necklace of pearls that matched the ones hanging from her ears. Her face shone in the lighting, her flawless skin that many facial companies had tried to claim as their own reflected the light as if made of metal. Her skin tone matched her dress perfectly.
By comparison, with her stocky, outdoors body and simple, conservative dress standing out against her sunburned skin, Phoebe felt very plain indeed.
She turned around, smiling widely. “Nervous as I’ve ever been, Doctor Perlstein.”
Arnold smiled kindly, looking incredibly dashing in his black suit and orange bowtie. Somehow, he could always pull off orange. “Why? This is your night. These people are here for you.”
She shook her head, a little of the nerves that had driven her to the bathroom returning. “No they’re not. They’re here for the wildlife preserve. Or for Keesha.”
Arnold shrugged and placed a friendly hand on her shoulder. “Maybe so, but neither of those would be possible without you and you know it.”
Phoebe looked at the floor. “I just feel so… plain.” She admitted.
Arnold stepped in front of her. “Nonsense! You couldn’t look better.”
His eyes twinkled. “Keesha looks great in ball gowns because she’s a natural queen. She always has been. But you,” He took her hand and spun her around once as if they had been dancing. “You pull off that dress like no one else could. That dress is you. Everyone can tell you don’t need to dress up to be beautiful. You just chose too.”
As always, Arnold’s kind words warmed her heart. “Don’t let Keesh hear you say that.” She warned him as she conveniently spun into the embrace of his arms.
Arnold leaned in and she kissed him. It was brief enough to be polite but long enough to show their mutual affection. “I don’t care.” Arnold said as they broke apart. “She’s not the one I’m engaged to.”
“I always thought you were married to your work.” Phoebe teased. She was still in his arms. She wasn’t ready to let go yet, he was too warm, too good at keeping the jitters away.
“Now that’s not fair.” Arnold protested, letting her go but holding both her hands in his own.
“Can the world’s leading expert on rocks really afford to leave his precious rocks to spend time with a trophy wife?” Phoebe asked, her teeth showing as she grinned. “You love your rocks too much.”
Arnold lifted her left hand. “Yes but this rock is my favorite.” He told her, looking at the ring. “Although it did come with a very hefty price tag…”
“One I would have no qualms helping to pay off.”
Arnold shook his head but he was smiling just as widely as she was. “That’s not how these things work.”
“I don’t care.” Phoebe replied. “You’re not the only one making a living wage in this relationship.”
Arnold laughed but abruptly stopped when he caught sight of something behind her.
“There’s Doctor Grits!”
Phoebe turned around to see the aging rock expert making his way out of the crowd of Keesha’s admirers. “Go on.” She told her fiancé. “Don’t keep your old mentor waiting! And say hi to Keesh if you get within shouting range.”
Arnold pecked her on the cheek and rushed off to see the old rock expert who had helped him through grad school. Phoebe couldn’t help giggling slightly and putting her hand to the place he had just kissed. She watched Arnold jog up to Doctor Grits and lead the older man away, already deep in conversation about the new vein of schists discovered outside of University grounds. Phoebe had stopped smiling but the feeling stayed deep within her. She couldn’t believe how lucky she’d been this past year. Between the wildlife preserve, the new research grant and now her engagement, things had never been brighter.
“Oh young love… it really warms the heart.”
Surprised, Phoebe turned to the voice.
A tall black-haired woman not much older than she was was sitting at the bar behind her. The woman was looking after Arnold’s retreating form with a strange expression on her face. Almost like a mother watching her child. The woman was in a long black dress that cut off just above her ankles and created a classy v-neck that simultaneously revealed and contained her ample cleavage. Her long hair fell in waves over her sharp cheekbones and onto her shoulders.
Her twinkling eyes moved to Phoebe and she got the strangest sense that the woman was looking into her, rather than at her. “Is that your husband?” The woman asked.
Phoebe shook her head. “My boyfr… well actually as of yesterday, my fiancé.”
The woman’s face lit up. “Wonderful! Congratulations!”
Phoebe blushed and smiled in thanks, playing with the new ring on her finger. She was still in shock about the whole thing. Her and Arnold had been friends since elementary school and they had been dating for the past two years. But all the same, his proposal had left her feeling shocked, sick and euphoric all at once. Much the same way the national monument had.
“How did he do it?” The woman inquired. “If you don’t mind me asking of course.”
Phoebe sat next to her at the bar. “He was… well he didn’t so much propose as stumble and drop the ring.”
The woman laughed. “Oh yes, that does sound like Arnold.”
Phoebe was taken aback. “You know him?”
The woman waved a hand. “Oh yes, we go way back.”
“Really? How do you know him?”
The woman didn’t reply but her smile told Phoebe she would probably never learn more about her than the woman wanted her to know.
“What do your friends think about the engagement?”
Phoebe looked down at the counter. “We… haven’t told anyone yet.”
“Well why not?”
“Well, it all happened so suddenly. And with this event tonight I didn’t want to distract people from the weight of our achievement.” She looked up at the crowd surrounding Keesha. “I haven’t even told my best friend yet!” She realized. Her heart twisted. How many times had she listened attentively and excitedly as Keesha described her new movie contracts and honors?
The woman followed her gaze. “Ah and there’s Keesha! I heard she was coming.”
Phoebe nodded and turned away, accepting that the woman would now leave her to go see the big star. The same way Tides had. The same way everyone did.
But the woman didn’t move from her perch on the bar stool. “It’s great that she continues to support causes like this…” She said, looking at the swarming crowd. “she always did love helping out.”
Did she somehow know Keesha too? “Aren’t you going to see her?” Phoebe asked.
The woman shook her head. “Oh no, she’s far too busy now. I’ll wait for the crowd to die down a little.” She beamed at Phoebe. “Plus I’m talking to you.”
Phoebe was flattered. “Oh… yeah. Thanks.” She played with a napkin on the bar, unsure of how to continue the conversation. She had always been terrible at keeping conversations going.
Lucky for her, the woman seemed like an expert at conversational etiquette. “So… tell me about your research, Doctor Terese.”
Phoebe eagerly launched into her explanation of her work, the work that had saved the animal homes and created this new national monument. About three minutes into her spiel, she realized she had never told the woman her name.
“Fascinating.” The woman said as Phoebe told her about the vital mammalian breeding grounds her research had revealed. “I see you’ve had a lot going on.”
“Four years in the making.” Phoebe agreed, leaning back slightly. “But we finally did it. We finally made it happen.” Her throat was starting to feel tight, but from talking so much or from finally letting the weight of it all overcome her, she couldn’t tell. It had been so long since she’s just let everything out like this. Just talk about her research the way she wanted to: excited by her discovery and fascinated by the wonders of nature. Not with cold, hard methodology and logical explanations of why her results had come out the way they had. When one was fighting large development companies and government lobbyists, showing any kind of emotion was a sure-fire way to lose footing. She’d been so wound-up lately she hadn’t even cried last night when Arnold had tripped and the ring had rolled out of his pocket right between her feet. Sure she had wanted too, she just hadn’t. She had simply settled for showing her happiness by kissing him senseless and falling asleep curled around him as the exhaustion of preparations for today’s event had overcome her.
A hand touched her own and she jumped.
“This is quite the achievement.” The woman told her, having the grace to ignore Phoebe’s tears. “You should be very proud of your efforts and the changes they have brought.” She glanced over her shoulder to where Keesha’s crowd still milled. “But you mustn’t forget to reach out to those important to you. They are there to share your burden. Don’t push them away.”
“But… but I don’t want to burden them…” Phoebe choked out. “They have their own problems… and…”
“And you don’t share theirs?”
Phoebe wiped the tears away quickly. The woman placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Let them in. They want to help you.”
Phoebe nodded, swallowing with difficulty. The woman gently raised Phoebe’s chin so that they were looking each other in the eyes. The woman’s eyes were a pleasant shade of chocolate brown.
“You’re making your own success now. Success that is yours alone. Not Arnold’s, not Keesha’s. Something only you can claim. But just remember, everybody needs someone to share their success with or they mean nothing.” She let go of Phoebe’s chin and smiled at her, suddenly blinking quite hard. “I’m so proud of everything you’ve accomplished, Phoebe. I know your father made the right choice.” She gave Phoebe’s shoulder a squeeze and stood up. Before Phoebe could say anything, the woman had vanished among the other people in the ballroom.
Phoebe ordered a glass of red wine, the only kind of alcohol she could drink without throwing up. Not that she didn’t think she might throw up anyway. The conversation with the woman was still churning away in her mind.
What decision had her father made? The waiter placed the glass in front of her and she downed half of it without a second thought. She had picked out the university, the grad work, the job… Her father had never made any significant decisions in her life. Being blind (and therefore somewhat dependent on his only daughter) he’d been content with letting her make most of her own decisions, a freedom Phoebe was eternally grateful for.
The wine was already making her head feel light. She sipped absentmindedly on the dregs of her glass.
The only really big decision her father had made for her had been…
Phoebe looked up in time to see Arnold stumbling out of the crowd around Keesha. She waved at him and he came towards her, looking a little unsteady on his feet.
“Hey…” She said as he collapsed onto the woman’s vacated bar stool. Normally, she’d crack some kind of joke about his talk with Grits. Or his ungainliness. Or his fantastic escape from Keesha’s crowd. Or all three.
“Hey…” He replied, sounding distant. “Something really weird just happened…”
“Yeah?” Phoebe still felt shell-shocked from talking with the woman but she tried to snap out of it for Arnold’s sake. Her fingers trembled as she finished her glass and set it back down on the table.
Arnold’s hand was immediately on hers. “Are you alright? What happened?”
Phoebe turned and looked into his eyes. They shone with concern and utter devotion even while still agitated and obviously upset. For a moment, Phoebe’s heart swelled and her insecurities flew away.
This was the man she was going to marry. Here he was, worried senseless and bothered by his own problems and he was still more concerned about her.
How had Wanda ever given him up?
She took a deep breath before answering. “I’m fine… just a little… overwhelmed…” She picked up the fresh glass of wine the waiter had just placed in front of her but still held Arnold’s hands with her free hand. “Tell me what happened to you?”
“I uh… I’d just finished talking to Jasper.” Arnold began, staring at the lines of bottles behind the bar, completely lost in thought. “Then I thought I’d hang around the edge of Keesha’s crowd to see if I could get a word in.” He shook his head, as if trying to clear water from his ears. “As I was waiting, someone bumped into me and started to apologize. But then she seemed to recognize me and grabbed me by the arm…”
Phoebe could hear her heart pounding in her ears. “What did she look like?”
Arnold told her. Phoebe said nothing but more wine disappeared down her throat.
Arnold adjusted his glasses nervously and continued his story: “She greeted me… by my name… like she knew me and she…” He glanced sideways at Phoebe. “Is she a friend of yours? She mentioned your name… and our… our…” He glanced down at the hand in his own.
Phoebe shook her head. “I only just met her…” She told him. She took another sip of wine. “She was just talking to me… she said she knew you.”
Arnold shook his head. “Never seen her before in my life…”
“What did she say?” Phoebe asked.
“She asked me about my research, and about you. So I started to tell her about the grant proposal I’m submitting for working in the new preserve only…”
The wine glass paused on its way to her lips. “Only what?”
“She started…… crying.”
The glass was set back on the bar. “Crying?”
Arnold nodded. “Yeah… just as I told her about me being named the vice president of GRANITE last year. Then she took my hand, wiped her eyes and said: ‘I always knew you’d go far Arnold. You always doubted yourself but you made it…”
He trailed off, still staring at the wall behind the bar. For a moment, neither of them said anything. “Then what?” Phoebe asked, giving his hand a gentle squeeze.
Arnold shrugged. “Then nothing… she left. Vanished into the crowd around Keesha and I came over here to you…”
“Hey you guys.”
Arnold and Phoebe both jumped in shock. Neither had heard Keesha approach them.
“Keesha… finally free of the fans I see…” Arnold’s voice lacked emotion and trailed off as he looked up at Keesha. Phoebe didn’t look up yet. She was swirling the wine in her glass, thinking over what Arnold had just told her. Why was the same woman talking to them? Why had she pretended to know both of them? How had she known their names?
“This is a great party… Phoebe… really… really great…” Phoebe looked up at the tremble in Keesha’s usually iron-clad voice.
“Keesha…” Phoebe began, utterly shocked. “… you’re crying.”
Keesha gently touched her face, seeming surprised when her hand came away wet. “Oh…”
“Keesha…” Phoebe began, reaching out for her best friend’s hand. Keesha took it like it was a lifeline. “Did… did a woman just talk to you?” Phoebe asked.
Keesha practically jumped. “Yes. Yes… she… she told me she was proud…” Keesha sniffled loudly. “Proud of me for never letting go of my values and my love of facts… for following my dreams but remembering…… remembering my friends…” Her voice dissolved into quiet sobs. Even though her tears were falling at a rate comparable to a rainstorm, Keesha still somehow managed to look beautiful. If Phoebe didn’t know any better, she’d think Keesha was acting right now. But Phoebe knew Keesha.
She stood up and pulled her best friend into a tight hug. Keesha eagerly wrapped her arms around Phoebe and cried into her shoulder. Arnold rubbed Keesha’s back as the star hiccupped.
“Let’s get you outside.” He said to Keesha but while looking at Phoebe. “Maybe a little fresh air to help you calm down…” Keesha nodded in agreement and let Arnold and Phoebe link arms with her. Phoebe caught Arnold’s eye and mouthed her thanks at him.
The three old friends crossed the room quickly before any more fans could surround Keesha or any other scientists could recognize Phoebe to congratulate her.
The cool, autumn air outside the ballroom hit them all like a bus. Keesha stumbled and hiccupped again.
“It’s strange…” She said, wiping her tears away but by some miracle not smearing her mascara. Phoebe suspected she wasn’t wearing any.
“What’s strange?” Arnold asked, hanging his suit jacket around Keesha’s trembling shoulders. Phoebe’s dress had a jacket built in. She smiled weakly at Arnold as he took her hand. He rubbed the ring on her finger subtly as their fingers interlocked.
“No, it’s just…” Keesha huddled deeper into Arnold’s jacket as a strong breeze blew past the trio. “While I was talking to her… she… she reminded me of…”
Keesha never finished that sentence. Because at that moment, the three old friends all heard a sound they never expected to hear again.
“Mr. Reynolds, what would you say was your greatest contribution to this project?”
Tim Reynolds, engineer-architect/cameraman-for-hire smiled politely at the young reporter standing in the front row.
“Well, in reference to the film you just saw, I was the director of photography. Mr. Ramon here,” He gestured to his right at his best friend Carlos who gave a cheeky smile. “he was the script-writer and, as I’m sure you saw, the host of the film. And Miss Markies,” Anna, seated beside Carlos gave a small smile and a wave. “she is our brilliant director.” Tim told the reporter. Anna ducked her head, hiding a smile. “In reference to the subject of the film itself, Carlos and I have been observing this growing problem for years. It simply could not be ignored any longer. Carlos approached me with the idea and we decided it best to tackle it together.”
The reporter took a second to scribble a note. “But you yourself didn’t appear in the film.” He clarified.
Tim smiled. “Well, I was behind the camera most of the time.”
“And you really think that, hypothetically, the construction of this new school and the isolation of it from the Walkerville public system would help it thrive?” The reporter asked. The crowd behind him shifted and murmured in anticipation.
Tim was well prepared for questions such as this. He took Anna’s advice and answered simply. “Absolutely.” He’d leave the arguing to Carlos.
Carlos, never one to miss a good chance to make his opinion heard, picked up the thread of the answer. “We’re not so much looking to separate and segregate as we are to improve.” He told the audience as a whole. “Our hope is that such a school would promote excellence and provide an example for schools everywhere.” Carlos could tell Tim was slightly uncomfortable with speaking to so many people. But that’s why he was here, Carlos loved a good crowd, especially one that was listening to him defend something he cared so much about. Where Tim was camera-shy unless he was the one holding the camera, Carlos loved the camera from all angles.
The reporter nodded, apparently satisfied with their answers and sat down.
“Next question please?” Anna called down to the audience gathered in the Walkerville Hotel Great Theatre.
Another audience member stood up. This one was a woman. A rather attractive woman Carlos thought. Maybe somewhat under-dressed for such an event (he and Tim had both rented tuxes for this) but attractive all the same. Tim gave his arm a subtle but painful pinch, urging Carlos to focus on the task at hand. Carlos kicked him back under the table and ignored Tim’s smirk.
“Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Ramon,” The woman began, brushing back her long hair. “I’m a little confused as to why you’re concerning yourself with this.”
Tim and Carlos were equally confused and exchanged a look. “What do you mean?” Tim asked.
The woman folded her hands in front of her. “From what I understand, Mr. Reynolds, you are not an educator, you are an engineer for Walkerville United Design and an independent filmmaker.” She nodded in Carlos’ direction. “And Mr. Ramon is a lawyer, specializing in environmental and urban planning law. What makes you two qualified to make educational decisions?”
Carlos looked at Tim, who looked at Anna for no particular reason. Anna shrugged.
Carlos’ face was in his ‘thinking-on-his-feet’ expression. Tim decided it would be best if he started answering. Carlos would jump in when he was ready. “The point of our movie was simply to draw attention to a problem we saw and were concerned about. Yes, we did provide a hypothetical solution to the problem.” He admitted. “But we were just trying to reach the people responsible for the current situation our school system finds itself in and beg them to take action before the consequences become to widespread to manage.” Tim was feeling surprisingly good. By focusing only on the woman, he found his anxiety lessening. “As a filmmaker,” Tim told her. “I employ storytelling. Children learn best through visual and audio cues, stories. I maintain that teaching should be executed the same way, with an emphasis on creativity and expression. The same way I was taught.”
The woman seemed a little taken-aback by his eloquent answer. Tim equally so. When had he ever become such a talker? Maybe it was just that sense that no one really listened that had made him content with being a man of few words for most of his life. He could talk all he wanted about his ideas for a building design but unless he gave them something physical, something concrete to hold and look at, they were never really interested. He was stunned. This woman, this audience was actually paying attention to him while he explained himself. Granted, they’d had the film for a visual but it was not on right now. They were listening.
Sensing (correctly) that Tim had no more to say on the question, the woman’s attention shifted to Carlos.
“You really think this issue was worth an entire film and such a carefully theorized new development project? Surely, Mr. Ramon, this is more than a little outside your area of expertise.” Carlos looked up at his name, jolted out of his private thoughts which were currently still in the process of constructing his closing arguments to the woman’s question. As a result, he missed the beginning of her statement. But he caught the general drift.
“…surely you can see that such a large private school in such a city that already has a deep-set hierarchy of education is doomed to fail.” The woman was saying. “How would that be anything but a waste of money, time and resources?”
Carlos was quite suddenly on his feet. Speaking to crowds always made him feel more alive. The blood would pump through him and clear all thoughts from his head except the argument he was making, the facts he knew and the emotions he was feeling. Usually this only happened when he was putting someone on trial downtown. In a way, he supposed this was very much the same.
“This deterioration of the city’s systems is starting to affect the young people of Walkerville! Students, just trying to get their education and make their way into the real world, ready to tackle the issues of the future.” The amount of passion in his words made several people in the audience lean forward in anticipation. Carlos threw out a hand in Tim’s direction.
“Tim and I were raised here in Walkerville, we went to school together for most of our lives. Our education here in Walkerville made us who we are today. I myself only went into the practice of law because of the values I discovered within myself during my time at Walkerville Elementary. As the film demonstrated, returning there twenty years after my graduation was a harrowing experience. It is nothing like the education Tim and I had.” Usually by this point, Carlos preferred to be pacing or to get close to his audience and really look them in the eyes. As neither of these was possible given his current position, he settled for leaning forward over the table in the direction of the woman.
“We want to ensure that the next generation of Walkerville alum get the same quality education we were given. What kind of future can we expect to have if we keep churning out the same perfect copies of minds? Our students must be encouraged to think for themselves, to solve problems, not in textbooks but in the context of the world they will one day face!” At some point during this last part of his speech, he had begun addressing the entire room rather than the woman who had asked the question.
“We have already taken the first necessary steps here, with this film, by raising awareness of the issue: our failing public school system, a mere shadow of its former glory. Now we are doing what we can because no one else has stepped up to fix the problem. Between Tim’s amazing innovations and designs and my political skills, we think we will be able to survive. The Valerie Frizzle School of Science and Engineering will become a reality!” Carlos’ last word seemed to shimmer and hang in the air, letting the dust settle slowly as if to create a deeper impression on those listening. There was not a stir of breath from the audience. Tim wanted to stand up and applaud but settled instead for sitting still and smiling proudly at his partner. Anna caught his eye and beamed. Somehow, during the course of Carlos’ speech, the three had silently and unanimously decided that their little hypothetical suggestion at the end of their film would become more than just arguments and computer graphics.
The woman nodded gratefully and lowered herself back into her seat. It might have been a trick of the light, (it was very bright up on stage) but Tim thought he saw a glimmer of tears in her eyes.
Tim didn’t like large crowds. Particularly being in large crowds. Even though this crowd of finely-dressed men and women all chatting mildly and celebrating his accomplishment was far from his nightmare of being trampled, he would have much preferred to be outside. Or in a quiet room alone. Or even with someone.
“Tim!” He smiled at the person coming towards him. Here was one of the people he really wanted to be with tonight.
Anna beamed back as she finally reached his side by ducking past two older gentlemen sipping champagne. “Well that was unexpected.” She said, nudging Tim gently in the side.
It took an extra second for her words to register on account of the fact that Tim was getting very distracted by Anna’s legs. She had worn cargo pants every day on set, the black and gold gown she was wearing now was granting him a rather nice view of her ankles. He mentally focused himself and picked up the thread of the conversation. “Actually deciding to build the school, yes it was.” He snatched two glasses from a passing waiter in an effort to hide his blush.
“Oh no. That didn’t surprise me in the least.” Anna said as she graciously accepted a glass from him.
Tim was surprised. “Really?”
Anna shook her head. “As soon as you two came up with that solution, I knew you’d see it through to the end. You’re a dreamer and a builder Tim, what you see, you have to create and share. And Carlos,” She chuckled. “The minute he gets an idea in his head, he’s impossible to tie down…”
Tim laughed in agreement. “That he is… that he is…” But his mirth quickly faded as he glanced around the room again. “I… uh… I need to find him…” But he couldn’t see Carlos among the hundreds of identical tuxes navigating the room.
This turn of expression failed to miss Anna. “Is everything alright? I thought you’d be more thrilled.”
“Oh! Oh I am!” Tim assured her. “It’s just…” He leaned closer to Anna as if trying to whisper a secret. The scent of her white orchid shampoo filled his nostrils and he had to struggle to regain his train of thought. “… the money.” He managed to choke out into her ear.
His panic was returning. How were they going to do this? Sure revenue from the movie would help and he had some more money coming in from the Memorial project but they still had to pay bills and rent… He straightened up. “I need to check the guest list, maybe someone here can…”
Anna placed a gentle hand on his arm, stilling his shaking glass. “Go find Carlos.” She told him. Tim began to protest but Anna cut him off with her director’s look.
“Mr. Degornia is in attendance.” She told Tim. “So is Mr. Rhule. I can start chatting them up, see if I can’t get a couple of our friends with deep pockets and connections to get us rolling. We’ll make it happen Tim, a school doesn’t get built overnight.”
Tim’s face lit up. How had he and Carlos ever accomplished anything before Anna came along? Where they were the dreamers and the fighters, Anna was the planner and the driving force behind everything. This movie had happened because of her. If Anna was onboard, the school would be a success. “Thanks Anna. You’re amazing.” Tim kissed her on the cheek, his stomach filling with bubbles that were definitely not from his untouched glass of champagne and then ran off, completely missing Anna’s blush.
Carlos however, missed nothing. “When are you going to tell him?” Carlos asked sliding in next to her.
Anna jumped about a foot in the air. “Carlos!” She sounded accusatory to which Carlos responded with a cheeky grin. “What… what are you…. Tim was just looking for…” Anna was stammering, something Carlos had never known her to do.
He clapped her on the shoulder. “Yes I know. I prefer to let him wander a bit. He never gets out as much as he should, it will be good for him to socialize a little.”
Anna nodded in agreement, playing with her half-empty glass like she couldn’t decide if she wanted to drink it or not and staring blankly out into the crowd.
“So when are you going to tell him?” Carlos asked again.
“Tell him what?” Anna asked, completely missing Carlos’ meaning.
Carlos shook his head. For someone as smart as Anna, she sure missed the obvious about herself. “Tell him you like him of course!”
Anna’s face went red. Carlos was enjoying this a little. Usually, it was hard to make Anna embarrassed. “I can’t do that!” Anna whispered furiously to him.
Anna leaned even closer and her voice dropped so low Carlos could barely hear. “Because… because… you and him…”
Carlos actually burst out laughing. “Oh Anna! Was three years at college together and four months on set really not enough time for you to understand me?”
“But…” Anna struggled to defend her conclusion as Carlos chuckled. “your apartment…”
Carlos waved a hand. “Yes! We live together. In separate bedrooms.” He always felt the need to add that last part. The rumors that flew these days, why could no one see it?
Anna was blushing again but this time she was grinning. “Oh! Well you two are just always together so I assumed…”
Carlos rolled his eyes. It was always that. It probably didn’t help that he and Tim had their own inside jokes they weren’t shy about telling in public. Secret smiles and playful banter that could’ve easily labeled them as lovers. “Best friends and roommates. Nothing more.” Carlos clarified. He gave Anna a playful punch on the arm. “He’s all yours.”
Anna looked as if she had just been given the rights to direct another Ramon & Reynolds production. With a quick thank you and a confident smile, Anna gulped the rest of her champagne and set off to find Tim. Carlos watched her go, smiling. He’d had a strong suspicion these last few months that he’d have to give either Anna or Tim a push to finally make them connect. They were both brilliant but good heavens, they did not know how to express the obvious.
Carlos wandered the room aimlessly for a bit, striking up a few conversations with old friends and clients, even with a potential benefactor of the Frizzle school. If he had been being completely honest with himself, he would have admitted that he was trying to distract himself.
Tim caught up with him just as Carlos downed his third glass of champagne and said farewell to a prominent Walkerville councilman.
Carlos waved as Tim approached. “Tim! I just sent Anna looking for you, I think she has something…” He trailed off as Tim reached his side. Tim was a hard man to read. He preferred to keep his emotions to himself most of the time and had very few distinguishable facial expressions. Carlos knew Tim better than anyone, so he picked up on expressions no one else did. The subtle expression currently on Tim’s face however, was not one he’d never seen before.
“Buddy? What’s wrong?”
“Wrong… nothing’s wrong…” Tim seemed to be speaking automatically, as if lost in thought.
Carlos doubted it. “Your face looks worse than Walker Elementary’s new lunch surprise.” He joked, earning him a half-hearted glare from Tim. This was a bit of an exaggeration but one Carlos felt entirely justified making.
“Nothing’s wrong…” Tim repeated, adjusting his bowtie like it was choking him. “I just… I just ran into that woman again.”
Carlos felt his breath catch in his throat. “The one from…?” Tim nodded.
“She asked me if I was going to become a teacher… I told her it was something I’d never considered before this project, but a position I would be honored to take if need be.”
“Really? You’d want to be a teacher in our school?”
Tim laughed nervously. “Why not?” They started making their way through the crowd together, Carlos assuming that Tim needed some space to breathe and think in the crowded room and Tim knowing that Carlos listened better when moving. “It’s not like I have nothing to teach… I started to tell her about the telescope, you know the one DA and I developed for her research?” Carlos nodded, remembering the three years’ worth of blueprints and spare parts that were still cluttering up their apartment. Briefly he wondered how DA was. He hadn’t spoken to her (or any of their other friends for that matter) in a month or so… “Then she… she started crying…” Tim continued. “and she excused herself.”
Those words stopped Carlos in his tracks. “She was crying?” Tim nodded. Carlos felt sick but wasn’t quite sure why. “Tim,” He said slowly and in a quiet voice. “she did the same thing to me just now.”
Carlos started walking again. “She got me earlier, just after we came out of the theatre…” The interaction with Anna had temporarily driven the encounter from his mind but it was still there and came rushing back. “She asked about my cases and my plans for the school. When I told her about my case last year where I saved the swamp and passed new legislature for restoration efforts, she got a little choked up but told me to continue… then she asked if I would teach.”
Tim seemed shocked. “What did you say?” He asked.
They had reached the large windows that overlooked the parking lot and the road. Carlos swallowed hard in an effort to combat the sudden apprehension he was feeling. “I told her I was thinking about it.”
Both boys looked up and out the window as a vehicle drove slowly past. Tim squinted. It was hard to make out anything (its headlights were off) but he could’ve sworn that it had just…
Carlos turned to Tim, his eyes wide and staring. “Did you just see…?”
Tim didn’t answer, he knew Carlos would see the answer in his face.
“You don’t think…?” Carlos trailed off and looked out the window again but the vehicle was long gone.
Tim was an action man. He couldn’t sit still and think about something, he had to do something about it. He thought better when working or moving.
So he did the only thing he could think of. He whipped out his phone and called one of his closest friends who he knew would be with two of his other close friends on this particular night.
“Keesh, it’s Tim. You’ll never guess what just happened to Carlos and…… Keesha? Are you alright? Why are you crying?”
Dorothy Anne Sanders, PhD. had only one complaint about San Diego. It was HOT. So hot. She dabbed at her forehead with an already damp tissue, and closed her eyes against the restrictive stuffiness of the convention center hall. It did little for her headache. It was still noisy. And stuffy. And HOT. Without opening her eyes, DA leaned back against her exhibition table, bracing herself with her arms. She wished she was back in Michigan for that solar eclipse like she had been last month. Or Canada for observations of the aura borealis the previous year. Or in Utah. Where she was supposed to be tonight.
“Is this your telescope?”
DA snapped back to the present and opened her eyes. She smiled at the young woman standing next to her display, admiring the large telescope. “Well, sort of. It’s half mine.” She spun the instrument around on its mount so the lens was facing the woman. “I invented it with a friend of mine. The way the lenses are arranged inside the device refracts the light three times as much as a traditional telescope does. We can see three times further with this.”
DA, agilely spun the telescope again so that the eyepiece faced the woman. “Take a look.”
The woman leaned forward to peer into the lens. “That is amazing…” She breathed, sounding overwhelmed even though it was aimed at nothing in particular. She was very dressed up for a science convention. Her dress was easily more suited to a cocktail party.
DA grinned. “Yes it really is. I’ve been able to see all the way to the outer edge of Andromeda with this. We’ve named several new constellations already and NASA wants to use our design on their next space probe. I wanted to take it up to Purenthe Hills in Utah tonight…” Her smile faded and she finished that thought before it could go any further. No use dwelling on what might have been… who she should be with tonight…
“Purenthe Hills?” The woman asked, her eye still buried in the telescope. “That’s tonight?”
DA nodded. Perhaps this woman was a rich beneficiary with an interest in astronomy. It would certainly explain the dress and the sustained interest in the telescope. “It’s going to be the meteor shower of the century. Of the millennia some say…”
The woman adjusted the focus of the telescope. “So why aren’t you there?”
DA looked around with a sad smile at the crowded convention hall. “I couldn’t pass this opportunity up. The committee practically begged me to come here and talk about my research.”
After a moment, the woman looked up at DA, her eyes shining. “You… you’re Doctor Sanders aren’t you?” DA couldn’t help noticing the earrings in the shape of gold stars dangling from her ears.
DA blushed and smiled. “The one and only… well except for my dad…”
The woman stood up and held out her hand for a vigorous shake. “The astronomer who identified the first Earth-like planets orbiting binary star systems?”
DA nodded and launched into a full blown explanation of her research, completely forgetting to ask the woman’s name and affiliations.
“Fascinating.” The woman said as DA began to talk about the new worlds they had discovered that might hold life. “Do you think it will be able to see those worlds? Maybe get a close look at whatever’s there?”
“Well… in order to do that, we’d have to mount the telescope on something and send it away from Earth.” DA told her. The probe NASA was readying to send out was going to make that a reality. If all went smoothly, within a few years, mankind would get their first glimpse of another Earth-like planet.
“And once you know what’s out there, what’s next?”
That question hit DA right where it hurt most. That was the question she dreaded. The scientist in her groped for an explanation that was intelligent, plausible and sounded eloquent enough to satisfy a public hungry for more. But nothing came. Instead she tried and failed to start several sentences. Her shoulders slumped. “In all honesty,” She said, completely dejected. “I’m not sure….”
The woman patted her arm sympathetically. “Surely a little reading will help with that.”
DA laughed and shook her head. “This is completely new territory… I’m not sure that there is any literature that could be helpful at this stage… I mean, it got us this far but no one’s ever made contact with another world before… we don’t even know where to start!”
The woman’s smile only widened. “Oh you never know… sometimes inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places…” She winked at DA. “Sometimes fiction can be the basis for reality.”
The Ph.D scientist in DA that had had the privilege of working hard to see new worlds wanted to scoff at the suggestion. But that particular part of her seemed to be floundering today. “But… how?”
“All stories are based in truth.” The woman told her. “They’re simply the truth with a little imagination thrown in.”
“Imagination…” DA had never considered herself an imaginative person. Quite the opposite in fact. All her life, she had tried to keep up with the facts and figures that were so important. Most of what she knew, she had learned from her books. Her diligence had gotten her this far. But what about going forward? She was outside the realm of knowledge now. Drifting on the edge of, quite literally, a whole new galaxy of truths and figures. She was the one writing the facts. “But I can’t… I… I’m a realist.” She told the woman. “I want my research to be as clear and irrefutable as possible. I don’t have much time for reading fiction. I try not to let myself be distracted by things that are not validated.”
To her great surprise, the woman laughed. “Then tell me, how did you design this telescope?” She spun the magnificent instrument on its mount. “There was no blue-print. No previous instructions, no ‘how-to’. You saw something in your mind and you created it.” She stopped the telescope’s motion by putting her hand against it. “Seems impossible for someone so steeped in facts and proof.”
DA was floundering again. It had been a long time since someone had rendered her speechless in her own field of expertise. This was like grad school all over. “But… but that was…”
The woman caught DA in piercing look. But DA felt no judgment in it. “You laughed at the thought of reading just now.” The woman said. “Have you read everything? Reading leads to questions, questions can lead to answers. Or more questions. Minds need to have more to ponder than just what has been proven and tested and agreed upon.” The woman gave DA a sad smile. “If you lose your sense of wonder, your sense of appreciation for new, impossible things, how will you succeed? So lost in facts and explanations, will you even be able to appreciate the beauty of what you find?”
DA said nothing. She felt like she couldn’t breathe.
The woman tapped her chin in thought. “Who was it who said that… ah yes! Albert Einstein! ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ He never let the conventional limits of science get in his way and it led him to some of the biggest discoveries of the century. Mr. Einstein might be a good place to start. I hear his autobiography is particularly relative.” Then she winked and walked away, chuckling to herself.
DA shivered. The way she had just said that… it reminded her of…
Her fast-paced walk through the convention center building was meant to clear her head but only gave her more space to think about the woman’s advice.
Everything was so based in hard fact nowadays. ‘What-ifs’ had no credibility in the scientific community. How could she possibly integrate imagination into her research field? A field so delicately balanced between fact and extrapolation.
She was so lost in thought, she almost didn’t look up when she bumped into someone just outside the cafeteria. But it was very lucky she did.
Her old elementary school friend looked just as startled to see her. After a hug and a few minutes of pleasantries, DA finally asked the question first on her mind: “What are you doing here?”
“I was invited to talk about my new book.” Ralphie said proudly. “And with the success of my website, the convention decided I was enough of a scientist to join.”
“That’s great!” DA was genuinely glad to see Ralphie. The old classmates usually kept in touch but it had been over a month since DA had seen any of her old friends. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ralphie pulled nervously on the neck of his tie. “I… uh…” He rubbed the back of his neck and grinned at her sheepishly.
DA understood immediately. “Ralphie…” She chastised him. “just because my research goes against everything you champion doesn’t mean I don’t want to see you! It’s been way too long!”
“Your research doesn’t ‘go against everything…’” Ralphie protested, smiling at her. “We just disagree on… many minor details…”
DA laughed. “As a scientist, it’s very important to keep an open mind.” She slipped a friendly arm around his shoulder. “And I’m always happy to support a friend.”
Ralphie smiled back and slipped an arm casually around her waist. “You know… if you aren’t doing anything later… my flight home isn’t until Tuesday… we could get a drink…”
DA knew Ralphie well enough to know what that statement meant. She took a step back.
“Okay, I’m going to stop you there Ralphie. I’m seeing someone.”
To her surprise, Ralphie turned red and looked mortified. “Oh! Oh I wasn’t… Really? You are? Great! Who?”
Maybe he had changed. Vaguely, DA wondered if he was seeing someone. She had certainly changed when she’d started dating… but she couldn’t think about the name without her throat closing up.
She hid it with a smile and a raise of the eyebrows. “Sorry Ralphie, my secret.”
Ralphie backed off. DA appreciated it. She hated having to lie.
“Did you already give your talk?” DA asked Ralphie.
He shook his head. “I’m up in a few minutes.” Ralphie told her with a nervous smile. “Beta room.”
DA smiled. “Great I’ll come listen in!” She patted his arm reassuringly. It would be the perfect distraction from her emotional problems. And from the conversation she’d just had with that strange woman.
“… There are a number of these occurrences throughout history. One in particular stands out the most clearly…” Ralphie clicked the button to advance the slide, rubbing his free hand against his leg to wipe away the sweat. “… this image here was taken in London in 2005. And this one…” He clicked to make a second, nearly identical picture appear. “… was taken just outside of a town called Mercy in the mid-West in about 1883. Notice the similarities. The two boxes are completely identical. And they were found on opposite sides of the world nearly a century apart.”
There were some quiet murmurings from the crowd but Ralphie couldn’t tell whether or not he should be encouraged by them. His head felt stuffed with cotton. In high school, crowds had been no problem. Give him a great crowd and he could smack a homer over the fence, easy as pie. But academics? They were terrifying. DA offered him an encouraging smile from her seat in the fifth row.
He rubbed his hand on his pants again. “This is not the only such evidence that has been reported on such strange occurrences.” He continued, advancing his presentation. “We see here Ms. Smith, a journalist from London. Ms. Smith has been reporting on strange occurrences across the world for years. She herself and multiple others have examined the possibility that these stories might be extra-terrestrial in origin.”
A hand went up in the second row. “Mr. Tennelli,” A woman in an attractive long black dress stood up to address Ralphie. He nodded at her, gripping the edge of his podium and hoping he wouldn’t faint. Why did his first question have to be from an attractive woman? Wasn’t it bad enough he was already scared senseless presenting to people smarter than him?
“We hear stories about these kind of ‘alien encounters’ all the time.” The woman began. To Ralphie’s relief, there was no skepticism in her voice. Yet. “What kind of proof do we have that such things are actually of alien origin and not just, for lack of a better word, complete hokum?”
Thankful that he had been expecting such a question, Ralphie advanced his presentation with a smile. “What do you see here?” He asked the woman.
“A swirl of gold and green.” She replied. Ralphie zoomed out, revealing the context of the colors. Several people in the audience gasped.
“That is IC-4406, the Retina Nebula.” He explained. “It’s a donut-shaped swirl of dust and gas that is streaming out from a dying star. Now I know it doesn’t look like a donut at all. That’s because we can only see the side of the donut, a small chunk of its edge. If we didn’t know that there are other nebulas in the sky, formed under similar circumstances that are shaped like donuts, we would assume that this one was shaped this way. That there was nothing else to it. And that would be it. We wouldn’t know the whole story.”
Ralphie turned to the woman and addressed her directly. “No I cannot give you absolute concrete proof that aliens exist. The best I can say is that we may be looking right at them but for whatever reason: angle, alien technology, our own doubts… we cannot recognize them for what they are. Yes, these events could just be crazy circumstances or pranks, that is all too possible. But I hope that after reading my book and taking a look around my website, you’ll take a second look at what you see and what you hear and just consider the possibility that maybe… just maybe… it comes from something we don’t understand. Something we’ve never seen before.”
The entire room was silent for a moment then burst into applause. Ralphie let out a deep, ragged breath. He knew that with academics, this was as good as a standing ovation.
“What got you interested in the extra-terrestrial?” Ralphie looked up and was surprised to see that his next fan was the same woman from the talk. For a second he couldn’t think and his mouth opened and closed several times. He finally managed to make coherent sounds by pulling a stack of books towards him and talking to them instead. “I’ve always been interested in the possibility of life beyond Earth.” He told her from around the stack of books he was preparing to sign for the long line of fans in the Beta room after his talk. “And when I was a kid, several personal occurrences convinced me that I should never stop looking.”
The woman smiled at him, a little confused. “I’m sorry, ‘personal occurrences’?”
Ralphie nodded, deciding to talk to her spaceship earrings so that he wouldn’t come off as rude. “Yes. When I was younger, I experienced… several impossible things.”
Ralphie paused, the memories from Walkerville Elementary running through his mind. Despite his fondness for them, they left a bitter taste in his mouth. He offered her a sad smile. “I’m afraid you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Plus, it’s all detailed in my book.” He slid a fresh copy of the book towards him and opened it to the title page: Magnificent Machines and Impossible Interactions. “I included my own personal experiences as part of my argument for life out there. Along with the facts of course. Can’t expect people to believe my imagination alone.”
“Yes it is important to stay grounded, even as we let our minds soar…” The woman’s expression was incredibly soft as she looked at Ralphie.
“Who should I make it out to?” Ralphie asked, fiddling with his pen.
The woman did not answer him right away. “The Teacher.” She finally said, with a hint of sadness in her voice. Ralphie diligently scribbled a message on the page:
To “the Teacher”: Never forget that the universe holds more than a single mind can fathom. Keep an open mind and let your imagination run wild!- Ralphie Tennelli
Ralphie closed the cover on this message and held the book out for her. As she took it, her hand caught on his own. She gripped his hand and smiled through wet eyes. “You never lost your imagination Ralphie… thank you…” And she was gone.
It was another two hours before Ralphie was done with his book signing. As soon as he left the Beta room, DA cornered him.
“That woman… who was asking you about your proof…”
“Yeah?” Ralphie wondered if DA was alright, she seemed a little frazzled. She was also gripping the collar of his shirt rather hard.
Just as the thought crossed his mind, DA seemed to realize what she was doing. She let go of Ralphie. “She also talked to me…” DA told him, sounding uneasy.
Ralphie straightened his tie. “So? She talks to a lot of people. And you’re a prominent scientist.”
DA was wringing her hands. Ralphie had never seen her do that before. He’d also never been the logical one. This kind of role reversal was starting to make him feel uneasy.
“It’s probably nothing” DA was saying in a high voice. “but… when you were talking to her… did you feel…. I don’t know… strange?”
Ralphie considered the question. The woman had certainly made him feel… different? Uncomfortable? No, not quite… “Yeah,” He supposed ‘strange’ was as close as he’d get to accurately describing the feeling. “and those spaceship earrings…”
DA’s head snapped up. “Spaceship?”
Ralphie nodded. “Didn’t you see them?”
DA was staring at him. There was a distant, wild look in her eyes. “They were stars…” She said with absolute certainty.
The two old friends were silent for a moment, the implications of their contradicting observations hanging in the air between them.
DA was first to move. She pulled out a phone. “I gotta make a call…” she muttered before turning away from Ralphie and beginning to pace anxiously.
Ralphie assumed she was calling her boyfriend. Or maybe Tim. They had always been close.
But he didn’t get the chance to eavesdrop on her conversation because as soon as DA began speaking to her mystery caller, his own phone rang.
“Ralphie? You got a sec?”
Well that ruled out Tim.
“Yeah what’s up?”
“Carlos and I have a problem… well not a problem… a… situation.” Tim took a deep breath. “We’re at the premiere of our film…”
Had that been tonight? Ralphie mentally berated himself for forgetting to call and wish them luck, the time difference was throwing him. He listened as Tim quickly described the events of the night but interrupted when he reached the audience member who had questioned them.
“What did she look like?”
Tim described her to him. Ralphie felt his blood freeze.
“Don’t tell me…” Tim said to Ralphie’s silence. “You know her?”
“The same… well a similar person just talked to me and DA…” Ralphie told Tim about meeting DA unexpectedly at the convention and about the woman in the audience who had then approached him for a book signing.
“She did the same thing to us!” Tim exclaimed as Ralphie detailed how the woman had reacted before leaving. “And Phoebe, Arnold and Keesha say someone just like that talked to them too…”
Ralphie paused. “Wait… all three of them?”
Tim made a noise of agreement. “We just talked to Keesha, she told us something similar happened at Phoebe’s reception.”
That was tonight too? Ralphie had a lot of missed ground to make up.
“How is she..? Keesha? And, and Phoebe and Arnold.” He added hastily. He anxiously started playing with his tie.
Tim took a few seconds before answering. “She… she was pretty shaken up about it… I mean Keesha was crying so much, Phoebe had to take the phone to talk.”
Ralphie glanced over at DA as Tim paraphrased what Phoebe had told him. DA was still absorbed in her own conversation, tears streaming down her face. Ralphie couldn’t make out what she was saying. His tie was a crumpled mess in his hand.
“I’ll talk to you later, I’m going to call Phoebe…” Ralphie told Tim and hung up. His fingers trembled as he detached them from his tie and punched in the number. He’d call Phoebe and ask about Keesha. And the woman. He wondered if Keesha was still single…
Tonight was not a beer night. Tonight was a whiskey night. Wanda Li gulped down her second shot, relishing the burn in her throat.
“Get me another, Jerry!” She called over the bar. Jerry grunted, used to her drinking patterns. It was just the two of them tonight, a welcome respite from the usual ruckus of the bar.
Jerry brought her the shot and retreated to the back room, leaving Wanda in blissful isolation. She closed her eyes and sighed into the silence. It was late afternoon on a Friday and the sun was dipping slowly towards the horizon, promising that the night ahead would be a long one. Wanda stared out at the dying light, not sure if she should glare or just stare indifferently. Tonight she had to be alone. Tonight she had to just think. Wanda raised her shot glass, readying herself to knock it back.
“Drinking alone is never a good idea and seldom a pleasurable one.”
The unfamiliar voice made Wanda turn around. She was greeted by a very attractive woman in a black dress.
“Yes but sometimes it’s the only option.” She replied, turning away from the woman. Normally, she would attempt to be polite and courteous the way an Air Force officer should. But tonight Wanda found that she didn’t care. She had been counting on being alone tonight, seeing as it was family night back on station and all the other pilots would be enjoying the company of their loved ones.
Not that she would ever get that privilege again.
She swallowed the liquor before she could delve any deeper into that thought.
“There’s more than one solution to any problem.” The chair next to her was suddenly occupied. Wanda rolled her eyes. Why did she have to meet a chatty stranger tonight? She considered picking up her hat and leaving. But that would mean wandering the streets aimlessly. Or worse, going back to base.
“You’re a Sergeant aren’t you?” The woman asked pointing at Wanda’s sleeve.
Wanda looked down in surprise at the sleeve of her uniform, then back up at the woman. The woman was smiling. “Impressive.” Wanda said, turning to face her. “Not many civilians can recognize that.”
The woman shrugged. “I have an eye for symbols and status.” She frowned as she looked the rest of Wanda over. “Technical Sergeant. Aren’t you a little young to be in such a high rank?”
Wanda was used to such questions. “It was a battle-field promotion. Happened about a year ago, just as I was entering my residency in the service.”
Wanda nodded. “I’m almost a doctor.” Almost being the operative word. She hated that word. Almost a doctor. Almost a decorated officer. Almost out of debt. Almost a good girlfriend.
The woman beamed. “Congratulations! That’s quite the achievement!”
“Yeah…” Wanda could not muster a smile in return.
The woman looked puzzled. “Isn’t that a cause for celebration? Not for melancholy musings?”
Wanda sighed. “Not tonight it’s not.” Jerry reappeared and Wanda motioned for a refill.
“Tonight’s just a reminder of how I screw everything up.” Wanda confessed after knocking back the shot. The tiny glass clinked roughly against the table as she set it down and called for another. If she was going to spill her heart out to a complete stranger, she didn’t want to remember it tomorrow. “How much of a disappointment I am to my family. How I lack conviction as a girlfriend. How I’m only a success because I got lucky up in the air one day. How I still have mountains of student loans to pay off.”
The woman was silent, content to listen as Wanda ranted. “Care to elaborate?” She asked gently as Wanda paused for breath, holding a fresh shot. “Why would any parent think a child rising through the ranks of the Air Force would be a disappointment?”
Suddenly feeling sick, Wanda choked the liquid down and wiped her mouth. “It doesn’t matter how much of a success I am with the Air Force. Mom doesn’t approve of other life choices I make.” She said darkly.
Wanda paused. What was the harm? This woman was a stranger. She’d hardly be able to tell anyone back at base. She didn’t know Wanda’s name or unit. “My dating prospects.” Wanda finally replied. “Specifically the person I’m dating now.”
The woman nodded, looking thoughtful. “Is this person by any chance, a woman?”
Wanda played with her glass, deciding that not answering would be just as good as an affirmation.
“Someone in the service?” The woman asked.
Wanda shook her head. “No, we met a long time ago. But… I thought I was finally ready.” The woman said nothing. Wanda’s eyes were drawn to where the woman’s hands were resting on the bar and she noticed a large green ring on the woman’s right hand.
Putting her own hand into her pocket, Wanda pulled out the small box that had been bumping against her chest all night. “I got it last week.” She told the woman, showing her the box but not its contents. “She was supposed to come to the base tonight and I was going to take her out under the meteor shower to propose…” Wanda had planned it perfectly. Usually she put minimal thought into their dates and just let the romantic gestures come as they would. It usually worked best seeing as they only got to spend time with each other a couple of times a month. But tonight had to have been perfect. The once-in-a-millennia -scale meteor shower was just after sunset, just as the light faded, hundreds of stars would shoot across the sky. There was an open field six miles from base that would provide a near perfect view of the sky. As the first meteors appeared and her girlfriend made a wish, Wanda would pull out the ring, get down on one knee and spill her heart out to the woman she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.
So much for planning.
“But then she was asked to a conference in California. Last minute, very prestigious. She couldn’t refuse.” Wanda pocketed the ring and considered the empty glass in front of her. But she didn’t order another drink.
The woman was quiet for a moment but didn’t take her eyes off of Wanda. “So what are you going to do now?” She finally asked.
Wanda swallowed hard, feeling tears fighting their way up her throat. “I don’t know.” She whispered. It terrified her, being this weak. Being defeated by something so simple and mundane as love. When that surprise second unit had swept in on them last year, she had been the only pilot in the unit to tackle them head-on. It had been stupid and rash but she had survived and had her promotion as reward for her combination of stupidity and luck. Wanda had never encountered a problem she was not willing to tackle. Usually, when met with her hard push of determination, quick-thinking and strength, problems just crumbled away. But this problem… this wasn’t one she could face like that. This one was inside her. Inside the part of her that linked her so deeply to her girlfriend. The part she feared would snap if she took one wrong step. “Maybe this is a sign… a sign that we’re not supposed to be together.”
“Why would you think that?” The woman’s voice was soft, reminding Wanda of how her mother used to talk to her. Before the fight.
Wanda gripped her glass tightly, making her knuckles hurt. “I’ve always just gone after what I wanted blindly. That’s always worked for me. Well… except for once… when I told my family…” She turned the glass once, pondering if more alcohol would help or hurt. “It’s how we ended up in this relationship, my brashness. One day I just blurted it out and the next thing I know, we’re dating.” The first smile of the night pulled at the corner of her mouth. “And it’s been great, she’s wonderful and we understand each other and whenever we do fight, we usually make up pretty quickly. We balance each other out. Keep the other in check.” She sighed. “But we haven’t told anyone, not even our closest friends. That’s two years of keeping this secret. And it’s starting to weigh on me.”
The woman cocked her head in surprise. “Why would you ever keep it secret, especially from your best friends?”
Wanda looked at her but there was no judgment in the woman’s gaze. Only genuine curiosity and concern. “Well… concern I guess.” Wanda admitted. “I don’t know how they’d react. I thought my family would be okay with it and they weren’t. I dated one of my close friends, a guy, awhile back and it kind of… caused some drama in the group. I don’t want that to happen again.”
“What makes you think it would be similar to that?”
Wanda shrugged. “Well I’m expecting it to end the same way. The reason I broke up with Arnold was because it just wasn’t working. Our lives were too different. I liked him but… I was getting in his way.” Wanda paused, thinking about how Arnold’s life had been improved when they broke up. He was still dating Phoebe, as far as she knew. She was happy for them, they were great together.
“My girlfriend’s a really high profile scientist, just like Arnold is.” Wanda continued. “I know she doesn’t want to jeopardize her career. And me, well…” She gestured at the strips on her arm in explanation. “I’m always busy with the service, she’s always flying around the world to this conference or that meteor shower. We can’t keep up with each other, academically or physically. And between her doctorate bills and my residency, the money’s tight…” Wanda trailed off thinking she had gone too far this time. The woman said nothing for a few minutes then a shot glass slid into Wanda’s view, sloshing with amber liquid.
The woman smiled kindly at her. “This one’s on me.” Wanda took the shot graciously and nursed it.
“What do you want?” The woman asked her. “What does this relationship you’re in mean to you?”
Wanda found she didn’t have to think very long before the words came. “I want the world to know that she’s mine. That I’m hers. That I wouldn’t give her up for anything. That every time I climb into my plane, she’s the one I vow to come back for. I want to slip that ring on her finger and kiss her somewhere all the world can see!”
“So why don’t you?”
“Because I’m afraid.” The admission made her feel as if the weight of the world had settled on her shoulders. Her armor was off and the army was still stabbing at her. She tensed against the expected onslaught. But instead of metaphorical spear tips, all she felt was a comforting hand on her upper back.
“You were always so tough Wanda. And that protected you. But even the toughest of us can show a little weakness once and awhile. That’s what makes us human.” The woman’s hand rubbed her back soothingly. “And it may hurt you, weaknesses often do. But when it comes to love as that weakness, you have to decide what matters more to you: security or a chance at happiness.” Wanda bit back her tears. She might open up, but she would not cry. The woman’s hand felt so good on her back, motherly and comforting. “Sometimes you just have to take that chance,” the woman told her. “make those mistakes…”
“Get messy…” Wanda mumbled.
The weight suddenly left her shoulders, both metaphorically and physically. The woman had stood up.
“It’s nearly sunset. I need to go.”
“Where are you going?” Wanda suddenly found she didn’t want the woman to leave. She didn’t want to be alone tonight.
The woman only offered her a sad smile. “I think you should be more concerned with answering that phone call.”
Wanda was confused. “Huh?”
At that moment, Wanda’s phone rang. By the time she’d fumbled it out of her uniform pocket, the woman was gone, the door to the bar swinging shut behind her.
A glance at the caller-id sent Wanda’s heart pounding. She answered the call, her mouth dry.
“Hey. What’s wrong sweetie?”
The voice crackled through the phone, distorted by distance. “I just… I need to talk to you.”
Wanda finished her shot so she’d have a moment to collect herself. “DA… Are you crying?”
Dorothy Anne made a choking sound. “No. Are you drunk?”
“Possibly.” Wanda admitted. She was definitely feeling tipsy but from the shots or from letting everything out like that she didn’t know. “Listen DA, we really need to talk… there’s something important I need to tell you.”
There was a loud sniffling sound. “Alright, go ahead.”
Wanda was full of resolve but the emotion in her girlfriend’s voice elevated her concern above her drive.
“You had something to tell me?”
DA blew her nose. “But you said…”
“Tell me what’s wrong.” Wanda said gently, the same way she did when DA was stressed out about a grant proposal or an interview.
Wanda listened as DA detailed what had happened at the conference. When she reached the part about the interested book-pusher, Wanda’s blood went cold. “What did this person look like?”
DA told her. Wanda stopped breathing.
“Wanda? You okay?”
“I need to call Arnold. I’m sorry. I love you, I’ll call you right back I just… I need to talk to Arnold for a second!” She hung up before DA could say anything. She’d make it up to her later; she’d fly herself out to San Diego to finally propose. Yes. That was what she’d do.
In her hurry and the elation of this snap decision, Wanda dropped her phone. As she bent to retrieve it, something outside the window caught her eye.
Wanda froze and stared. It couldn’t be… there was no way…
Her phone started ringing again, snapping her out of her shock. She scooped it up off the floor and peered at the screen. It was Arnold.
“Arn! Thank goodness, I was just about to call I…”
“Did you just talk to someone too?” Arnold’s voice was even more distorted than DA’s had been, given that he was father away tonight.
Wanda paused. “Yes… how did you know?”
Arnold’s voice was grim. “Because the same thing just happened to Tim and Carlos. And DA and Ralphie. And us!”
Wanda stared out the window at the spot where the yellow vehicle had disappeared. “The same person?” She asked.
“Tall and thin with long dark, wavy hair, large ring on her right hand, dangling earrings, long black dress.” Arnold replied.
“That’s not possible.” Wanda said hoarsely. But she didn’t really believe that.
“I know… I know…” Arnold sounded stressed, Wanda imagined him combing his fingers through his hair. “but it happened. It just happened.”
Wanda’s gaze was still fixed on the window, on the spot outside where she had just seen the impossible. “It could be… It could be her.” But she had seen it. Therefore it was real. Wasn’t it?
“Wanda you said it yourself, it’s not possible.” Arnold’s voice was dejected. She knew he wanted it to be true, he still wanted to believe the impossible.
Wanda had made herself a promise the day she turned ten. She had vowed to never forget the magic of
her childhood. To never reject a story
or idea simply because it sounded impossible.
“You know it’s not impossible Arnold.
Think about it. There’s only one
person who could do something like that.
There’s only one person who would do it to all of us.” Wanda was pacing now, walking the completely
useless distance from the bar to the end of the tables and back.
“But Wanda… she died. She’s been dead. We saw the accident, we went to the funeral.”
That particular memory stopped her cold. “I know, Arn, I know…” It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible. But… this was the person who did the impossible. The only woman she’d ever known to truly have no limitations, no doubts, no regrets. The person who’d taught her that the impossible was achievable if one was only willing to take chances, make mistakes and get messy…
Wanda dashed outside. The sky above her head was alight with the meteor shower. Streaks of white light that were really a storm of tiny outer-space rocks burning up upon hitting Earth were dashing in all directions across the sky. The effect was breathtaking, even to someone who had seen such a thing up close. Wanda stared long and hard at the storm of light, searching for the one thing she always looked for when she thought of the year that had changed everything. The year that had led her to her six closest friends and her wonderful girlfriend. The year she had met a woman who taught her more than anyone else ever could.
Wanda knew she wasn’t the only one who looked around and wished to see that person and her magical vehicle again. Its absence had become so expected from her observations that it no longer hurt.
Only this time she actually saw it.
“You still there Arnold?” He confirmed that he was and asked why her voice was shaking.
Wanda smiled through her tears as she stared up at the night sky. “I think we’ve just been Frizzled. For the last time.”
High above the meteor shower, a conversation about the events below was taking place:
“I did nothing wrong.”
“You also did nothing right.”
“No laws were broken.”
“None of our laws. You broke plenty of others.”
“I did what needed to be done. The rest is up to them.”
“You went back. You were allowed only one year. Then contact was to be severed. Permanently.”
“They just needed one last push. One reminder of what that year did for them. To make sure their future was set.”
“The Council will not be happy with this…”
“The Council has never been happy with either of us. This will not change that. Neither will our return.”
“All the same, you shouldn’t have even been there… staying for an entire year just to be certain their lives turned out the way you saw…”
“You didn’t get them did you? I got to them first. I kept them safe. I mended the timelines.”
“You meddled with their lives. Do you really think they will thank you for that?”
“Perhaps not. But I can live with their resentment so long as you never meet them.”
A few moments of silence, broken only by the quiet tolling of a bell.
“Come, we’re needed at home. We have a war to fight.”