In which her world collapses around her!
Thankfully, the Daily building had a back door, which she made use of even though it set off an alarm. She slipped out and darted to her car, which had become home to two Minäs who sat on the hood pounding it with their fists.
“Get off!” she shooed them with her hands.
Then she remembered that she had a box of Graham crackers in the car, another luxury afforded to her by her better-paying journalism project. She fetched the crackers, as the Minäs were too stupid to stop her, even though it appeared they wanted to be perceived as threatening.
“Look what I have for you,” she told them. “Do you want a cookie? How about a whole box?” She tossed it like she would toss a dog a biscuit, and the two Minäs slid down and scampered after it.
They were too easy. Just too easy. Except, as her boss had said, they would attack and not know how or when to stop if they were mimicking an attacker. Her granddad had a story about that; he’d told her it would come next in the book. Sometimes the world coalesced in this way, converged into a kind of universal consciousness of connective similarities. Had she just thought that? She shook her head. It sounded like an idea straight out of Gilly’s mind, which had gone mad years ago. If there was one thing Stephanie wasn’t it was mad.
She was sane, practical, ordinary. She wheeled the car around the two cracker-grubbing Minäs and directed the vehicle to jump the curb and peel out through the alley across the street. The car complied. Next, she commanded it to find Mark.
“Would you like me to call Mark’s phone?” it asked her.
“No, just find him.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Would you like me to bring up the GPS function?”
“No, I want you to find my true love and force him back to work so we can get committed and have a stable family life together.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I can recommend a Lionel Richie song for you.” The beginning thrums of Hello drifted from the speakers. “Hello was released in 1983 on the album Can’t Slow Down. It’s considered one of the top fifty songs of the 20th century.”
“Shut up,” she told the car.
But the song kept on playing, Hello, is it me you’re looking for? Yes, she was looking for him, if that was who the me referred to.
“Call Mark,” she said.
The car silently dialed Mark’s number, as she had told it to shut up. Sometimes the car could be sensitive, if not completely literal. Was it surprising that he answered? In her mind, she had imagined him on the run, fleeing from work like an escaped prisoner.
“Mark! Where are you?”
“At the gym. Why do you ask?”
“The gym? What gym?”
“The gym I just joined.”
“You just lost your job and now you’re wasting money at the gym? Get your money back. I’m sure they’ll consider today a trial period.”
Mark went silent and then grunted.
“What are you doing?”
“Bench presses. I plan to be up to 350 by the weekend. You?”
“What are you lifting right now?”
“Well, the bar is forty-five, and I have a seventy-five on each side, so let’s see, that would be 195.”
She didn’t quite know what to say. He was blowing off steam. That much was obvious, but gyms were expensive, unless they were subsidized. Subsidized gyms were open to government tracking and health resolutions and all that nonsense, which Mark was not really into.
“Come back to work, Mark. Why did you quit?”
“Mr. Mast told me I had to apologize for the offensive article I wrote.”
“And there’s no way I’m apologizing.”
“Why not? Adults apologize all the time. It’s what sets them apart from children.” Mr. Mast had told her to seduce him to bring him back. She wasn’t quite sure how to go about such a devious act, especially while Mark was at the gym. But surely, if she tried hard enough, she could get him to apologize. “Um, can I come over tonight? Will you be free?” Her flirtatious affectation sounded a bit off.
“Well, I thought, you know, we could…”
The silence was on his end this time. “Are you kidding me?”
“No, why would I be?”
“Who do you think you are, the Daily whore?”
“No, I’m.” She hesitated. He sounded angry, as angry as he’d been the other night after the game. “I’m your girlfriend?”
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“I don’t know.”
“You know what I know? I know I don’t want to talk to you right now. I’m busy, and I don’t want to go back to work for the Daily. I’m never going to apologize. And I don’t think I want to be with you either.”
“You don’t want to be with…are you breaking up with me? I don’t understand.”
“Review the conversation, Stephanie, and maybe you’ll understand. First you told me what I should do with my own money, and then you offered to whore yourself for Mr. Mast. He told you to seduce me back, didn’t he?”
“What if he did? It doesn’t change that it’s a horrible time to lose a job. If you quit with this disgrace, you’ll never get a job in the League again.”
“And your point? I’m a sports editor. What do I have to say now I know it’s all a sham, even the players?”
Stephanie took a deep breath. “You knew before. What kept you going? It was the investigation. That’s what being a journalist is all about. Right? You can be an investigative reporter.”
“What universe are you living in? Because the one where I’m living doesn’t allow for real investigative reporting. I’ll end up apologizing, groveling, or getting fired, sued or jailed.”
“You did try to take down a huge money-making entertainment industry. Maybe you should come back, apologize, and make your stories a little more low-key. Everybody has to apologize sometimes. You wrote libelous information, calling the players androgynes, when they don’t identify as androgynes.”
There were sounds in the background: loud music, clanging, whooping (Minäs liked gyms), and Mark grunting again. Finally, he said in a voice that emphasized each syllable, “No. I’m not going to write human interest stories. I’m not going to write weather reports. And I’m certainly not going to continue hanging out with a woman who won’t commit herself to me, but who’s willing to whore herself out for a small-time paper.”
Her eyes blurred with tears. He had been trying to get her to sleep with him for months. Months. She wanted a stable life with a man who had a job. She didn’t want to repeat her mother’s mistake of marrying a man who couldn’t stay employed to save his life. Maybe this outcome was for the best, and her question had been answered. She now knew he wasn’t commitment ready. The gym membership said it all.
“Goodbye,” she told him with a broken voice and a heavy heart. “Hang up,” she told her car, though it came out sounding like henna.
“I’m sorry, you haven’t engaged your personal product shopping app,” the car said. “Your party has disconnected the call. What would you like me to do?”
“Drive to Granddad’s.”
“Setting course for the residence of Oso Beñat.” As usual, it continued speaking, giving the precise coordinates, the proposed time of arrival, and the weather. But Stephanie ignored it.
Instead, she slumped down in the seat, lost in her own world of convulsive sobs. Once the tears abated, she remained slumped, her only view the wide open deep blue sky, occasionally separated by pines.