Well, I finally heard back from one agent--it was a kiss-off of course, but at least she had the courtesy to write me back. In view of this--and the growing realization that some people might be perceiving the book as anti-American because it is critical of American foreign policy, I have decided to post it here, starting today in sections. So my question to any or all of my readers is: Is this anti-American? You decide. (I have tried to edit this so that the paragraphs are indented, but the program will not save it. I did try.)
Robert A. Sullivan
John looks down at the two square gold data chips on his work table even as he is listening to the intercom. He continues to stare at them with undisturbed concentration while his mind wanders, farther and farther away.
There’s a lot of background noise coming through the speaker, hisses and pops, but he can still hear the voices, mostly female and excited. The unmistakable sound of gossip as it spreads from person to person. News.
He realizes at this point he blew it, that he should have thought ahead. Too late now, though. Still, making a mistake is a big deal to John and it weighs heavily on him.
He is thinking about what he has to do, to contain the damage. He maps out a plan and it seems plausible enough. Since he’s the lead scientist, he has certain keys and pertinent access that no one else does.
But now he begins extrapolating even further ahead and realizes that there are some unresolved issues. He’ll deal with all that when he has to. First things first, however. He must secure the radio before anyone else reaches it, to disable it for the time being.
He rises from his seat, grabbing the two data chips and stuffing them in his pocket. He shuts off the light to his work area, seeing the sunrise outside the window, above the Aristarchus basin and the barren lunar surface, and thinks, I made one mistake. I won’t make another.
Sim looks down at her watch for the twentieth time in the last five minutes. It’s getting close now, she thinks. Close to crunch time. Either he’ll show up soon or that’s it–she’ll never see him again.
She sighs, her arms still folded across her chest. The flight attendant behind the desk where she is leaning just said something to her, but she isn’t listening. She sees a television monitor, hanging from the ceiling of the airport where she’s waiting, showing the same news clip she’s seen a thousand times. Radiological bomb explodes in Chicago, the graphics say. Sixteen square blocks uninhabitable, contaminated. The other news channel had it as twenty-four blocks. They can’t keep their details consistent. This prompts her once again to mentally relive what had happened two weeks ago, when her world had turned upside down and into a nightmare:
It was all her fault. That much she knew with absolute certainty. What exactly had been her fault, however, that’s what she’s having a problem with. She knows it had been so bad that she had to blot it out from her consciousness, because she can’t face it now. She isn’t the sort of person to run or hide from her problems, but much too much has happened ever since this business began, and she knows she can cope with only parts of it. So she has decided that once this is over, once she arrives in London, she’ll deal with it then. But not at this precise moment.
Presently she has to face the distinct possibility that her boyfriend who is also her best friend most likely isn’t accompanying her. I’m not going to cry, she repeatedly thinks. I am not going to cry. That is not happening. Not here. Not now. I’ve cried enough in these last twelve days. If Don doesn’t want to come–fine. That’s his choice. This whole deal stinks. It stinks to high heaven. Don is close to his family. He wouldn’t want to leave them. And he has a new baby sister. All the reasons in the world why he wouldn’t want to do this. She sighs again. Looks like I’m going alone, she sadly but logically concludes.
She remembers most of the story. She recalls Yade, her tech guy, telling her about the job, and her initial reluctance. ‘Anything having to do with organized crime,’ she also recalls yelling at Yade, ‘I don’t want any part of,’ and Yade in turn screaming back, ‘O.K.–don’t have a cow.’ But there was a reason why she took the assignment, however that has something to do with what she’s blotted out, so she can’t remember exactly what it was.
O.K., she abruptly thinks, enough of that. It was upsetting her even more. Her thoughts instead drift back to the previous evening and the events that transpired then:
During the day, she had managed to slip Don a note–Meet me at the park by the bench at 10 pm tonight–on his scooter that he had left outside the fast food joint where he worked. It was a little after ten before she returned to the rendezvous.
"Hey S.B.," Don had greeted her in his usual manner. "Didn’t think you were going to show, so I was getting ready to cruise."
"Well," she drawled out, "had to make sure you weren’t followed. No tails."
"Oh I know," he blew off. "So where you been? I missed ya."
Then why don’t you give me a hug? she longingly wondered, part of her still hoping against reason he’d take her in his arms and simply assure her everything’s all right but the rest realizing it wasn’t that easy--it never had been in the whole history of the human race and it never will be. Even though they've dated romantically for a year, she nonetheless felt as awkward initiating any physical embrace as much as she needed it. "I know," she had instead rejoined. "I’m sorry I couldn’t call, but–a lot’s happened. We have to talk."
"Oh boy," Don in turn had responded. "I knew this didn’t sound good. Your parents have hired a lawyer, ya know."
Sim rolled her exquisite jade green eyes to the heavens above the two of them, together again after being separated for so long. "Won’t do them any good," she dismissed, and then she filled Don in with what had happened in Washington, D.C., and where she’d been since, out of the country, while trying to decide what to do next.
"So they were pretty steamed, huh?" Don asked when she finished, referring to the federal government’s reaction to what had happened in Chicago.
Sim shrugged. "We’re vigilantes now, is the way they look at it. All four of those conditions I just told you about are nonnegotiable."
He looked down. "So, if we stay, we can’t see each other anymore," he summed up the final provision of their probation as she had related to him, to make sure he correctly understood it. Also explicit in the official offer was the clearly delineated threat of prison time that both would otherwise be looking at–charged as adults to boot–if Sim and Don didn’t agree to the U.S. government’s terms, as the Justice Department had decided to hang them out to dry and hold them either directly or indirectly responsible for that bomb going off in Chicago, when actually it hadn’t been their fault. Not altogether. Not entirely, anyway.
She pressed her lips together that had missed Don so much, along with the rest of her body and soul. "Yup," she tersely confirmed, facing the worst of it, ready with steely resolve to give him her prepared speech. "I’m leaving, Don–with or without you–tomorrow night. I’m taking the British’s deal, even though I know it’s terrible. I–realize I’m asking a lot, but–I want you to come with. But if you don’t I’m still going–O.K.?–regardless."
Don finally looked back up at her after heaving a great big sigh. "So I have till tomorrow to decide this?" he petulantly and pointedly inquired.
She nodded, ignoring his attitude as usual, or as par for the course. "You will get a call at eleven tomorrow night. It won’t be from me. If you take it, you will get instructions on what to do next. If you don’t, then–that’s it–I’ll know you’re not coming."
He gestured. "How are they planning on faking our deaths again?"
She raised her radiant and sparkling eyes to the canopy of stars in the firmament above them–the Milky Way arced as if forming a cosmic wedding arch, framing the two of them in the quiet and enveloping night sky–the light in her irises twinkling the same as the terrible and distant suns of the zodiac. "Plane crash, over the Mediterranean. They’re going to plant your chip in the wreckage along with two burned corpses–supposedly us. If you come."
By reflex, Don ran his hand over his neck, where Yade had implanted his tracking chip, at Sim’s request–without telling him about it, much less asking permission–neither before nor after the fact. This was yet another sore spot in their involvement to give him pause. To make him consider once again if the game was really worth the candle–if a high maintenance relationship with a girl such as Sim on balance merited the rewards. If he honestly loved her this much. He knew Sim wanted him to kiss her luscious rose petal lips, hold her lithe and trim body in his arms and so on. And under normal conditions, he would have been only too happy to oblige. But this bombshell she had just dropped of the British offer to train them for elite operations–coupled with Sim inexplicably holding it back from him until the day before they were to leave, giving him all of twenty-four short hours to make up his mind–after two of the longest weeks of his life that he just spent not hearing from her, on top of finding out she’d been out of the country–without him–wasn’t making Don a happy camper nor inspiring him to jump for absolute joy. At all. "O.K.," he had abruptly and simply acknowledged and turned and walked away–by himself and into the night–leaving her there, alone in the park, still in the darkness as well.
Sim feels her heart ache now and her spirit sag even more than it had last night, as she recalls once again when Don had left her without so much as eye contact or even saying goodbye. She looks down at her watch again, which is quite a fancy one–the body and wrist chain fashioned from platinum, with mother-of-pearl face, and two one-carat each flawless cobalt blue brilliant cut diamonds, the first mounted where ‘twelve’ would normally be on the dial and the other positioned at the ‘six’ location. The iridescent hands that seem both to float along the smooth lead crystal above and reflect off the peach pearl sheen below mark the time as eleven thirty-two, two minutes past the deadline for Don to show up. Her rapt fascination continues as the holographic hands in the shapes of thin and beveled classical rapiers cycle through the colors of the rainbow–from the blue end to the red side and then back again in reverse order–the hands displaying a different refraction, variable from cycling every two seconds down to quarter second intervals. But regardless of the speed, this is a sight she has never gotten tired of. She recalls school since the beginning of the year, sitting in class countless times while tuning out some droning lecture–consumed with spring fever but nevertheless mesmerized by the alternating shades of the spectrum, entranced then as she is here now. At the fastest settings the hands seem to dance–the colors are changing so quickly. She knows the timepiece is one of a kind–she had found out since she received it that her father had collaborated with another engineer to design and create this, but hadn’t initially told her so. She had inadvertently overheard her parents lightheartedly conversing one evening about being unable to insure it–as it is priceless. Ostensibly the brand on the dial reads ‘Alpha and Omega’ which she figured out is a joke, as is the tiny inscription on the back ‘Made in Swaziland,’ instead of the usual ‘Made in Switzerland’ snobbery, details which reflect her father’s demented sense of humor. She had found out from some basic research on the CIA’s website that Swaziland is a landlocked south African nation with both the last absolute monarch and the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world. She sincerely doubted anyone from there could ever even imagine anything such as this, let alone build it. Her mother and father wanted to give her something special–to let her know how precious she is to them–but at the same time hadn’t wanted it to go to her head. The watch had been a Christmas present from her parents last December, the same parents she was never going to see again. Sim feels tears coming up in her eyes and, with every facet of her will, stops them.
If Don does show up, he can’t see me crying as an emotional cripple would, she thinks, even as she hears someone call her name.
Carolyn Marks looks out the double pane plexiglass window of the military transport as it speeds down the eastern seaboard of the United States from Washington, D.C. to Cape Canaveral, Florida. The early afternoon sun reflects off the blue-green aquamarine shimmer of the Atlantic Ocean which she can see here and there in between clouds below her. She is very tired but also quite excited about the trip, so her consciousness is teetering on the verge of sleep–not yet dreaming, but also not fully awake.
This is the first chance she’s had to reflect on what’s happened since she arrived at work last night and had been told of her assignment most of the way through her third shift in the call center at Fort Meade, Maryland. She’s worked there for almost two years and this is her first job outside the Agency, so when her supervisor called her just before four o’clock in the morning and told her she is now on loan to NASA, she was surprised, to say the least.
Her grandmother had actually called her the night before and told her she was going to the moon but she thought her grandmother had been kidding–"Sure Grandmom–tell me another one," had been her comment back. But it was no joke–her supervisor had told her almost the same thing over the telephone. Almost–but not exactly.
And now these two that are sitting next to her have finally seen fit to shut up. When she had been met at the airport this morning, she discovered she had been assigned a couple of Air Force handlers: Karen and Aimee, both young Lieutenants about the same age as she and both perky and blonde. Since she is a few inches taller than they are and she has brown, almost black hair and correspondingly dark features, she had previously seen fit to regard both with reticence but now she is beginning to regret that. The pair had taken pity on her as they could see how sleepy she was, so they had canned the small talk whereby Carolyn could catch a short afternoon nap if she desired. She has to give them points for that.
As she alternately opens and closes her eyes, still staring out the window, she tries to make sense of the disparity between what her grandmother told her and what her supervisor had said. It was mostly the same. There is going to be a space shuttle launch in two weeks that needs a National Security Agency cryptographer as the communication mission specialist. The other six crew members are going to be trained separately. Her training starts today, as soon as she lands and finds a bunk.
She’s been down to Florida before with her family, she tells Aimee a few hours later over the general noise of the bar.
Aimee nods as she takes another hit from her martini. "Where abouts?" she asks.
"Daytona," Carolyn replies. "That’s where my parents like to go."
After she had found her bunk earlier, her instructor told her to hit the hay as they’d be starting early the next morning. Since she had gone straight from her apartment to the airport, she hadn’t slept the night before. Carolyn had been about to do as ordered when Karen and Aimee stopped by to invite her out for a drink. Because she felt more refreshed from the nap she'd taken earlier, she gambled a small amount of alcohol was a safe bet.
When they'd first arrived at the bar, they were greeted by a few other female Air Force officers as if by chance, and Carolyn is just now starting to figure out what the agenda is, that none of this is an accident. She finishes off her beer, which isn’t what she usually drinks either, but the bar had been out of chardonnay.
"Want another?" Karen queries her, much as some guy might who’s trying to get her plastered. Everyone around her is being far too attentive while trying to act so nonchalantly.
Carolyn looks at her inquirer, then at her watch and blinks. "One more, and then I do have to go," she announces loudly enough so that everyone can hear.
After Karen nods and leaves, another Air Force Lieutenant, Rachelle, asks her, "So why are you guys taking the shuttle?" This is a very good question. It seems to be cards-on-the-table time, as they have already gone over the usual getting-to-know-you chitchat.
Still another Lieutenant, Marie, chimes in with, before anyone can say anything else, "Yeah, what’s up with that? They’re so old." The last shuttle flew almost thirty years ago, in 2014. Before anyone at the table had even been born.
Carolyn theatrically shrugs after pausing long enough so that anyone with an actual answer could supply one. "I was hoping you all could tell me," she replies. "That was my first reaction, too–what are we supposed to do when we get up there into lunar orbit–parachute down?" She means because the moon has one-sixth of the Earth’s gravity, a traditional touchdown landing on a runway would be very tricky, if not impossible.
Rachelle considers this in jest. "That might be one way," she dead pans.
Aimee observes, "You’d have a long fall, though."
Carolyn agrees. "Yeah, I can bring a book with me. To read on the way down."
Aimee looks over at Carolyn while she holds her martini glass with two fingers. "Until I heard about this, I thought the space shuttles were permanently grounded," she throws out to see what this will elicit from their guest.
Carolyn glances back at Aimee. On the way down here today, she had made a couple of remarks that seemed to be trolling for information, one in particular about Carolyn being the only passenger on the military transport, but previously Carolyn had been guarded. Now she decides to spill what she does know, what her grandmother had told her. "That’s what I thought, also." She meets everyone's eyes for emphasis. "This is not to leave this table, but–"
"Hold on," Rachelle cautions, raising her hand. "Let’s wait for Karen."
When Karen returns, she sets down Carolyn’s beer on a napkin first in front of their visitor and then looks around, as everybody's attention seems to be on her. "What?" she asks.
Carolyn takes this. "As I was saying, this is not to leave this table, but I was told we’re going to be arresting one of the scientists that works on the moon. For treason."
"Who told you this?" another Lieutenant who had previously introduced herself as Brandy inquires, having been silent and listening up until now.
As she picks up her glass Carolyn's level gaze connects with that of the other woman, who is taller than the others and has long straight hair. "A little bird," she lightly answers.
"But you weren’t told where you’re going," Rachelle follows up with but not in the tone of a question.
"Nope," Carolyn succinctly replies after she sips again.
Everyone quietly considers this for a while, until Marie, who works in logistics, offers, "Oh, you know something, earlier in the week, there was all this unplanned activity out of Aristarchus Camp Two."
Karen nods to agree. "Yeah, I heard about that also. Two Colonels in my section were talking about all the transports out, and then nobody could raise them on the radio."
Everyone’s eyes shift back and forth, from one woman to the next, as each tries to fill in the blanks. Finally, as she takes another hit from her glass, Carolyn slowly concludes, "Maybe that’s where all this is coming out of."
She makes her exit a little while later, after a few male officers appear and she pieces together the other imperative of the evening. The Air Force women apparently perceive Carolyn as a guy magnet, so they are not only trying to pump her for juicy gossip but also using her to arrange dates for afterwards as well. She notices Brandy disdains as Carolyn does any of the men that the other women seem eager for. In addition she needs time to herself to sort out this latest development, so Carolyn has no qualms about sleeping alone tonight.
After she changes clothes and lies down in her bunk, with the two drinks she had still percolating through her system, she reviews her day. She thinks about the flight down and being initially guarded and then deciding to trust the other five women. But what strikes her the most about this development is the parallel to a movie series she recalls, and how a similar plot device used there had fallen into place in a replicative fashion.
When Carolyn had been growing up with her family, one of the patterns from her routine that had developed was the traditional watching of a film after dinner, and one of her parents’ favorite series was a collection of Japanese animation whose storyline very closely resembles what Carolyn perceives as taking place now.
In the first installment, an all-female race battles mechanical bad guys in a long war, hundreds of millions of years ago, as the theme of the yarn is cycles of history. Early on in the first episode, a major character is killed off, or so you are lead to believe. Actually, as the plot of the second film unfolds, it appears that character was really frozen in space for ten or twelve years and is miraculously and conveniently resuscitated by a group of officers not unlike the collection that she had spent some time drinking with earlier. This bunch is acting outside the traditional hierarchy of the military, as Carolyn’s crew is, and in the second and third chapters, they try to recruit the reticent character that had survived the original ‘eternal story.’ These soldiers don’t trust their leaders for a variety of different reasons and are trying to come up with some way to avert the total disaster they feel each side in the war is headed for. While they ultimately can’t stop both races from annihilating each other, they are able to give what they perceive as a gift to their descendants, mankind on Earth, that would inherit their will–the crystallization of all their science and technology, in the form of a single data chip, which they have planted on the dark side of the moon. The idea was that once the people of the Earth had evolved technologically enough for space travel at least to the moon, it was hoped that they would have also achieved the necessary maturity to wisely use the information. Of course, all that was a pipe dream, but those developments would come later.
What occurs to Carolyn as she finally drifts off to sleep is that she will benefit more from her new group’s cooperation than she has risked by telling them everything she knows. She feels confident today was a good start and that she made solid decisions, but she can’t help a nagging feeling in the back of her mind there’s more to this deal than she knows–and that when she finds out what it is, she’s not going to like it.
When Sim hears her name being called, it’s almost as if she’s dreaming, or she imagines she hears it only because that’s what she wants to hear. But when she hears it again, she turns around to see Don with a duffel bag over his shoulder, running down the hall of the airport she’s departing from. By the time he reaches her, he’s very nearly ready to fall over and pass out.
"Hey," she reproaches him. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Sorry, S.B.," Don begins to explain while heaving and sighing. "Moped broke down again–about a mile out." He gestures in the general direction of where this happened as he pauses to inhale more precious oxygen. "Just left it and ran. We still going?"
She blinks, as it occurs to her she doesn’t really know. "I guess," she ventures, looking about for someone. An older woman in a uniform with her hair up in a grey bun rounds the corner, as if on cue. Sim greets her by interjecting, "Hi."
The older woman smiles for a second before she responds in an English accent, "Hello." She then turns to Don. "Are you Donald?" she asks him.
"Yes ma’am I am," he replies, almost caught up with his breath. "Sorry I’m late–did I speak with you on the phone?"
"No worries–yes that was me," she returns. "Would you two come along please?"
"Sure," Sims rejoins, while making a lead-the-way gesture.
As they are walking down the hall, Sim takes Don’s arm. "Remind me to kill you later," she hisses into his ear.
"Hey, I said I was sorry," he protests, a little louder than he needed to be.
They stop at an unmarked room where the older woman punches in a code next to the door. The magnetic lock buzzes when she twists the metal knob. She holds the entrance open as she turns around and gestures for her charges to enter. "Please," she invites them.
Inside the room, there are three metal folding chairs along with an oblong metal folding table. There is also another door with a similar numeric code keypad next to it that portends an inner sanctum. The area is harshly lit with flourescent light. "Have a seat," she suggests when the two teenagers don’t sit down immediately.
Once gathered around the table, she instructs them to empty their pockets and she buttonholes Sim to turn her purse inside out. They do so without comment.
The older woman regards Sim’s belongings first. She holds up the young lady’s school ID card. "You’re a senior?" she asks.
"Yes ma’am," Sim replies, her hands folded in her lap, her posture straight, not leaning back in her chair.
"You can relax," the older woman advises her, and Sim’s sleek and trim physique obligingly does conform to the back support of the plain metal folding chair but the teenager nevertheless keeps her hands folded in her nervousness. "You haven’t graduated yet?"
"No ma’am," Sim returns, looking down. "It was supposed to be in May, and then–all this happened."
The older woman more closely considers Sim. She notes the now former cheerleader’s cascading red hair, parted on the side, and the dash of makeup and lipstick, but not overdone. She also appraises the younger woman’s exquisite jade green eyes, framed by the ethereal nature of her lashes as she blinks, and the sadness that the other woman perceives there. "You understand," she softly underscores, "that from this point on, there is no going back."
Sim snaps her gaze up at their handler. "Yes," she firmly acknowledges. "I understand. I’ve made my decision. I don’t regret it."
"Will you miss your family?" is the immediate follow-up.
"Of course," Sim fires back in a similar fashion. "But I’m still going."
"Fair enough," the older woman allows. "And you Donald, do you also understand?"
"Yes ma’am, I do," Don answers as he keeps his eyes trained on her but indicates Sim. "I trust her. She asked me to come, and I agreed."
"What about your family?"
Don squares his jaw in a way Sim’s never seen before. "I talked to them, before I left. Nothing specific, so don’t worry. They want me to be happy, and I’ll be happy with Sim."
"Very well," she concludes after a minute. She collects everything that has any identifying information on it. She retrieves a camera from her purse after going through both bags of theirs. "Donald, I need your picture, so would you stand over against that wall please?"
Don rises and poses as requested. When she’s done, the older woman excuses herself and leaves through the other door.
Don asks, as he sits back down, "So she already blinded you with that flash?"
Sim nods. "Yeah, while we were waiting for you."
"Didja really think I wasn’t going to come?" he further inquires, his voice a conspiratorial notch lower.
She coolly regards him. "Things were looking pretty grim for a moment," she concedes.
He agrees. "For me, too," he now confides. "I thought I was gonna miss you by this much." He demonstrates a small gap.
She closes his fingers with her own. "I guess we got lucky again, huh?"
He nods. "Guess we did."
They remain in comfortable silence until the older woman returns to the room and sits once more. "Let me see your watch and your ring please," she resumes with Sim.
She sets the watch aside after examining it without comment–only smiling at the display and the inscription on the reverse–but points out, of the ring, "This has your initials on it."
Sim blinks and she counters, "I thought my first and second initials were going to be the same."
"Oh, daft," the older woman acknowledges in reproach to herself as she touches her head. "You are correct. Sara Brighton-Smith. This is what happens when you get old, you know."
Sim sympathetically smiles as she regains her jewelry. The woman then peevishly confronts Don, as if to suggest he has been trying to hide something from her and she is losing patience with such a childishly impudent–as well as imprudent–prank. "What do you have in your pocket?" she pointedly demands of him.
"Oh, that?" Don by contrast innocently and blithely answers. "That’s just Doofus."
Oh no, Sim thinks as she grimaces while closing her eyes. She had forgotten about this. She holds her hand up to her face in embarrassment and a general sense of impending doom.
Don produces Doofus, who cheerfully exclaims, "Hiya," while standing up on his hind legs.
The older woman springs from her chair in surprise. "Sweet heavens," she interjects, recoiling. "What on Earth is that?"
"That," Don replies in great emphasis and satisfaction, "is my pet mole rat. Want to hear about how Don met Doofus?"
Sim takes this. "No, she doesn’t Don, and we don’t have time for your rap number." She apologizes to the older woman. "I’m really sorry. I had no idea he was going to bring him."
"Well," their handler considers, after collecting herself, "it is a bit unusual, but–we’ve never had anyone bring a pet through before. He talks?"
"Yeah," Sim confirms, "believe it or not. He also understands rudimentary English. Right, Doofus?"
Doofus nods his head in enthusiasm. "Yeahyeah."
"He’s not just a pet," Sim prattles on. "I mean–he’s pretty useful, when he wants to be. Gotten us out of many a jam."
But Don is becoming apprehensive. "Is this going to be a deal breaker?" he inquires, clearly dreading a positive response and Doofus himself squeals in horror, "Ohno!"
"Is it?" Sim also asks when there is no immediate answer, trepidation in her voice as well.
The older woman sits again while warily regarding Doofus. "Just," she finally decides, "keep him out of sight."
"Don," Sim exclaims in reproach and relief, as if to say ‘You heard her.’
"Ten four, S.B.," he replies while returning Doofus to his pocket as suggested. "Consider him gone."
Back to business, the older woman hands them each new ID. Don looks at his. "Harold Baker," he reads aloud. "Can I go by Harry?"
The older woman gestures. "If you wish."
"Come on Sara," Don addresses Sim in her alias, standing up and taking her hand after he grabs his bag and hands his girlfriend’s overnight to her. "I believe we have a plane to catch."
"I believe we do, Harry," Sim plays along as she rises as well.
"Good luck, you two," the older woman calls after them as she sees both off.
Outside on the tarmac in the darkness, they yell back in unison, "Thanks," and wave as they break into a run toward the rolling stairs next to their flight and their new future together.
Carolyn has been watching Sim and Don on television since she was about ten. This is one of the ways she had become friends with Amy, who also adored the show. The original series ran for four years on a children’s network a long time ago and then had taken on a life of its own with fan fiction on the Internet. Every few years the same network would broadcast reruns, until everyone got sick of it again. This is when Carolyn and Amy, her partner in crime and opposite number during high school, had caught up with it. Some years later, the same cable venue introduced a New Adventures spinoff, with the same characters only a little older. But by this time, Carolyn and her friend had begun devising their own plots and subplots, and as time went on, gradually began to tune out the show on television in favor of what she and Amy would write themselves. In high school, they had also imposed on this guy they found who could draw to illustrate some of their favorite storylines, such as this one in particular.
Originally, what had attracted Carolyn to the premise was a world, similar to ours but with no sex in it–other than for purposes of procreation between married adults of opposite genders. This vastly uncomplicated the prospect of high school and boys simply by removing the issue of hormones. Thus remedied, boyfriends would be reduced to what Don had been in the original series–a lovable bumbling but good natured and happy eunuch, whom Sim could have over in her room whenever she wanted and never have to worry about Don trying anything inappropriate.
As she grew up and became more comfortable with the idea of intercourse and sex, Carolyn still retained a soft spot for the simplicity of Sim and Don’s relationship–how they relied on each other, how they helped each other and how they looked out for one another.
The next day, after her training, she is ordering her group around in the galley that they have commandeered. Earlier the previous evening, still on their first round of drinks, when one of the Air Force women had ordered nachos, Carolyn had wrinkled her nose at the prospect, and responded to accusations of being stuck up by regaling them with stories of François, who had been her family’s personal chef since she was little and had also taught her how to cook. This had the unintended effect of permanently elevating Carolyn’s taste in food, to the point of her not being able to eat anything she considered substandard or pedestrian without making a face. Having thus entranced her new group with such wonderful tales of more sophisticated cuisine, she was then of course challenged either to put up or shut up, so Karen had arranged that they would have use of the galley and access to at least most of the ingredients that Carolyn had e-mailed her earlier in the day that they would need.
Carolyn takes the knife away from Marie and lines up one of the garlic cloves. "Do it like this, please," she instructs the Hispanic woman as she demonstrates.
"Oh gross–what is that?" she hears Rachelle growl.
"Hold on," she advises Rachelle. "I’ll be over in a second."
Marie takes back the knife and tries to duplicate what Carolyn has just shown her. "Fine," Carolyn decides as she advances to ascertain what has freaked out Rachelle, who has her hands over the sink, still holding whatever it is. "Let me smell," Carolyn suggests to her when their guest sees what the Air Force Lieutenant has.
Rachelle holds it up for her while still making a face. Carolyn directs Rachelle, after sniffing, "That’s bad. Throw it all out."
Rachelle looks at her. "All of it?" she incredulously asks.
Carolyn glances back at her in turn after perusing the balance. "Yes," she replies. "It’s all bad. Do you want to get food poisoning?"
Rachelle decides she doesn’t and dumps the entire contents of the bag of seafood that she was about to clean down the garbage disposal and turns it on. "Karen," she calls.
Karen approaches as bidden. Carolyn informs her in a low voice, "All that shrimp was rancid. What else can we get into, around here?"
"Oh shit," Karen comments under her breath. "I knew it didn’t look good." She leads the other three, as Brandy has now joined them, to a locked refrigerated pantry. "I don’t have the key," she explains.
Carolyn regards Karen in the wake of the silence that follows. "Well who does?" Carolyn incredulously inquires.
"Steve," all three of the Air Force women retort at nearly the same time. One of the guys that they had blown off last night. Brandy volunteers to the rest of them, "I’ll go get it."
After she leaves, Carolyn similarly considers Rachelle and Karen. "What is she going to get–the key or Steve?" she finally attempts to clarify.
Rachelle shrugs and Karen replies, "I guess we’ll find out in a minute."
Presently Brandy returns with Steve, who is trying to parlay this into an exchange that none of the women find acceptable. Carolyn walks up to him and punches him in the shoulder with one finger. "Look," she begins. "We’ll give you some of what we make if you open that door, and that’s it."
Steve looks around at all of the women, standing around him. "Well, what are you making?" he finally queries them.
Carolyn gestures. "It depends on what’s in there."
He takes stock of her again. "You know how to cook?" he persists.
She flashes her eyes at him. "Yes," she simply states. "Would you like to help?"
Steve is noncommital, allowing only, "Maybe."
Carolyn playfully promises, "This’ll be way better than anything else you can get on the base, Steviekins."
When Steve takes too long to respond, Marie loses her patience and starts threatening violence. "Come on–there’s six of us and only one of him. Let’s just–"
Aimee reappears, which cuts Marie off. "Never mind," she teases Steve, dangling some keys in front of him.
Steve appraises them. "Those aren’t the right ones," he advises her.
Rachelle reaches for said keys. "These are for the other locker," she declares after she examines them.
All follow Rachelle over to another pantry, which she unlocks. Everybody enters or tries to, as there’s not much space. Someone flips the lights on and they begin looking through bins. Carolyn regally commands, "Everyone call out what you find."
"Beets," Marie proclaims.
"Cucumbers," Karen announces.
"Eggplant," Rachelle extolls.
"Corn," Aimee thrillingly holds forth.
"This is all vegetables," Brandy by contrast blandly concludes, from just outside the door.
"It looks that way. And I have lettuce," Carolyn anticlimactically echoes in Brandy’s tone and manner before she looks over at Aimee. "What kind of corn?"
She holds up an ear. "On the cob," she elaborates.
"O.K.," Carolyn decides, "that we can use. What else is in here?"
When they finish raiding that pantry, it appears Steve has had a change of heart. "O.K., O.K.," he capitulates when faced with all the women’s grimly determined faces, encircling him. He unlocks the door to the first pantry.
"Thank you," Carolyn emphatically responds.
"Can I still have some?" he asks her.
"Some food, yes," she pointedly replies. "If you help."
He gives up. "O.K.–what do you want me to do?"
After she makes sure everyone's busy on their individual projects, Carolyn reflects on her day, which had started early. Her trainer had taken her for a run along the beach and she had been treated to the dawn--witnessing the sun emerge from the horizon and subsequently rise over the ocean. She had been struck once again how beautiful the sky can be in Florida during spring–there had been some high cirrus stratus, like etchings in the finest pane of glass, that she had watched slowly rotate about the blue expanse that mirrored the Atlantic.
She breaks out of her reverie long enough to realizes she’s getting hungry, so she walks around to check up on everyone. She asks Steve, "Would you chop those finer please?"
"Yes ma’am," he answers, reverting to church manners.
She next approaches Rachelle. She sniffs what the other’s gotten done so far in a mixing bowl, off to the side. "Those smell so good," she observes to Rachelle, who returns her smile.
She stops to help Aimee with the bread. After a while, she sees Aimee’s glass of wine. "Who has the alcohol?" Carolyn inquires of everyone.
Karen raises her hand. "Right over here," she announces.
As she is pouring herself a glass, Carolyn queries her, "Were you able to get into the records that we discussed yesterday?"
Karen shakes her head as she continues to chop the parsley on the cutting board. "No, but tomorrow I should have better luck. My supervisor usually takes a longer lunch on Wednesdays. Do you think that’s enough?"
Carolyn looks at what’s in the bowl there and decides, "Let’s see what Steve has gotten done."
Karen and Carolyn evaluate Steve’s progress. "I think we’re ready to go here," Carolyn absently allows. "I still wish we had some stock, though."
Steve blankly regards her. "What’s stock?" he asks her.
Carolyn gestures as she speaks. "It’s–like a soup, that’s made from like vegetables or meat, or like beef or poultry, but it’s clear–I mean there’s no stuff in it."
Steve turns his head to mentally appraise something. "You mean like–chowder?"
Carolyn considers this. "Well, I guess we could use that, if we strained all the junk out of it. Why?"
Karen hits him on the arm, losing patience with this routine, as Marie had previously. "Show us what you’re thinking of."
"Well," Steve starts backtracking, as he fumbles with the keys at a different freezer, "this is all frozen, now, so–"
"That’s O.K.," Carolyn softly replies. She opens the plastic container that he has handed her and smells it. "Oh my Lord," she continues as she reads the label. "What else is in here?"
Everyone crowds around as Steve does a quick inventory. At one point, Carolyn inquires, "Hey, are we going to get in trouble for getting into all this?"
Brandy answers, "No, I’ll take care of it. I can fudge the inventory in the computer tomorrow. Just, I need to keep track of everything we take, so–"
Aimee announces, "I’m already making a list."
"We can get more wine, right?" Carolyn queries Karen while hitting her arm with the back of her hand.
Karen nods. "I have a case," she declares.
Carolyn blinks. "Good. We’re ready to go then. Who’s hungry? Raise your hand."
Marie offers while raising her right, "I am."
Rachelle responds, also raising, "I am."
Aimee echoes while gesturing as well, "Same here."
Karen waves and answers, "Me too."
While pointing at her, Carolyn buttonholes Brandy, who hasn’t raised her hand, "What about you?"
"Famished," Brandy informs her inquirer as she points back at Carolyn in the same way.
"Yeah," Carolyn retorts, walking around to the stove, looking for the largest pot she can find. "That’s what I thought." She holds one up for Steve. "Is this the biggest thing we have?"
"Yeah," he confirms. "You got it."
"Where did the butter get off to?" she asks next.
Marie hands it to her. "Thank you," she offers. "Brandy, is that water from the corn still reducing?"
Brandy walks over to see. "Yes," she replies.
"What does it look like?" Carolyn further inquires of her. "I mean, what’s the consistency like?"
Brandy judiciously evaluates, "Like–cloudy."
"Good," Carolyn decides. "Oh, you know what? You can throw those cobs back in."
Brandy looks around. "Where are they?"
"In the sink," Carolyn replies, and the other sees. "Marie, how are the peas coming?"
"Shoot," she interjects, moving away from Carolyn, "I forgot about those."
Brandy herself offers, "I’ll help her."
"Thank you," Carolyn responds. "Rachelle, would you do me a favor and find a measuring glass or cup please?"
"O.K.," Rachelle answers.
"Steve, Karen?" Carolyn prompts, gesturing for them. "I’m ready for the parsley, garlic and onions now please."
A little while later, after she adds the wine and stock, she looks at her watch. It’s almost seven-thirty. She announces to everyone, "I think we’re going to eat in about an hour or a little longer. How does that sit with everyone?"
Everyone looks around at everyone else. Rachelle relates, "I’m kinda hungry now, to be perfectly honest."
"So am I," Marie agrees.
"Me too," Karen and Aimee echo at almost the same time.
"Yeah," Carolyn lightly remarks. "I kinda thought so. I am too." Everyone has been hitting the alcohol since they had finished with the prep work. She looks around. "Where’s the bread?" she inquires.
Aimee retrieves the pastry tray. "Let’s put that in the oven right now," Carolyn decides as she checks the temperature dial.
The smell hits everyone at about the same time, when the crust turns golden brown. Aimee opines, peering in through the oven door, "Looks done to me," before she pulls out the tray with the cut up and brushed pieces of loaf on it.
After her third or fourth bite, Carolyn dips her bread piece into what she has reducing on the stove. She blows on it to cool it down before she tastes it. "Oh my God," she invokes in minor ecstacy, closing her eyes. "That is so delicious."
Rachelle dips her piece in also, as does Karen, then Marie, then Aimee, then Brandy. Carolyn tells Steve when he hesitates, "Go ahead. It’s really good."
They finish off the bread, which holds them for now. Then the women start back on the wine. As they get more and more smashed, the Air Force girls keep asking about François. Carolyn has a difficult time persuading them nothing ever happened. "Guys," she begins in her own defense, barely able to keep from laughing, "I’m not a flirt. O.K., I am a flirt now, but I wasn’t back then. Besides, it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway."
Karen advises her in a low driving voice, just barely able to keep from laughing herself, "You are so full of shit."
Carolyn disagrees. "No I’m not. Well O.K. yes I am, but not on this subject though. He never–" She can’t even say the word. She makes a gesture with her hand–to flip something off.
Even Brandy comments, "I find that hard to believe."
Carolyn checks her watch. It’s eight-twenty. She decides it’s close enough, as she wants to shut down this line of questioning. "O.K.," she announces, walking down to the other stove. "We have to get all the corn out of there. Do we have a sieve anywhere?"
"A sieve?" Marie asks.
"A sieve?" Rachelle repeats.
"Yeah," Carolyn tries to clarify, "like a strainer. Looks like a cone. And we also need another big pot."
Steve holds something up. "Is this O.K.?" he inquires of Carolyn.
"Is that clean?" she asks him back.
He looks at it. "Um," he demurs.
Aimee takes it from him. "No, it’s not," she decides after looking at it.
"Then would you wash it please," Carolyn entreats in a tone of command more than request. She’s still looking around. She opens a cabinet door and finds what she needs. "Here we go," she softly exclaims. "Now we need some tongs."
"What for?" Marie asks.
Carolyn gestures. "To get the cobs out of there." They start looking around again while Aimee is over at the sink.
Marie persists, still thinking this through, "Well, how did you get them out before?"
Carolyn looks at her. "With my hands, but she put them back in there the other way. O.K.?"
"O.K.," Marie replies.
"Yeah, it’s all my fault," Brandy admits, suitably chastised and contrite. "But I found a fork," she continues as she holds it up, as if requesting redemption. "Is that good enough?"
"Close enough," Carolyn declares as the latter magnanimously absolves the former. She holds a large spoon against one of the stripped corn cobs still in the pot. She tells Brandy, "Now stab it with that. Please."
A little while later, out of the blue, Aimee asks Carolyn, "So why don’t you have a boyfriend now?"
Carolyn looks down at the floor, suddenly sad for some reason. "I don’t know," she quietly allows. She looks back up. "I mean, it just seems so pointless. Yeah, I can get laid whenever I want, but I don’t care anything about these guys, and I can have an orgasm on my own, so–shoot–that isn’t a problem."
All the other women except Brandy take a turn at looking down after that blanket statement. Then one by one they remember Steve’s still in the room and not missing a word of this colloquy. Carolyn tries to make light of the situation by simply tossing off, "Just girl talk, Steve. Don’t mind us." But all the women are nevertheless embarrassed.
"Maybe we should eat," Brandy suggests, chagrined.
"I think that’s a good idea," Carolyn agrees. She turns back around. "Come on Steve, don’t be shy–you’re up first."
As they are preparing to wrap it up for the evening, Steve manages to tell Carolyn, "Hey. I might be able to get something for tomorrow."
Marie, overhearing this, feels the need to inquire specifics. "What?" she pointedly asks him.
He looks around at everyone, as if to suggest they have bullied him enough for one night. "I’m not for sure yet, so I’d rather not say. But I might, so–"
"Stay tuned?" Carolyn provides with eyebrows raised.
"Yes," he agrees. "Exactly. Stay tuned."
"O.K.," she waves him off, before he becomes tempted to go any further. "So. Marie–we all set? Karen–we all set?"
Both of them assure her they are. "Good. And we are all cleaned up in here, so no one will ever know that any of this ever happened," Carolyn concludes. "And now, I have to get some sleep. I am blitzed. See you guys tomorrow."
When Carolyn returns to her bunk, she has a short time to reflect on her day before she does blank out. She feels like everything is on track, and the more she thinks about it, the better she does feel about her fax paus, as she was able to recover well enough and get the rhythm back. Still, alcohol is always a gamble, she thinks. You never know how the dice are going to roll.
Before she heads off to sleep, for some reason she has a memory from her past. It was early June during the summer in between her junior and senior years in high school. Her mother had decided to speak up one night midway through dinner:
"We’re going away for a couple of months," she announced to the table in characteristically offhand anticlimactic manner, as if this bombshell were the weather or fashion report. "Carolyn, you’re in charge of the house."
There followed an unnatural silence as everyone waited for everyone else’s reaction. Eventually there was an odd sort of strangling noise from Carolyn’s younger brother Sean’s end of the table. "Is everything all right, Sean?" their mother asked in her blank neutral manner.
"Sure Mom," Sean had promptly replied as he pounded himself on the chest with his closed fist. "Just, something went down the wrong way, is all."
Carolyn felt everyone’s gaze at the table drifting her way. She didn’t know exactly what was happening but for some reason she decided histrionics were in order. Her eyes went wide as she repeated overly emphatically, completely overacting, "A couple of months?!"
"Yes," her mother responded, seemingly oblivious to Carolyn’s strident tone and manner.
"Two months. We’re leaving in a few days."
"Where are you going?" Carolyn plaintively went on as she continued to wildly gesture, all but beside herself with animated incredulity.
Her mother looked over at her father and smiled, and then, just as easily, she looked down on her plate to finish what she had there. "Away," she allowed after a decent pause.
One more slider, Carolyn thought, and I’ll be home. "Well why can’t I go with you?" she asked as if heartbroken at the prospect of being left all alone (sniff).
"Because honey," her mother had replied, not looking up, as if Carolyn didn’t even rate an explanation, "I need you here to run the house."
Carolyn resumed eating as well, but not without sneering, "Fine," under her breath. She left the table without asking to be excused and stormed upstairs to her room, slamming the door shut.
She flopped down on her bed to call Amy. "You are not going to believe what just happened."
"What," Amy replied in her usual flat drone tone impersonation of Carolyn.
Carolyn audibly drew a breath and related, "They are going away for two months."
Amy asked, not following, "Who’s going away?"
"My mother and father."
"Your mother and father are going away," Amy repeated, to make sure she had heard correctly.
Carolyn was very still when she responded, "Yes. They are going away for two months."
"Are you lying to me?" Amy inquired of her.
"No, I am not lying to you."
"Because if you’re lying, I will hurt you so much–"
"Amy," Carolyn asserted to stop her friend from questioning their collective good fortune. "You and I have died and gone to heaven. And all there is to do all day long in heaven, is watch new Sim and Don episodes written by William freaking Shakespeare with music by Beethoven because they both love the show so much."
Amy considered the possibility of this and she asked, of Carolyn’s parents’ pending departure, "Who told you this?"
"My mother. At dinner," Carolyn answered. "Just now."
"Is Sean going?" Amy followed up with the cold calculating logic that only lust provides.
"No, he’s staying here," Carolyn elaborated, as if to humor a crazy person long enough for the guys in the white jackets to show up with their net. "He has his job at the pizza place and I have to run the house. So Mom and Dad run off on their romantic little second honeymoon and the summer’s all taken care of in my mother’s neat little world."
Amy finally gave pronouncement, however obliquely, to the idea that had been deviously germinating in her head. "You realize what this means, of course," she went on to Carolyn, leisurely and at length.
"What," Carolyn repeated in Amy’s style, for some reason drawing a blank.
Amy thought about all the different things that she could say here and decided on the one that was the least rude. "Well, for one thing, your mother is now my bestest and most favorite person in the whole universe."
The house that they lived in was something of a white elephant. Carolyn’s parents had purchased it early in their marriage and, in their excitement, really hadn’t thought it through. It was much bigger than anything they honestly needed and, as time went on, Carolyn’s mother and father came to realize that no one was ever going to buy it, at least not for anywhere near what they had paid for it, so they felt as though they were pretty much stuck with it.
Carolyn had been running the place for a few years by this point. They had a full time maid named Mary Beth–who had a mild case of Down syndrome when she was a child and still lived with her parents nearby–some lawn and garden people, some pool people, some maintenance people and, of course, François, who worked at the local country club where they were members. Carolyn’s parents weren’t really the country club type, but because of their jobs, both with a charitable foundation, they reluctantly felt they had to join, as most of the other members were people they’d be calling and soliciting anyway. Originally, Carolyn’s mother had been the point person for their home but one day Carolyn had whined a little too much to her mother about not having anything to do, so her mother gave her something guaranteed to keep her busy–the house and all the rest of it. But in solving that problem and also freeing herself from the daily drudgery of home upkeep, so also did Carolyn’s mother impale herself on the other horn of the dilemma and forfeit a certain amount of parental authority over Carolyn and, indirectly, Sean. She could hardly nag Carolyn to, say, clean up her room because Carolyn had privately made some kind of a deal with Mary Beth and her parents–that she wasn’t privy to and didn’t feel the need to inquire about–where Mary Beth was already doing all that as part of her normal routine. Same thing with Sean–apparently, he had also explained to Mary Beth in copious detail where every little thing went, which she had memorized in detail equally copious. Carolyn was also helping out considerably in the kitchen, regardless of her motivation, as was Sean, so much of the time Carolyn’s mother questioned why she was even there, other than to write the checks. She had wistfully realized too late that raising Carolyn to be self-sufficient so that her daughter could take care of herself and then later Sean was a double-edged sword. She had done her job as a parent so well that by then she was effectively out of a job–a parent to both her kids in name only.
To her credit, Carolyn’s mother also knew that Carolyn had feelings for François. It was obvious–Carolyn had dropped far too many hints that François would never acknowledge and Carolyn had snorted with impatience at him far too many times but she was also much too much of a lady to try anything boorish or obvious. At the same time, however, Carolyn’s mother never felt ill at ease leaving them alone. She simply understood the one paradox that Carolyn–try as she might–somehow couldn’t: that François had an image of Carolyn in his head that he felt he would irretrievably shatter if they ever crossed a certain line, and that idealization was worth more to him than any passionate or vigorous sex that he could imagine with her. Which was considerable.
For her part, Carolyn by this time hadn’t retained very much respect for either of her parents. Most teenagers usually don’t but in Carolyn’s case it was different. Sure, she knew all about how her mother had been instrumental in the hydrogen fusion breakthrough in 2017 and she knew the fusion ‘nonsense,’ as she called it, was directly responsible for her parents’ prosperity, and she knew that practically all of the money she'd be receiving when she turned twenty-one was coming from the Energy Bonds that her parents and her grandparents had purchased for her in her name when she was born and she was grateful, but honestly–this was ancient history to her. Carolyn’s take on her parents was that they had hit it big when they were very young and had coasted ever since. Her father also–he had some sort of public relations job with the corporation and derivative foundation that her grandfather and a few other nuclear physicists had formed when they had sold the fusion technology to the government. Carolyn had seen what he did all day and wasn’t impressed–it didn’t seem like real work to her. Again, her mother’s attempts to instill a sense of accomplishment and industry in her had backfired–at this age, when Carolyn looked at her parents, she saw two self-indulgent gushy romantics who had maneuvered themselves into a cushy position where they had the finer things in life practically handed to them, almost as if they were writing the script of their lives themselves, whatever they wanted, as they went along. In short, in Carolyn’s hard core unremittingly steely gaze, they had raised ‘having your cake and eating it too’ to an art form.
The following evening, after another day of training, both cardiovascular and her shuttle workstation details, when Carolyn walks into the same galley, for some reason all the girls are sore at her. "What’s up?" she asks no one in particular after her usual "Hey guys."
None of them answer right away, but Brandy looks as though she’s about to say something nasty before Carolyn’s attention is directed by inference to the actual object of their scorn: Steve, who is apparently persona non grata in his self-imposed exile to a more removed corner of the galley. "Steve," Carolyn carefully inquires, "what’s up?"
"Nothing," Steve guardedly returns, embarrassed that all eyes are upon him.
"How was your day?" she follows up.
His eyes dart about. "It was fine," he allows after a minute.
Carolyn gestures. "So what do you have for us tonight?"
Finally the clouds break from Steve’s countenance. "I got something I think you’re going to like," he ventures with half a grin.
Carolyn returns his smile. "Really?" she inquires.
He smiles even wider. "Yeah," he confirms.
Carolyn gestures again. "Would you like to show us?"
Apparently, this had been the point of contention that Carolyn is just now piecing together. Judging from the other girls’ body language, right now they’re not very happy with her either. Eventually Steve bargains with her, his smile gone, "I’ll show you, but not them."
Carolyn walks over to Steve. She asks him in a voice so low that only he can hear, "What happened?"
Steve evades eye contact before answering Carolyn, "Nothing."
She looks over at the Air Force women, who are still fuming. She asks him in the same low voice, "Were they mean to you?"
More glancing around. Finally he decides to tell the truth. "Yes," he admits.
Carolyn takes his one free hand. "Come on," she tells him and she leads him over to the group, who have formed behind Brandy, who’s defiantly facing her.
"Ladies," she begins in a level tone, "I have good news for the evening. Our man Steve here has come through for us, so would everyone like to see what he’s brought?"
When Steve doesn’t take the opening she just gave him, Carolyn presses her lips together, considering what to say next. "Steve, look–here’s how it is," she decides to explain, taking his arm. "These ladies are helping me. Together we’re trying to accomplish more than what we could individually. I have to leave in a little more than a week, so we don’t have much time. In short, whenever I’m not here, I would consider it a personal favor if you would speak only with Brandy in the future and not be distracted by anything anyone else may say to you. Does that sound like a deal?"
Steve surveys one last time at all the silent and morose Air Force women but feels more courage with Carolyn here. "All right," he agrees and finally comes forward with his bag. Everyone takes a turn perusing it.
When Marie recognizes the contents, she freaks out. "Oh, gross," she pronounces in distaste as she backs away.
"Those are nasty," Rachelle agrees.
Carolyn looks at Brandy, who is making a face and still not happy but also not recoiling either. "You have to admit, they do look pretty disgusting," Brandy elaborates to Carolyn.
Carolyn appraises the whole prawns that Steve has somehow secured. "I know. The heads do look really bad. But there is something we can do with them."
As everyone but Marie and Rachelle is intrigued, the latter are delegated to the garlic and parsley. After Carolyn shows Brandy and Aimee how to behead and otherwise clean their catch, she takes Steve aside. "You know what we really need?"
Steve waits for it without a response.
She whispers in his ear. He raises his eyebrows. "You girls have expensive taste," he tells her.
"Do not say a word of this to any of them, but money is no object. Would it help if I gave you a credit card?"
Steve looks around. "I think I’m going to need cash," he finally decides.
Her eyes meet his. "How much?"
He whispers in her ear.
"Come by my room tomorrow, at 0430," she tells him. "Do you have a pen and a piece of paper?"
"I was going to write my room number down for you." A minute later she reconsiders. "Never mind." She circles the kitchen to check on everybody. Satisfied everything is good, she excuses herself. In her absence, Steve finds enough courage to approach the group with the prawns.
Brandy advises Steve, "I think she likes you."
Steve ponders this and asks her, "Know what I think?"
"I think that you just like to cause trouble."
Brandy in turn considers this and finds it fair. "It’s possible," she allows after a while.
"What are you saving the heads and shells for?" Steve inquires after he notices what they’re doing.
"I don’t know," Brandy replies in honest ignorance. "She hasn’t told us yet."
Steve is silent before he observes, "She sure does know a lot about cooking."
Brandy glances at him. "She had a good teacher, looks like," she comments and when this elicits nothing from Steve, she adds in a lower voice, "She’s going on a dangerous mission."
Steve looks at her. "Really?" he asks.
Brandy nods. "Yup. She’s got a lot of guts."
When Carolyn returns, she stealthily inserts some money into Steve’s pocket without anyone else seeing. After she again checks up on everyone, she pours herself a glass of chardonnay. Then Brandy and Aimee advise her her that they’ve finished cleaning the prawns.
"O.K.," she segues as she sets down her glass and picks up the saucepan with all the shells and heads in it. She takes it over to the sink and pours some water from the tap into the pan. She turns around and sets it on a stove. She calls Steve after she fires up the burner.
When he draws near, she imparts to him, "This is going to be your job. Make sure this doesn’t boil too much. And you need to keep stirring it every few minutes like this, O.K.?"
"O.K.," Steve replies, taking the spoon from her.
When Carolyn regroups with the rest of the girls, she notices they’ve cut back on the rate of their alcohol consumption, compared to last night. "Guys," she advises them, "you can’t keep teasing Steve like this."
Rachelle speaks up. "Well he started it."
"Regardless," Carolyn tells her, laying down the law. "I realize he’s an easy target, but if you would show some restraint, I would appreciate it."
Aimee also kicks in her two cents. "Well who died and made you boss?"
This elicits a look from Brandy which Carolyn interprets as ‘I told you to keep that to yourself.’ "No one, Aimee," she levelly explains to the other shorter woman. "But I can tell you that if we play our cards right with Steve over here, he might be able to score us something we never would have access to on our own. Does that not interest you, Aimee?"
Aimee glances down. "O.K., yeah it does," she concedes.
"Good," Carolyn replies and she takes a hit from her glass, looking over at Karen. "How did things go today?"
Karen predicts, "I’ll have it for you tomorrow."
"What?" Marie asks, sipping herself.
Carolyn returns her level gaze. "You’ll see," she herself prognosticates to the group. "I will share, when the time comes." She makes a gesture. "Come on," she urges the rest of them. "Let’s get started on the bread."
A little while later, Aimee catches Carolyn alone. "Hey," Aimee begins. "I’m sorry about that crack before."
Carolyn embraces Aimee’s arm with her hand. "It’s O.K.," she assures the other woman. "I’m so used to bossing my younger brother around–I guess it still shows."
Aimee smiles at this. "You have a younger brother?" she asks.
"Yeah," Carolyn replies, her eyes averted to the truth once again, smiling herself. "About a year and a half younger. His name is Sean."
"Sean?" Aimee repeats. "Is he cute?"
Carolyn’s smile grows wider as she considers this. "Well," she allows, looking down.
Aimee follows with, "Do you have his picture?"
While Aimee is entranced by the electronic snapshots that Carolyn produces out of her purse, Carolyn’s mind wanders back to that same summer, just after her parents had taken off on them:
She had been up in the observation room, where she had monitors set up so she could see all over the house and most of their estate, when she saw François come in. She set everything on automatic and went downstairs to talk to him.
"Hi François," she greeted him, coming into the kitchen while he was unpacking his chef bag. "How are you?"
"Fine," he simply replied, the word clipped short.
"It’s just the two of us again, so–" she began but she was just as quickly interrupted.
François was already waving her off with an impatient hand. "I know I know," he responded in his rapid fire French accent without looking up at her. "It’s just you and your brother Sean tonight because your parents are out of the country. You have been telling me every day for the last eight days. Thank you for your daily update."
"O.K.," Carolyn had replied in truncated as well as suitably chastised fashion. She followed up with, at length, "I don’t suppose you could do any lasagna tonight or maybe some stuffed shells?"
"Not enough time," had been his response, still not looking at her.
"That’s what I thought," Carolyn then rejoined. She gestures to the refrigerator. "I picked up some scallops when I was out earlier. You can do something with those, right?"
By this time he was just about finished unpacking all his equipment. "But of course," he had replied.
Carolyn waited, and had followed up after he didn’t say anything else with, "Maybe some noodles–"
François had responded even more impatiently with the same ‘Yes yes yes’ wave of his hand. "I know what you want–I will make it good," he interrupted in his stereotypical snotty French manner as he barely stopped short of his unspoken "Spoiled rich Americans" phrase.
"Fine," Carolyn concluded under her breath as she turned to leave and go back upstairs. Someday I’ll learn, she thought, but I guess it’s not going to be today. But someday I will.
A few hours later Sean came home. She waited until Sean and François had started talking in the kitchen on their same familiar subject before she joined them.
Sean was regaling François with what he was learning at the pizza place where he was working as François was taking far too much delight in trashing every little item:
"Look, all I am saying is–" François was endlessly repeating.
"And then last night, when the register went out, and we had to–" Sean was equally determined to endlessly reiterate.
Carolyn rolled her eyes and put her hands over her face. This had been going on for some time, this same running argument of theirs. "Guys," she finally interjected to both of them. She tried a few more times before she gave up. She also attempted to look at what François was making but he wouldn’t get out of the way and she didn’t feel comfortable tickling him, so she just let their argument run its course.
Finally things started to wind down when Sean was reduced to repeating, over and over, "I’ll think about it," and, "Thank you."
To which François would start his own endless variations on, "Yeah, I know that you will think about it. That’s a good idea, you know that? Because you know what happens when you stop thinking about it, right? You know what happens then, right?" And so on.
By this time, Carolyn was sitting on a stool, resting her fist against her jaw with the most disgustedly bored look on her face, her eyebrows raised. Then the doorbell rang.
This silenced everyone. Sean looked at Carolyn. "Who is that?" he pointedly asked her.
Carolyn stood up. "Who do you think?" she rhetorically inquired of him back in strident shades of equal hostility as she went to answer the door.
Carolyn returned to the kitchen with Amy, who exclaimed in overdone theatrics, "Hi, everyone."
Sean immediately interjected, "Oh no. Not again."
Amy appraised him in return. "Nice to see you too, Sean," she sarcastically replied.
François regarded Carolyn’s friend before he observed, "Oh look–another member of the peanut gallery."
Amy responded with, "You have a smart mouth today."
"Not just today," he disagreed in derision.
"Well, Amy, you just missed it," Carolyn decided to declare. "François and Sean were arguing once again about Sean coming to work at the country club as François’s assistant, while Sean seems to be happy at the pizza place."
"How interesting," Amy rejoined to her friend while she tapped François on the shoulder. "So what’s for dinner tonight there, super French chef?" she inquired.
He gestured. "Your dinner is at your home," he advised her. "With your family."
Amy in turn observed, "You are in a foul mood."
Carolyn commented, "You should have heard him earlier, yelling at me."
François objected to her characterization, explaining, "I was not yelling."
Sean asked Amy, "Why are you always here?"
Amy snapped back, "Why do you think, Sean? You are just way too cute for me to stop staring at you."
Carolyn was responding to François, munching on a carrot that she had swiped out of the refrigerator, "Sure sounded like yelling to me."
By this time, François was shaking his head and exhaling at Amy’s brazen flirt. "You kids are headed for trouble, that’s for sure," he pontificated to the masses. "I still can’t believe your parents left you two home alone."
"Why’s that, François?" Carolyn beseeched him, still eating.
"Yeah and why do you keep bugging Sean to get rid of his job at Franco’s so he can come and work for you, and be your chef’s apprentice? Huh? Huh? Well?" Amy insistently followed with immediately after Carolyn.
"Why?" François repeated, having had just about enough of this entire deal. "Why? I will tell you why–because I thought there might still be some hope for your brother. I would not ask you," he advised Carolyn. "Because I know you would not get your hands dirty. But I would ask your brother–I know there might still be some hope for him."
Carolyn incredulously regarded him in the absolute silence that this tirade precipitated, the balance of the carrot still in her hand. "What in the Holy Mother of Christ are you talking about?" she listened to herself ask him, not appreciating being spoken to in this manner, as she heard her mother’s tone as Lady of the House come into her voice. "What hope are you referring to?"
"Hope for the future," François unexpectedly elaborated. "Hope for the generation that will take over from the next. I know you have no respect for your parents but I had hoped you would learn something from all this."
François resumed prep work, prepared to let everything slide as such, which Carolyn couldn’t do. "What makes you think I have no respect for my parents?" she pointedly inquired of him.
François clearly had no use for this conversation anymore and was prepared to spin Carolyn and her carrot off into oblivion, but for some reason decided not to. He started rambling, almost to himself, "I have been coming here for too many years. I have watched the way you blow your parents off. I know their story. I know how they have saved the world from the horrors of having to live without air conditioning. I know what they did to both of you, how they have raised you. I’ve seen it all. I watched both of you grow up. You do not appreciate the difference between what they have given you and what could very easily otherwise have been. The difference with them is that they are done, and you are not. They have finished with what they have come here to do, whereas you have not. You and you are not yet finished. You and you,"–he jabbed his finger in both Carolyn’s and Sean’s direction as he spoke both words–"are not yet done." He stopped. "I have been talking too much. I am late for my other job. I am not the one to wake you up and explain all this to you. Where is my jacket? I need to collect all my things and I will be on my way. Your dinner is done. It is ready to eat. I will see you all of you later. Amy, I am sorry I made rude comments earlier to you. It was not respectful and I apologize. You are a very nice young lady and a good friend to Carolyn. I am glad she has such a friend."
Amy was still staring speechlessly at François, the same as the rest of them, with a face full of wide-eyed wonder as she held up both hands to signal her acknowledgment. "Don’t worry about it," she finally enunciated.
Carolyn heard herself clarify after a while, practically speechless as well, stuffing the last of the carrot into her mouth, "You say all this is ready to eat?"
François was not so easily obfuscated or detained as he finally collected all his gear. "Yes, it is all set. I will see everyone tomorrow," was his obligatory concluding threat, promise or prediction and then he left.
"Wow," was all Sean could interject when they collectively heard the front door slam and the noise reverberated through the house as an audible exclamation point to their chef’s triumphant and animated but ultimately bizarre outburst and subsequent departure.
Amy blinked as she started picking at what François had left. "You can say that again, Sean. Wonder what all that was about."
When Carolyn finally came out of her haze, she regarded her friend, who was by now opening cabinets looking for china and sliding drawers while searching for silverware. "Make yourself at home, Amy–I mean feel free," she dead panned.
"Don’t mind if I do," Amy suggested to everyone else without making eye contact.
When Carolyn for some reason found herself meeting Sean’s gaze across the kitchen island, he concluded with, "You’re the one who invited her," all the while shaking his head at the sheer absurdity of the very idea.
"Carolyn," Brandy is practically yelling for the third time. "Are you still with us?"
Carolyn blinks, coming back to the present. "I’m sorry. I am now. What’s up?"
Brandy gestures. "Would you come and see if this is done please?"
Carolyn hasn’t a chance to continue with her memory until she's back at her bunk. Usually she would simply resume her thoughts at that point but the alcohol that she’s ingested for three nights in a row is now interfering with her normal rhythms. Instead, she falls asleep almost immediately and begins some furious rapid eye movement:
She’s having a dream about what happened that night at her house. During dinner, Sean discovered an open bottle of chardonnay that François must have left over from the sauce of what he made for dinner. All three of them manage one glass apiece out of that and afterwards raid their parents’ wine stash. Carolyn is trying to decide whether all this is only a dream or if this is how it actually happened. Meanwhile, Sean and Amy continue their high stakes repartee while drinking long after dinner is over.
After they all watch a particularly suggestive movie, Sean and Amy are deliberating terms of a proposed game of ‘Hide and Seek,’ trying to decide what body parts are off limits and which aren’t.
Amy is by turns wilder and wilder while Carolyn is arguing with her, hoping that reason can somehow triumph hormones here. Finally Sean and Amy agree to terms that Carolyn finds entirely unacceptable and the game is on.
As Carolyn is chasing after Amy while she runs through Carolyn’s house from room to room, Carolyn still attempting to dissuade her friend from what Carolyn considers madness. At one point, Amy stops. "Why are you trying to talk me out of this?" she bluntly and pointedly inquires of Carolyn.
"Because you’re going to regret this, Amy," Carolyn replies in the dream. "Most likely when you sober up."
"Why?" Amy follows up immediately with.
Carolyn stammers, "Because--you could get pregnant, that’s why."
"I’m on birth control," Amy replies back at her, spitting the words into her face. "I have been for a month. And I’m also going to make him use a condom." Which she produces from a pocket to show Carolyn.
"What if it breaks?" Carolyn scrounges, sounding to herself like the nightmare version of their health class at school, desperate for any reason why Amy can’t do this.
"What if?" Amy asks back. "He’s your brother–has he had sex with anyone yet?"
"No," Carolyn concedes. "I would know about it."
"So neither have I," Amy argues on with all the logic of hell itself. "So there’s no possibility of a sexually transmitted disease. And if I do somehow get pregnant? I’ve already asked my mother’s gynecologist–she’d do a morning after thing with no questions asked–wouldn’t even have to tell my mother."
They both hear Sean announce from downstairs, "Ready or not–here I come!"
Amy blinks. "Why don’t you stay?" she suggests to Carolyn. "We can do him together–get this whole thing over with."
At this, Carolyn is desperately trying to remember if this is the way it happened or if this is merely a horrible corruption of it, but she doesn’t have time to think because she hears Sean bounding up the stairs. She bolts from Sean’s bedroom and retreats into the observation room and locks the door. She turns on all the monitors.
The image from Sean’s room is better lit than she remembers. Also she hears pulsating music with some wordless hidden chorus that seems to fit the occasion. She watches the course of events as Sean finds Amy and begins disrobing her.
Carolyn’s chest is heaving more and more the longer she watches. The cold calculating logic of Amy’s words insidiously echo in her head as she rises from her seat. She opens the door after she unlocks it.
She walks down the hallway to Sean’s room. The door is open and the lights are on. Carolyn can hear them both the closer she gets to the doorway. Her own heart is pounding inside her so strongly she feels as if she’s been swimming for twenty minutes. She steps into the doorway so she can see as well as hear.
Carolyn thought she was prepared for this, but she takes what she sees a little worse than she thought she would. It seems as though Amy isn’t regretting her decision, although in her relative position to Sean, it would be difficult for her to do anything about it even if she were having second thoughts. Carolyn is about to take a step ahead and enter the room when she hears the front door open.
For some reason it doesn’t occur to her to check the observation room. Instead she runs downstairs. She finds François in the kitchen. She asks him what’s up.
He turns around and inquires of her what she wants from him. She takes his hand and tells him, "I’ll show you."
She leads him upstairs. She caresses his arm with hers along the way. When they reach the doorway to Sean’s room, she is pressing his arm in between her breasts. She breathes into his ear as she shows him Sean furiously pounding Amy against the side of his bed from behind. "That’s what I want," she tells him as she licks the edge of his ear with her tongue, "and that’s the way I want it. From you."
She sees him look down at what she’s wearing–just a T-shirt and some drenched panties. Carolyn can see herself the stark relief on her shirt of her own tipped desire. It doesn’t take them long before they are back in her room, with all their clothes strewn along the hall. Then François pauses.
Carolyn can’t take her eyes off him. When he still doesn’t move, she reaches out for his enormous engorged brawn. She takes him in her hand, beginning teasingly with the head and continuing with the shaft. "What’s wrong?" she asks as they passionately kiss while she continues to stroke him. She can feel the pounding in his chest just as insistently as her own heart. She knows she’s aroused him. He has her in his arms, even as she wants him with every facet of her body. She wraps her legs around him at his waist. She can feel his fingers, wet with her desire, as he holds her tightly toned upper thighs and flanks. She’s never felt more alive than in this moment. Why won’t he take her?
She awakes with a start when she realizes in the dream that this is not the way it was. That’s too easy, she thinks. That’s not what happened. She checks her clock. It’s a little before four. She decides there isn’t enough time to fall asleep before the alarm would ring anyway, so she rises from her cot to prepare for her shower, to start her day.
Sim looks out the window of the British Airways 787 as it begins to bank over the Atlantic, so much so that she can see the lights of London in the otherwise darkness, so bright and tantalizing along the River Thames. She turns to Don, seated on her left, to share this moment with him. She dryly notes that currently he’s not up to the romantic alternative she would have preferred.
"Hey," she whispers to him, pushing on his shoulder as he continues his raspy breathing. "Wake up. You’re starting to drool. Wake up," she insists.
A few other people in their forward compartment notice them. One woman gives her a disdainful look she doesn’t appreciate. Earlier this morning, she had taken advantage of a sympathetic flight attendant’s overly active imagination to upgrade their business economy seats. And previously she and Don had been loving first class with its complimentary champagne and caviar but now she begins to see its downside.
"Hey S.B.," Don greets her as he makes the transition to actual consciousness and starts slurping up his excess saliva. "Are we there yet?"
"Not yet," Sim advises him as she takes his arm, "but there it is."
He considers what he sees out the same window. "Looks nice," he allows.
She regards him more closely. "You might want to freshen up a little, Don," she circumspectly suggests. "Like maybe in the bathroom, before we land?" She points when he still doesn’t understand.
"Oh, right," he agrees, rising when it clicks for him. "I did want to check my hair."
Then Sim realizes that she might also benefit from inspecting her own appearance. She enters the other lavatory and turns on the light. As she regards her reflection in the mirror, she sees her makeup is starting to look a little streaky. She washes her face as best she can and reapplies some foundation, blush and lipstick, and she does what she can with her hair. She really needs a shower but she realizes that’s not in the cards.
When she returns to her seat, Don is already there. To her relief he does look better. The overhead ‘Seatbelt’ sign comes on a few minutes after she sits back down.
Once they land and remove themselves and what little luggage they’ve brought along from the airplane, Sim takes Don’s arm as they slowly walk around the airport. She’s been to Heathrow before, but always with the realization that home was always waiting for her, along with her family and friends. Now–even though she is in a foreign country and with just a few of her possessions, Sim feels oddly at peace with the world, here by Don. They find a well dressed middle-aged man holding a sign that reads ‘Sara and Harold’ in black printed letters.
"Hello," she greets him as she extends her hand. "I’m Sara and this is Harold."
"Hello," the man replies in his English accent, shaking her proffered hand. "I’m Michael. Nice to meet you." He accepts Don’s hand as well after he repeats the same thing to him.
"Nice to meet you also," Sim responds.
"Nice to meet you also," Don returns as well after Sim gives him a glint.
"My car is over here," Michael continues as he gestures. "I’m afraid I can’t drop you at your flat first, but the training facility is closer, so–"
"No big," Sim advises him, waving him off, stifling a yawn.
Don ventures around to the wrong side of the auto. "I’m afraid I have to drive," Michael courteously explains as he gestures again. "Neither of you has your license yet."
"Oh, right," Don admits.
It’s still dark out but edges of the dawn peek through the squared off canyons between some buildings to the east. As soon as everyone’s in the car, Michael turns around from the front seat. "Now then–I understand there’s actually a third member of your team."
"Sure–Doofus," Don confirms when Sim is slow to speak up. "Want to see him?"
Michael nods. "Please."
"Doofus, buddy," Don calls as he reaches into his pocket. "Rise and shine–someone wants to meet ya."
Doofus stretches with his usual overdone theatrics and then exclaims, "Hiya."
"Hello," the older man returns and shakes hands with just one finger. "My name is Michael," he clearly enunciates, as if addressing a child.
Doofus nods in enthusiasm. "Mikemike," he repeats.
"Remarkable," their new supervisor softly allows as he blinks. "Did you–teach him how to speak?"
Sim shrugs and Don isn’t much more help. "He just kind of picked it up as we went along."
"I see," Michael himself continues. "May I ask, what species is he?"
"Hairless mole rat," Don delineates. "I got him at–a big box store."
"So he is organic," Michael is musing. "Did you do any genetic manipulation or otherwise any chromosome variance on him?"
"Nope," Don answers. "Just paid the man at the register and took him home."
"I see," Michael repeats. "Because the military implications of this are really quite fascinating–well anyway," he interrupts himself and turns around to start the car. "I suppose we can cover all that later."
Michael is quiet as he drives. Sim is taking in the view out the backseat window, as is Don on the other side. A little while later, Sim inquires, "Where is everyone?"
Michael thinks for a second before he speaks. "Oh, that’s right–you Americans still get up frightfully early. Um–in bed, most likely, to answer your question."
She nods. "Wish I was," she allows after a while. "What about you, Harry?" she prods Don when he doesn’t say anything. "Where would you like to be right now?"
He points down, then at himself and then at her with the clear implication of his preference being nowhere but by her side. "That’s where," he inexorably concludes.
"Oh, you’re so sweet," she observes, her slender hand up to his face.
Michael looks into his rear view mirror to see the two teens smooching as he parks the car. "Hey back there," he interrupts in a more strident tone than he’s previously used with them. "Break it up. You’ll have all the time in the world for that mess later."
Everyone disembarks from the car. They have stopped in front of a generic building in the warehouse district. It could be a business office, it could be a furniture way station, it might even be a library–but it is in fact none of those things.
Michael walks around to a windowless metal door on the side of the structure. He unlocks the deadbolt with a key. The entrance admits him and he switches on some lights. Then he turns back to Sim and Don. "This is going to be your home away from home for a while. Please come in and I’ll show you around."
As soon as the gateway to the outside is again shut and locked, Michael pauses. "Would you like some breakfast before we begin?" he inquires of them.
Sim defers to Don on this. "What do you think?" she in turn asks him in the hallway.
Don answers both of them while nodding, "I’m hungry."
As Michael is leading his new team down the corridors of what appears to be a recently constructed building, he confesses, "I left home this morning without having anything to eat. I can’t remember the last time I did that."
They reach the kitchen and everything’s dark. Michael again switches on some lights. Everything’s clean, stainless steel everywhere and all put away. "I’m afraid we’re a little early for the staff, so we’ll have to make do ourselves," he informs them. "What would you like?"
Don gestures while Sim hangs back. "Well, what have you got?"
"Let’s check the pantry," Michael suggests as he unlocks some more stuff.
After Michael excuses himself to grab something out of his office, Don emerges from the pantry after rooting around for a few minutes and reports to Sim, "Sorry S.B.–no fresh fruit. There is some plain yogurt and some biscuits. I’m going to have some eggs, English muffins, Canadian bacon and some breakfast sausage, and I’ll do something for Doofus. What’s your pleasure?"
Sim makes a face. "No fruit at all?"
Don disappears to look one more time. Sim approaches the door.
"Fruit, fruit," he mumbles to himself as he continues to scour. "Where are you?" Finally he offers, "Found some grapes."
Sim is noncommittal, so Don returns to searching. A little while later, he adds, "And looks like we’ve got some melon too."
"Fine," Sim concedes as she is now losing patience with this Three Stooges breakfast routine. "I’ll have the grapes, the melon, the yogurt, one biscuit, and some orange juice."
"What about your protein?" Don reminds her.
She sighs. "O.K., one egg," she bargains with him.
"One egg," Don repeats. "And–how would you like the egg?"
She thinks. "Sunny side up but not runny," she decides. "Done all the way through."
Don catalogs, "So we have grapes, melon, yogurt, some O.J., one biscuit and one egg, sunny side up but not runny, done all the way through."
"Correct," Sim confirms.
He dismisses her. "Got ya covered, S.B. Take a load off and breakfast will be coming at ya in two shakes. Maybe three, the more I think of it."
"Ten four," Sim acknowledges as she leaves Don to it. "Oh, and see about some jam for the biscuit, if there is any."
Don nods, still waving her off. "Will hunt down the jam if any is around here. Now I need some butter. Butter, butter. Where is the butter?"
Michael returns to seat Sim at a table in the deserted cafeteria and gives her the morning newspaper to read. He re-enters the kitchen to find Don hard at work and Doofus directing him from the counter beside the stove.
Michael asks Doofus, "Is Harry making you some breakfast?"
Doofus looks confused. "Huh?" he asks back while shrugging.
Michael points at Don when he repeats, "Harry."
Doofus still doesn’t understand.
Don offers, "Here. Let me try." He holds his hand up to his chest. "My code name is Harry. Or Harold."
"Harry," Doofus tries to enunciate.
"Right," Don reinforces. "Harry or Harold."
"Harry or Harold," Doofus repeats with some difficulty.
"Right," Michael continues. "Now let me try." He addresses Doofus again. "So Harry is making you some breakfast, eh?"
Doofus enthusiastically nods as he rubs his stomach. "Yeahyeah."
"Very good," Michael concludes to Doofus and then playfully pokes him in the mid section. "I see you found the egg rings," he then comments to Don as he observes what the younger man has cooking on the stove, after which Michael begins searching for his own pan.
"Yup," Don reflects. "They tried to hide from me but I was too stealthy for them. Hey, before I forget, do you know where the jam is?"
Michael blinks as he turns around. "Jam," he repeats. "Do you mean jelly?"
Don gestures. "Well, could take either. Preserves–anything. Sim–I mean Sara–likes her fruit in the morning–she’ll let this slide this once, but just to clue you in–strawberries and blueberries are must-haves, if ya know what I mean."
Michael nods appreciatively. "I do indeed, so I shall see what I can do. Did you look over here?" For the jam.
Don nods in the direction of the large institutional refrigerator that Michael is gesturing toward. "Yeah, but maybe I better look again."
"Here we are," Michael triumphantly announces after both men raid the same fridge, while he holds the small jar theatrically aloft. "Raspberry jam. Think that’ll make Sara happy?"
"Yeah," Don confirms, grinning from ear to ear. "This’ll keep her quiet at least till lunch. Also this O.J.–looks like the good stuff. But if it doesn’t I can always slap her around–which is what I usually end up doing anyhow, so–you know–just to let her know who the boss is." He pauses from this digression for a second when his casual suggestion of carnal violence on Sim elicits neither protests of domestic cruelty nor cries of ribald encouragement from the older man. "Hey, what are you going to have?" he asks Michael.
Michael muses without looking at him as he continues his own search. "Well, I’m not very much on eggs, though I suppose one day is no big, as you teenagers say. We had some potatoes that were left over and I was thinking I might do something with those."
Don nods as he follows. "You mean like hash browns?" he inquires again.
Michael regards him more closely. "What are hash browns?"
Don gestures. "Well, find the potatoes and I’ll show ya."
Sim turns the page of the newspaper after she finishes the story she had been reading. She scans the next page for something that catches her eye. She looks over the advertisements, which are mostly overpriced toys and trinkets, although some do appeal to her. She reads some more of the copy. Then it hits her. The smell. The unmistakable aroma of butter and pork fat and something else she can’t place. What are those two doing in there? she thinks.
She rises from her seat and walks into the kitchen to find Michael and Don getting along famously.
"–And then, I yelled to Doofus–hit the control lever–and he–" Don is telling Michael while turning something in the pan he has on the stove in front of him.
While Don is doing this, Michael is laughing and trying to contribute his own lines to the story. "You mean, he actually–oh this is really rich–but what about the–watch out, you missed one there–"
Sim plants her hands on her hips to show off her trim waist. "Well," she announces. "I hope you two are having a good time."
Don turns around, interrupting himself. "Oh hey S.B.–sorry about the delay, but Michael found some leftover potatoes and we–"
Michael finishes for him, having turned about himself. "Yes, and we’ve come up with something of a concoction–a collaborative effort, if you will. I hope it meets with your approval."
Both men part the way as Sim approaches what they have cooking on the stove. The large six quart saute pan seems brimming with what appears to be a bubbling gregarious mixture of eggs, potatoes, Canadian bacon, and some kind of cream sauce.
Sim appreciatively regards it. "Smells good," she allows. "But I was starting to get a little lonely out there, all by myself," she elaborates, giving both men the puppy dog eyes.
Michael looks at her, suddenly turning serious. "Well, you’re supposed to be reading the newspaper. Why aren’t you doing that?"
Sim stammers, staring at him, "Well–I was–I mean–I got part of the way through it but–"
Michael gestures for her to finish her sentence. "But what? Harry and I are doing what we’re supposed to be doing–aren’t we Harry?"
Don blinks in silence, thrown for a loop the same as his girlfriend. "Well, um," he mumbles, tongue-tied as well.
Michael now turns his poker-faced unblinking severe visage on him. "Well what? Are we or aren’t we?"
Don swallows hard. "We are," he manages to get out.
"Exactly," Michael triumphantly returns. "And Doofus is supervising–right Doofus?"
Doofus nods in enthusiasm again. "Yeahyeah. I’m da boss." He makes a grim face in jest.
"Exactly," Michael repeats, turning back to Sim. "So all three of us are doing precisely what we’re supposed to be doing–but what about you?"
Sim continues to blink. She can feel her pulse elevate to near maximum. She tries to organize her thoughts. "I guess I didn’t take what you told me earlier so much as a command as a suggestion," she finally explains.
Michael keeps up the pressure. "And why is that?"
Sim looks over to Don for help but finds none. "Yeah, S.B.–we’re working our butts off in here–making you breakfast–and he gives you one simple thing to do, and you can’t stick with it? Geez–I mean–what’s up with that?"
Sim considers grinning Don again. Finally she finds her voice. "Well, actually, gentlemen, I was just coming to tell you about an article that I read in the paper that you may find of some interest. It seems that the U.K. may be asked again to join the European Union at the upcoming G-20 summit."
"Asked by whom?" Michael immediately inquires.
"The article didn’t say," Sim fires back, refusing to be bullied anymore. "But I would be happy to bring it you and let you read it yourself if you don’t believe me."
"It’s not a question of believing you so much as it’s possible you remember it incorrectly," Michael allows in a more normal tone of voice as he regards what they have reducing on the stove. "However, at any rate, it doesn’t matter–HMS government will never join the EU–we’ll never give up the pound’s integrity, simply because we’ll never trust the Germans again–there are too many people in this country with very long memories." ‘HMS’ is an acronym for ‘His (or Her) Majesty’s Service.’ He turns back to Sim. "The reason I challenged you just now is because in this line of work, you always have to be ready, you always have to be on your toes. You can’t ever let your guard down, not even for a moment. And just so you understand something–and I mean this for all three of you–if I ever suggest something to you, consider it an order. As much as we may laugh and enjoy each other’s company, never forget–I am your supervisor. I’m not your pal and I’m not your friend and I’m not your father and I’m not your grandfather nor am I your kindly uncle. If I tell you to do something I expect you to do it or be prepared to explain why you haven’t. Your training has already started–this morning, it’s economics–the division of labor. You were supposed to read the morning newspaper to delight the rest of us with its highlights while we made you breakfast. I’m not saying this to embarrass or belittle you–simply to train you." He pauses to look away from Sim’s unremitting gaze. "This is a dangerous line of work that you three have chosen and you have much to learn, but I am confident you shall succeed."
"Yes sir," Sim replies but she doesn’t salute. "Thank you sir."
Michael regards her again. "You don’t have to ‘sir’ me–we’re not in the service and I’m not an officer. You may address me by my Christian name, although I answer to just about anything–right Harry?"
Don obligingly ticks his head to the side. "Yeah, we’ve already been through all that, while we were getting this together." He appraises Sim once more, as he would evaluate an invincible childhood idol who had inexplicably fallen from grace. "Wow, dude," he comments in honest awe to Michael. "I have never seen anyone beat the puppy dog eyes before. Not nobody, not nohow."
Michael considers this with some amusement. "If I were your age, I would feel the same as you do," he confides. "She’s quite a corker."
Doofus interjects, "Huh?"
Michael addresses the hairless rodent as he emphatically enunciates, "That means she’s very pretty."
"Aww," Doofus returns in exaggeration as he sighs.
Don nods, basking in the glow of the truth. "That she is Mikemike," he agrees, using Doofus’s name for their new supervisor. "That she is."
"So how did she end up with you?" Michael inquires.
Don shakes his head. "I’ll never know dude," he ruefully replies. "I will never know."
"Dumb blind luck?" Michael suggests.
Don nods. "Y’know, I think you may be right."
"Oh, before I forget," Michael segues, breaking the mood once again. "Some bad news but it can’t be helped: both of you have to get your hair cut and dyed. After we eat."
Don once again sizes Sim up, who has the same ashen, stricken countenance as when she was told at that fast food joint where they both worked for a while that she had to wear a hair net, only this time it’s even worse. "I’m going back to the newspaper," she informs them as she turns and walks away.
Don continues to Michael, "Dude, I hope you know what you’re doing."
Michael stirs the contents of the saute pan as he speaks, shrugging. "As I said, it can’t be helped. Your soon-to-be former likenesses will be plastered all over the television and newspapers and magazines in just a few days–oh, something else I forgot to tell you–more bad news. Your tracking chip–we’re going to need it."
Don gestures as he sets aside his spatula. "Yeah I know–she told me. I better go talk to her."
Michael entreats, "Take her the grapes, melon, yogurt and juice as a first course–don’t go out there empty-handed. Get her mind off her hair."
Don nods. "That’s a good idea. Thanks."
"No big," Michael returns in an affected manner.
"Here ya go, sweetness," Don begins as he sets down a plate and some utensils in front of Sim. "Your grapes, melon balls, yogurt, one biscuit and–oh yeah–we were able to scare up some jam–raspberry. Also your juice. And I told him about the strawberries and blueberries thing. He seems sympathetic; I'm sure he'll come through for you."
She folds up the newspaper. "Thanks–Harry. This is a nice breakfast. I appreciate you looking out for me."
He gestures. "It was my pleasure. Nothing but the best for my lady," he gallantly returns. He sits down to join her. "So what do you think?" he asks her at length as he munches on one of her grapes. "I’ve always thought you might make a nice blonde."
Sim considers this as she chews on some melon. "I don’t know," she allows at length herself as she sighs in resignation to her fate. "Maybe short hair would be easier to take care of. Less work in the morning."
He raises a finger. "And it will grow back," he points out.
She nods in accordance. "That it will. Can’t argue there."
"Have you thought about platinum blonde?" Don inquires as he continues to graze while imagining Sim in different ways.
She grunts in disapproval as she continues eating as well. "That stuff that they use is so bad to your hair. Besides, my do’s too full for that." She consumes some more as she considers the possibilities. "Maybe a wavy sandy blonde," she offers, holding her hand up in illustration.
Don quizzically regards her, not understanding. "Like who do you mean?"
She gestures. "Do you remember Doreen? From eighth grade? I can’t remember her last name."
Don grimaces. "With the braces?"
Sim scowls. "No, you’re thinking of Penny. Penny Suarez from Central Street. This girl–Doreen–always wore all this stuff with flowers on it. From science class. She sat behind us. Doreen–what was her last name?"
Don still can’t recall. "Sorry S.B., but you remember way better than me."
She swallows. "Oh, you know who else? Briana, from the Southdale show."
Now Don comprehends. "With the–" and he holds his hand up behind his head to pantomime someone’s hair.
"Yeah–exactly," Sim returns with a rush, delighted to be understood, her sparkling green eyes alive with excitement.
Back in the kitchen, Michael asks Doofus, of what they have cooking on the stove, "Well, what do you think, Doof old boy? Is it ready yet?"
Doofus points to his tongue. "Tastetaste," he suggests.
"Good idea," Michael responds as he grabs a spoon and lades enough of it out to sample. He blows on it to cool it down. When he judges it to be the proper temperature, he offers it to the naked mole rat.
Doofus dispatches all of it with his usual alacrity and yells, "Yummy!"
Michael nods as he shuts off the gas. "That’s what I thought." The eyes on the back of his head detect another presence in the kitchen. He turns around to see a familiar middle-aged woman skeptically regarding him. "Sylvia," he greets her, holding out his arm and theatrically open hand to her. "My gossamer moonbeam–you’re just in time."
Out in the cafeteria, Don glances over behind Sim to see Michael advancing with two trays, one in each hand, Doofus on his shoulder and a heavier middle-aged woman carrying a casserole dish. "Don’t look now, but we have company," he warily advises her.
"Where?" Sim asks, turning her head.
He gestures. "I told you not to look."
When Michael approaches the table, he addresses the unfamiliar woman with, "Sylvia, I’d like you to meet our two new orphans. This is Sara."
"Hello, Sara," Sylvia greets the younger woman in her Manchester accent.
"Hello, Sylvia," Sim replies while standing up, taking the open casserole Silvia has from her. "Here, let me help you please." She sets the steaming dish down on the table. "Thank you so much." She extends her hand in courtesy. "Nice to meet you."
Sylvia responds, shaking her hand, "Nice to meet you dearie also."
Michael points. "And this is Harold."
Sim hits Don who’s still sitting there. "Stand up," she hisses under her breath.
Don takes Sylvia’s hand as he rises. "Hi Sylvia. I’m Harry."
She smiles again. "Hi Harry. Nice to meet you also."
"Likewise," Don returns, squaring his jaw again as he withdraws his hand, catching his girlfriend’s eyes to give her a look back. "Is that your kitchen that we invaded this morning?"
Sylvia shrugs. "We sort of share and share alike around here. I like your whatever-it-is, Doofus–he’s really something else. Talks and everything." She segues to Sim, indicating Michael. "This one’s a real charmer, miss. Watch out for him."
Michael affably disagrees as he sets down his own trays of food and transfers Doofus back to his rightful owners. "Oh, I’m nothing of the sort."
Sylvia continues as she places more silverware in front of all three seats, "But if he gives you any guff–just let me know and I’ll set him straight."
Sim smiles back at her. "I’m sure Michael would never do that. He’s too much of a gentleman. Or if he did, I would deserve it." She catches Michael's eyes and winks.
"Thank you Sylvia," Michael concludes, dismissing her after visibly recovering from Sim's brazen flirt. "And don’t touch a thing back there–we’ll be back to clean up after we eat."
"Don’t be silly," she remonstrates with a wave of her hand. "These two have a lot to learn from you–three, I guess I should say. Need to get started straight off. I’ll just have some of your potato and egg porridge and we’ll call it even."
"She’s really nice," Sim comments after she leaves. "What’s in this again?" she asks of the ‘porridge’ they’ve prepared.
Michael raises his eyebrows as he finishes what he’s eating before he explains. "Just about everything including the kitchen sink. You know," he rambles on, addressing Don, "the hairless mole rat had an exquisite idea after you left–what it was missing: cheese."
Don hits his head with one hand, as if to convey stupidity, while he competes with Doofus for what remains on his plate. "Of course–why didn’t I think of that?"
Sim observes, "It does smell very good."
Don picks up her plate. "Oh, ya gotta try this S.B.–it is definitely the bomb."
As he continues to eat, Michael watches Sim protest and Don overrule her, simply by way of his boundless enthusiasm and cheerful attitude. They bring out the best in each other, he thinks. They look out for each other, each in their own way. And they want to learn. More than anything else, they are naturally inquisitive, without being tedious. To what extent–I’ll find out. I will push all of them to their limits.
After breakfast, their hair stylists arrive as advertised. Don draws a military-looking barber who gives him two options–shaved head or jet black. Don chooses the latter. Sim fares better; the plain young woman who brushes her hair with such extraordinary deference tells her, as a conspiratorial aside, "I can’t believe they want to cut your hair–it’s so full and lush."
"Well," Sim easily lies to her, "I have been thinking about a change, so–"
After the hair and contact lenses deal, on a five minute break, they each regard the other:
Don advises her as he checks Sim out, "You’re–blonde."
Sim replies, appraising him, "You’re–not."
Don runs his hand through his newly dyed hair. "I don’t know if I like what that guy did with me, but–"
"Never mind," Sim confides into his ear. "I can fix it when we get home tonight."
Don circumspectly considers this. "When we find out where home is. Geez–after all this ‘bad news’ crap from this guy–I’m afraid he’s gonna turn around at the end of the day and say, ‘Oh guess what–more bad news–you’re sleeping in the alley.’"
Sim giggles. "Don’t worry Don–I mean Harry. I’ll keep you warm at night."
Don looks at Sim in surprise. She’s never even hinted about the two of them spending the night together before.
Before they can discuss this any further, Michael comes into the hall where they are. "Oh there you are–five minutes are about up. Ready?"
They head to their new supervisor’s cramped overstuffed office. As they are reviewing their schedules, the two principal team members take turns pushing back at Michael:
At one point, Don whines, "Well why does Sara get a computer class and I don’t?"
Michael flips his hand. "For the same reason you have a language class and she doesn’t–there are only so many hours in a day." When this doesn’t go over well, Michael tries again. "Because her grades were better than yours, frankly. Also, she has higher math aptitude and there’s still no room in your schedule any way you slice it, because you need much more cardiovascular–she’s in shape and you aren’t."
Don grudgingly grumbles to himself as he folds his arms in standard reflex to getting shot down, "Can’t argue there."
Sim nonetheless holds up her hands to calm the waters. "I can show you what I learned, after," she offers to her boyfriend.
Michael grows even more magnanimous. "There, you see? Now everyone’s happy."
"Not everyone," Sim returns. "I don’t know if your economics class at the end of the day is the brightest idea I’ve ever heard. By then I can’t imagine being in the mood for Marx and Engels and John Kenneth–"
"Galbraith," Michael helpfully supplies.
"Yes–thank you–and I don’t know who all else," Sim replies with a grimace.
Michael gestures once more in his now familiar manner. "Well, you will. Also–you’re welcome. It’s not just economics–it’s also your wrap-up and tell-me-what-you’ve-learned-today session. Nothing’s set in stone–if this doesn’t work, we can discuss changes, if need be. Perhaps I might even treat you three to dinner, if you impress me sufficiently."
Sim blinks. "Aren’t you married?" she asks him.
"No," he responds. "Why should you suppose I am?"
Sim shrugs. "I don’t know–I thought–I mean–how old are you?"
Michael throws her a different expression. "I’m forty-seven. What else would you like to know about me?"
Don takes this. "Forty-seven? And you’ve never been married?"
Michael now regards Don. "No, I haven’t. Why is this so amazing?"
Sim and Don exchange glances at each other as they make an effort to formulate an answer. "You don’t have any children?" Sim inquires.
Michael blinks. "Not even a pet."
"Aww," Doofus commiserates from his spot on Michael’s desk.
Sim attempts to elucidate without sounding as if she’s being snotty. "It’s just that–you seem like–usually, men like you–they, um–help me here, Don–I mean Harry–"
"What Sara’s trying to say, dude, is that most of the people we meet who are your age have already–settled down, and so–we–"
"Yes?" Michael queries him. "Please go on. This is fascinating, really."
Sim continues to flail furiously at the ball in her court. "Yes–exactly–they’ve settled down–they’re done looking around, so to speak. So we were just wondering–"
While these two explain in vain, Michael sees what they mean, even as they are unable to articulate it: they have each other and it seems inconceivable to each of them that things could be otherwise. The same way, before their last job, they’d never had a mission go south on them–therefore, they couldn’t conceive of that happening either. He sees their relative innocence in his mind–and he also realizes with absolute clarity that he’s the one to rob them of it, to take it from them. Because if he doesn’t, all he’s doing is putting them at needless risk. And each of them–individually and as a group–is far too valuable for that.
Wow, that was a long one, Amy thinks after she finishes with the latest S&D segment. Wonder what Carolyn is up to in Florida.
(If you like to keep reading, please visit my amazon.com web page to download the entire book at:
For those looking for the paperback version of the entire book, you may follow this link.