Exiting out of her office, she could see the familiar sight of reporters scrambling, sales and acquisitions ensuring safe routes for local distribution. Head Office was only slightly helpful, but considering at least half of the last two issues were copy from her branch, it was all sort of a wash. At least they had finally formalized the position she had been filling, of course with all the responsibilities she used to have at no increase in salary, but that was par for the course.
As much as she still reeled sometimes from her studied detachment, she was amazed at the ability of any corporate office to be equally blind and deaf to tragedy. No word yet on survivor benefits, grief counseling, but there was a long-belated memo acknowledging her new position and chiding employees for “taking too many frivolous absences.” She would have been surprised, but she had been in the staff meeting where Lucinda explained the memo asking all employees to help make the post 9/11 issue a “collectible one.”
What worried her the most about the memo was the footnote, though. Her branch had won the Loser Pool to baby-sit the newly disgraced head writer after it was discovered he had done no actual work in his three-week “investigations.” The paper had covered for him by changing the headline on a couple of some of the stories she wrote, adding some special touches that were so “Buck” like describing all male interview subjects as towers of virile potency and referring to who daring he was to work the beat in the first place. Verna didn’t know why they bothered, but then, the whole thing was too stupid to really get that bothered by it. Incompetent Old Boy’s Club favorite gets ass covered, not exactly headline material in any organization. Given the rumors of Steve Plank and Cameron Williams, well, all she could really do was laugh.
It wasn’t exactly like Cameron “Buck” Williams was at all subtle about it.
She shook her head and turned to Alice. “Where are the fires,” Verna asked.
Alice looked up, her face in a self-conscious smile that Alice had been forcibly wearing for the last three weeks.
“Well, Chen Yao was detained by the martial law faction of the Chicago Police for his investigation of them, though he was able to confirm that they are an offshoot of the Narcotics squads apparently in revolt to the City’s handling of the food delivery arrests. Four people have had a DB and had to stop work for the day. Twelve people tried to force entry to either reveal the truth or punish us for hiding the truth and I think one may have tried to plant a bomb. Oh and Marsha had her daily visit. I made her a bottle of milk for her ‘kid’ and that seemed to calm her down, but someone still needs to escort her home before she causes any additional DBs.”
“We’ve had a good day,” Alice chirped in what was now a hauntingly happy manner.
“Ok, send Bruno to sniff around and check on the bomb threat and let’s have Phil-“
“FUCK YOU, YOU STUPID BITCH!”
The scream stopped Verna in her tracks as she looked over to where Phil had confronted a shabby-clothed woman in the corner, cradling her daughter’s Cabbage Patch doll in her arms and cooing.
“They’re dead, you cunt! They’re all fucking dead and they’re never coming back and you need to get that! Your daughter is fucking gone! My Tabitha is gone! She’s dead! Oh God!” With a final scream, the veins popping even above the dark hues of his neck, and a poorly thrown punch at the wall, Phil ran out of the office and down the stairs as a worrying silence descended through the place.
“Make that five DBs,” Alice quipped.
“Alright everyone, that’s enough. Back to work. We’ve got a mystery to solve and a backlog of cases to look into. If anyone else needs to call in a Daily Breakdown, we’re good, but unless that’s the case;” Verna clapped her hands noisily. “Back to work!”
With that the stirring heads seemed to go back to pointedly pretending to work furiously. With luck they’d be able to slip into whatever rationalization or strength they needed to keep going and there wouldn’t be any more DBs. There was too much to do.
Looking out from the corner of her eye, she saw “Tiny” Minervuson, a former bike messenger who had become the de facto errand runner since The Event, coming back with the staff lunches. The stereotypical Icelandic build combined with the runic tattoos had earned a fierce and unearned reputation despite the momma’s boy interior he really had.
“Tiny,” Verna shouted as she ran over. “Glad I caught you. Marsha needs an escort home and we need someone to watch the doors for a while and keep out the usual type for a couple of hours. Phil had a loud DB and I can sense morale is shaky.”
“Uh, right, I guess so ma’am. Sure,” Tiny said trying to maneuver the overfull bag of lunches off his shoulder and gently onto the front desk.
“Ooh, what’s the menu, big guy,” Alice suddenly interrupted as she appeared from behind.
“Er…uh…sandwich stuff, really, the food shipments have re-entered the small grocery stores. And er…”
“Is there any meat, yet?”
“Well, yes, actually.”
“How much? How much meat?”
“Alice!” Verna turned and shouted at her secretary, before turning back to the tall Icelander immigrant. “I’m sorry, Tiny, if you could handle things...”
“Right,” Tiny immediately turned and grabbed Marsha as she loudly chided the doll for spilling her drink. “C’mon, I’ll protect you from the mob.”
“They’re after her, you know. She’s special. Only child left, my Megan, only child safe. She’s going to save the world, my Megan. She’s the Chosen One, she is. They want to steal her you know,” Marsha stammered as she walked.
“Uh, right. We’ll help you home, though,” Tiny responded taking her hand and leading her out the door.
“How does she even get here,” Alice wondered.
“She’s lonely. I think that’s the point,” Verna muttered and then turned around and quietly hissed. “And you, what the hell were you doing?”
Alice began fidgeting with her choker nervously “Well, I-“
“He’s gay, Alice, and-“
“He’s bi. And-“
“He’s still mourning for Ilya, more importantly.”
“So I want to comfort him when he does, is that so wrong? Damnitt.”
Verna could see the tears beginning to well and a large number of staff surreptitiously concentrating on their work.
“Lunch break everyone!” Verna shouted and then grabbed Alice by the shoulder before hissing in her ear, “let’s continue this in my office.”
This wasn’t the best showing and already, she could feel the discipline breaking down. There would be the usual rumors as well, but she could see one or two sneers of disgust form in the far desks. They could see the frivolity in her actions, were making judgments. But at the same time, they were composing themselves, getting back to work, a step away from the despondence of Phil’s DB. The chaos had been held at bay for one more day. Verna sighed with relief and closed the door to her office.
“Alice, I’m-“ Verna began passing a box of tissues over to Alice.
“It’s ok, forget about it. You were right anyway,” Alice responded contritely drying her eyes and composing her self. “It’s just, everyone is letting The Event choke them, drag them down. Prevent them from being human. I see it in everyone. I see it in you.”
“I don’t know…I-“
“Oh, please Verna, I’ve heard you. We’re not to blame for this. And we’re not to blame if we want to live real lives. It’s what happens after tragedies. Lord, I know that well enough. I’ve gone to enough Days of Remembrance to know that. I’m not going to apologize for moving on. We all get a second chance to live.”
Verna paused. “We’re no longer talking about The Event, are we?”
“I’ve found a new doctor after…you know…I’ll finally be rid of the last part that’s not me. And I’ve still got my savings from before…Life continues Verna.”
Verna stayed still. The echoes of guilt amassing again strongly against the walls of her resolve and she struggled to say anything in response.
“And you know that too, don’t you?”
“I…do.” The words finally tumbling out as the shame seemed to consume her cheeks a fiery red. She turned away, seeking solitude to recompose the presentation, reform the barriers that had served her well. That had been so important for survival. That would stop any inconvenient memory from returning. But before she could, she could feel Alice pressing against her chest.
The warm embrace seemed to soothe her and she felt the shame begin to subside allowing her once again assert control over her mind. And immediately battle a brief second non-professional emotion.
“We will all be ok, with time,” Alice said and pulled back, grinning her impish grin, while Verna subsumed desperately any improper thoughts still swimming from a long-ago fought crush on the cute Lolita-punk secretary. There was a brief battle of control as she tried not to focus on her choker or ankh earrings both dangling around a bitable neck and then it was gone, a distant memory again of a pathway that had long been shut.
Verna sighed with relief and an odd rush of comfort as she looked back up at Alice and caught her blushing back.
“I’m so sorry. I should have rethought that. I knew you used to have a…I didn’t know it was still around. Oh god. I’m-“
“It’s ok. It’s not a problem,” Verna quickly intervened. “I know you’re straight, it’s…”
Alice smiled. “It’s not a problem.”
Verna paused. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“I’m always, right, life continues and as long as we’re us, that’s all that matters. Now, as you would say-“
“Back to work.”
Verna allowed herself a first brief smile and pushed Alice out the door before returning to her desk. The Event wasn’t the end of the world, unless they let it be. No one could say otherwise. Verna picked up the phone and began calling the fractionated police.
It was time to rescue a colleague.
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