Authors: Vivian Lux
For once in her life, Zoe Chandler was on time. That's how I knew things were bad.
I stood in the doorway that led into the former offices of
, watching her stride through the parking lot like it was her personal runway. She always looked fierce, even when she was moving my boxes, but today she was approaching bombshell levels of gorgeousness with her cream pencil skirt, matching stilettos and the fall of caramel-colored hair flowing over her shoulders like a silken ribbon.
"You look cute," I muttered over the coffee mug I clutched for dear life.
She took off her oversized shades and stuffed them into the Coach bag she only brought out for special occasions. "What's the expression? The worse you feel, the better you should dress?" she said.
I looked down at my standard black-slacks-and-blouse work wardrobe. "Then I should be wearing a freaking ball gown."
"Save it for after the assembly," Zoe sighed. "Shall we get this over with?"
The main conference room was already packed to standing room only. A few executive types milled in the front, chatting and checking the AV equipment, seemingly oblivious to the wall of terrified humanity staring them down. When the clock over the doorway ticked over to nine a.m.—and not a second before—the smooth, smiley-faced embodiment of evil known as Thaddeus 'Just call me Thad' Finch looked up from the podium, and the entire place abruptly went silent.
"Thank you all for coming!" he oiled.
"Like we had a choice," Zoe muttered. I shushed her with an elbow to the ribs.
"As you know,
has been acquired by
, one of the print industry’s shining stars."
The PowerPoint clicked forward to display the slick logo of the music and lifestyle magazine that was about to end my career before it had even started.
"For nearly forty years,
has been the premier source of stories that matter, whether music," the slide clicked over to show Mick Jagger's craggy face on the cover, "to lifestyle," Martha Stewart, "to movies," Angelina Jolie. "We pride ourselves on having a true connection with our readership..."
"Because you buy out anyone who you think gets in your way," Zoe hissed.
"Save it," I hissed back.
"This is just propaganda. Like he's trying to get us on board with the idea that losing our jobs is somehow 'noble.'" Zoe's voice was rising, and several of our co-workers turned to stare at the wayward junior reporters in the doorway.
"Wrong time and place, Norma Rae," I whispered, and strained to catch up with what 'Thad' was droning on about.
"...this is a period of transition."
"...areas of efficiency."
"What'd he say?"
"I don't know since you won't shut up."
"...Kelly here has more on that." Thad gestured for us to applaud, and the weak smattering of claps died out before the icy blonde VP of Operations even reached the podium.
But she beamed out at us like we had greeted her with a standing ovation. "Thank you so much, everyone. I'm so excited to bring these storied halls into the digital age."
"Oh, fuck you," Zoe huffed, and then went mercifully silent.
"Obviously, this is a period of transition for both workforces as we work to identify areas of redundancy in the departments," Kelly went on. I found myself staring at her hair, wondering how she got it to lie like that. No matter how closely I tried to pay attention, my brain simply refused to hear what she was saying.
The loss of
, my title, my job, my fledgling identity...and more. My apartment, my independence... I'll have to go home. I'll have to admit I couldn't do it. I'll have to... No. I can't. I refuse.
"...executive team understands this is a time of stress for the entire workforce, and we feel like we have hit upon a fair and equitable way of determining what positions will be redundant."
"Will you bloody get to the point already?" I snapped out of my downward spiral of anxiety when I recognized the aggrieved voice of
's lone Brit, Niall Lofton, hectoring from the back. Luckily, he was so short that no one in the front could see him.
Kelly's bland smile slid off her face, and for a minute, the true evil that lay beneath her mask was revealed. "She's gonna have Niall whacked behind the dumpsters," Zoe murmured.
"Fitting, since she's killing all of our careers anyway." I gave up on trying to hear the rest of the speech. I'd get the gist of it from the gossip that would be swirling around the office in about six minutes.
"What's your plan?" Zoe whispered.
I spread my hands. "No fucking clue."
"You could come live with me, you know." Zoe still lived with her parents and was extremely close to them. I had met them a couple times, and they were unfailingly kind and supportive.
It made me uncomfortable.
"Thanks, babe, but I literally just signed that lease." I wasn't going to lose my hard-won independence. Not now. Not even Kelly Johnston or Thad Finch could take that from me.
I'll just have to think of something.
I closed my eyes and composed the article in my head.
Twenty-three-year-old Scarlett Sawyer is a woman on a mission. Not willing to take a lay-off lying down, the genius reporter hatched a genius plan to...to...
Fuck. I have no plan.
I pressed my trembling hands against my sides and exhaled sharply, willing the panic to subside.
A whispered rumble of discontent flowed through the crowd, and all of a sudden, people were rising to their feet, stomping and muttering. The meeting was over. I had missed the takeaway.
So had Zoe. Jason shuffled towards us. He was the type of employee who always took notes at these things.
Zoe leaped at him. "What did they say?" she hissed.
Jason nervously fingered the bow tie he no doubt had called Zoe about last night. The two of them were far too stylish for the likes of me. "Honey, what did I tell you about paying attention?"
"Why, when I have you?"
"You know, someday I'm not going to be able to bail you out."
"Fuck that noise," Zoe scoffed, sliding her arm into his. "You're never getting rid of me."
"See, it's shit like this." Jason rolled his eyes. "When I tell you people think we're a couple, it's because you do things like this. You're dooming us both to perpetual singledom." But he didn't pull his arm away.
Zoe bopped him on the nose. "Notes, Jase. Tell us what you wrote down."
Jason huffed and raised one precisely plucked eyebrow. "We have to pitch to them." He rolled his eyes before slumping against the wall. "Can you believe that shit?"
I imagined a single black rain cloud hovering directly above his head.
"Pitch what?" Zoe's equally manicured eyebrows nearly zoomed off her forehead.
Jason stared at his feet. He was a shy guy, terrible at social interaction with everyone except us, but brilliant and encyclopedic in his knowledge of music history. "Ourselves," he sighed.
"Fuck," Zoe exhaled. "No wonder you look like death, Jase."
"I'm fucked," he agreed. "Only reason I got this job was I sent in a writing sample. I don't really do face-to-face." He said all this while staring a hole in the carpet.
"Well..." Zoe was frantically searching for an upside. It's what she did. It was her role in our little trifecta of weirdness. Jason was the detail guy, Zoe was the sunny, positive cheerleader.
I wasn't really sure what I was. The awkward girl they took under their wing? The dreamer? The goody-two-shoes who made for inadvertent comic relief? The East Coast small town girl to play fish out of water to their California cool?
"Well, shit," Zoe finished, unable to find a single positive thing to say about this bullshit. She turned to me with a wan smile. "Hey, maybe Prince Cuntingham will get canned and you won't have to be worried about it anymore?" I winced at her crude nickname for Kevin. Zoe craned her neck and looked around at the rest of the exiting crowd. "Hey, I don't think he even came in today, so he won't even know!"
Zoe and Jason both looked at me so supportively that I had to look away. "He had to have come in," I said, shaking my head and scanning the crowd. "Attendance was mandatory."
"Prince Cuntingham isn't known for his stellar life decisions," Jason pointed out.
I shook my head again. Kevin was too smart for that. He worked in the art department, and his job was on the line just as much as mine was.
But then again, it would be just like him to think the rules didn't apply to him.
Once we were certain not to run into Kevin, Zoe and I made our way back to our desks. "So we essentially have to interview for our jobs all over again," Zoe rehashed. She needed to repeat things to herself several times before she was able to absorb them and plot her next step. "That's brutal. Good thing I've got an up-to-date resume on my computer. I can send it out while I wait for my turn on the chopping block." She turned to me. "But at least your job is safe."
"Um, how do your figure?" I asked, plopping into my rolling desk chair. My desk was pristine. It wouldn't be too much work to pack it all up. Just needed to find a box before the rest of the company scrounged them all.
Zoe stood over me with her hands on her hips. "Are you kidding me?" she demanded. "You've got the pitch of the century. If I had an ace up my sleeve like yours, I would have played it a long time ago, but you held on and waited for the right moment. Well, here it is. Now's the time, Scar. Be Ruthless."
I groaned at the pun. "That's terrible."
She grinned. "I've been waiting our entire friendship to say that."
"Did it feel good?"
"Not as good as I hoped, because you look like you're not going to do it."
I tapped my fingers on my desk. "I'm not a sell-out."
"This isn't selling out, this is saving your ass. You just got free of Kevin the Cunt, you have a shit-ton of debt and you have to swing that rent payment by yourself now. Don't be noble here. Use what you've got."
What I've got is so much deeper and more complicated than I ever let on to you,
I thought, turning my back so she couldn't see the sudden turmoil her suggestion sent me into. I swallowed and tried to keep my voice even and level. "I'll think about it."
Day drinking always made me sleepy, and we had a rehearsal gig tonight, so I didn't feel bad about bowing out of the bar early and heading home. I had big plans for the day.
Read a book. Take a nap.
Rock 'n' roll, baby.
With the money from royalties from our first album, I bought a little beach bungalow outright. It wasn't fancy, but it was paid for and it was mine. When I got my hands on it, it was a little worse for the wear, tattered shutters and missing roof tiles and all that. Rane declared it a dump and made fun of me when I started amassing power tools, but he didn't seem to mind when I figured out how to rehang the drywall in his kitchen after an especially raucous wrap-party. This place was good practice.
I liked fixing shit.
But some things were perfect and didn't need fixing. Like the plaid tufted loveseat that still occupied a place of honor in my living room. I headed inside and immediately flopped onto it. I was too big for it by a long shot, but I wasn't about to let it go.
When we moved out here, Rane pulled rank and claimed the big-ass couch that lived in my Dad's old basement. But I hadn't minded. I liked this tattered, worn thing that still smelled like our garage rehearsal space, even five years later.
The afternoon sun was moving to the back of the house, leaving my east-facing living room in a comfortable gloom. I reached behind me and switched on the lamp, then rolled over and debated the pile of paperbacks that teetered dangerously on the end table.
I wasn't a reader in high school. Sitting still and being forced to read a certain number of pages, that wasn't my style. But there was a lot of fucking downtime on tour, and I soon picked up the paperback habit, more out of boredom than anything else. I prepped for this upcoming tour by scouring the used bookstore on the hunt for cheap shit I wouldn't worry about spilling beer on or leaving in a hotel bathroom.
But as usual, I overdid it, and now I had an entire suitcase full of thrillers, classics and one or two non-fiction essay books I grabbed in a random fit of self-improvement.
The roadies were going to roast my ass good.
But I didn't actually give a shit about that. Once I committed to something, I went all the way. I bought all these books. So now I was gonna read them.
Maybe I'd get a head start now.
I grabbed the topmost one, a battered copy of
A Clockwork Orange.
Settling back on the couch, I opened to page one, but the words on the page immediately drifted together. This morning's nonsense in the back room had gotten nowhere, but now I was dealing with a wicked case of blue-balls-after-the-fact. Burgess's made-up language of droogs and milk-bars couldn't compete with my frustrated brain.
I closed my eyes, letting the familiar fantasy play out.
"You know what day it is?"
"Of course I do."
She dropped her book bag and grinned, twirling a sweet little circle in the middle of the garage floor. That plaid skirt swirled upward, exposing a little of the creamy thighs underneath. "Do I look older and wiser?" she asked, landing and striking a thoughtful pose.
I leaned back on the plaid loveseat. It was late afternoon on a too-hot June day. She was graduating next week and eighteen today.
"God, I hope you're not wiser," I said. "Because then you might change your mind about me."
She danced forward and rested her hands on my thighs. I was instantly hard for her.
I had been hard for her for going on two years now. But today was the day.
"I'm not going to change my mind," she said.
Up close, her brown eyes were so much more. The catlike yellow hidden underneath seemed like a secret only for me. I wondered if anyone else had ever had the treat of seeing Scarlett's eyes up close like this. I wondered if they knew what a fucking privilege it was.
I took her in my arms and laid her down on the couch. Underneath me.
Those eyes watched me, staying open the entire time. And afterward, when she was trembling and a little scared about what we had done, those eyes were even wider, somehow.
I didn't want them to ever be scared again.
"It's a sin, you know," she babbled, her mother's words coming out of her pretty lips. "Outside of marriage like this."
I reached under the couch for the small velvet box I had ready. Her birthday present.
"So let's not sin anymore," I told her, dropping to one knee.
That's always where I stopped the memory. Right when her eyes went wide and her happy cries filled my ears. Her tears and her arms around my neck as she told me yes.
I never went past that point. Choosing to remember only the good parts. That was the whole point of a fantasy.
I grunted my climax, but it was joyless and perfunctory. I cleaned myself off, feeling pathetic.
Where was all this Scarlett shit coming from?
All these years, I carried Scarlett with me, familiar as a body part. All these years, I held her in as something that was part of me and my identity. No day went by that I didn't think of her, but it was in the way I thought about something like...well, fuck, Rane writes pretty words, not me. She was like...my
or something. Just...there. Something I'd miss if it were gone, but not something I consciously thought about at every moment.
Why was I suddenly thinking about fucking her again? Remembering her gasps, her smiles, the promises we made? Why now?
The answer to my question was pretty obvious. I was thinking about her again because I was reminded of her again. All this time, I thought she had stayed in Buffalo, under her parents' thumb. All this time, I thought there was a continent in between us. That she had made her choice and I made mine.
To find out she was here... In the same city...
It was such a stupid thing. A discarded copy of
was left backstage at one of our shows a few months, back ,when Rane and Maddie were first starting up their thing. I was bored and irritated with Rane over something I couldn't remember anymore, so I’d picked it up and started leafing through it.
And saw her picture.
It was a grainy little thumbnail shot. By rights, I shouldn't have even recognized it as her. But I did, because I was fucking tuned to her frequency or whatever...
I saw her photo—as grainy and indistinct as it was, it was still her—and suddenly Scarlett Sawyer moved from being my elbow back to being my heart.
I got up off the couch and headed over to my bedroom. Late afternoon sunlight slanted across the floorboards and shone like a spotlight on the end table where I kept it. The little blue velvet box.
She had tiny fingers. I used to tease her for her "elf-hands," delighting in giving her the rings I wore back then and watching them slip right off her fingers to land on the floor with a clang. I had to be so careful when I bought this one. Finding the right size right out of the gate had taken some serious detective work. But I had done it. It slipped onto her ring finger and stayed there like it belonged.
Now, it seemed too small in my hand. Cheap and a little gaudy. It was funny how I still held onto it, this symbol of old pain. I could buy one of these about every five minutes now, but back then it represented the classic two months’ worth of salary. Which, as a working musician, meant it cost me four hundred fifty-eight dollars with tax.
Scarlett wasn't the one who gave it back to me. Maybe that's why I had always kept it, hoping I could see her again and ask her why. Why wasn't she there that afternoon like we planned? Why, when I went to her window, was it her mother that met me there instead?
Mrs. Sawyer. I knew she was evil, but I never knew how evil. Scarlett let a few things slip here and there but never let the full story out. I had to find out myself.
She was standing in the middle of Scarlett's bedroom, just staring. The only movement was her hand, opening and closing at her side like she was trying to catch hold of something that had already passed her by.
My heart sank when I saw her there. Had she caught wind of our plans somehow? We had been so careful.
Behind her, Scarlett's closet stood wide open. I had never been inside Scarlett's bedroom before. It was on the main floor in the back of the house, a converted porch that was hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. The one time I had tried to surprise her by showing up at her window late at night, she was nearly hysterical with fear. So all the time we spent together was at my house next door.
She told me she had packed her suitcases and stashed them in her closet behind the blankets her mom stored there. But the closet was standing wide open, the blankets spilled out across the floor.
And there were no suitcases.
My heart sank even further.
Scarlett's mother finally turned and noticed me standing there. The statue-like blankness of her face dissolved.
Seeing me gave her someone to hate. And that gave her life again.
Her mouth was already twisting into the shape of words before she finally spoke. "What did you do with her?" she snarled at me, lunging to the window.
My father always raised us to look adults in the eye, but I feared if I peered at her directly, she would turn me into stone.
Instead, I focused on a small patch of peeling paint on the window pane. It was odd, a rare taint of ugliness on the Sawyers’ house, but I guess it didn't matter to them because Scarlett's window didn't face the street.
Everything that faced the street was polished and perfect.
I stared down that peeling paint, wanting to get ahold of it and rip it upward. Tear an open wound across the window the way one was tearing across my heart. "I could ask you the same question," I said instead.
She stood back up again, surprised that I was standing my ground. "I should call the police, you know." Mrs. Sawyer's voice was colder than anything I had ever heard. There was no concern for where Scarlett actually was. Only the worry that she was gone from her clutches. "You're a grown man, she's a child; it's disgusting."
My fist clenched even now, as if I could shield the ring from my memory. Just as they did back then. "Scarlett and I are adults," I told her calmly. "And we've done nothing wrong." Then my calm broke. "Where the fuck is she?"
"Don't you dare swear at me!" she hissed, shoving Scarlett's blankets off her bed like she would find her daughter hiding underneath. "You Wilders, bunch of trash strewn across our street." She slammed the closet open wider and kicked the blankets over. "If I find out you did anything to my daughter…" She whirled and lunged to the doorway again. "You'd better tell me where she is!"
But I was already walking away. "Even if I knew," I called behind me, "I would never tell you."
It was the truth. I didn't know.
I waited to hear from her. Hung around the library. Called her cell phone close to a thousand times until her voicemail was filled and I could no longer hear her bright voice saying, "This is Scarlett! You know what to do!"
I didn't know what to do. Except hope I'd hear from her, hope I'd see her again. Hope I'd be able to fix things between us so we could go back to the way things were before.
Over the years, hope gave way to despair. Despair then gave way to terrible, terrible anger.
And after that came...now.
Wherever the fuck I was in this grieving process, the wound still felt as fresh as it had that afternoon on Wallace Street.
As I held the ring in my hands, my mind slipped back to her picture in
. Confident. Smiling. Beautiful. It was clear she was not broken. It was clear she had moved on.
Maybe it was time I did the same.
Tilting my hand was such a small thing. Just the slightest movement and the ring slid from where it nestled in my palm and landed in the trashcan. It glinted a little in the sunlight, like a wink farewell.
I walked away to get ready for tonight's show.