“Audrey?”, Melissa called, entering the tent and shutting its little door reluctantly.
She was working on her article rapidly, intending to finish the first part and send it to Mrs. Watson. Melissa’s voice, however, didn’t interrupt the process and she kept writing, absent-minded. It has been a long day and their work was only halfway done, but Audrey wouldn’t stop until every single line was perfect and accurate.
“Audrey?” Mellisa’s voice peered again into their small, cluttered tent. “There’s something I need to tell you…”, she announced, but Audrey winced and turned around slowly. “Give me a minute, this darn thing is lagging again and I’m not having it! I need to get this done until my battery dies. Did you bring me some sort of power source? If that’s not what you’re here for, I don’t wanna hear it”, she told her, alongside the sound of her small fingers tapping on the keyboard briskly.
“The World War has started”, she said, with uncontrollable fear in her voice.
Audrey smirked, without cease of her keyboard tapping. “No shit. They’ve been fighting for a while, honey. That’s why we’re here.”
“No, you don’t get it”, she replied. “Gordam declared war on Yoon. Their president was on TV just now. You know what that means.”
Audrey knew what it meant. Gordam, the country they were in for a documentary, was part of a major international alliance, but so was Yoon, another nation. A war declaration from either of those two towards the other would automatically lead to a war between their alliances as well. But Audrey knew it had yet to happen.
“This is not the right time for jokes, for heck’s sake. Now get me to a power source, I’ve got one line left”, she uttered.
“God damn it, Audrey. I know how you act when you’re working on something, but you need to cut this out. This is serious shit.”
Audrey chuckled. “Check CNN. Go ahead”. She followed, sighing as she opened another tab, alongside one for her email, and typed in cnn.com. “I’ll be damned”, she muttered.
“Told you.” Audrey turned around, gasping. She looked at Melissa’s now upset expression and said, “What are we gonna do?”. “I’ve no clue. You’re my boss, you decide”, she replied. “Screw that, we need to figure this out! … Where are Tony and Seth? Do they know about this?”. “They do, we saw it together on TV. They’re gone”, she sighed. “What?!”, Audrey cried. “The hell are we gonna do then?”, she asked, but got no immediate response. She then remembered the van they were taken there with, staring at the tent’s wall beside the door, trying to find its outline. “Let’s take that car!”, she exclaimed.
“Are you nuts?! This is not some action movie, you can’t just steal a car. Plus, we can’t do shit if it’s locked and doesn’t even have a key in the ignition”. “How do you know it doesn’t?”, Audrey asked, leaving Melissa speechless. “Pack your stuff, I’ll go check”, she eventually said. Melissa hurriedly ran outside and peered onto the van’s front windows in the dusk, trying to locate the ignition, then moving to her right, to get better visualization. A rocket lit up the sky, its reflection on the car’s window revealing a key inserted in the ignition. Melissa ignored the explosion sound that followed, and ran back into the tent.
“You’re right, it’s in there. But we’ve got another problem. Where are going?”
Audrey froze, with her bag in her hands. “Fuck”, she muttered. They had been placed by a military base, at Gordam’s border, 124 miles way from the nearest city. “There’s nowhere else we can drive to besides another city, because this is a god damn peninsula. We need to get to a port. Or an airport”, she stated. “Where’s the nearest one?”
“Don’t ask me, you’re the one with the computer”. Audrey winced and took out her laptop that she’d just packed in a bag, turning it on. “Give it a second”. They waited until the machine booted and Audrey opened a map of their area. “Thank God, there’s one nearby. Half an hour tops. Let’s pack everything up and go.”
“Um … Audrey..”
“We both drank at dinner earlier. We can’t drive. I mean, I sure can’t”. Audrey stopped packing and looked up at her assistant. “I’ll do it, It’s fine. At this point, we’ll either die from a bomb explosion, a soldier shooting us, or getting into a car crash. Either way, we won’t make it out of this so cut the crap, pack your shit, maybe take another drink for the adrenaline, and let’s get the hell out of this hell hole.”
Melissa stared at the journalist for a solid 20 seconds. “Okay, sorry”, she replied, starting to pack her belongings spread around the tent’s floor and its plastic impromptu desk onto the only bag she had brought from their hotel room.
“Do you have any money with you?”, Audrey asked, after searching up all her pockets. “I have a few bucks in my jeans for sure, but that’s it. Why?”. Audrey glared at her. “Right, we need money if we want to fly back. I left my stuff at the hotel, but I’m sure they accept mobile payment. We can pay by our cards, it’s fine.” Audrey shook her head in disbelief, but got back to packing, constantly peering at her desk and trying to figure out what to do with it. “Just leave it”, Melissa said, noticing.
They finally finished and sped out of the tent, settling their bags into the van’s backseats and getting in themselves. Audrey started it up, and they drove into the darkness.
“So that’s how it all started”, Audrey’s therapist, Joanne, asserted, opening up her pen and jotting down some notes. “Can’t say I’m glad it took us 4 sessions to get to this, but thanks for finally saying something.”
Audrey looked away, avoiding Joanne’s eyes, then looked down, at the chocolate milk bottle in her lap. She grabbed it and took a sip of the vodka she had hidden in the opaque bottle.
“Audrey, I know it’s hard, but let’s try to imagine her being well. Let’s stop assuming that she’s dead. She’s missing.”
Audrey smirked and shook her head. “Sure, whatever tickles your pickle”, she said, taking another sip of vodka. “Give me that”, her therapist hissed, looking at Audrey’s impromptu flask. “Why would I? It’s just chocolate milk”, she replied. But Joanne wasn’t convinced. “Cut the crap, Audrey. What do you have in there? … Do you see these?”, she pointed to her nostrils, “I can smell the alcohol.”
Audrey froze, put down the bottle from her mouth and closed the cap. “Fine. Here, I’ll just put it down and not touch it.” Joanne shook her head, got up and grabbed the bottle, then went back to her couch and sat down. She opened the cap, took a sniff and then, a sip. “I shouldn’t be surprised, because I know you make a lot of money, but this is some good shit. How much is a bottle of this stuff? One hundred? Two?”
She glared at her therapist. “Really? You’re drinking on the job?” she asked. “Please, you’re always drunk when you come here. You should thank me for not telling your doctor and lawyer or whoever that Josh guy is that I didn’t tell them. You’d be taken somewhere else. I’m doing you a favor, Ms. Johnson.” They stared at each other for a few minutes. “I guess you won’t be revealing much anymore today, huh?”. “You guessed it”, she replied. “Fine, you can go. I’ve got an ex-convict next.” Audrey got up, then turned towards Joanne and glared at her. “A real one. You know, who got convicted for an actual crime. Being in jail for an unfair reason doesn’t make you too a convict. Also, please stop coming here drunk. I hope you didn’t drive here, because I won’t let you get in a car”, Audrey sighed, “Josh is picking me up”. “Who is this Josh though?” she asked. “Let’s just say he’s my lawyer.” Audrey turned away and headed for the door. “Next time”, she said, and left.
Audrey headed for Josh’s car, awaiting her in front of Joanne’s house, and got in.
“How was it?”, he asked her. “Just don’t”, she replied. “Take me home, please”. Josh nodded and drove away. “Guess what”, he broke the silence after stopping at the first red light. “What?” she replied. “We got the Plaza Hotel!”. “No way! Congrats, man! That’s awesome”. Josh was getting married in the upcoming months to his girlfriend and had been sharing every bit of it with Audrey. “I wish she was here. We booked it for August, three months away, so maybe she’ll show up. Or crawl out of the soil like a zombie or something”, he said, starting to laugh. Audrey glared at him right away. “Oh. Too soon”, he muttered.
Josh dropped Audrey off at her new apartment in Brooklyn and, because she kept insisting, didn’t lead her up to her own doorway and drove off. She went up the stairs, unlocked her door and entered reluctantly. She had only moved in for a month and the place lacked decoration, or as Josh liked to say, “it lacked life”. She dropped her bag on the floor and started to look around. She finally understood. The place did indeed look lifeless. After moving from her previous apartment, she gave away all her belongings to charity, including some objects Melissa had been around or touched. Audrey didn’t know what to tell her if she came back and asked about her custom-made painting from her bedroom that she really loved and threatened to steal, but she knew it wouldn’t be the case, because there was no way Melissa was alive.
Audrey sat down on her couch, grabbed her laptop, and went on the Internet to look for decoration. She didn’t leave her house often and going to a big furniture store like her previously beloved IKEA didn’t seem like the best idea. After an hour of browsing, Audrey finally settled on a big vase with a fake orchid. Before making the order, she asked herself if she should look around more and buy more stuff, to fill the apartment, or maybe buy a live plant to literally bring life to her place, and pondered for a few minutes, looking around, just to press ‘Order’ and close her laptop.
The next week, she took a taxi to Joanne’s, as Josh was stuck in court with a big case. It was a rainy day and she hadn’t brought an umbrella, but it didn’t matter. She got out of the cab casually and walked up to her therapist’s house, getting in without ringing the bell.
“Surprise!”, she told Joanne.
“Cool, now you’re not even taking care of yourself. Didn’t you see the clouds? You’re dripping on my carpet, God damn it.” Audrey stepped out of it and onto the wooden floor. “Nooo, that won’t do good either. God, you’re like a child. Just get on the couch, with your legs up.” Audrey followed, and Joanne sat down on her couch.
“I’ve been thinking about your story. I want to know more about Melissa. I know it’s a sensitive topic, but we need to do this.”
New York Times’ editor in-chief, Mrs. Watson, hurried into her international news section’s manager, Audrey Johnson’s office, and dropped a file folder on her desk, heading right out. “Wait wait wait, what is this?” she asked. “CVs for your new secretary”. Audrey frowned. “I told you I don’t need one”. “Cut the crap, Audrey. I know you’re upset about Dorothy, but that won’t bring her back. Nothing will. It’s the circle of life, get used to it. Now get a damn secretary, you’ve been missing all our meetings and I’m not putting up with it anymore. Pick some CVs out of there and call them for an interview”, she ordered.
The next day, Audrey interviewed 10 potential secretaries, but dropped each and every one of them because “they were not Dorothy”, and “they looked like wimps”. After a few hours, she got to the last one. She was too sick of it all to look at her CV again, and hoped it would be an old lady. Moments later, a young, tall, fit, strawberry blonde-haired and Bambi-like blue-eyed woman stepped in. Audrey was in awe, and only after a few minutes did she realize that her mouth had actually dropped open. “Yes yes yes yes yes”, she thought to herself.
“Hi, I’m Melissa. You’re Ms. Johnson, right?”, she said, with a sweet, honey-like voice. “Yes, hi, sit down!”, Audrey replied, trying to stay calm, but instead, blurring out words without realizing. She decided to look away instead, and grabbed Melissa’s CV. “Melissa Lockwood. Hm, nice last name”, she said, starting to giggle. “Yeah, it’s my fiancé’s” she replied. “Fi-fi-fi-fiancé?”. This can’t be. Audrey tried to look at her fingers. Indeed, there was a sparkling blue diamond ring on Melissa’s ring finger. “Yeah”, Melissa replied. “Oh, congrats. When are you getting married?”, she asked, with obvious disappointment in her voice. “Sometime this year, I guess”. “Why did you use his name though? You’re not married yet.” Melissa sighed. “I sent my CV to several firms. I didn’t want them to know my identity, to avoid it getting to the press”. “You’re literally there though”, Audrey told her, making her laugh. “Oh well, I didn’t think you’d call back.”
“So what’s your deal? Why are you hiding your name?”, Audrey asked. Melissa didn’t seem willing to spill the tea. “Come on, just say it. I promise I won’t tell anyone. You can record me saying that so that when you sue me for lying, you’d have proof against me.”
“Okay, my real name in Smithson. Melissa Smithson.” Audrey gasped. “Nooo way, you’re the Smithsons’ daughter? Like, the Smithson Bank CEOs’?!” Melissa frowned. “There it is”, she said. “Oh my God, you must be loaded. What would you need a job for? You’re getting that entire business for sure”. Melissa looked down, fiddling her fingers. “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean that in a bad way. Why are you here then?”. “My parents want me to take over soon. They’ve been obsessively training me for this since I was a kid. They wanted a boy, but they got this disappointment instead!”, “Why would they think of you like that, you look like a goddess”, Audrey thought to herself. “But I hated it. I did business and finance in college and I loathed it. I loathed working with them, going to meetings. But when I was little, and they were stuck in meetings, their secretary would take care of me. I liked her so much. Such a sweet lady. She passed away of old age recently, God bless her. I loved being around her, watching and following her every move. Eventually, I became a secretary’s secretary. And I loved it. I loved the prospect of that kind of job and I knew I could do it well. But my parents were against it; they didn’t want the public to know that their daughter is such a failure that she prefers such a pathetic job to being a glorious bank CEO. So I ran away from home, to my fiancé’s, and decided to get a job and make a living without the whole Smithson Bank curse following me.” Melissa sighed loudly. “Is that enough?”
Audrey was left speechless. “See that desk outside my office?” she pointed to it and Melissa looked back at it. “Yeah?”. “Come there tomorrow at 8”, Audrey said, gathering all of that day’s CVs and putting them back into the file folder they were originally in. “Wait what? So I’m hired?”, she asked, confused. “Yup. I’m the type who loses track of time and I’m always late so you’ll have to compensate. It’ll take some time to get used to, but I’ll give you all the time you need to adjust. Oh, and I want you to bring me a latte the moment in come in every morning, and each day’s paper”, she waited for Melissa to note all of her commands down. “Okay, you can go now.”
Melissa got up, greeted and left. Audrey took out her phone to avoid looking at her backside, it was already a lost cause.
Melissa opened the van’s door to get some fresh air. It had been a hot, humid day, and the fall of darkness didn’t seem to change any of that. She looked at the sky, at the stars, then turned around towards Audrey. The moonlight was shinning down her face, highlighting her profile, the dent on her nose from a childhood accident, the curve of her lips. Melissa dazed at Audrey’s features until she noticed, “What?”, she asked. “Nothing”, Melissa replied, turning back to her window and the stars. Audrey slowed down the van and put it into third gear. “God damn it, Melissa. I can’t do this anymore!”, she cried. “What do you mean?”. Audrey cackled. “This. Whatever it is”. “I told you I broke up with him”, she insisted. “For what? For me? I can’t live with that. What if you let the good one go? There’s no way you can know if this will work out!”. They didn’t talk for a few minutes, and the van’s engine was the only noise peering through their silence. “How do you know it won’t?!” she eventually replied. “Because you’re straight!”
They stood in silence again, the engine getting quiet as well, as if it was reflecting their situation. “I can’t play this game anymore, Melissa. I’m getting old. I want to settle down. Get a house, have kids, get a dog or two. I can’t play around with straight girls”. Melissa didn’t respond. “You knew what you were getting into”. “No, I didn’t. I was drunk. You kissed me back. You were more sober, you should have stopped”. Audrey rolled her eyes, “Really? You’re blaming me now? Well sorry for not thinking about your stupid fiance. Also, sorry for being attracted to you. You definitely knew what you were getting into. I wanted to start fresh. Do it for real. I can’t do that with you”. Audrey gazed at the road ahead. What was she doing? She couldn’t understand her own feelings. She didn’t know what she truly felt for Melissa, if there was anything at all. She had adjusted to working with her again, as if nothing had happened, but they both knew that a simple kiss changed everything, and their working relationship would never be the same again. They couldn’t look at each other the same, nor avoid numerous what ifs.
“So what if I’m straight?”, she asked, after another moment of silence. “Straight or not, I can still love you”. Audrey turned to her, startled, but turned back to the road. “It doesn’t mean I can’t marry you”. “I didn’t say I wanted that!”, she sighed. “Don’t. Just don’t. Turn back to your window. Let’s focus on what we’re gonna do now. Figure out how to get out of a war zone and stop toying with me”. Melissa listened and turned back to her window. “I love you”, she muttered. “For fuck’s sake, I love you too. God damn it”, Audrey replied.
“What do you wanna do once we get back home?” Melissa asked.
“I don’t know. Take a bath, probably”.
“That took an interesting turn”, Joanne remarked.
Audrey sighed, rubbed her temples, and stared down at her lap. But she had listened to Joanne, and the chocolate milk flask wasn’t there. “This is the moment where you took a drink, right?”, she asked, closing up her pen after jotting down more notes. “I’m trying to stay sober, at least for you, here. I can drink at home as much as I want”. “There it is! Good job. We’re getting somewhere”. Audrey fidgeted and scooped on the couch, to change her position. “So what was that all about?”
“Don’t. You seemed okay with the idea of one story per session. It’s done. Over. Not telling you anything else till next week”. “Look, I’ve worked with cases like yours before, you get through it. She’s not dead, for fuck’s sake, you can talk about her!”, Joanne exclaimed. “I don’t want to. I don’t feel like I have the right to”. The therapist frowned. “What do you mean? Is this about that night? You’re not even sure about all of it. Are you? Are you sure she was dead?”. “No. No, I’m not. Not at all”, she sighed. “Then talk freely”.
She headed out soon after. She refused to say anything, as she didn’t want to admit anything to herself. She walked alongside the houses and peered into their interiors, wondering what kind of people lived in there, whether their places “have life” or not. Whether their existence also depends on one big question. Audrey kept walking and turned around to look at the rest of the street. It was pretty and quiet, Melissa would’ve liked it, she thought to herself. But why would Melissa have to like it?
Melissa got to the New York Times offices at 7:58AM. Everyone was getting to work at the same time and the elevator was crowded. She was quickly surrounded by numerous unknown people. She didn’t know if any of them worked at the newspaper as well, or where they were working, or going, for that matter. She studied every person; the pregnant lady in front of her, rubbing her belly. The oddly good-looking transgender guy next to her. The suited-up old man who looked like he was about to fall asleep any minute. The stiff-looking middle-aged woman in front of her, next to the pregnant one. She got to her level, but only the middle-aged woman hopped off.
“Hi”, she said. “Hello”, Melissa replied, with a slight confusion in her voice. Noticing, the lady replied, “I’m the editor in-chief, Maria Watson. You must be Audrey’s new secretary, huh? You look familiar”. “Must be a coincidence”, she quickly responded. “And yes, that’s me. I’m Melissa Lockwood, nice to meet you”, “Nice to meet you too”, she replied, shaking hands.