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Leah Walker steps up to the door of Rosalind Duchard’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts and rings the bell. She’s there to meet with Rosalind and her husband, Paul, about a request they made of her at a previous meeting. Leah is still undecided on what her answer will be, but Rosalind has promised to have a legal agreement drawn up to spell out everyone’s responsibilities and the legal consequences of everything.
She’s met at the door by Paul, a man in his fifties, somewhat overweight, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and a madras shirt.
“Leah,” Paul says, with little enthusiasm. “You’re early. Rosalind isn’t back yet.” He makes no effort to invite her in.
“Can I come in anyway?” Leah says.
Paul considers it. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”
He steps aside to allow her entry.
In the year since becoming Rosalind’s lab assistant, Leah has come to regard her as a mentor and friend, and Rosalind has successfully wrested from Leah’s aunt, Margaret, the title of “second most important” woman in Leah’s life. Around MIT, faculty, staff, and students recognize that talking to Leah is almost the same as having Rosalind’s ear, and some faculty members prefer Leah’s accessibility to wading through the sea of interpersonal issues they have to navigate to work with Rosalind. Leah and Rosalind spend most of the day together, and many evenings, depending on the time of year, or the grants Rosalind is managing. Their close working arrangement often draws the ire of Rosalind’s husband.
Leah has only had a few interactions with Paul Duchard, but they’ve been icy and uncomfortable. He always greets her with a stern look, and an over abundance of sighs and eye rolls. She’s found his reactions rarely change, regardless of how polite or friendly she tries to be around him. On the occasions they’ve been alone when she’s visiting, any interest she shows in getting to know him is met with monosyllabic responses, and it isn’t out of the ordinary for Paul to excuse himself whenever Leah and Rosalind are talking, even when they’re chatting and not discussing academic matters. Leah suspects Paul may have Asperger Syndrome, but whenever she’s broached the topic with Rosalind, she always dismisses Leah’s suspicions, telling Leah she just needs to get to know Paul better.
Paul leads Leah to the living room, where she sits on the couch. He takes a seat in an overstuffed chair that has a guitar leaning against it.
“You play guitar?” Leah asks.
“Yeah, picked it up when I was in high school,” he says. “Some of my colleagues in the Math department have a jazz band. We play at clubs around town.”
“Really? I never knew that,” Leah says.
“Well, there’s a lot you don’t know about me, Leah,” Paul says. He folds his hands in front of him and glances at the clock. “Rosie should be here anytime now.”
They sit in awkward silence for several minutes.
“Can I ask you something, Paul?” she says. “I mean, since we have a little time.”
“What is it?” Paul asks.
“What exactly have I done to piss you off?” Leah says.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Paul says without facing her.
“Like hell you don’t,” she says. “Almost from the moment I met you, all I’ve gotten is attitude. You’re short with me. You give me a hard time every time I call here for Rosie. I’d just like to know what’s behind it.”
Paul sighs. “There’s no big mystery, Leah. I don’t like you. No reason. You just rub me the wrong way.”
“Perfect,” she says. “Another one of those guys, eh?”
“Those guys?” Paul says. “What does that mean?”
“I’ve been dealing with guys like you my entire life,” Leah says. “You’ve got some kind of bug up your ass about strong women, or women in science, or whatever.”
“My feelings toward you have nothing to do with your being a woman in science,” Paul says. “Do you honestly think I could have married Rosalind Worthy if I’d had any reservations about that? If not for other factors, I’d probably be your champion.”
“What other factors might those be?” Leah says.
Paul stares at her, considering something. Finally, he says, “Your father is Paxton Walker isn’t he — the Walker behind Walker Development?”
“Yes, he is,” Leah says.
“I wasn’t sure at first,” Paul continues, “but after Rosie gave me a few more facts, I pretty well confirmed it.”
Leah shakes a finger at him. “You’re from Atlanta. Rosie never mentioned that.”
“She knows I went to Tech,” Paul says. “But she doesn’t know much about my early history. I’ve been a little mysterious about that, and she hasn’t really pressed me on it. It’s mutual. There’s quite a bit I don’t know about her past either.”
“Okay, spill it,” Leah says. “What’s your beef with my father?”
“You’re no doubt familiar with Dunkirk Estates?” Paul says.
“It was my father’s first major development deal. It made him a millionaire,” Leah says. “You lived in Dunkirk Estates?”
“No,” Paul replies. “My family and I lived in The Commons, which is what we called the neighborhood your father demolished in order to build Dunkirk Estates.”
“Wow, small world,” Leah says, mostly to herself.
“Yeah, too small, apparently,” he says. “We were sent packing, along with a community of over fifty families after Walker Development greased the palms of county commissioners to have them claim eminent domain on our homes.”
“So, call a lawyer,” she says. “If you had a valid claim to the property, you could have fought the county’s decision.”
“We couldn’t afford that,” he says. “Besides, the bulldozers were out there the following morning. We barely had time to finish packing.”
“What does any of this have to do with me?” Leah says. “I’m not my father. I was a child when he built that development.”
“No. But you benefited from it just the same, didn’t you?”
“For your information, my father and I had a parting of the ways before I started MIT,” Leah says. “He’s not paying for any of this.”
“What difference does it make if you’re being financed directly from him or through your trust fund?” Paul says. “You’ve still gotten all your advantages from his blood money. It’s what got you here.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” she says, “the mastery of coursework and long hours of studying were hardly a factor. Do you even know what my GPA was at Wellesley? That’s not a walk in the park, you know. Plus, I was jointly enrolled here for my last two years.”
“I’m not discounting your intelligence or drive,” he says, “but you’ve had opportunities handed to you most people cannot imagine.”
“You don’t seem to be doing so bad, yourself, Paul,” Leah says. “Whatever your upbringing, you seem to have overcome it.”
“Was there ever any question where you’d go to school?” Paul says. “Any doubt you’d be able to finance it?”
Leah looks away. “No. Not really.”
“Well in my case, there was quite a bit,” he says. “My family couldn’t afford to send me to school. My mother and father both worked outside the home just to scrape together enough to keep a roof over our heads. I’ve had to work my ass off most of my life for opportunities you routinely take for granted. You’re right. I’m doing very well now, and I earned every damn penny of it.”
“What’s that they say about the sins of the father?” Leah says.
“Look, I don’t hold you personally accountable for the things your father did,” Paul says.
“Could have fooled me,” she replies.
“You need to understand,” he goes on, “there were lives connected to every dollar your father made and you benefited directly from all of it.”
Leah stares at him a long moment, then shakes her head and chuckles. “Kind of ironic, isn’t it, the role I may end up playing for you and Rosie.”
“That’s Rosie’s idea, not mine,” Paul says. “I told her I couldn’t care less if our children were Jewish. I haven’t set foot inside Temple since the day I watched them bulldoze the only home I’d ever known.”
“Then why me?” Leah says. “There are at least five Jews on her Wall of Stars. Esther Gershon outshines me in pretty much all her academic accomplishments. She’s not married yet.”
“Rosie insisted,” he says. “She has this criteria in her head; math and science; Jewish; you don’t want children of your own. You seem to meet all her requirements. She calls you her star student, or something like that.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Leah says.
“How should I know?” Paul says. “Rosie says all sorts of crazy stuff. I tried to tell her the edict to marry proper Jewish women was from Ezra, post-exile. It’s not even mentioned in Genesis, but she’s obsessed.”
“Yeah, I wondered about that,” Leah says. “I seem to recall Leviticus has provisions for men carrying on their family line — surprise, surprise — but I don’t recall it being very explicit about women. Well, there’s Ruth.”
“Also Second Temple period,” Paul says.
“Yeah. Whatever,” Leah says, waving her hand dismissively. “Look, I’m not terribly enamored with the idea of future offspring sharing your DNA either, though, granted, they’ll definitely kick ass academically. This isn’t about us, though. It’s about Rosie.”
“Agreed,” Paul says.
“It’s not like we’ll be otherwise bound to one another,” Leah says. “If Rosie comes through with the agreement I requested, I’m prepared to wash my hands of the whole affair once the donation is done.”
“I could get behind that,” Paul says. “Plus, I have to agree. Given your academic credentials, any offspring should definitely have a strong math and science foundation. You’re a scientist; your father was an engineer. What did his father do?”
“He was a grocer,” Leah says. “Walker Groceries in Georgia and the Carolinas.”
“Multi-generational privilege, what do you know?” Paul says. “A typical southern tale.”
He picks up his guitar and starts improvising a Jazz riff. “Are you musical?”
Leah shakes her head, with a chuckle. “In high school, I tried trumpet, violin, and saxophone, and was pretty horrible on each one. If I get enough wine in me, I can usually do a mean Blues harmonica, but I doubt Dylan or the Stones will be calling anytime soon. As far as singing, I can usually hold my own in a chorus, as long as there are enough other voices to drown me out.”
“Yeah, I don’t have much of a voice either,” he says. He improvises several more bars on the guitar.
“You’re pretty good at that,” she says. A thought comes to her. “Say, maybe you can explain something to me. What is Rosie’s deal with May 23rd?”
“What do you mean?” Paul asks.
“When I asked her to be my thesis advisor, she didn’t want to take me on without knowing me better,” she replies. “So, I suggested she could hire me as her lab assistant.”
“She was showing me some stuff afterward,” she says, “how she does her grading, what not. The subject of my birthday came up — it was a couple of days away — and when Rosie learned I was born May 23, 1969, she sort of freaked out. Well, as much as Rosie freaks out.”
“What did she do?” Paul says.
“She walked away from me, thinking,” Leah says. “Then she stared at me a long time and confirmed I was born May 23, 1969. After that, she said, ‘Isn’t that something?’ Then she told me she’d reconsidered and agreed to be my advisor after all.”
“That’s odd,” he says. “But, like I say, I don’t know much about Rosie’s past. She’s never mentioned anything about that date. Her birthday is in March, and we were married in June.”
The front door opens and closes.
“Guess that’s Rosie,” Leah says. “Looks like there’s no turning back now.”
“It’s looking that way,” he says.
They face the door, to await Rosalind’s entrance.
Edward Abraham Branch, III, called “Ned” by his family to distinguish him from his grandfather, “Big Ed” and his father, still called “Eddie, Jr.” despite the elder Edward being dead for ten years, carried on the fine tradition of Branch men playing football at UGA. A quarterback, Ned was a natural player, and, as such, had not been much in the habit of working very hard in high school, despite his winning record on the field. When he arrived at the University, he found he could no longer get by on talent alone, and spent his first year on the bench, developing a work habit that would, eventually, earn him a starting spot on the team. His coaches recognized him as a solid, if not stellar player, who could be depended upon to go the distance, and elicit enough occasional brilliance to pull out the wins. About the same time he gained his starting spot, Ned married his high school sweetheart, Lindsay Maddox, who was also taking classes at UGA in financial planning. They decided to forego starting a family until their studies were behind them.
Ned’s attendance at UGA had been cast in doubt, when a local girl, Charlotte Sanger, identified him as the father of a child she was carrying. Charlotte was considered a mousy little thing, who was mostly known for singing in her church choir, and for being the sister of that guy who’d been caught fooling around with the son of the pastor at their Baptist congregation. She also had some weird disorder that caused her to repeat things people said to her, which earned her the nickname Echo at school. She’d befriended Ned and Lindsay their senior year, which led to her unexpectedly being named Homecoming Queen. Not wanting to involve the family in any messy controversy, Eddie, Jr. called Ned’s coach, Harold Ricketts, into his office at the car dealership, and impressed upon the coach a need for him to handle things. Coach Ricketts came up with a sweet plan to shift responsibility away from Ned and onto a teammate, but Charlotte made the issue moot by sneaking off in the middle of the night one evening, leaving behind no trace of where she’d gone.
In the Fall of 2000, Ned and Lindsay, expecting their first child together, move to Suwannee, in the Metro Atlanta area, where Ned, a fourth-round draft pick for the Falcons, is beginning his tenure as the backup quarterback. It’s here the couple learns what became of their friend, Charlotte, as they discover that the singers who’ve been invited to perform the National Anthem at the season opener are Charlotte and her brother, Brian, who call themselves Echo. The team does not interact with the opening duo, but Lindsay finds herself in the Skybox with them, and after a few awkward moments, during which she meets the boy Charlotte introduces as her son, they reconcile, and Lindsay promises to have the family over to their home in Suwannee. When Lindsay tells Ned of the encounter, he’s secretly somewhat relieved to learn Charlotte did not name the boy fully after him, as he has no intention of being the father of Edward Abraham, IV.
Ned finally meets the boy, Edward Ishmael, who his family calls Izzy, when Charlotte, her brother, Brian, and Izzy visit a few weeks later. In their discussions leading up to the visit, it was decided that they weren’t going to hide the fact that Ned is Izzy’s father from the boy, but when they introduce Ned as such to Izzy, he seems to take it in stride, being far too young to realize the implications of it all. Izzy turns out to be an energetic child, with a natural curiosity about the world around him, and no shyness toward new people. He and Ned hit it off immediately, and Brian and Ned spend nearly an hour chasing him around the yard and playing catch with him, while Lindsay and Charlotte chat in the kitchen.
After the meeting with Izzy goes well, Ned discusses with Lindsay the possibility of Ned formally acknowledging Izzy as his son. Lindsay voices no objections, though she is concerned the timing might overshadow the arrival of their child, who, they’ve learned from the ultrasound, is also a boy. Ned agrees to discuss it with the team’s legal counsel, and to bring Charlotte into the discussions before they go very far. They both agree, however, to leave his family back home out of the conversation, until after decisions have been reached, since they would almost certainly object and cause difficulties.
Lawyers for the team outline the process of acknowledging paternity, but caution Ned that he should confirm with a paternity test that he is Ishmael’s father. Ned doesn’t believe Charlotte will appreciate this step, since he believes she’s telling the truth about Ned being the only man who could be the father, but agrees to broach the subject with her. Officials with the team express concerns over the publicity such a move might bring, but Ned argues that his position on the team will only become more visible as time goes on, and Charlotte can be counted upon to be discrete, especially if she’s respected throughout the process. Acknowledging this, the team gives him leave to quietly pursue the matter.
Ned leaves it up to Lindsay to approach Charlotte with the idea, since the two of them get along a bit better than he and Charlotte do. As it turns out, Deanna Savage, the mother of the family Charlotte’s living with is a social worker in Gwinnett County, and is well-acquainted with the process. Charlotte arranges a meeting with Deanna where she and the Branches discuss the matter in more detail. During the meeting, Ned mentions the idea of a paternity test, and Deanna agrees it would help establish Ned’s role as the father. While she doesn’t totally feel it’s necessary, Charlotte agrees to it, as well as amending Ishmael’s birth certificate to add Ned and to change Ishmael’s name to Branch. Deanna recommends several attorneys who specialize in such cases. After some discussion, everyone agrees Izzy’s name will become Edward Ishmael Sanger Branch.
Before any of this can take place, Lindsay goes into labor, and delivers a healthy baby boy, who she and Ned name John Isaac, though, from the start, they nickname him “Ike”. Izzy is thrilled to have a baby brother. Ned’s family is disappointed the child isn’t named after his father, but otherwise welcomes his arrival. Shortly after Ike’s birth, Charlotte receives the results of the test, which yield no surprises, and Ned completes the Paternity Acknowledgment form, has it notarized, and sends it off to Vital Records. Over the next several years, Ned and Lindsay have two daughters, Ansley Mae, and Emily Kaitlyn.
A year and a half into his contract, Ned, who’s being considered for a trade to Buffalo, gets his first and only start, in an away game against the Dolphins in Miami. He leads the team to a respectable 24-20 score, but in the final drive of the game, he gets tackled hard by a defensive end, just as he’s completed a long pass for a touchdown. The momentum of the opposing player, along with the angle Ned hits the ground, combine to give him a serious head and neck injury, which proves to be career-ending. Fortunately, Lindsay had the foresight to insure Ned has good personal injury coverage, over and above what the league provides, plus she’s been very prudent in investing his guaranteed earnings, which are considerable. As his rehabilitation begins, wheels start turning behind the scenes to capitalize on his popularity in the community. Officials with both political parties send out feelers to gauge his interest in running for local or county office. At no point is mention made of Ishmael’s existence.
“Your grades are exceptional, your MCAT was in the top percentile, and you have professional experience in a clinic, not to mention your extracurricular activities. It might not seem like editing a book or playing music would matter for medical school, but it shows you’re a well-rounded individual and that you can multitask.”
“Great. How do I handle the interviews?”
“Be yourself. They want to get to know you. In my experience, they were more like conversations than straight Q&A sessions but it differs from school to school and between interviewers. They have certain things they want to know, but they’re more interested in how you conduct yourself, how you’ll fit in and adapt, how you perform under stress.” He leans forward and rubs her shoulder. “Don’t worry. They’re going to love you.”
Since she’s local, Abigail arranges to stay at Leah’s the two days she’s to be at Emory so she can better utilize public transportation. She hasn’t yet told her mother because Rhiannon is coming to town in early-November, and Abigail wants to tell her in person. Rhiannon has stated she wants to meet all the friends and family Abigail has connected with in the short time she’s been in town. Winn and Roger insist on hosting another party for them. Abigail requests that Rachel and Claire be included on the guest list as well as Gloria. Genevieve requests that Steven be added.
In the meantime, Abigail, Genevieve, and Gloria continue to gather and edit Rebecca’s blog entries. Genevieve has noted several themes in Rebecca’s writing and proposes grouping them together accordingly which meets with the approval of the others. At length, they weed it down to fifty articles from which to choose, several of which are multi-part posts which they combine into single essays. They meet at Leah’s to hammer out the final selection and the ordering and to finalize a rough draft — Abigail feels they should be grouped by publication date, whereas Genevieve believes they should be grouped by theme. Gloria proposes a compromise, grouping them thematically, but ordering them by date, to which the cousins agree. At length, they settle on twenty-four articles for the first collection. Once the final rough draft is done, Gloria volunteers to work through it, editing for grammar, punctuation, and continuity, with Genevieve backing her up. For a title, they agree to use the name of Rebecca’s blog, The Frantic Feminist.
Rhiannon arrives November 3 for a week-long stay, and books a room at the Hyatt Regency downtown where her conference will be. Abigail meets her there, and over dinner at the Polaris, the blue domed restaurant at the top of the Hyatt, she tells her mother about her interview with Emory.
“I am so proud of you, kiddo,” Rhiannon says, putting her arm around Abigail and giving her a squeeze.
“Don’t you think I’m a little too old for you to call me that now?”
“Okay, how about Dr. Kiddo, then?”
Abigail spends the night in her mother’s hotel room, catching up on news of her grandmother, and friends from Seattle. The following evening they have dinner with Genevieve and Leah, and the evening is spent trading stories about Rosalind. Leah’s easily rival those of Rhiannon. Genevieve shares a few, but mostly listens.
Abigail is surprised to learn of the educational resources available through her company. When she mentions to her supervisor that she hopes to attend medical school, she’s pointed to a host of programs Bickering Plummet provides to employees who want to pursue higher degrees. Since Abigail’s focus is on becoming a researcher rather than a practicing physician, that’s viewed as a potential asset to the company, and funds are available to assist. She begins to wonder if she’ll need the money Leah and Alyssa set aside for her.
“I’ve never had so many people who wanted to just give me money before,” she confides in Rhiannon. “Plus Emory offers scholarships.”
“You’re worth it,” her mother says. “If you don’t think so, it’s time to start.”
At the party, Rhiannon hits it off with Winn, Roger, and the Caines, who bring the baby. Leah Naomi quickly becomes the center of attention for the other guests, everyone wanting to have a turn holding her, or fawning over her. Abigail is happy to see Gloria seems to fit in with everyone, especially her mother. Rhiannon is happy to see Rachal again, and Claire seems to hit it off with Roger and Winn, spending much of her time talking to them. When she’s introduced to Genevieve, and hears how she came into being, Claire takes an extreme interest in the process. Leah and Genevieve give her a brief overview, explaining about the remaining embryos. This sends Claire back to talk to Winn about a confidential matter. Neil and Zoë are there and Neil teases Winn about the circumstances of Leah Naomi’s birth. Winn takes it in stride. “You did good little brother.”
By mid-December, Abigail, Genevieve, and Gloria have settled on a final manuscript of The Frantic Feminist, and print out copies for Steven, Rachel, Claire, Alyssa, and Leah to read over and offer comments. The final version contains twenty-four essays covering several of Rebecca’s favorite topics, including movies, music, relationships, and politics and is around two hundred pages. Steven is extremely happy with the manuscript, and treats the trio to dinner at a nice restaurant. Claire requests that several references to “the girlfriend” be altered, as she feels they too closely identify her, and Genevieve, who has come to know Rebecca’s writing the best, undertakes the assignment. Everyone else responds positively, including Tim, who’s read Alyssa’s copy. Satisfied, Abigail contacts the literary agent who knew Rebecca, who requests a full copy of the manuscript.
As January rolls around, Abigail becomes more anxious about her interviews, despite reassurances from everyone she knows. Rhiannon tells her during one of their regular phone calls that she wants to know immediately how Abigail feels she did. The night before, Leah takes her and Genevieve out for dinner and a musical event at the Rialto downtown to help get her mind off things.
The following morning, Abigail heads to Emory’s campus where she spends the next two days in a whirlwind of activity, meeting faculty and students, discussing her goals, interviewing for two concentrations, and hopefully making a good impression. She befriends several other prospective students including a guy from Oklahoma, a woman from Kenya, and a married couple from Columbia, and they all hang out between scheduled events. When it’s all done, she heads back to John’s Creek to assess all that went on and begin the process of worrying again.
Fortunately, she has her music to distract her. She and Gloria have been writing songs and playing at open mic nights as Worthy Savage and have been getting much positive input. She especially likes it when they’re on the bill with Neil’s band, who, with the core of Neil, Zoë, and Genevieve, have undergone a number of personnel and name changes. Recently they’ve been going by Kneel, suggested by Zoë to placate her boyfriend over the fact that she and Genevieve get most of the attention. Neil doesn’t seem fazed, though, as he’s integrated himself into a group of musicians who perform jams around town, playing covers of classic bands like The Stones or Steely Dan, and genres like Prog or Country Rock.
Abigail receives notice in mid-February that she’s been accepted for matriculation at Emory, and is invited back for a revisit in March. At about the same time, she hears from Rebecca’s friend who tells her a publisher is very interested in The Frantic Feminist. She and Steven meet to discuss how they’ll proceed. Since he doesn’t have a background in literary contract negotiations, he arranges a meeting with a colleague who does. After a few meetings with the agent and publisher’s representatives, they agree on terms, and a timeline for publication. Separately, Steven and Abigail agree on the percentage she and the others will receive on any royalties or other profits the book earns, and the terms meet with the approval of Genevieve and Gloria. The remainder will go into a separate account which Steven plans to use for philanthropic endeavors in Rebecca’s name.
At her revisit with Emory in March, Abigail makes her final decision to attend. She’s happy to see a couple of friends she met during interviews are there as well. When the session is over, she gets a packet containing the form she needs to return once she’s made her decision.
“Can I just fill it out and give it to you now?”
With that, she completes all the requirements for admission. As she heads home on MARTA, she finally sits back and allows herself to relax. She has no idea what the future holds, but for once, she’s confident she’ll be ready.
Note: This concludes the serialized episodes of Worthy. Please use the link in the blog’s header to catch up on previous sections. I’m hoping to have the editing completed before Summer. Keep an eye out for the finished book.
To fill her free time until she hears from Emory, Abigail volunteers to help Steven with a project. His sister, Rebecca, who died in a car crash in 2005, had a blog and published numerous articles in online publications around the region. Steven has wanted to compile them for publication, but has never had the time or know how in tracking down all Rebecca’s posts. A few years earlier, Leah managed to salvage a number of files from the hard drive of Rebecca’s laptop, which was severely damaged in the crash, and supplies Abigail with a CD of the text files she was able to save, and Steven has continued to pay the annual fees on Rebecca’s main blog account, so those posts are still there. For the rest, Abigail will need to mine the Internet. She employs Genevieve, who’s more than eager to assist, and whose research skills rival those of Abigail’s.
For background, Steven suggests that Abigail meet with Claire, who was dating Rebecca at the time of her death. Claire invites Abigail to meet her at a club where Claire works as a sound engineer one afternoon while she’s setting up and testing some new equipment. Abigail hopes to gain insight into Steven’s sister, but also has some curiosity about Claire and Rachel’s relationship.
“Steven said you and Rebecca had a rather contentious relationship.”
“That’s an understatement. He should know, though. He saw enough of it close up, poor guy.”
“Why’d you stay together?”
“Rachel’s always saying I’m drawn to lost causes. Becky was certainly that. She was so out of control when I first got to know her, I was afraid she’d harm herself if I left.”
“That sounds serious.”
“I guess the psychologists would say it played on my need to save someone.”
“What finally happened between you?”
“After she settled down, we both started to lose interest, but she got killed before we could resolve anything.”
“Steven told me you didn’t date for a while.”
“I don’t date now. Steven used to attribute the tendency to my relationship with Becky, but the truth is I just don’t like to date. It’s certainly not for lack of offers. Some of the women who hit on me are more aggressive than some of the men. Becky sure was.”
As they talk, Claire lets down her guard and her speech drifts from the indistinct Atlanta accent she’s developed back into more of a slow drawl common to middle Georgia where she’s from.
“Becky liked being with other women. She thought she was hiding it from me but she wasn’t very subtle about it.”
“I’m guessing that was a problem.”
“Sometimes. I kinda understood it though. They gave her something I never would.”
“You’re telling me you and Rebecca never had sex?”
“I only had sex one time in my life and that was forced on me. If it ever happens again it’s going to be my choice.”
Abigail lets the topic drop, not wanting to pry too much into Claire’s private history. Instead, she decides to ask about Rachel.
“Would you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Ask. I’ll let you know if I mind.”
“Are you in love with Rachel?”
“I love her and I’d do anything for her because she’s the kind of woman I’d be if I could.”
“But you’re not together. At least, not a couple.”
“That’s her decision and I understand her reasons but it’s not for me to say what those are. I care enough for her to honor her decision.”
“She cares about you, that’s obvious.”
“Lost causes. It’s enough for me to be near her.”
“You don’t identify as a lesbian.”
“What does that even mean? The man I grew up thinking was my father thought I was just because I had a good friend when I was in school. We weren’t doing anything and I didn’t even think of her that way. He just looked at us with his twisted and perverted mind and decided he had to stop it. I don’t even ask myself that question anymore because he and my mother beat any curiosity I might have had out of me when I was sixteen.”
“You don’t have to—”
“No, that’s all right. Leah and Rachel helped me to see that I don’t have anything to be ashamed of. All I can tell you is I don’t like men, but I got a lot of good reasons that don’t have anything to do with that. Maybe if I’d stayed home, didn’t have so much trouble with my family, I might have met some guy, got married and settled down. That’s what was expected of me and I didn’t have reason to question it.”
She turns so she’s facing Abigail.
“When I first came to Atlanta, I got a job as a waitress and when I was old enough I worked in bars. Guys there would hit on me all the time and I hated it. Not just their words but the way they’d look at me. Even when I wasn’t dressed sexy, they’d stare like hungry animals. It’s why I started bartending in gay clubs, because the men there left me alone. With the exception of Steven Asher, almost every decent man I’ve ever known has been gay. I can be any way I want in front of them and they don’t care; they just accept me or ignore me.”
“I can understand that.”
“I am who I am because of the circumstances of my life. Rachel accepts that. Becky never could. You ask me if I’m in love with Rachel. How could I not be?”
They talk for another fifteen or twenty minutes and when they conclude the interview, Abigail gives Claire a long hug. “Take care of yourself, Claire.”
Abigail ends her day back at her room at the Caines’ with Gloria, discussing their favorite topic.
“We can always get married in Seattle,” Gloria says.
“But your family’s here. Mine is mostly here now, except for Mom, and I don’t think she’d have a problem traveling. Even if we get married there, it won’t be recognized here.”
“Think we’ll ever be able to get married in Georgia?” Gloria says.
“Maybe. Probably not for a long time, though.” She lies back and leans against Gloria. “Just one thing. If we decide to hyphenate our names, yours should come first.”
“Why do you say that?”
With a laugh, Abigail says, “Otherwise, we’d be Worthy Savages.”
Gloria thinks about it, then they both burst into laughter.
“Hey, that would be a great name for our act, though,” Gloria says. “Worthy Savage.”
Abigail considers it. “You’re right.” She sits up in bed. “I think before we talk about marriage, we should at least have our own place. As accommodating as Alyssa and Tim are, I know they want to raise a family of their own.”
“Agreed. House or condo?”
“Condo. Who wants to cut the grass.”
“I don’t know. I kind of like working outside. Having a garden would be nice.”
“There you go, then. That’s the issue that finally comes between us.”
Gloria swats her with a pillow. “Considering we’re nowhere near affording a studio apartment in Atlanta, we have quite a while before we need to decide on long-term accommodations. I’ll wear you down.”
“Something to look forward to.”
“How’s the project coming along.”
“Steven thinks his sister wrote enough for a book, but honestly, I think there’s too much for one book. She published an original blog post once a day for nearly two years, plus she published weekly in five or six local publications for more than a year. For all her faults, being diligent in her writing wasn’t one of them. On top of that, Steven says she kept a diary for as long as he can remember.”
“Need any help?”
“Yes. Genni’s helping me compile things and she’s a decent writer and editor, but she’s taking classes now so her time’s limited.”
“Put me in, coach. I edited my campus newspaper in college, and I know my way around a computer. You can attest to my literary skills.”
“Welcome aboard, then. What do you know about this Cloud stuff?”
“Quite a bit. They’re using it at the hospital.”
“Wonderful. We can set up some type of collaborative effort with Genni.” She sits up. “I heard from one of Rebecca’s former friends who’s an agent. When she found out I was working on this, she asked me to send her a sample chapter when it was ready. Turns out she was talking to Rebecca about it before she died and knew a publisher who was interested.”
“That’s a good start. Show me what you have so far.”
They move to the computer and start reviewing files.
It takes Abigail a little over a week to arrange an outing including Genevieve, Neil, and others in the band for Gloria to meet them. They’re playing at an open mic competition at a club in Norcross, not far from where Gloria lives, and this time, Abigail insists on picking her up. She and Gloria also have a surprise for the others, since they’ve been playing and writing songs together for several days. They’ll also be competing in the open mic as a duo.
“I can’t explain it,” Abigail tells Genevieve in a phone call, “the moment we met, I felt a connection. Ever since, we’ve just gotten closer.”
“I’m glad to hear you’ve found someone. I’m always worried you’re too driven to have a personal life. The band is the only thing you’ve done for relaxation.”
“I like to work. Sue me.”
“By the way, I may have convinced Steven to come to the show.”
“How did you manage that?”
“He was at the office the other day and I played him an MP3 from our last show.”
“And he wasn’t just saying he’d be there to get you to stop bugging him?”
“No. He sounded genuinely interested. But, he might bring a date.”
“You know, if you looked around, you could probably find some geeky guy at Tech you’d have a better shot with.”
“Yes. I know. Leah says the same thing.”
“Well, maybe you should listen to her. She knows Steven better than you do.”
“And she says he’s not looking for a long-term relationship currently.”
“Why does that encourage you?”
“Because I’m not either. Hopefully, by the time I am, he’ll be.”
“Sounds like a long shot.”
“Sort of like coming all the way to Atlanta and having a medical recruiter introduce you to the love of your life?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
On the night of the show, Neil reserves a block of tables for the crowd they expect. He and Zoë get there first, followed soon after by Genevieve, Abigail, and Gloria. Abigail makes the introductions and everyone welcomes Gloria. They head over to the tables while Genevieve waits in front for stragglers.
Steven arrives with an attractive woman who appears to be of South American descent. He introduces her as Matilda Alavares, a public defender for Fulton County. As they’re shaking hands, Genevieve says something to her in Spanish. Matilda, a bit surprised, replies in Spanish, and she and Genevieve have a brief conversation, mainly relating to family origins.
“My friends call me Mattie,” she tells Genevieve.
Genevieve leads them to the tables the band has reserved.
“Is Leah coming?” Neil asks.
“No, she has plans with her college friend,” Genevieve says.
“You’re the one who delivered Alyssa’s and Tim’s daughter, aren’t you?” Steven asks Neil.
“Yep, that’s me,” Neil says.
“Oh, I have got to hear about this,” Matilda says. “Someone in the office was talking about it when it happened.”
Neil and Abigail tell them the story.
The band is scheduled to go on toward the middle of the show, which gives them time to get acquainted. Abigail is pleased to see Gloria seems to fit in well. Matilda recognizes her from a poetry slam a few months ago in Decatur.
“I think I should let everyone know why I can’t play tonight,” Abigail says.
“Yeah. I was wondering about that,” Neil says. “Hang on. I saw a group in the lineup called Ab & Glo.”
“That’s us,” Gloria says. “We’ve written a few numbers we’d like to try out.”
“You’re stealing her away from us already,” Neil says, shaking his finger at Gloria.
“Does that make me Yoko?” Gloria says.
Neil considers it. “No. If you’re Yoko, then I can’t be John Lennon. You can be Linda Eastman.”
“What’s the big deal?” Genevieve says. “I can play everything Abby can.”
“That’s true,” Zoë says. “And I can play just about everything else.”
“Stop,” Neil says, holding up his hands. “You’re not kicking me out of my own band.”
“What’s up with Freddy, by the way?” Abigail says.
“Annie insisted he return to Portland,” Zoë says. “She gave him an ultimatum; either he comes back or she’s going to drive his Mustang off a cliff.”
“Okay.” Abigail shakes her head. “I thought they were in therapy.”
“It actually seems to be working,” Neil says. “Before she’d have just done it.”
The show runner signals to Neil to get ready.
“That’s us,” he says. To Abigail he says, “Hope you brought your A game, sis. We’ll be hard to beat.”
“You’re playing one of my songs,” Abigail replies.
“Then we’ve got this in the bag,” Neil says over his shoulder.
With Freddy absent, Neil takes the drumming duties, while Genevieve and Sarah team up on vocals. They do an Abigail original and a Neil and Zoë collaboration. Each group gets two songs, and if the audience likes them enough to make the final three, they get another song. The band’s set is very well received.
There are two acts between them and Ab & Glo, and while the second group is finishing their first song, Abigail gets the nod from the show runner.
Their set consists of two collaborations, combining alluring harmonies with complex guitar work, which also has the crowd on their feet. Neither group is surprised when they both get called back for the final three. The crowd seems to respond to the trio a bit more, so they end up in first place with Abigail and Gloria second. Still, they regard the evening as a success.
“So, what did you two think?” Genevieve asks Steven and Matilda.
“I had a great time,” Matilda says.
“Same here,” Steven echoes. “You’re very talented, Genevieve.”
Genevieve later confides to Abigail that she also regards the evening as a success.
The office where Abigail will be working is in Chamblee, but for her initial orientation phase, she’s stationed at the main office downtown for several days, until all her paperwork goes through. There, she takes all the required coursework, ethics, time charging, security awareness, and other topics, all designed to insure she’s acknowledged every rule and regulation and can begin her employment well informed. Since she’s still relatively new to town, it’s also recommended she sit in on the Atlanta newcomers orientation, which tells new hires how to navigate the city along with places of interest to check out. Leah has already supplied her with a similar list, which, she stated, are all the generic tourist spots which show up in every guide to the city and which should mostly be avoided.
On her first day with Bickering Plummet, Abigail learns of the odd reputation of its president, who everyone refers to as Mr. Bickering. It is said that those who address him otherwise run the risk of being “busted back to a banana” which is a common threat of his, with no explanation as to what that means. When she came to process in, while waiting for her supervisor to usher her into the restricted areas, Abigail noted an older gentleman seated in the lobby, just sort of hanging out. When she made eye contact with him, he gave her a friendly smile and nodded, with a pleasant, “Good morning.” She later learns that this is Mr. Bickering, who frequently hangs out in the lobby watching people come and go, until such time as he’s needed upstairs and someone goes to fetch him. Once she knows who he is, she sees him quite a bit, wandering around the floors, seemingly deep in thought. Sometimes, over the intercom, she’ll hear an announcement, “If anyone knows the whereabouts of Mr. Bickering, please call the front office.”
This afternoon, Genevieve is driving Abigail home so she can visit Alyssa, Tim, and the new baby. Abigail is expecting Genevieve around five, and she plans to be in the lobby in time to intercept her cousin to limit the time Genevieve spends at Bickering.
Around four-fifteen, her phone rings.
“Abigail Worthy, you have a visitor in the lobby.”
“A young woman who says she’s your cousin.”
“Genevieve? She’s not supposed to be here yet.”
Abigail hangs up and gathers her belongings, then hurries to the lobby to find her worst fears realized; Genevieve is seated, talking to Mr. Bickering. They appear to be having a nice conversation.
“When I was your age, I was working at Six Flags,” Mr. Bickering is saying as Abigail walks up. “I worked Rides.”
“That must have been fun,” Genevieve says.
“No, not really. I didn’t get along with anyone on the crew. They never let me operate the rides, just cleanup.” He notices Abigail. “Oh, hello, you must be Abby.”
He rises and offers his hand.
“Yes. Mr. Bickering. I am.”
“So nice to put a name with a face.” He indicates Genevieve. “I’ve been having a lovely chat with your cousin.”
“I see that. What are you talking about?”
“Mr. Bickering was telling me about some of the places he’s worked.”
“Oh yes,” he says. “Mostly my employment history is somewhat boring — various family endeavors — but once, I struck out on my own and worked at Six Flags.”
“Interesting,” Abigail says.
“I was so surprised when Genevieve walked in. I haven’t seen her since she gave that remarkable speech at her school in Seattle.”
“You remember that?” Abigail asks.
“Oh, indeed. It was one of the best student presentations I’ve heard.”
“I’ve never understood why you liked it so much,” Genevieve says. “I really trashed your company. All your handlers were totally pissed off.”
“Young lady, nothing you said in that essay was untrue. Your talk was well-researched, well-prepared, well-written, and very well delivered. It took a lot of courage to stand on that stage and give that speech especially with me sitting right behind you. I hear a lot of student speeches that sound like they were written with faculty advisers reading over their shoulders, but you spoke your mind, and I was very impressed.”
“Thanks,” Genevieve says. She looks at Abigail. “Would you mind taking a picture of us, Abby?” She looks back to Mr. Bickering. “I’d sort of like to make up for the one I took at school.”
“Sure,” Abigail says and takes out her phone.
Genevieve and Mr. Bickering pose with their arms around one another and with big smiles.
“Please send me a copy as well,” Mr. Bickering says.
“I will, just as soon as I’m set up on email,” Abigail replies.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’m supposed to be in a meeting now.”
Genevieve watches as he boards the elevator. “How can such a sweet man be in charge of such a rotten company?”
“Seriously, Genni, a lot of what Bickering does is very beneficial.”
“Yeah, that’s what I hear. A lot of it isn’t.”
Abigail says, “Even though you’re early, I’m ready.”
She and Genevieve head out to the parking lot.