The Pen Name

Geonn Cannon


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Copyright © 2011 Geonn Cannon. All rights reserved.



"This is Christmas. The season of perpetual hope."


Alice Berg stubbed out her cigarette on the stone next to the door and glared at Ruth. Ruth finally smiled and shrugged. "Okay, maybe that's a little too cheery. But things could be worse. Look at the bright side. It's a paying job."


"I'm a lapsed Jew being asked to write a Christmas story."


"Maybe you should have used a Jewish name when you started selling your scripts."


Alice rolled her eyes. "Right. If I did that I might as well have just used my own name."


She brought her hand to her mouth before she remembered her cigarette was gone. She looked with longing at the smudge of ash on the stone and tucked her gloved hands under her arms to warm them. Ruth didn't seem to be cold, and Alice hated her for it. Growing up her nickname had been Alice Berg the Iceberg because she was always freezing. Now it was appropriate because she of her supposedly aloof attitude. Just because she didn't want to stop and hear the life story of every single person in her apartment building...


Ruth Rhoades, assistant extraordinaire, was the only contact she needed. Ruth brought her the mail and memos from the radio station management. The latest one revealed that the management of WSPR Radio, in their infinite wisdom, wanted her to write something special for their 1934 Christmas Extravaganza. On Christmas Eve, it would be performed live in-studio between performances of Christmas hymns and recitations of heartwarming holiday tales.


"Just cadge from Dickens. Honestly, most of the dramas I listened to last year were just reworks of Mr. Scrooge's story anyway."


"How could I possibly take pride in my work if I just stole from someone else? If I ever get that lazy, I want you to take a hammer to my typewriter."


Ruth smiled. "You? Lazy? Perish the thought." She tugged at the collar of her coat. "If you're not gonna smoke, maybe we should go back inside."


Alice considered lighting another cigarette, but she could see that even the intrepid Ruth was starting to go pink in the cheeks and took pity. "All right, back to the grind."


They stopped inside the door just long enough to divest themselves of their coats and scarves before they went upstairs. Alice's office was little more than a reconverted third of an attic apartment. The roof sloped dangerously overhead, stopping just above the half-moon window that dominated the south wall. The small desk next to the door was Ruth's domain, currently stacked with mail and memos and newsletters and whatever other detritus stacked up during the day.


Alice's roll top desk was across the room, positioned so that its tall back blocked her from sight when she was at work. She went into the small sliver of her workspace and pulled her chair out. A stack of paper stood next to the typewriter, weighted down by a piece of lava rock from Hawaii. She moved the rock aside and picked up the last page she'd written.


The thrilling adventures of Dirk Lincoln and his sidekick, Rusty. At the end of this latest adventure, the intrepid explorers were left teetering on a cliff face with an entire tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals closing in on them. The last line of the installment went to Dirk, and she could hear Reed Powers' deep bass voice saying it. "Don't worry, Rusty. With my manners, no one's ever wanted to have me for dinner!"


She had enough of Dirk Lincoln's adventures that she didn't have to come up with a solution until late January. Or rather Arthur B. Campbell had a month to come up with it. She scratched her eyebrow and put the last page of the script back on the stack. The Christmas deadline loomed. The radio station wanted a script in hand in time to give their actors two weeks of rehearsal. That meant she needed to get started P.D.Q.


Ruth appeared at the side of the desk. "I didn't hear clacking, so I thought you might need some inspiration." She held out three envelopes. "Fan mail for you."


"Fan mail for Arthur."


Ruth rolled her eyes. "Arthur doesn't exist. These people sat down and wrote letters because of what you wrote. Doesn't matter a lick that they call you Mr. Campbell."


"Maybe not to you." She suddenly wanted another cigarette and damn the cold. She took the letters and Ruth disappeared back to her domain.


She liked to make a fuss and stamp her feet around, but she really did enjoy the fan mail despite the fact it was addressed to her pseudonym. It didn't matter who the audience thought they were praising. The work belonged all to her, so she might as well enjoy the response.


"Deer Mr Arthur Campell," was written in crayon, and Alice could already feel her mood lifting. "My mother tole me to right to you and tell you what I tole her last week. I rily like Dirk Linkin and I hope that he gets away frum those Japs quick! Rusty is good to but I think Dirk is the coolist ever. Do you go on avenchures, too? I bet it wood be fun! Let me no if you need a sidekick like Rusty becos I have a b-b gun and mom says I cant use it exept on avenchures."


It was signed, "Ur frend, Michael David Ellis."


She took a piece of tape off the roll she kept in her drawer and displayed the note on the side of the desk. It joined the other missives she'd saved over the years, like the crayon drawings of Dirk and Rusty and a letter of thanks from someone in the hospital who thanked her for creating a world beyond the little slice of it she could see through her window. They may be thanking Arthur, but Dirk wouldn't exist without Alice.


People on the street would never assume she was responsible for the rip-roaring action stories they heard every week on The Whisper. She was just a touch under five-four, with hair that was either russet or mahogany depending on the light. She had a splash of freckles across the bridge of her nose and big blue eyes that she felt made her look like a little girl begging for a cookie.


WSPR's programming manager was bright enough to recognize the quality of her writing, but he knew that using her real name would never fly. She didn't put up a fuss, since she'd been told from the beginning she was never going to get a job at all. Just to get paid for what she loved was a victory.


She read the second letter - a reverend who said he truly enjoyed the show but thought perhaps the violence might be a bit over the top - and put it aside. She was always open to criticism. Maybe Dirk and Rusty could get away from the cannibals by reasoning with them. She was still chuckling over the idea of a diplomatic treaty between explorer Dirk Lincoln and a tribe of man-eating natives when she began reading the final letter. Her smile quickly faded and she started over again so she could really focus on what was being said.


"Mr. Campbell, I told myself over and over again that I wasn't going to write this letter, but I finally got around to it. Whether I'll actually slap a stamp on the face and send it in is a whole different story. I don't know why I'm making it such a big deal. Out of the thousands of letters you get, I doubt you'll even take much note of this one. So why not say what I have to say and get it off my chest and you'll never be the wiser whether I send it in or not.


"I believe I may be falling in love with you. It sounds ridiculous, I know. Even as I write it, I'm laughing at how foolish I must sound. But every week I sit down and I listen to your program and it fills me with such awe at how talented you must be. There's something about your stories that the other dramas don't have. I wish I could put my finger on it. I stopped listening for the plots a long time ago, even though they really are wonderful! I've started listening for the little pieces of yourself you put into the stories.


"You give away a lot sometimes. Did you know that? I've noticed the patterns. You get angry at injustices, and you believe everyone deserves a chance to make good in their life whether they're a man, a woman, or colored. The way you sometimes write Dirk and Rusty as a father and son, taking care to address the emotion of the moment, shows that you're a tender man. It's almost like listening for a single instrument in an orchestra. It can be hard to separate, but once you've heard it, it's hard to stop, do you know what I mean?


"Well, I think I've suitably humiliated myself enough. I truly hope you don't read these letters or else I'll be very red-faced. If you do, I thank you for your time and I assure you that I won't bother you with future notes.


"It's out of my hands, as it were!


"Ms. Julia M. Hull."


Alice picked up the envelope after the third re-read. Julia M. Hull lived in Brooklyn, just a short walk from the office. She could have hand-delivered the letter if she'd had a mind to. And, of course, if she could work up the courage. It seemed like she needed to put the responsibility of delivering it on the shoulders of the United States Postal Service.


"Ruthie? Do you know when the Julia Hull letter came in?"


She heard Ruth's soft footsteps crossing the cramped office and then she poked her head around the side of the desk to see the envelope. "Uh, I think it was Monday morning. Was it something good?"


"I don't know." She handed the letter over and reclined in her chair, one leg crossed over the other as she watched Ruth read. Ruth started out with a perplexed look that quickly spread into a smile. She arched a dark eyebrow and looked at Alice again. "Someone's got a secret admirer. Well. Maybe not so secret. Did she seal it with a kiss?"


"Hush. I can't let this poor woman go fawning all over someone who doesn't exist. I gotta tell her the truth."


"You sure?"


"Of course I'm sure." She took the letter back. "It took a lot of courage to write that letter. What if one day she gathers up her courage to come down to the station and meet him in person? She'd be crushed if she found out that way. Tellin' her now is the right thing to do."


Ruth shrugged and leaned against the side of the desk. "But what if she blabs?"


"If she's as big a fan as she claims, she'll understand the importance of keeping mum. And if not..." She looked at the scripts on her desk. "If not, maybe I'll let the cannibals eat Rusty."


Ruth wrinkled her nose. "Good. I can't stand the little pipsqueak that plays him. Last week when I dropped off the revisions, he pinched my tushie."


Alice stifled a laugh as she went back over the note. It hadn't been sealed with a kiss, but she brought it up to her nose to see if she could smell any perfume. It was three days since it arrived, not to mention how long it had probably lingered at the post office and in transit. Any scent would have been long ago faded, but she thought maybe she could smell something. Maybe. She folded the paper and tucked it under the corner of her typewriter.


The notes from kids could be put on display for everyone to see, but this one was just for her. She tugged at her collar, self-conscious, and rolled a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter. She made a fist with her right hand and massaged the fingers with her left hand. Then she reversed it and shook her fingers out until they felt nice and limber.


She didn't make a plan and she didn't have a plot or even characters in mind when she began typing. The typebars rose to strike the platen and a title appeared:






At the end of the day, she had a good portion of the script finished and took a few minutes to draft a letter to Julia M. Hull of Brooklyn. "Dear Ms. Hull. Thank you very much for your kind letter. I'm honored that you've enjoyed my writing so much and your letter was certainly a joy to read. Unfortunately, there's something I feel I should come clean about. Arthur Campbell is a pseudonym I use in order to disguise my true identity. The fact is, the Dirk Lincoln stories are penned by a thirty two year old Jewish woman who barely comes up to the shoulder of most men. I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but I didn't feel right letting you carry a torch for someone who doesn't exist. I hope this doesn't affect your enjoyment of the program, and hopefully we can just keep this information between the two of us! I wouldn't mind getting credit for my own work, but my bosses would prefer to maintain the illusion as long as they can."


She signed it and stared at it for a long moment before removing the paper from the carriage. She blew on the ink to dry it, a habit she didn't even realize she did anymore, and folded the paper thrice before sticking it into an envelope. She carefully copied the address from the original envelope, wet the glue with a sponge she kept nearby, and rounded the corner of the desk.


Ruth looked up from her correspondence and smiled. "How's the Christmas play coming?"


"It's coming along. Schmaltzy family drama and a comedy of errors."


"Well, that sounds fine. But just remember WSPR's one rule about their holiday fare: Keep it holy. The manager is a Methodist, so you gotta remember the reason for the season."


"Baby Jesus, manger, and so forth, yes yes." She put on her cloche hat and wriggled her fingers into her white wool gloves. "Do we have any stamps? I thought I'd drop this letter in a box on my way home."


Ruth pursed her lips. "Oh, shoot." She opened the top drawer of her desk and shook her head. "We're all out, hon. I meant to get a book of them yesterday and just plumb forgot."


"That's okay." She looked at the address again. It was awfully close by. She put on her jacket and tugged the collar closed. "You know what, I think I'll just walk it over. No need to waste the post office's time. It's almost five, why don't you call it a day and save the rest of that for tomorrow?"


Ruth shot up from her chair like someone had hit the ejector button. "Well, twist my arm."


They dressed for the cold and walked out of the building together, parting ways at the bottom of the stairs so that Alice could make her way to 174 Cumberland Street. She calculated the fastest way home and decided she would splurge on bus fare. There was a stop near the park, and it would actually get her home faster than if she had walked straight from the office. She double-checked the apartment number and quickened her step.


174 Cumberland was a stately brownstone with a few plants making a valiant effort to survive the chill, a few red and gold leaves trembling on branches that were otherwise bare. Alice started up the steps just as the door opened. The woman stepped out and spun with the grace of a dancer, tugging the doorknob twice to make sure it had stuck before she started down the steps. Alice had to retreat down one stair before the woman realized she wasn't alone.


"Oh! I'm sorry. I nearly ran you right over. Are you all right?"


"I'm fine." The woman's eyes were so blue it seemed as if they had instantly frozen in contact with the air. She had a hat pulled down to her eyebrows, but long strands of wavy blonde hair stretched out past her face and came to rest on her shoulders. Alice was flustered as she always became in the presence of women so much more attractive than she was. "I'm just visiting someone here in the building."


"Oh? Most people are still at work right now. Who is it you're looking for?"


"Julia M. Hull?"


Ice eyes widened and ruby lips spread in happy surprise. "Well, aren't you the lucky one? I'm Julia M. Hull! How can I help you?"


Alice was stymied. She looked at the envelope in her hands and then, without much aforethought, folded it in half. "I am... from... the offices of Arthur Campbell, Ms. Hull, and he wanted to thank you very much for your letter."


Julia's cheeks flushed bright pink. "My stars. I never thought he'd send anyone down in person. I just... oh, heavens. You must think I'm a fine fool."


"I don't think anything of the sort. I thought your letter was very, very sweet. I wanted to... thank you in person for sending it."


"Mr. Campbell didn't send you?"


"No. Uh, in fact, he doesn't even know I came here. He was very embarrassed. He's a mite shy."


Julia smiled. "Those sensitive artist types, right?"


"That's it exactly." She realized that Julia was rubbing her palms together. "My goodness, you must be freezing. I should let you get on with what you were gonna do. I just wanted to say thank you on Mr. Campbell's behalf."


"I'm just relieved you both don't think I made a fool of myself."


Alice shook her head. "Not at all. Um, I'm Alice by the way. Alice Berg."


"Pleasure to meet you."


Alice pulled off her right glove, and Julia did the same. They shook hands and, despite the fact that Julia's fingers were icicles, her palm was a spot of warmth. An idea occurred to her then, and if it was less cold she might have wet her lips with a pass of her tongue before she spoke.


"Would you like to see where... he writes the stories?"




"The office where Mr. Campbell writes. I could, um, there are times when he's out, so he'd never have to know. And I could take you to the radio station. You could see the studio. Maybe even meet the actors. I know Reed Powers loves meeting fans." Particularly the blonde comely ones.


Julia's eyes were wide with disbelief. "Oh, my goodness, I could never impose like that! I don't even know what to say. You're so generous, Ms. Berg. Thank you, yes, I would very much enjoy that. Thank you."


"Is Monday good for you? Say noon? Perhaps we could do a quick tour and then have some lunch." She began digging in her purse for a card with the address of the office.


"Well, I think that would be lovely. Do you think maybe I could eventually meet Mr. Campbell?"


Alice hesitated. Wasn't the whole point of this excursion to free this poor woman of her artificial crush? "Maybe. But... he'd have to be prepared. It could take some time. He's shy, and you were awful, um... emotional in your letter." Julia smiled and ducked her head. "He was touched, but meeting you might be a touch awkward, you know?"


"Sure. I understand." She was still smiling. "Thank you so much. I never thought I'd get a reply, let alone this."


"It's my pleasure, Ms. Hull."




"Then I must be Alice. I'll let you get on with whatever you were doing before I interrupted you." She stepped aside and let Julia join her on the sidewalk. "It truly was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Hull. Julia."


"And you, Alice. I'm fortunate Mr. Campbell has someone like you working for him. I'll see you on Monday."


Alice could only nod. She watched as Julia walked away and then, mindful of the bus route, turned and walked in the opposite direction. She looked at the envelope that she'd crumpled into a ball of paper during the conversation and she shoved it into her pocket. Later she would wonder how differently things would have gone if she'd been five minutes earlier or later, or if Ruth had bought stamps, or if a thousand other things had happened instead of her having a conversation with a beautiful woman on a stone step.




On Thursday and Friday, Alice occupied her mind with the Meadow family and the curiously unsigned Christmas letter that caused so much strife during their annual get-together. By Friday afternoon she had finished most of the first two acts and all that remained was to resolve the ending. She wondered if it would offend Mr. Austin's Methodist sensibilities if the love letter was the work of the village reverend expressing his feelings for Mama Meadow's lonely mother. If so, she would have to concoct a new ending. She'd cross that bridge when it arrived.


She kept the script in a manila envelope on her desk and was determined to enjoy the weekend. She bid Ruth adieu - she frequently spent her weekends upstate with her beau - and took her time walking home. She spent the weekend safely indoors, watching sleet and snow from her window as she remained safe and warm. She did a few crosswords, read a novel, and tried not to think about the special guest she would have on Monday.


Before leaving work Friday afternoon, she told Ruth that she should take a long weekend to get some Christmas shopping done before the crowds hit. She thought it would be easier to cope without her than trying to explain Julia's visit. She stopped at Woolworth's to buy a jar of men's cologne. When she got to the office, she sprayed it into the small area behind the desk so Julia would at least smell a man.


She tried to do some work while she waited, but her heart wasn't in it. She kept seeing her fingernails and wondering if she should put some polish on. Julia would probably be wearing polish, and she would look drab by comparison. She was looking in Ruth's desk when there was a knock on the door. She gasped out of surprise and put a hand over her chest as she checked the clock. Time had dragged all morning; how could it be noon already?


She straightened her red blazer, suddenly certain she should have worn the blue one or maybe just a regular scoop-neck blouse, and made sure her collar was straight. She took a steadying breath and then opened the office door.


Julia showed her teeth when she smiled, eyebrows shooting up toward her hairline. "Hi. I'm early. I'm sorry. I thought I would pace in the lobby for a while but then--" She closed her eyes and took a sudden, sharp breath. "I'm sorry."


"Don't be. Come in. I was watching the clock anyway." She noticed her blunt, naked fingernails as she waved Julia inside. She tucked them against her palm and stepped aside. "Please come in."


Julia entered and ran her eyes along the steep angle of the roof, skimmed across the desk she thought belonged to Alice, and then focused on the desk. She pointed as if nervous the desk would see her. "Is that where--?"


"Mm hmm. Come on. It's okay." She hooked her arm around Julia's elbow, an excuse to have contact with her, and guided her around to the front of the workspace. Julia took a deep breath and released it slowly. "Go ahead. Have a seat."


"Oh, I couldn't! He'd know!"


"I won't tell him."


Julia braced herself and approached the small chair, nervously lowering herself into it. She smiled as she ran her eyes over the assortment of paper stacked on the desk. She lightly touched the lava rock, smiled at the coffee mug, and let her gaze linger on the letters stuck to the side of the desk's wall. She smiled when she saw her own letter.


"He hung it up."


"It meant a lot to him."


Julia glanced at her suddenly, and Alice was afraid her tone had given away the game. She smiled and shrugged. "I'd love it if... someone said something like that about my work."


"It's true. I listened to the first serial by accident but I just got so caught up. The characters mean so much more than the plot, but they make the plot more interesting. He makes you care about them." She ran her palm over the keys of the typewriter.


Alice saw the stacked script for The Christmas Letter. "Would you like to read something that hasn't been broadcast yet?"


Julia shot up out of the seat. "No! I couldn't possibly. That would be a step too far, I think."


Alice put a hand on Julia's arm. "It's fine. Honestly. He... he always says how he wishes he could get an outside opinion on a script before he had to turn it in. An unbiased review. And I think he would be really touched if, if, if that opinion came from someone who held his work in such esteem. I think he would trust you with it."


"Wow." Julia's voice was quiet, and she reverently put the lava rock aside and picked up the script. "But I can't do it in his chair. I mean, that's--"


"Sure, um." Alice turned and saw the window seat. "Here. There will be plenty of light, although it might be drafty."


"That would be perfect." She walked past Alice and perched on the edge of the cushion with the script held in both hands. "I can't thank you enough for this. It's like a dream."


Alice smiled. "It's my pleasure. Honestly." She almost sat down at her own desk, but knew the jig would be up. She walked to Ruth's desk and sat down in the uncomfortable seat, reluctant to adjust it for fear she wouldn't be able to get it back to the way Ruth preferred. She shuffled papers and read memos, doing some of Ruth's work just to have something to do.


Every now and then Julia would respond to something on the page. She would chuckle, or gasp, or she would whisper a response to something on the page. "Oh no!" or "She didn't!" or something else that made Alice smile. Once when Alice looked up, Julia had kicked off her flats and had both stocking feet tucked up under her buttocks. The pages she'd read were placed facedown on her lap. Alice looked away from the tranquil scene and tucked a loose curl behind her ear.


A few minutes later, she heard a quiet voice. "Do you know if there's a happy ending?"


Alice looked up. "Pardon?"


"I don't want to know the actual ending, I just... I want to know it's happy for everyone."


"Yes. There's a happy ending."


Julia looked relieved. "Good. Thank you." She looked back down and resumed reading, and Alice went back to sorting her own memos from the station.


Fifteen minutes later, Julia turned the last page and stacked the papers neatly once more. She tapped them against one shapely thigh to straighten them. Alice stood up to retrieve them, but Julia kept her head down and just stared at the first page. After a long moment, she looked up and Alice was shocked to see tears in her eyes.


"He's really amazing, isn't he? I mean, the emotion comes through in his Dirk Lincoln stories. But this is just... it's so emotional on the face of it. I'm, um, very glad I wasn't listening to this at work. I might have embarrassed myself a little bit." She touched the corner of each eye with her pinkie. "You've really made my day. I hope you don't get in trouble with your boss."


"No, I won't, I'm sure of it." Alice was speaking softly, blown away by Julia's reaction.


Julia looked toward the window. "I should probably leave soon. I've stayed a lot longer than I planned. Mr. Campbell could come back any moment and you'd sure get the worst of it."


Alice didn't have a response to that, although she tried like the dickens to think of one. "And you... probably have to get back to work before your lunch hour ends."


She glanced at the tiny watch face hanging off her wrist by a slender chain. "I believe that ship has sailed. But it was very worth it."


"You should have said something!" Alice was mortified. She'd been so focused on feeding her ego that she hadn't even considered Julia might need to have lunch. "Oh, my goodness, I should have offered you something to eat."


"You were the perfect hostess. I had a marvelous time. And I feel so selfish asking if we can meet up again--"


Alice pounced. "Yes. When? The studio tour I promised you... um... they usually shoot the shows on weekday afternoons. So you'd probably have to miss a little bit of work."


"No, I'm off on Wednesdays. That's how you caught me last week." She smiled again. "Could we do it this Wednesday? If you don't have to work, that is."


"I'll arrange something. And I'll make sure that Reed Powers is in the studio so you can meet him. Say the same time? Noon?"


"Yes!" Julia perked up, and then withdrew as if trying to hide her excitement. "Do you think... do you think Annabelle Cole will be there? I've always wanted to meet her. Ever since she played Bessie Alleyne in Seven Seas Scourge."


"I'll make certain of it."


She handed back the script. "Thank you for a really wonderful day, Alice."


"It was great for me, too."


And considering she hadn't written a single word, that she'd sat in an uncomfortable chair and basically did busywork when she could have been eating or catching up on replying to other fan mail, she was surprised to discover that she truly meant it.




Alice spent Tuesday deflecting Ruth's suspicion that something happened during her long weekend. Things in the office felt "amiss," and Alice was "all a-fluster." Alice called her a Nervous Nelly and waved off all of her questions. But she couldn't deny that she had all kinds of nervous energy. She stared at a blank sheet of paper for almost an hour before she remembered she had finished The Christmas Letter and she needed to be thinking of a solution to Dirk Lincoln's cannibal situation.


She imagined Julia tuning in, on the edge of her seat to hear the "exciting conclusion." She didn't care what the radio station thought or if all the other listeners were happy with how things wrapped up. She only cared about whether Julia would like it.


When she and Ruth left the office for the night, she'd only managed to write the opening teaser where the announcer would recap the events of the past story to refresh people's memories. She could almost imagine Dirk Lincoln standing on the cliff, hands on his hips, impatiently waiting for her to detail his awe-inspiring escape. When she dropped the cover over the typewriter, she actually whispered, "Sorry, Dirk. Maybe Thursday."


"Thursday?" Ruth inquired. Alice didn't realize she'd said it loud enough to be heard. "What's happening tomorrow?"


"Hum, I have something to do at the radio station. A tour."


Ruth appeared at the edge of the desk. "A tour?" Her nostrils flared and she looked at the wall above Alice's head as she breathed deeper. "Why's it smell like a man back here? You did have a suitor over yesterday, didn't ya?"


"No! I would never." She stood up and gathered her things so that Ruth wouldn't see her blushing. "I just... it..."


"What's wrong, Alice? You're not like yourself. Usually you're the Iceberg, but now it's like all your emotions are just happenin' all at once. I don't like it."


Alice smiled. "I'm fine." She put a hand on Ruth's arm and rubbed. "Thanks for looking out for me, though."


They walked out together, and Alice escorted Ruth to the bus stop. Ruth looked down the street and then met Alice's eye. "Just tell me you're not in trouble and it's not bad."


Alice started to confirm it, but the words died on her tongue. "It's not bad. But I may be in trouble. But not bad trouble."


"Honey, that doesn't make a lick of sense unless you're talking about a man."


Alice's laugh was pathetic. "Oh, you know me. You know me."


She went home and changed into her pajamas while the late afternoon sun was still shining through the window. She put curlers in her hair and scrubbed the makeup from her face, staring at the wide-eyed waif who returned her gaze in the mirror. She pressed her lips together, turned her head one way and then the other. How much easier life would be if she really was Arthur Campbell!


She'd once owned a man's suit. Maybe with the right wide-brimmed hat and gloves... no. No, she would never be able to pull it off, and it would just be building a bigger lie. She sighed and went to bed very early, lying on top of the covers with her hands laced over her stomach as she thought about Julia, the way she'd settled in so easily in the windowseat and the way she had spoken about "Arthur's" work.


"Why can't she be talking about me when she looks like that?" she asked. She kept her voice low, afraid the neighbors would overhear and instinctively know what she was talking about. A tear rolled from the corner of her eye and gathered in the dip between her jaw and ear. She rolled over and pressed that ear against her pillow and decided she was going to be completely professional in the morning.


Even if it killed her.




WSPR was a small red-brick building with a tall broadcast tower stretching from its roof to a tall red beacon. The call letters were displayed between the top floor windows in tall, narrow letters. Alice felt ridiculous standing outside the doors, shuddering in the cold. She'd worn a blouse with a wide lacy collar underneath a red sweater, along with a skirt that hugged the shape of her legs. Despite the chill in the air - they were predicting snow by the evening - she wore nude stockings. She had clucked her tongue at herself as she fastened the clips to her garter, telling herself what a fool she was being.


Julia didn't care about her. She cared about Dirk Lincoln and Arthur Campbell, two fictional men who wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Alice. Julia was lusting after Alice's mind. That wasn't the same as wanting her. Julia probably wasn't even one of those women.


She spotted Julia at the corner and resisted the urge to start waving. She waited patiently until Julia reached her, and they reunited at the front doors. She was so focused on Julia's face that she didn't realize she was carrying something until it was thrust into her hands. She looked down at the leafy red plant and looked up with a question in her eyes.


"It's a poinsettia. For the office. You didn't have a lot of plants." Her eyebrows knit together. "Maybe that's because you don't like plants. Oh. Well. I just thought I'd do something nice for you. For everything you've done for me. And I just thought, well, it's close to Christmas and if you don't like it you can just throw it out after the New Year or--"


"Julia!" She was struggling not to laugh. "I love it. Thank you so much." She juggled the pot, which prevented her from greeting Julia with a hug as planned. Maybe that was for the best.


"I hope Mr. Campbell won't mind you putting it in the office."


"I'm... sure he won't. Shall we?" She gestured at the door and Julia nodded eagerly. She held the door open for Julia and took a deep breath of the cold December air before following her inside.




"Oh, that was splendid. I can't believe I actually met Reed Powers. He sounds exactly like Dirk Lincoln!" She put her palms against her cheeks and closed her eyes. "Oh, listen to me."


"I most definitely am," Alice said, and she was smiling. They were walking down the street together, just enough space between them that their arms wouldn't bump as they moved. They were both bundled in coats with hats pulled down low over their brows. The prediction of snow had been correct, but it arrived earlier. Alice blinked away flakes as they landed on her lashes.


"I'm sorry. I must sound like a child."


"You sound like someone who had a very good afternoon. I'm pleased I was able to give it to you."


Julia breathed in deeply, let it out, and then shuddered. "Oh, it's chilly." She was forced to turn sideways to look at Alice, thanks to her scarf and the high collar of her coat. "Um."




Julia shook her head and faced forward again. "It's nothing important."


Alice nudged her. "No, please. Do you want another tour? Maybe Mister E will be there next time," she said, teasing about Donald Richards, who played Dirk Lincoln's main nemesis.


"Oh! No." Julia forced her excitement down and forced herself to shake her head. "It's not that. Um. Oh, this is my building."


"I know. I remember."


"Right." Julia laughed nervously. "Can I invite you up for some coffee to thaw you out before the walk home? It's the absolute very least I can do for everything you've done for me over the past week. And you've gotten not a thing in return."


Alice shook her head. "Not true. I got the plant."


"Then make it a plant and a cup of java."


It was tempting. Too tempting. Dangerously tempting. She looked down the street and dreaded the distance to the bus stop. Coffee sounded wonderful right then, like something out of a dream that couldn't possibly be real.




"Okay! Come on up."


Alice followed her into the warm vestibule and up the stairs, recounting in her head all the reasons this was a good idea. They reached the apartment and Julia unlocked the door. She smiled over her shoulder. "Maybe one day you could bring Mr. Campbell by. It might be fun for him to see where his stories end up, and see where his listeners sit when they listen to the stories he weaves for them."


Alice hadn't even thought of that, but the idea intrigued her. She nodded and followed Julia into the apartment.


It smelled vaguely like citrus; oranges to be specific. A small love seat was facing the door, and she saw a cramped kitchen off to the right. Julia tugged off her gloves and unwound her scarf as she went into her private space like a queen surveying her kingdom. She stopped next to an armchair and rested her hands on either side of the doily on the headrest. "This is where I sit when I'm lucky enough to be home for a broadcast."


The chair was turned slightly away from the couch, and she would have had a view of a blank wall beside the white-brick fireplace. She pointed at it. "So that's the screen, huh?"


"Yep. Most of the time I just sit there with my head against the back, my eyes closed, and the whole apartment just falls away. I owe Mr. Campbell a lot. Thanks to him, I've vacationed in the wilds of Africa and the depths of the Amazon without ever leaving the comfort of my home. I can picture it all so... clearly in my head thanks to the writing. Although I pictured Annabelle Cole to be much younger."


Alice laughed. "She does have a deceptive voice, doesn't she?"


"Do you want to sit? I'll get the coffee brewing and we can have a chat. A normal chat, I promise. No going on and on about Mr. Campbell's work."


"I would like that."


"Make yourself comfortable, please."


Alice undid her suit of winter clothes armor and hung it from the hook on the back of the door. She sat in the center cushion of the couch and smoothed her skirt over her thighs. She could hear Julia fussing in the kitchen and tried to snoop without snooping. Things in plain sight, like photographs and novels, were fair game. As long as she didn't open anything or move anything, she didn't feel guilty.


The only truly interesting photograph was a small frame on a table next to the couch, showing Julia and another blonde woman with an inverted pyramid of a smile. Her chin was sharp, but her cheeks were soft enough to make up for it. Julia returned, followed her gaze, and said, "That's Charlotte. She was a friend of mine a long time ago."


"Oh." Alice looked away and saw Julia was offering her a plate of cookies. "Oh! Thank you."


Julia sat down. "There's something I wanted to say down on the street, but I think I've embarrassed you enough in public." Her shoulders rose as she took a breath, and her lips formed a small flower bud as she exhaled. "I just wanted to say that it's no surprise Arthur Campbell writes such amazing, well-rounded female characters with you in his office day in and day out. I told you that I can read between the lines and see what a great man Arthur Campbell must be, and I'm sure he still is. But I've spent a few hours with you, and I see so much of what I love in the stories embodied in you.


"You're his muse, aren't you? He just... he just copies what he sees in you."


Alice shook her head. "I, I don't--"


Julia leaned in and kissed Alice's cheek. She let her lips linger, and Alice couldn't breathe until Julia retreated to her own side of the couch.


"I'm sorry." The voice was meek.




"I'm so sorry."


Alice's heart thudded, her hands shaking so that the cookies danced on the plate. She was certain her face was bright red. She leaned forward and put the plate down carefully. Before she could talk herself out of it, she twisted at the waist and grabbed Julia's face. Julia's eyes widened and her lips parted a moment before they were covered by Alice's.


Stop, stop, stop, stop! echoed in Alice's head. It was a terrible kiss, an awkward kiss, made worse by the fact that Julia's mouth was cinched tight like a coin purse. Alice pulled back and let go of Julia's face, braced for a slap and averting her gaze from the inevitable shouting for her to get out. But the apartment remained completely still other than the ticking of the cat-shaped clock hanging on the kitchen wall.




"I'm Arthur Campbell."


Julia said, "Oh. I know." Alice twisted to look at her. Julia smiled through her discomfort and averted her gaze out of guilt. "The coffee cup next to the typewriter had lipstick on the brim."


Alice's eyes closed slowly and she covered her face with her hands.


"You seemed so uncomfortable... I just thought... I would... play along. And I was having such a good time with you that I... didn't want it to stop. I hope you'll forgive me."


"Forgive you?" Alice looked at her. "Let's just call it even, okay?"


"Well, we're not even." Alice looked at her to see what she meant, and she was surprised by the very soft, very tender touch of Julia's lips. This was a proper kiss, even if they were both still as tense as scarecrows. Alice balled her hands into fists to keep them from shaking, and kept her eyes closed even when Julia pulled away.


"Now we're even, Mr. Campbell." She touched Alice's hair so softly it might have just been a stray breeze. "When I wrote you that letter, sayin' all that embarrassing stuff, I took a risk. Mr. Campbell could have been a big fat bald man with halitosis. I'd say I kinda lucked out on that score. And if it's... not givin' away too much, that wasn't my first kiss with another lady."


"Nor mine," Alice said almost so quickly that she didn't realize she'd said it aloud.






Alice swallowed hard. "You know it's getting late. The buses... the last bus might... be along any minute now."


"Of course." Julia looked down and ran her hand over the cushion between them. It seemed much smaller than it had a moment ago and Alice wanted to shrink that distance down to nothing. "The couch folds out. You could stay here. That way we could talk for as long as we want. Until we run out of things we have to say to each other."


"That could take a while. I am a writer, after all." She couldn't stop herself from smiling. "And you do have an awful habit of rambling on and on when you get excited."


Julia leaned closer, mischief in her eye. "If you think I go on and on about the radio, you should hear me when it's something I'm really passionate about. Brace yourself, Miss Berg. You ain't heard nothin' yet."




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