At the end of each part of this story, I’m asking the members of my discussion group what they think should happen next. Based on their responses I continue the story. To see what the options were and how the group voted or to join in the fun go to: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mickeyminner/
“What the hell is the meaning of this?”
Linda looked up. “Of what?” she asked the agitated man charging into her office.
He shook a fist in the air, his fingers tightly clutching a sheet of paper. “This!”
She leaned back. “Sorry, Paul. But I have a hard time reading anything being waved about like that.”
“Don’t act so damn innocent.” He threw the crumpled paper onto her desk. “Personnel just sent that over to me. What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
She picked up the paper and un-crumpled it, smoothing it flat against the top of her desk. “I thought I made that quite clear when I wrote this.”
“Damn it, Linda.”
She pushed her resignation back across her desk to where he stood glaring at her. “You’ll need to give that back to personnel.”
“I want an explanation.”
She sighed when he made no move to retrieve the document. Again leaning back in her chair, she looked around the room. “When you come into this office, what do you see?”
“Look around. What do you see?”
His eyes quickly darted around the room. He shrugged when they focused back on her. “Four walls and a desk.”
“Right. Four walls and a desk.” She looked around the office. “Four walls and a desk. No windows. Nothing hanging on the walls. No personal items on my desk. Not even a coffee maker or fridge. Just four walls and a desk.”
“So? It’s the same as a dozen other offices.”
“Is it?” She stood and slowly paced around the room. When she returned to her chair, instead of sitting, she placed her hands on the back of it. “I’ve worked in this office for almost eight years. Every day I come in and sit at this desk. I switch on my computer and read my emails. I check my calendar and listen to my phone messages. Then I get up and walk down to the break room and make myself a cup of coffee which I then carry back here. I place the cup on the left side of my desk to avoid accidental spills on my keyboard. I pull out the folders in my inbox and I begin my work.” She looked at him. “I can’t do it anymore.”
“Is this your way of forcing a raise out of me?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“Do you want more vacation time? Sick leave?”
Another shake. “No.”
“Then what? Name it and I’ll make sure the company gives it to you.”
“I want more. That’s what I want. I want more.” She shoved the chair against the desk. “I want more than spending ten to twelve hours a day in a windowless room. I want a life, Paul. Can the company give me that?”
“You have a—”
“No,” she cut him off. “I have an existence. It’s not the same. If I had a life I’d have pictures of people and places that meant something to me. I’d have something to remind me of what was waiting for me when I left here at the end of the day. I don’t have those.” Her voice had been rising but she softened it before continuing. “Why, Paul? Why don’t I have them?” she asked more of herself than her boss.
"I’m not sure I understand. But I do know that this job is an awful lot to just toss aside. Are you sure about this?"
Linda ignored the question. “One nice thing about not having any of that,” she said as she walked to the corner of the room where her jacket was hanging on a simple wooden coat rack. “Is it doesn’t take long to pack.”
“You can’t just walk out.”
“I’m not walking out,” she said as she slipped her arms into the jacket and settled it on her shoulders. “All my assignments are up-to-date. Even that one,” she jerked her chin at the report on her desk. “I finished proofing it this morning. I was just about to sign off on it.” She walked back to her desk and picked up a pen. “There, all nice and proper,” she said after placing the file in her out box. “Here’s my office key. My security pass. My desk key. Computer is right there. I made a list of all my passwords. I’ll print it out for you.” She brought up a file on the computer and pressed a button. “I think that’s it.”
“No use putting off the inevitable, Paul. Personnel has my mailing address, you can have my final check sent there.”
“If I forgot anything…” She gave the office and desk a final look over. “No. Nothing here to forget.”
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Do you even know what you’re looking for?”
“Then how are you going to know if you find it?”
“I’ll know.” She smiled at the man who had been her boss for the past several years. “I’m sorry, Paul. The company has been good to me. So have you. But I can’t do it anymore. There has to be more for me in life than long days in a windowless room. I have to try to find whatever that is.”
“You know I won’t be able to keep your job open.”
She sighed. “That’s okay. I won’t be back.”
“Will you let me know when you get to wherever?” he asked when she slipped past him as she walked out of the room.
He watched her walk between the petitioned workstations of the office staff to the elevators at the opposite side of the room. “Bye,” he said when she entered one of the cars and disappeared behind its closing doors.
Linda locked the door of her apartment then changed her mind. She set down the suitcase she was carrying and re-opened the door. Separating the unit’s key from the rest of the keys on her key ring, she tossed it onto the lamp table just inside the door knowing the landlord would find it when he came to dispose of the furniture and household goods she was leaving behind. It had cost her an extra month’s rent but it was worth it not to have to do it herself. After a final look and shrug of her shoulders, she reached around to the inside knob locking it and pulling the door shut. Picking up the suitcase she walked to her car parked in front of the building.
She laid the suitcase on the back seat before settling into the driver’s seat and buckling her seatbelt. Placing her left hand on the steering wheel, she put the key into the ignition with her right. But instead of starting the engine she just sat staring out the windshield. “So, now what, Linda?” she asked after several minutes. “Where are you going? Damn good question,” she answered herself as she twisted her wrist and the car’s engine roared to life. “Full tank of gas. All my worldly possessions in the trunk. No one to answer to. No particular plans.” She pulled the gear shift out of neutral, notching it down to the drive position. “Guess there’s only one way to find out.” Releasing the parking brake, she checked her mirrors then eased away from the curb. As she drove to the intersection at the end of the block, she mentally flipped a coin. “Heads, right. Tails, left,” she said visualizing the coin flipping in the air. Lifting her foot off the accelerator, she coasted to a stop to wait out the red light. “Heads it is,” she said when the signal turned green.
She had been driving a couple of hours when she pulled off the freeway. For some reason, she was bothered by the high speeds and cars racing past her. She stopped at the bottom of the exit ramp and was trying to decide which direction to turn when a horn blasted behind her. Looking into the rearview mirror she saw a man gesturing and screaming at her. She turned to the right and drove a short distance to a vacant lot where she pulled off the pavement. The impatient driver blasted his horn again as he sped past. Making sure she was well away from the road, she turned off the engine, opened the door and got out.
Linda slowly shuffled around in a full circle taking in the surrounding landscape. She wasn’t that far out of the city limits and, although there were some scattered open lots like the one she was currently using for her impromptu rest stop, subdivisions and mini-malls still dominated most of the area. She longed to see something, anything, but pavement and buildings. Leaning back against the car, she spotted a road sign.
“Frontage Road.” She looked in the direction the sign was pointing. Approximately a quarter mile away, a flashing red light alerted drivers to an intersection. “Wonder where that goes,” she said as she pushed herself off her car and pulled open the door. “Only one way to find out.”
It didn’t take Linda long to deduce that the Frontage Road wasn’t a road in the normal sense of the use but the old highway which pre-dated the newer, wider and faster freeway. She was pleased to discover that unlike the freeway traveling the straightest route between cities, the Frontage Road took a more leisurely path following the contours of the terrain. Cars on the road were fewer and farther between and she was able to drive at a slower, more comfortable speed allowing her time to enjoy the passing scenery. Also unlike the freeway, the old highway actually ran right through the small towns and communities along its route and she found herself stopping in each one and exploring their old buildings and downtown districts.
She was surprised one morning to wake up in yet another nameless motel to find that a week had passed. She was even more surprised to note that it had been the most pleasant week she could remember in quite a long time. She was still smiling when she drove out of the motel’s parking lot determined to find a new highway to explore.
The road sign read “Henry’s – 36 Miles”. Without hesitation, Linda slowed at the intersection and turned to follow the arrow. At first, she could sense the road gaining elevation but the climb was so gradual it was impossible to see. But as she drove, the incline became more noticeable and the open fields gave way to groves of aspen trees which, in turn, were replaced by forests of pine trees. Occasionally, a creek would meander out of the trees to flow alongside the road before returning back into the forest.
She was enjoying the drive and wasn’t too happy when she heard and felt a distinctive rumble- her stomach protesting that she had not stopped since leaving the motel to provide it nourishment. She patted her belly. “Let’s hope that whatever Henry’s is, there’s someplace to eat. Oh my, look at that.” Linda pulled to the side of the road.
The road had topped a rise and spreading out before her was a large mountain meadow. Patches of delicate wildflowers in every color of the rainbow shared the clearing with native grasses that waved lazily on a soft breeze. Mammoth-size boulders, partially buried in the ground, were strewn around as if tossed about like pebbles from her hand, their stone surfaces colored by orange and red lichens. A vast forest of tall pine trees surrounded the meadow; above this lush carpet of green majestic snow-capped mountain peaks glistened in the distance. And over all this, a scattering of puffy white clouds floated in the deep blue sky that seemed to go on forever.
Her heart almost jumped out of her chest when something rapped loudly against the car’s window. She turned to see a face peering in at her. “What the f…?” she said, jerking away.
“Problems?” the face asked.
“Shit!” She clutched at her shirt over her racing heart.
The face moved back from the glass and Linda scowled at a woman standing beside the car, a sheepish grin on her face. “Sorry. Thought you might be having car trouble or something.”
She rolled down the window but only a few inches. “No. Just enjoying the scenery.”
“It is something, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
“You scared the crap out of me.”
The woman chuckled. “Sorry about that too.”
Linda looked around. “Where’d you come from?” she asked seeing no other vehicles.
The woman twisted at the waist. “Over there,” she said pointing at a trail emerging from the trees on the opposite side of the road. “I better get going. Have a nice day.”
“Wait. Do you know where Henry’s is? Better yet, do you know what it is?”
“Sure. It is a town and you’re not too far from it. Just keep following the road, you can’t miss it.”
“Thanks. Do you… Um… Need a ride?”
The woman shook her head. “No, thanks,” she said walking around the front of the car.
Linda watched as she skidded down the gravel covered embankment then strode out across the meadow. It was only then that she saw a faint trail slicing through the grass. She grinned as she pulled back onto the road. “Nice butt.”
Quaint, Linda thought sardonically as she drove into Henry’s. She decided the description of town being attached to the haphazard grouping of a half dozen ramshackle structures was more than a little generous. She pulled to a stop in front of a dilapidated building, sun faded paint across its false front identified it as Store. A sign in the corner of the front window caught her eye. “Interesting,” she murmured as she turned off the engine and set the parking brake. Leaning forward, she crossed her arms on top of the steering wheel and rested her chin on them as she considered the opportunities the sign could present.
While she sat thinking, she watched as an occasional shopper entered the store then left several minutes later carrying their purchases. “Seems busy enough,” she said. “But why?” Puzzled, she leaned back and took a closer look around Henry’s. There were a few vehicles parked around the town, mostly pickups pulling trailers. The traffic on the road cutting between the town’s buildings was light but this didn’t surprise her since she had encountered very few cars on her drive to the town.
Tapping on the car’s window caused her to jerk around and she smacked her elbow on the inside of the door. “Ow. What is it with people banging on my windows?” she asked as she glared through the glass. Standing beside her car was the same woman who had scared her earlier. How’d she get here? Linda asked herself as she rolled down the window. “Hello, again.”
The woman smiled. “I see you found Henry’s.”
“Be hard to miss.”
“Unless you blinked.”
Linda laughed. “Yeah.”
“You’re not having problems, are you?”
“Well, you’ve been sitting here a while. I thought maybe something might be wrong.”
“Oh. No. I’m fine. I was just thinking.”
“Well, when you’re done thinking, why don’t you come over to the Café. People say it’s got the best coffee in the county. And the food is just as good.”
“Wonderful,” Linda said opening the car door. “I’m starving.” She rolled up the window before climbing out.
“Good. First cup is on me.”
“You’re on. My name is Linda, by the way,” she said holding out her hand.
The woman accepted the hand, giving it a gentle squeeze before releasing it. “Linda By The Way? You Indian?”
She laughed at the smirking woman. “No, smart ass. Linda Bottswott. I’m a conglomeration of just about every nationality you can name.”
“Pleased to meet you, Linda Bottswott. And my name isn’t Smart Ass. I’m Barbara. Friends call me Barb. Fools call me Barbie.”
“I’ll remember that. Do you have a last name?”
“Sure do. Same as the town’s, Henry.”
“Really? What a coincidence.”
“Not really. My great-great-great grandfather founded the place,” she said as she led Linda across the road to a building with Café painted on its false front.
“I take it you’re not much into names around here.”
Linda chuckled and pointed behind them. “Store.” Then she pointed across the road. “Café. Gas,” she said pointing at a second building.
Barb laughed. “Granddad said it saved on paint. ‘Besides,’ he’d always say, ‘makes it easier for the tour-asses to figure out what they is than if they had fancy names.’”
“Makes sense. So is that what feeds the town? Tourism?”
“Mostly. Further down the road is a string of lakes, good fishing, and a dozen or so campgrounds. Folks going to and from help to keep Henry’s alive.” Barb stepped up onto the wide porch of the café, then crossed it and pulled open the screen door.
Linda took the time to take one more look around the town, her eyes resting a few seconds on the sign in the store’s window. I wonder… she thought before turning to follow Barb.
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