Chapter Twenty

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull quote from romance fiction serial White House Rhapsody: We would have been married off in no time

Tuesday night, in Washington, DC, there was a party in the PFZ. Mark was late. He had a date for a fundraising gala. Sharon had hired a caterer for the party, and the crowd, mostly Advisory Board folk and spouses, was noisy and in a good mood by the time the Celebrity Dance Off elimination show began. The host announced that Michael Wheatly would appear and the crowd gathered around the TV in Sharon’s basement hooted loudly. But when the host introduced Michael Wheatly playing his first big hit, Hard Town Saturday Night, Sharon gulped. Fortunately, neither of the two dancers featured as Michael sang were blond. Sharon held her breath. No one mentioned the video or seemed to even be thinking about it. Johnnie Washington caught Sharon’s eye and lifted her eyebrow in question. Sharon barely nodded. Johnnie blissfully kept Sharon’s secret.

The show went on, some people booing when one couple was told they were not going to be eliminated that night. Sharon made the mistake of asking why only to get a resounding chorus of how another celeb, who was a much better dancer, had been eliminated in favor of this klutz, and there was just no justice and the whole stupid show was nothing more than a popularity contest. Only to have another half of the group start shouting about the validity of the professional dancers and what they were attempting to create.

And the whole debate was raging so hotly that no one entirely noticed that Mark had come in, and even then, they barely heard the host announce the song from Michael Wheatly’s newly released album. Fortunately, the group quieted down pretty quickly – since Michael Wheatly was the whole reason they were there.

The song was done entirely on acoustical instruments. A few strings from the show’s own orchestra, Toby on the grand piano, singing backup, and Michael on a stool to next to the piano. Two pairs of dancers swirled and glided in blissful love while the central couple danced back and forth. Michael sang about the woman who had love right in front of her but couldn’t or wouldn’t accept it.

Mark hadn’t heard the artist’s name, nor really paid attention to why they were all supposed to be there. So while he knew of Michael Wheatly and was familiar with his music, it didn’t really register with Mark just who he was looking at. But the lyrics to the sweet and wistful music certainly registered. He saw Jean pop Coop a playful, knowing nudge, and then looked over at Sharon. The words did remind Mark of Sharon, but she didn’t seem entirely upset. If anything, she was misty-eyed and awed.

June slid up next to Sharon. “It’s such a great song and he sounds so good.”

“He does,” Sharon whispered. “And look. Toby’s singing back up and playing for him. She looks so grown up and professional.”

The crowd, both in the studio and in the PFZ, roared when the song ended and the camera faded to Michael’s fingers on the guitar strings, then to the lone female dancer sitting on the stage. A second later, a second camera picked up Michael taking his bow, then pulling Toby from the piano and taking another with her. Then the two of them put their hands out to someone in the audience. The camera followed and Sharon screamed.

“Susan’s there!” she yelped.

“But why are they acknowledging her?” June asked, then in a lower voice. “I thought it was your song.”

“Oh, my god!” Sharon gasped. “I thought that looked like Susan’s style. The choreography. How did they get Susan’s choreography?”

The crowd on TV and in the basement finally quieted and the host, a tall, but otherwise bland man, turned up seated next to Susan.

“You know,” he said. “When we signed Michael Wheatly to come tonight, we were told he is a family operation. So we want to share with you that our lovely pianist is his daughter, Toby Wheatly. And the choreography for our dancers was done by his sister Susan Wheatly.”

Susan waved as the crowd began cheering loudly again. Both Sharon and June were screaming in wonder at that point, and Sharon was flat out crying.

Johnnie came up and screamed at Sharon. “Your sister did that? How’d you get such a talented sister? That was amazing!”

“You have no idea,” June gasped.

“What you don’t know,” the host hollered over the crowd, “is just how special this dance was. We don’t normally do this, but we’ve got some footage from this morning’s rehearsal.”

The music swelled slightly and on the TV was a close up of Susan from the shoulders up, demonstrating a hold and explaining a direction in dancer’s shorthand. The dancer she was speaking to nodded, and then there was a collective gasp as the camera pulled out and showed Susan in her wheelchair.

“We had the most amazing time,” Ivan said, as the camera switched to him talking. “Susan really has an incredible vision and just gets inside you to turn the music into this idea. This story. Five minutes with her and you forget about the chair. It’s just about the dance.”

Mark felt a little out of place as the rest of the group surrounded Sharon, congratulating her. Someone had frozen the picture on the screen with a three-shot of Michael, Toby and Susan and all of a sudden, the penny dropped.

“They’re related,” Mark said.

Coop, who was standing next to him. “He’s Sharon brother. You didn’t know that?”

“I wasn’t even sure who that was. You guys were so noisy when he was introduced and I never connected Michael Wheatly to Sharon before now.”

“Man, we have got to get you out more,” Coop said, slapping Mark on the back.

In another part of the basement, June was sitting with Sharon as a commercial tried to sell them on some new drug.

“That song was pretty cool, too,” June said.

“It’s okay,” Sharon said.

“Uh-oh. Big brother hit a little too close to home.”

Sharon snorted. “He’s always doing that. It’s his version of playing the Mom psychic card. I just don’t like the publicity is all. I’m hoping nobody connects it to me.”

“Well, I can see where they might.” June nudged Sharon. “He’s got a point, you know? Love right in front of you and you turn it down?”

“The song is about this drummer from his band that I dated a few years back,” Sharon said, feeling a little annoyed. “Michael thought it was some great romance and it wasn’t. We liked each other, but I was never that in love with the guy.”

“Was he in love with you?”

Sharon shrugged. “Don’t know. Don’t care. I mean, I didn’t want to hurt him – that’s why I broke it off as soon as I did.”

“Well, you might want to think about what your brother is singing about,” June said. “I’ve got a feeling it’s also a pattern you have.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Just based on a few things I heard from your sister and your mom.”

Sharon snorted. “I’ll work on my issues with unavailable men just as soon as you start working on finding a guy, yourself. Talk about avoiding love.”

“Ouch,” June said. She took a deep breath. “I may just do that. I’ve got a few things to work through first, but I think I’m on my way.”

“Good.” Sharon smiled, feeling no little relief that she’d managed to distract June.

Sharon had been avoiding Mark all evening, hoping that Mark wouldn’t make any connections between the song and herself. But it would be hard not to, especially once Mark picked up on her relationship to Michael Wheatly. And from his shy smile, he had.

The problem was, Mark decided, wasn’t that the song was so much like Sharon. It was that he couldn’t help feeling like he was the one with love right in front of him and was letting it slip away. He didn’t say much to June in the car on the way back to the White House, and she decided it wasn’t the right time to say anything.

Mark spent the night dreaming about Sharon and even though in the dreams, things never went anywhere, when he woke up the next morning, he still felt pretty good. But the day was doomed, nonetheless.

Sharon showed up in his office shortly after eight with some bad news.

“It’s the Saudi ambassador, Achmed Ben Hamadi,” she told him. “He’s insisting on a meeting today. Kent put him in between your meeting with the Senate Finance committee heads and your lunch meeting with the Joint Chiefs.”

“Sounds like fun,” he said, picking up the phone. “Wasn’t I supposed to have something with some design show about this office? June said this morning that was supposed to be today.”

Sharon shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“Kent?” Mark growled into the phone. “I’m looking at my adjusted schedule and it looks like that design show got kicked… I know, but this is the fifth time in a row that’s happened. That’s not fair to them… All right, move the Senate Finance gang up a half hour or so and push the lunch back. And call the Saudi Embassy and tell them we’re going to have to push that meeting back a half hour… That’s my final word.”

Sharon sighed and shook her head. “That is not going to make things easier.”

“Can’t be helped.” Mark smiled apologetically. “They can’t just expect to call on the same day and a get meeting just because they want one. Even if something’s blowing up somewhere, and I don’t think anything is at the moment.”

“Libya’s looking a little dicey again.” Sharon tapped her laptop. “Looks like I’m going to have to brief you now on the Saudi thing.”

The phone rang and Mark paused before picking it up.

“Can’t. Got a conference call with the governor’s association. Meet me after the Senate finance meeting. And you’re dismissed.”

“Yes, sir.”

Despite Mark’s best efforts, the meeting with the finance committee went longer than he wanted. Then there were delays getting the cameras in and the lights set for the design show. It was a special being shot featuring Leta Gonzales, who was well known for her popular office makeover show on the home and garden channel. Gonzales had asked for and gotten permission to re-do the Oval Office for the current occupant. The problem was, Mark’s schedule had been so packed, he’d had to postpone the meeting with her (which was to be part of the special) where he would tell her what he wanted for the office.

He and Sharon went over potential strategies for the meeting with the Saudi ambassador while the camera crew got things set up and arranged, but that still left precious little time for Mark to actually meet with Gonzales.

She was a well-padded woman of average height, with a round, smiling face and colorful clothing. She wore her shiny black hair in ringlets that bounced on either side of her huge glasses. The crew shot a few bits of Sharon briefing Mark, then Sharon had to step aside while Mark met with Gonzales.

June arrived just about then, as well.

“It’s an honor to meet both of you,” Gonzales said, pushing her glasses up on her nose as the two cameras ran. “This is going to be a fun project.”

“I hope so,” said Mark. “Would you like to sit down?”

He gestured at the couches and the three of them sat down while Sharon glared at her Blackberry in the background.

“Okay,” Gonzales said. “This isn’t just any office, but at the same time, you do work here. What’s your vision for this room?”

Mark chuckled. “That’s the tough part. Obviously, this isn’t just about me. It’s the Office of the President, with all that represents to the American people. I really want to keep the sense of history in here, as well as the dignity of the office. But I also want it to be welcoming, a place where meetings can happen and opposing sides can come together.”

The phone buzzed. “Mr. President, the Saudi ambassador is at the front gate.”

“Thanks, Kent.” He smiled sadly at Gonzales. “I guess that means we have about ten minutes before he gets here.”

“Oh no, Mark!” June groaned.

“It can’t be helped.”

“I need to get measurements and some more input for a plan,” Gonzales said. “I don’t think I can do it in ten minutes.”

Mark got up and went to the desk. “Don’t worry about that.” He pushed a button on the phone. “Kent, have them put the ambassador in the tea room and make sure there’s coffee ready.”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

“All right.” Mark turned back to Gonzales and smiled. “You’ve got me for just about nine minutes.”

Kent buzzed about six minutes later to inform them that the ambassador was in the tea room and waiting.

“Sir,” said Sharon. “We’d best get over there. He takes being kept waiting as a major insult.”

“I’m so sorry, Ms. Gonzales.” Mark smiled warmly and shook her hand. “Take as much time as you need. And go ahead and trust June. She knows what I like.”

June shot Mark a quick glare, then smiled at Gonzales.

Mark, for his part, could feel the irritation wafting off of Sharon as they went to the meeting with the Saudi ambassador.

“I’ve got Leonidas in the tea room with the ambassador,” Sharon grumbled as she fumbled with a scarf to cover her hair for the ambassador. “His Excellency refuses to speak to women.”

“And they sent him here?” Mark muttered.

But he was all smiles as he entered the tea room.

“Your Excellency, I’m so glad I was able to squeeze you into my schedule,” Mark said, extending his hand. “What can we do for you today?”

The meeting did not go well. The ambassador was clearly uncomfortable with Faiza and Sharon present. Faiza was wearing her hajib, as usual, and Sharon had covered her head with her scarf, but that didn’t seem to help. Furthermore, Mark was philosophically opposed to the ambassador’s request on behalf of his government and wasn’t about to budge on the issue, even though Sharon thought he should. Not that she said anything while the ambassador was there.

But after they got back to the Oval Office, Sharon said plenty.

Mark cut her off. “Look, your point is well taken. But I ran on this issue and it wasn’t just for the sound bite. If I’m not going to do it for our own American companies, I’m not doing it for the Saudis. Period. We’ll just have to work something else out.”

“Sir?” Kent’s voice burst in over the intercom. “The Joint Chiefs are ready for you.”

“I’m on my way,” Mark growled in the direction of the phone. He turned to Sharon.

“I understand, sir,” Sharon said with a soft sigh. “I’ll talk it over with Faiza and see if Daniel has any ideas.”

“Thanks.” Mark paused. “Listen, I’ve got that opening at the Smithsonian this evening, but it’s only cocktails. Want to hang around and make dinner with me and Solly afterward?”

“You don’t have to make up to me.”

Mark grinned. “I usually send flowers when I do that.” His phone beeped again.

Gen’s voice floated out of the intercom. “Sir, that’s Ms. Washington. She says it’s urgent.”

“In a second.” Mark looked at Sharon. “It’s just turning into one of those days, you know?”

“I can tell.” Sharon smiled. “I’ll stick around.”

“Thanks.” Mark hit the intercom. “Gen, did Miss Whitcomb get the flowers and the briefing?”

“I think that’s what Ms. Washington wants to talk about,” Gen replied. “Miss Whitcomb refused the briefing.”

Sharon shook her head, grinning. “Definitely one of those days. Have fun at the opening.”

“Right.”

With the afternoon fast spinning out of control, Mark wasn’t looking forward to his date with Ashley Whitcomb that evening. It was his practice to send his dates flowers and to brief them on the event they’d be attending with him so that they wouldn’t feel lost and would be aware of any potential pitfalls, as well as all the protocols associated with the Office of the President. The rest of the dating pool appreciated the information. Ashley was the first to refuse a briefing.

“I’m not an idiot,” she told Mark as the presidential limo made its way to the American History Museum.

“Nobody said you were,” Mark said, shifting uncomfortably.

Ashley’s dress was far too spangly for the exhibit opening cocktail party they were attending and showed considerably more leg than it should have. Mark didn’t want to say anything, but he knew that the women there would be in regular business wear and day dresses. He knew that because he had read the briefing that Ashley was supposed to have gotten.

“But the briefings are important,” Mark said. “Even I look at them, and I’m doing this stuff all the time.”

“I think I can handle myself,” Ashley replied, scooting somewhat closer to Mark. “This will be fun.”

“Ashley, this is an official date, and this is what going out with me is like,” said Mark, trying not to wince as she took his arm. “It’s not about having fun. It’s about connecting with folks in a more casual setting.”

The limo pulled up at the museum at that moment and Mark slipped out of the car first, checked for the photographer’s line and put himself between the photogs and Ashley. The reporters shouted questions, as usual. Ashley tried to stop, but Mark gently tugged her onward.

“We answer questions when we leave,” he said softly in her ear. “We don’t want to keep our host waiting.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Ashley did not seem all that contrite. Mark debated letting her know that she would have known that had she taken her briefing, but decided to wait. The cocktail party was the usual for such events, and Ashley was, as Mark expected, way overdressed for the occasion. She smiled all through the event, hanging closely on Mark’s arm, sometimes even answering for him and even referred to him by his first name.

Then came the major blunder. Mark, as he was always expected to, had to make a short speech. Ashley made a point of standing next to him while he spoke and even touched his arm at one point. Mark ignored her, but he was fully steamed by that point. Even as he hated all the formality required by protocol, having Ashley address him by his first name felt horribly invasive as it was. Then to pretend that kind of intimacy by touching him, never mind that even First Ladies hadn’t done anything like that, it was beyond the pale.

Unfortunately, Senator Halstead was waiting for the two of them as soon as Mark finished.

“Well, you two look good together,” Halstead said amiably. “Nice to see a happy couple.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Mark replied, somewhat at a loss for words.

“We’re having a lovely time,” Ashley said. “Mark and I get along so well together.”

Mark removed her hand from his arm. “Miss Whitcomb, I’m afraid we don’t, and I think it’s time for us to leave.”

“Leave?” Ashley actually pouted. “I’m going to powder my nose.”

Mark watched her go as the Senator nudged him playfully.

“She’s a beautiful woman,” Halstead said. “Looks good on your arm. You two will make a great couple.”

“We’re not a couple and we’re not going to be a couple,” Mark growled.

Halstead leaned closer to Mark. “You know, Mr. President, a real man wouldn’t turn down a beautiful woman like that.”

“Oh, we’re going to play that card, are we?” Mark glared at the senator. “Go ahead. Tell the world I’m gay. You’re going to find out that almost nobody gives a rat’s ass about my orientation and the few people who do aren’t going to vote for me, anyway. And for your information, a man can be single and straight and prefer a woman with some brains, which Miss Whitcomb is sorely lacking. Which is why I do not find her attractive and why we will not ever be a couple. So the next time you try to throw somebody at me to further your narrow-minded agenda, do us both a favor and find somebody with some real substance. Good evening, Senator.”

Mark turned and saw Ashley standing right there, looking as if she were about to cry.

“It’s time to go,” he told her. “And we will not be answering any questions as we leave. Do you understand?”

Ashley nodded. It almost worked. But just before Mark and Ashley reached the limo, a journalist called out loudly, “Mr. President, is that your new girlfriend?”

Ashley stopped and glared at Mark. “Well, am I?”

“Ms. Whitcomb, this is neither the time nor the place,” Mark growled.

“I think it is,” Ashley said. “Am I your new girlfriend or not?”

Mark leaned over and hissed in Ashley’s ear, “You have one second to get in that car or I will have the Secret Service put you there. And I am not bluffing.”

Ashley waited for a moment, then turned with a huff and got in the car. Mark followed.

“How could you embarrass me like that?” Ashley sniffed. She sat all the way over to the other side of the car.

“You have been embarrassing me all evening,” Mark replied. “And that last display was beyond the pale. And just for the record, no, you are not my girlfriend. You have never been. You never will be. And we are not going out again.”

Ashley sobbed. “Aren’t I pretty enough for you?”

“Pretty?” Mark gaped. “This has nothing to do with pretty.” He sighed. “Look, Ashley, you’re just not my type.”

“Oh, really. Is Gus Guerrero your type?”

“No.” Mark held onto his temper with both hands and handed Ashley a tissue from the pocket on the door. “I prefer women, but a different kind of woman. You’re beautiful, Ashley, but I need a little more than that. Actually, I’m not that excited about beautiful women. I like women I can talk to about substantive, intellectual things. Like how scrolling works on my iPad.”

“What?” Ashley dabbed at her eyes with the tissue.

“Ashley, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but, frankly, Gwendolyn McKelvey is more my type than you are. You’re a nice woman, but you’re just not for me.”

“Who’s Gwendolyn—  Oh, my god! You’d rather date a fat, old woman than me? What kind of a freak are you?”

Mark sighed. “I’ll see you to your door.”

The limo slowed and had barely stopped when Ashley opened the door right into traffic.

“No, you won’t,” she sniffed and scrambled out.

Mark sighed and got both Jean Bouyer and Gus Guerrero on the phone.

Sharon, June, and Solly were waiting for him in the upstairs kitchen. The three were munching on California rolls and sipping martinis. June grabbed the cocktail shaker the second she saw her brother as Solly put a glass on the counter.

“You need this,” June announced. She was working hard to suppress her laughter knowing full well that Mark was not in the mood.

“Boy, do I,” Mark grumbled, sliding onto a stool next to Sharon. “You guys heard already?”

“Karen called me the second it was posted,” June said.

“And June called Solly,” said Sharon, “Who didn’t say anything, but I could tell something was up, so I went online and told June she’d better join us.”

“And it gets worse.” Mark put his head in his hands. “I’d already had it out with Halstead at the party. And then in the limo on the way home, I told Whitcomb that I’d rather date Mackie than her.”

Sharon burst into laughter. “I’m sorry! I can’t help it. Mackie is so going to have your ass over that one.”

“I was trying not to hurt Whitcomb’s feelings,” Mark said.

June was giggling. “But Mackie? Did Whitcomb even know who she is?”

“It took her a minute, but she did get it,” Mark conceded, taking a sip of his martini, then glared at Solly. “This is your fault, you know.”

“It sounded good at the time,” Solly said. “What you want for dinner? We got chicken medallions, scallops, some sweetbreads, some veal cutlets, andouille sausage, linguica, a couple bass fillets.”

“Paella,” said Mark, brightening for the first time. “We can have it all.”

Waiting for the paella to cook meant that the evening went on a little later than anticipated, but the result was worth it. However, Mark glared at June when she insisted that he walk Sharon to the car pick up because June had to be up early to get to New York in the morning. Sharon asked if Solly wanted to share the car, but Solly said she had her own ride home and smiled mysteriously. Mark just rolled his eyes.

“Oh, come on,” Sharon teased him as they waited for the elevator.

“Excuse me, I’ve had enough matchmaking this evening,” Mark said.

The doors to the elevator opened and the two got on.

“I get that,” Sharon said. “But at least they mean well.”

“The worst of it was, I almost told Ashley that you were my type.”

“I’m glad you didn’t. We would have been married off in no time.”

The doors opened, and Mark watched Sharon as she got off. In the back of his mind, he could hear Sharon’s Song playing.

“You want to go with me to the Correspondent’s Dinner on Saturday?” he asked.

Sharon stopped and took a deep breath. “Um. Actually, I was looking forward to spending Saturday night in my jammies reading.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. What with all the commotion over Ashley…”  Mark smiled helplessly.

Sharon suddenly guffawed. “You know who you should take if you can pry her off of Eli.”

“Mackie?” Mark laughed as well. “You know, that might just work.”

He broke off as his phone rang, and he glanced at the readout.

“Mind if I take this?” he asked Sharon, then waited as she nodded. “Hey, Tony, how’s it going?” He laughed at something on the other end. “That’s a good one. I’ll feed it to Scavotti… Oh, you did. Well, great. You’re doing a terrific job… Hey, that’s terrific news. Can I call you back in ten…? Okay, well, have fun… Sure. Talk to you later.”

Sharon smiled and raised her eyebrows as he hung up.

“That’s Tony Garces,” Mark told her. “Did you hear about that horrible murder in the District a little over a year ago? The kid came home and found his grandparents, mother, and sister shot to death by a drug dealer after his mother?”

“Whew! Missed that one. That was him?”

“Yeah. He and his sister had been in an out of foster care all their lives, so Coop and I had finally gotten his grandparents here from Mexico to give him and his sister a stable home, and then the murder happened.” Mark sighed and shook his head. “He’s an insanely bright kid. Coop had gotten him into St. Ignatius Prep and the brothers there were good enough to let him board there after everything went down, and he wasn’t really supposed to stay there over the summer last year, but Coop and I convinced the child welfare people that he needed the stability. The only problem is that they’re not going to let him stay over at school during this summer. Fortunately, Roy said he’d take over as Tony’s foster parent. That’s what Tony was calling about.” Mark chuckled. “And to feed me another joke for the correspondent’s dinner.”

“Sounds like it was a good one.”

“It was and I’m using it. Like I said, the kid’s bright and a hell of a sense of humor. He’s a real survivor, that one.” Mark suddenly sighed. “So far, we’ve been able to keep him from coming off the rails. But he doesn’t have a lot of friends his own age. Rebecca Cooper’s been friendly with him. He’s her date for the dinner. But Brother Stephen said he’s a little worried that Tony is something of a loner, and some of his art can be pretty angry.”

“Not surprising when you consider,” said Sharon.

“Yeah, well, it’s not a huge secret, me, Coop and Roy helping out, but it’s not something we talk about,” Mark said, suddenly bashful. “I don’t want anyone making a big thing of it. For Tony’s sake.”

Sharon nodded, smiling. “I get it. You’re a good man, sir.”

Mark shrugged. “Tell that to Ashley Whitcomb.”

At that point, the car pulled up and Mark helped Sharon into the back seat.

“You know, we do have parking here at the White House,” he said before shutting the door. “You could drive yourself.”

“I could if I could drive,” said Sharon, grinning.

“What?”

“I never learned. I never needed to. See you tomorrow, sir.”

Still gaping and befuddled, Mark shut the door and watched the car pull away, while Sharon mulled over her warm feelings for Mark.

In her room in Silver Spring, Maryland, Rebecca Cooper pointed the browser on her laptop to the video conferencing site just as her mother knocked on her door.

“Rebecca, it’s ten p.m. on a school night,” her mother’s voice said through the closed door.

“Mom, I told you we can’t conference before now because Jodi and Tiffany are on the West Coast,” Rebecca groaned with all the considerable angst of a 16-year-old.

“I got you,” her mother replied. “But you better be done by eleven because I am sending your father up at that time and he’s got an early class in the morning.”

Rebecca rolled her eyes. She had her father’s slender figure and dark skin and was almost as tall as he was.

“I know.” She sighed.

In her more generous moments, she was willing to concede that her parents were cooler than most, but that did have its limits and she was hard and fast against one at the moment.

Tony Garces was already online in the conference room and the laptop pinged as Kira Watanabe signed on.

“I know, Mom,” Kira growled, her face turned away from her computer’s webcam. “Jodi and Tiffany are on the West Coast, so we can’t do it earlier. You said it was okay.” She turned to face the webcam. “Hi, ‘Becca. Hi, Tony.”

“Hey,” said Tony. His dark hair was parted in the middle, but its waves flared near his chin, which was sprouting the first hints of a beard. His long, lanky body was spread down the length of a dorm room bed.

“Hey, Tony. Hey, Kira,” said Rebecca as the laptop pinged again.

“Hey, gang,” said Matt, as his picture popped into the mix. “Are Jodi and Tiffany online yet?”

As if in response, there was another ping and Jodi and Tiffany popped onto the screen sharing the same window.

“Hi, everyone,” said Tiffany, nudging Jodi.

“Hi,” Jodi said softly.

“Okay. Is all our company met?” said Rebecca.

“Was there anybody else?” Jodi asked Tiffany with a slightly anxious air.

“It’s just us, Jodi,” Kira said. “Rebecca was just quoting Midsummer Night’s Dream again.”

“Well, at least you guys get it,” Rebecca said, sighing. “All right. I’ve only got an hour, so let’s get to it. We are here because we are fed up with the total jokes that are our school newspapers, so we have decided that the only way kids our age are going to get real news is to do it ourselves. Is that a fair and accurate representation of our goal?”

“That’s pretty much it,” said Matt. “Would you believe I had the school’s budget figures in hand, plus a killer quote from the dean and they bumped the story and headlined a feature on prom dresses?”

There was a collective groan.

“I know,” grumbled Tony. “It’s so stupid. Mr. Landrew says we’re supposed to question authority. We need a free press to hold the powers that be accountable. So I draw one cartoon with the headmaster and do we run it? No way. Never mind the headmaster is a total sell-out sleazoid tool.”

“Well, you can’t just come out and say that,” Tiffany said.

“But that’s the whole point of an editorial cartoon,” Tony countered. “You make it funny enough that you can call someone a total sell-out sleazoid tool and he doesn’t mind so much.”

“That doesn’t mean that your cartoon was funny enough,” Kira said.

“Guys,” Rebecca said. “I got time pressure, okay? We can debate editorial policy later. What we need to do is set up our beats so we have some content and in the meantime think about how everything is going to look and figure out a name for our site and all that stuff.”

“I can get all the web stuff set up,” Jodi said.

“I’ll draw the art and do the design stuff,” Tony said. “And then I can do editorial cartoons.”

“I’ll cover politics,” Matt said.

“I’ll do business and economics,” Tiffany said.

“I guess that leaves education for me,” said Kira. “Since Rebecca’s going to want to do arts and entertainment.”

“You know I got that one,” Rebecca said.

“And I’ll copy edit,” Tiffany said. “We’ve gotta make sure this thing looks really good. Do we want our readers to know our age?” A female voice mumbled in the background. “Yes, we got our homework done.”

“We’d better get going,” said Jodi. “Mom’s going to want me to help balance the cash registers again. For her store, you know.”

“All right,” Rebecca said. “We’ll meet back here in one week and each of us needs to come up with three possible names for our site. That way we’ll have plenty to choose from.”

There was a solid knock on her door. “Rebecca? Are you getting ready for bed yet?”

“I’m almost done, Dad.” Rebecca turned back to her laptop. “Next week, right?”

The others nodded their assent and the windows began winking out. Rebecca closed her laptop with an evil grin. This was going to be fun.

IM Session

Gloryhg: You there?

ChknCoop: Hold on.

ChknCoop: I’m back. Had to get ‘Becca off her laptop.

Gloryhg: Did you hear about Roy and Tony?

ChknCoop: They approved Roy. ‘Bout time. How’s Tony taking it?

Gloryhg: He’s excited. Found out something odd about Wheatly, though.

ChknCoop: What?

Gloryhg: She can’t drive. She doesn’t know how.

ChknCoop: She doesn’t know how to drive? That’s crazy. We’ll have to fix that.

Gloryhg: I think we will. Can I trust you with the mission? I’ll have to let her know I “accidentally” dropped the news to you. So wait ‘til then to embarrass.

ChknCoop: Wait? Jugsy, I’d swear you were sweet on her.

Gloryhg: I’m not, but it wouldn’t make any difference if I was. I’m in no position to do anything about it.

ChknCoop: Heard that before. Damn that Becca! Catch you later.

Gloryhg: Night.

Anne Louise Bannon

Please talk to me. I'd love to hear from you.

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